Here’s an off-the-wall idea for you: Take your phone into the ocean! Really.
I have gone body surfing with my iPhone the day after a hurricane. I have let knock-you-down waves roll over me (and my phone) as I captured video of the frothy Atlantic. I handed my phone to my daughter, who was 8 years old at the time, to have her take snapshots of my own ocean hijinks. I’ve even edited images beachside using apps like AutoStitch and PictureShow, and then published them to my blog or Instagram, all without leaving the ocean.
I’ve been gaga about photography for years, having pretty much spent my high school years breathing in the fixer fumes of the school darkroom, and yet I’ve never had as much fun with a camera as I have wading into a rough ocean with my iPhone and snapping away at the glory of the surf and the people enjoying it.
Yes, I’m obsessed. But, no, I’m not crazy.
I'm not just taking an expensive phone into the ocean without protecting it. I use an Aquapac case (available at aquapac.net for $30.). The Aquapac is very simple: it’s essentially a plastic pouch for your phone with two clips to secure it. It'll accomodate most smartphones.
The iPhone’s touch interface works with it, and you can even make phone calls when you’ve got your phone secured in the Aquapac. Even if you don’t plan to go swimming with your phone, the Aquapac is handy for keeping sand and other beach hazards away from its delicate innards. Sand is second only to seawater in its destructive abilities.
Is my Acquapac 100 percent safe? No, it’s not. (I doubt any waterproof enclosure is.) Ironically, as I was writing this article — after having used the Aquapac for two years without a hitch — I went into the pool with the my Aquapac-secured iPhone and somehow (the case wasn’t snapped shut properly? it’s seen too much action?) water got into the case, and into the innards of my iPhone. Bubbles of water appeared over the iPhone lens, the flash wouldn’t turn off, and assorted controls were erratic and glitchy. A trip to the Genius Bar at my local Apple Store and about $160 later, I had a new phone. But I don’t blame the Aquapac. I've had it for a long time, it’s served me well, and I plan to buy another - and head back into the ocean with it.
In this article, I want to share seven tips for ocean photography with your smartphone.
1: Catch the ocean spray
Having your iPhone—your camera—in a waterproof enclosure opens up possibilities for the types of images you can capture. Suddenly you’re unafraid to capture photos you wouldn’t even think about snapping without protective gear like the Aquapac. The ocean, especially when it’s spitting saltwater into the air in bubbles and whirls, provides plenty of visual excitement. T
make the most of it, get right into the surf, sinking to your knees or even bobbing in the water as the waves approach you. Have your finger at the shutter, prepared to snap, aiming for that moment when the wave is crashing right into you. Depending on your comfort level with the ocean, and the type of surf, practice finding a balance between keeping yourself steady in the water and your goal to snap an image at just the right moment.
2: Immerse your phone
To give your shots a real in-the-water feel, immerse your camera in the water—though not all the way. In general, try to keep the iPhone lens just above the waterline. The closer the lens is to the water, the more of submerged feel you’ll get.
Experiment to see what works for you. It’s sometimes challenging to judge what your iPhone is capturing if much of it’s under the murky ocean water and the screen is obscured. It may also prove difficult to engage the shutter button when it’s underwater. I’ve generally tried to get around this by keeping the shutter above water, too, or sometimes by keeping my finger on the shutter as I put the camera underwater and hoping for the best. Another option? Use the self-timer that’s available in many replacement camera apps, such as Camera+. Just turn on the self-timer, and then the shutter will fire even if your iPhone is completely immersed.
3: Freeze the action
Beachgoers are on the move: surfers heading out in wetsuits, kids clutching their boogie boards, families edging toward the surf with toddlers. Though the iPhone isn’t always a go-to choice for action shots, largely because you can’t set the shutter speed, you can typically freeze the action if it’s a brilliantly sunny beach day. Go for it, aiming to be close to the water—yes, you’ll need to get wet—to capture the churning surf with a liquid look.
4: Keep it rolling
Video adds another dimension to the iPhone-in-the-ocean experience. A certain amount of serendipity helps: You never know what sort of waves the ocean will be serving up next. If you’re comfortable in the water (and like to dive under the waves), start rolling, aim your iPhone at the approaching waves and dive under, emerging from the surf to catch the wave heading to shore. It’s wonderful fun, and worth it, especially when you capture the ocean spray sparkling in the sun.
5: Don’t overlook the details
Beyond the surf, be on the lookout for the around-the-beach details. Feet sunk in the sand, a medley of shells, bright blankets and umbrellas—all of these are image-making fodder, and you won’t have to worry about splashes of surf or sand damaging your gear.
6: Capture a beach tableau with a panorama app
The panorama apps available for the iPhone -- including the new panorama function of the native camera on the iPhone 5 -- aren’t just for landscapes. Take a panorama from the ocean, and you can capture a one-of-a-kind tableau of the action not just in front of you, but also the beach beyond. Apps to try: AutoStitch, Pano and You Gotta See This.
7: Embrace the abstract
Water has long been a subject for photographers, but having your camera in the ocean allows you to see the water in new and unexpected ways. Embrace the forms of the waves and their opportunities for abstract photographic compositions.
Allan Hoffman is the technology columnist for The Star-Ledger and the author of “Create Great iPhone Photos.” He misses the smell of fixer in the darkroom, but he loves having a darkroom (and camera) in his pocket with the iPhone. He blogs about iPhone photography at What I See Now.