It may surprise you to learn that despite total blindness, one of my favourite (and most used) features of my iPhone is its camera. For the past few years the camera has been predominantly used in conjunction with apps to identify objects, detect sources of light, read the screens of electronic devices and to scan and convert printed text. More recently I’ve developed an interest in photography and videography, with a view to begin taking snaps and producing my own videos showcasing my daily life, interesting activities and some of my more unique hobbies – electronics repair, for example.
The accessibility of Apple’s iOS devices is leagues ahead of that on other platforms, and that advancement in accessibility has extended to the camera to the point where it is now possible, with a little training and practice, to accurately take pictures and shoot video with no sight at all. I don’t own devices running on other platforms and can’t attest to the accessibility of their cameras, but I suspect they lag behind Apple’s devices in this area as they do in many others, though they’re improving at a steady pace.
This training wouldn’t be possible without the patience of those around me with sight, who over time I have had teach me the ins and outs of camera angles, lighting scenarios and the various other aspects of operating a camera, advice which I hope to pass on to others in this article. I’ve also learned a lot through use of object recognition apps, two of my favourites being Tap Tap See and Talking Goggles. Both of these apps will allow you to point your camera at an object, take a picture and receive a spoken description of the object in the camera’s view. The descriptions are based on artificial intelligence systems and vary in quality, but using them it is possible to get a good idea of how the camera functions and how to frame various objects, even if you can’t guarantee what else you’re picking up in the surroundings. It’s also worth noting that if you’ve no useful sight at all, you’ll be relying on the automatic capabilities of your camera and results can vary between devices, though most smartphones these days are quite capable of shooting decent video or photos with limited understanding or effort.
The first step is to have a clean, uncluttered background where possible. If you’re trying to picture an object and won’t be able to crop that picture later, you’ll want to ensure that only your desired object is in the camera’s field of view with minimal surrounding distraction. This isn’t possible in some cases and thanks to automatic focus isn’t a huge issue, but it’s worth considering.
Picture the camera’s field of view as a sphere extending in all directions from the centre of the camera lens. As you move the phone away from an object, the sphere enlarges, and it reduces as you get closer. The length of the shot (the distance between the camera and the object or scene) determines the amount of detail in the shot. Long shots offer a more realistic view of the surrounding scene at the expensive of close-up detail, while close up shots capture more detail. See This Article for a better explanation of shots, angles and movement.
The position of your object in that sphere is relative to the angle at which you hold the camera. If you position the lens of a camera in the centre of an object, and then pull your phone back to a distance a little further from the object than the object is wide or tall (which ever is more), chances are you’ll achieve a picture with the full object in frame. Keeping the camera straight will give you a face-on view, while tilting the camera down from a central position will capture the bottom of the object and its surroundings, and probably some of the floor too. Tilting the camera up will tilt the object in the sphere while also capturing the scene behind.
Performing an angled shot is a little more tricky to master, and something that I haven’t entirely got to grips with. Taking our analogy of a sphere, to capture the object at an angle, align the camera with the top centre of the object and raise it a distance of roughly half of the object’s height. move it the appropriate distance away as above and then angle the camera down such that a straight line is formed between the camera lens and the back edge of the object. This is usually a safe bet and with practise you should get the entire object in frame, though you might capture more of the surroundings than you would with a face-on shot. This really does depend on the object you’re trying to capture however, and only accounts for a frontal angle.
Capturing angles from the side is again somewhat tricky. Imagine a square table, for example, with the camera placed off to one side, just in front of the front-most corner. Getting a good angle on the top of the table usually involves setting the phone such that a straight line is formed between the camera lens and the rear most corner opposite to the phone’s position, with the height of the phone altering the height of the field of view on the table. For example, if you angle your phone such that it is raised a little over 40CM above the table and with the appropriate angle, a hand raised roughly 40CM above the top of the table should just about be visible in the camera’s view. Your imaginary straight line should be a little longer than the table is wide if your aim is to capture as much of the table’s surface as possible.
Filming your face is much easier, at least on iOS thanks to spoken facial recognition feedback. If you’re a voiceover user and have it enabled, launch the camera and set focus to the viewfinder by tapping on the middle of the screen. Then aim the camera at your face and move the camera back a little further than your head is tall, and you should begin receiving directions along the lines of “Face Near Left Edge”, “Face Near Top Edge” etc. Follow the directions until either “Face Centred” or a number of faces is spoken, at which point it’s a pretty safe guarantee that you’re in shot.
Taking a panoramic photo is also accessible. Select the panoramic option in the camera and aim the camera at your initial starting point. Press the shutter button as you would to take a picture or video and slowly move the phone from left to right, keeping it steady and in a straight line. Voiceover will offer positional guidance as you go – “Move Up”, “Move Down”, “Slow Down” for example. When you’re done, press the shutter again and the picture will be saved.
A couple of little tips I’ve learned along the way. Firstly, the iPhone’s volume buttons can be used to start and stop the camera both when taking pictures and shooting video. When taking photos, holding either volume button will activate burst mode in which your iPhone will shoot up to 10 photos per second. This is useful for capturing the perfect shot during an action scene, though it’s of limited use to those with no useful vision as selecting the correct photo from those taken may prove difficult. To make triggering the camera easier when my phone is mounted on a tripod, I purchased this handy Camera Remote which is a simple bluetooth device with a shutter button that will take a picture or start and stop recording remotely.
I think I can safely say that I’ll never be a world-class photographer, though I’m not the first blind person to take an interest in photography and there are many out there far more skilled than I am. I know very little about the technicalities of using a camera, and rather than an in-depth filming guide the above is simply the results of my own experiments with my own smartphone camera. What it does show however is that with a little practice it is certainly possible for a person with limited or no sight to take pictures and shoot video with reasonable results, even if our shots aren’t exactly cinematic.