By Joel Lee
Believe it or not, there are legitimate reasons for wanting to take stealthy smartphone photos that have nothing to do with being a predator. “Secret pictures” may sound creepy at first glance — I don’t deny that — but there are legitimate times you might need to take a photo without drawing attention to yourself.
That being said, be aware that there may be legal ramifications for taking secret photos depending on your country and state, especially if you’re going to make those photos publicly available (e.g. uploading onto a website or social media), so do so at your own risk. And obviously, don’t use this for any nefarious purposes.
Disable the Shutter Sound
The first thing you’ll want to do is disable the most obvious giveaway of taking photos: the camera shutter sound. Seeing as smartphone cameras have no moving parts, the sound itself is just software-based audio feedback, and turning it off is usually as simple as toggling a setting.
In the past, you could plug in headphones and the shutter sound would play through the headphones instead of out loud on speakers, but lately this doesn’t work because the shutter is distinguished as a notification sound instead of a media sound.
Note that in certain countries, disabling the shutter sound is illegal. If your device can’t disable it, it may have been built for one of these countries. For example, this law exists in Japan and Korea due to rampant “upskirt” photography in locker rooms and on public transportation.
Disable the Flash
The next most obvious photo-taking giveaway is the camera flash. Not all smartphones even have a flash, so if yours doesn’t have one, feel free to skip ahead to the next section. But if you do have flash, there’s no way to take a stealthy photo while it’s on.
The flash setting is usually controlled by the camera app you’re using so it’s tough to give universal step-by-step instructions, but it’s pretty simple: poke around in the interface options for the flash icon (looks like a lightning bolt) and tap to disable. That’s how it works in most apps. If not, you might have to dig into the app settings to disable it.
Hide the Phone Unseen
The actual camera lens on a smartphone is quite small and is usually located towards one side of the phone’s body, typically the top area. This means you can tuck most of the phone away, leave the camera lens peeking, and still take a shot.
And when it comes to taking photos, “out of sight, out of mind” definitely holds true. If the target can’t see your phone, they simply won’t know that you’re photographing them. Think about what a spy in a movie would do, then do that.
For example, if you’re wearing a shirt or jacket that has a breast pocket, stick your phone in there in such a way that leaves the camera lens poking out. You can then couple it with a wireless remote shutter release, such as this CamKix Bluetooth Remote Control, which works with both Android and iOS devices.
Or if you want to set up your camera in a location ahead of time, you can take it a step further by carving out the inside of a book, sticking your phone inside, carving out a hole for the camera lens, then standing the book on a shelf or a table. Coupled with a wireless remote shutter release or a camera app that allows for sequenced captures, you’ll be good to go.
Then again, if this is what you want to do, you might as well take the plunge and turn your smartphone into a security camera.
Hold the Phone Nonchalantly
If you’re on the move and a photo-worthy situation pops up unexpectedly, you probably won’t have time to set up a hidden encasement and you probably won’t have a wireless remote shutter release on you. In that case, you’ll just have to make do using your hands.
Act like you’re texting someone so the phone is angled somewhat towards the ground, but still up enough that you can catch the action in the edge of the photo. This works well if you’re in a cafe or a library or on a subway and, for example, someone starts acting out in front of you.
The “pretend texting” approach is also good if you want to capture action using your front-facing camera, but you’ll probably want to hide your screen for this. There are a few apps below that can let you take photos without your screen looking like that’s what you’re doing.
Set the volume button as a shutter release. This lets you hold the phone in a non-suspicious way while still being able to point it in any direction. Cradle it in your handle, let the camera lens peek out, twist your wrist towards the action, and press the button. And if you use earphones with inline volume controls, you can use that to trigger the release too.
Whether you can do this will depend on the camera app you use. Some support it by default, others require you to manually enable the option, and others simply can’t do it. Most can, though, and you should take advantage of it.
Use a Stealthy Camera App
If all of the above is too much of a hassle, then you might be better off with a stealthy camera app. These are designed to make the whole process as easy as possible: no need to fiddle with settings, no risk in accidentally taking a shot before silencing the shutter, etc.
For Android devices, Spy Camera OS 3 is about as good as it gets. It’s free to use and comes with two notable features: it runs in the background (so you can take photos even while browsing the web or changing podcasts) and it can auto-shoot when it detects faces. Photos can be auto-emailed too. If you prefer something simpler, Hidden Camera Snapshot works well enough.
For iOS devices, Easy Calc Camera Eye is a solid option. It shows up as “Easy Calc” in your apps so it raises no suspicions, it has multiple camera shooting modes (such as delayed, sequenced, or motion-detected), and it can auto-protect photos with a PIN. An alternative app is Online Hidden Camera, which costs $0.99 but has a number of nifty options.
That’s all you need to take stealthy photos. Don’t forget to keep the law in mind and respect other people’s privacy. This is one of those areas where just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
How do you take stealthy photos? Are there any tips that we missed? Share with us in the comments below! And if you have any horror stories to share, feel free.
Originally written by James Bruce on December 2nd, 2012.