Desktop imitating mobile?
The other day I was complaining that I didn’t think there were any new mobile photo apps coming out any more. Like a middle-aged Dad complaining that pop music isn’t what it used to be, I realise this could be because I’m just not paying close enough attention any more. But I tweeted it and no-one really came back with many suggestions of what I had been missing. “Mobile has caught up with desktop!” I boldly pronounced. Well, some news about Adobe’s Lightroom a couple of months ago suggested to me that mobile may actually have overtaken desktop rather than just caught it up.
First, Adobe announced the release of a “mobile” version of Lightroom. They say mobile, but really it’s just for iPad at the moment. So mobile in the sense that you can carry it around, not in the sense that it’s for mobile phones (I think they call them cell phones in the US). For me, the main advantage with having Lightroom on an iPad will be that I can sync multiple edits to various photos at once - something I do a lot with desktop Lightroom. Second, I found out that the new Lightroom 5 has two new features that have long been very popular with mobile photographers. They are 1) spot healing for custom shapes and 2) the parallelisation (is that a word?) of lines. In the case of 1), you have always been able to spot heal with Lightroom, but only circular patches. For me, this was always a problem: often I’ve wanted to remove a cable or a mic stand from a picture of a singer on stage. On the mobile, with an app like Handy Photo, this was already very easy. Just mask, tap and boom - the unwanted thing is gone. For 2), this was something I’d always loved doing with Genius Scan+ and then later with Perspective Correct. The classic example given is to straighten the sides of a building, but I’d used these apps more creatively sometimes, but also just to tidy up a picture when I couldn’t quite get the right angle to take the picture from.
I know most of these tools are available in other desktop apps such as Photoshop (is parallelisation?), but it’s interesting to see that apps that are popular with mobile photographers are exerting some influence on the developers of desktop software.
Video killed the photograph?
I’m not one to hide from my failures - in fact, I take great pride in my self-deprecation. To the extent, sometimes, that I might be accused of boasting about it. I recently quoted for, but failed to win, a commission from a leading financial firm. “They loved my photos!” the guy from the PR said. And since I don’t have a gezillion followers on any social network to force-feed my photos to, for once with a PR, I could only take what he was telling me to be true. I gave them my quote and it inevitably went quiet, though, after prompting, he got back to me and told me that they had decided to go for people who could do videos. To be honest, the prospect of promoting a financial firm had left me feeling slightly squeamish -though every man has his price - so I wasn’t too disappointed.
But it reminded me that lately I’ve been bumping into increasing numbers of people in the photo pits of London’s music venues carrying unwieldy video cameras. And many of the magazines that I shoot music photos for have been featuring embedded video. And it reminded me that I’d tried Instagram’s video feature once, but then got bored of it. It was all beginning to make me feel a bit old-fashioned. But then this morning I read a quote by William Boyd, the author. He’s talking about an album of photos that he has from his childhood and one photo in particular. He says of one of the pictures:”It’s full of images like this – snapshots, photography’s unrivalled, essential power. Time stopped, for ever.” And it makes me feel a bit better about not doing videos.
Unwieldy video cameras
To watermark or not to watermark?
The picture editor at my agency told me the other day: “Put a watermark on your photos and it won’t happen again”. We were discussing the theft of one of my photos by The Heritage Orchestra. They’d found a picture of mine online showing them at the Barbican and they’d copied and pasted it onto their website without asking me. I contacted them about it. They replied and asked me what photo I was talking about, but when I sent them an invoice they ignored it and my further emails. Ironic really, when so many musicians complain of illegal music downloads. Would a watermark have stopped them stealing this photo? Quite possibly yes. But it might also have made them less attracted to it in the first place. For some time now I’ve been following an excellent street photographer on Instagram. The only issue I have with his photos is that he places a huge watermark on all them. In my view, the watermarks completely ruin his photos as a visual experience. And what is a photo if not a visual experience? Especially when the life of a photo on Instagram is unlikely to be more than a few seconds, why strangle it at birth?
I read a blog the other day that talked about Flickr as if it were an open-source archive of free photos: “When you go to Flickr to use a photo for a blog post … leave a comment under the photo and add a link to the post.” Again, the impression is that because it’s on the internet, you can have it for free.
Putting your photos in the shop window, either on a photo-sharing platform or your own website, is a risk. Some people may see the photos, like them, walk into your shop and - when you’re not looking - steal them. The internet has made it all too easy. But without the internet, they wouldn’t have seen them to want to steal them. And for every thief like The Heritage Orchestra, there will be buyers who recognise intellectual property and copyright. And as it happens, I also sold the same photo from the same gig that night at the Barbican to a different buyer. The buyer wouldn’t have seen the photo if I hadn’t published it online and they might not have liked it enough to want to buy it with a watermark.
Just because it’s online, it doesn’t mean you can steal it
I follow the Instagram feed of a professional photographer who works for one of the world’s leading agencies. I really love his photography but I recently saw one of his mobile photos and I thought: I wonder if he’d have submitted that image to his agency if he’d taken it on his big camera. The image was of an ice rink, taken from probably 20 or so rows back in a stadium. The ice-rink was completely blown out in the image. Not surprising: the white ice was brightly illuminated and the stadium stands were almost in darkness. I’ve been using an HDR app for many years on my iphone (Pro HDR) and a while back I found that the new Canon 5D mk iii had added an in-camera HDR option. I’ve always found that Pro HDR is great for just this sort of high-contrast situation. I wondered if my Instagram friend had heard of Pro HDR. So, as politely as I could, I asked him. “That’s a striking image,” I said, “but I was wondering if you knew about Pro HDR? You might have reduced the contrast between the ice rink and the stadium with it?”. A few days later I got a curt reply saying that was exactly how he’d wanted the image to look thanks. Really?
Two things to say about this. The first is that there is almost no critical dialogue on Instagram. It seems to be an absolute taboo to critique someone’s work, no matter how constructively. The second is that big-camera photographers often seem to almost deliberately create amateurish images with their mobile cameras, as if to say, I’m off duty now, this doesn’t really count, I’m not even going to try with this rubbish mobile device.
HDR can help
Why are we scandalised by apping today?
A small piece in The National Geographic’s excellent 125th Anniversary Photo Edition caught my eye today. In it, Johnna Rizzo mentioned that in the early days of photography it was quite normal to fiddle with photos to make something look more interesting. The cameras were so bad then that the photos they took were always very poor representations of reality. Rizzo quotes the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Mia Fineman: “People in the 19th century wouldn’t have been scandalized the way they are today”. Yes, they do get scandalized these days, don’t they? In the last few years, we’ve had a backlash against mobile photography because of all the apping we do with our photos and all the filters we add. Rizzo goes on to say: “Photographers were mostly trying to make up for the cameras’ shortcomings…” Sound familiar? Yes, the whole reason for Instagram coming into existence was that “mobile photos suck”. So why are some people so hung up on us fiddling with photos? Rizzo makes an interesting point when he speculates that as photography technology got to the point where photos were pretty good imitations of real life and as photojournalism became a serious profession, we started to think we ought to capture a scene “as it was”. So without really thinking about it, we all started thinking we had to adhere to the Reuters’ code of photojournalism conduct? The recent proliferation of mobile photo stock agencies may also encourage people to produce more “realistic” images.
Fads for particular filters and special effects will come and go but let’s not think we have to listen to people who say we “should” make our images in any particular way.
I added in some of those clouds. What are you going to do about it?
Road-testing the Lumia 1020
The kind people at Nokia recently lent me one of their Lumia 1020s for a few weeks. Here are my main thoughts:
It’s a bit slippery. It could just be my iPhone-sized hands, but the phone tried to flee my grip on various occasions. I told it, look mate, you can go home when your time is up, and not until, so stop trying to run away.
It’s no good for street shooting. The much-documented delay when you fire the shutter means that if you’re taking a photo of a passing circus performer, you will have to learn to anticipate “le moment decisif” (it’s about half a second after you hit the button).
If you want to shoot one-handed and in portrait mode, you can, but you will need quite a large left hand. Strangely, the off-screen shutter button is located ideally for lefties. I’m told this is because Nokia wants us to shoot in landscape mode with two hands, using the right hand to fire the off-screen shutter button. Since I’d given up trying to shoot street (because of the shutter delay), this didn’t matter too much.
It took me about 2 weeks to find out how to post to Instagram, which has no Windows version of its app. You use an app called 6tag, which has the added advantage of allowing you to post in rectangular format (yay!).
The resolution of the 41 million pixel pictures really is better than iPhone photos. If you zoom in (to about x10), you will just about see the difference. But for posting to the web, especially mobile-based web, you probably wouldn’t notice it.
Hoorah for exposure compensation! When taking a photo with the Lumia you can vary the exposure of the photo before you take it, simply by moving a dial. A welcome end to the iPhone’s focus/exposure separation nonsense! For those of you Android and Windows users who are wondering what I’m talking about, click here.
Ooh! Exposure compensation!
Slow Shutter Cam review
People say you can’t do much with mobile cameras when you take the photo. It’s all in the processing, they say. Well, true. With most mobile cameras, you have no control over the three points of the traditional exposure triangle: ISO, aperture and shutter speed. But there are a few apps that do allow you to take control over one of those variables: shutter speed. Slowing down your shutter speed is something big-camera photographers so all the time - it’s one of their main creative tools. This article looks at one of the apps that give you that same tool with your mobile camera: Slow Shutter Cam by Cogitap Software. Retailing at a ridiculous $0.99, this app gives you huge creative photo-taking potential.
So what does it do? As the name suggests, it allows you to slow down your shutter speed. You decide how long you expose your sensor to the scene in front of the lens. The app makes adjustments to ensure you don’t over-expose your photo but if you leave the shutter open for a long period (say 10 seconds) and anything moves in your frame (or if you move your camera) you will get some blur. But it is precisely this blur that makes it such an exciting creative tool.
One of the common reasons for lengthening the time that your sensor is exposed to light is when you you’re working in low-lighting situations. In this case, any movement may in fact be unwanted rather than creative distortion.
Example of a low-lighting scene shot with Slow Shutter Cam
If you use Slow Shutter Cam as a practical remedy to a low-lighting problem (rather than as a creative tool), you will need to keep your camera still (eg by using a tripod). If something in your scene moves while you are taking the photo, it will show up in your final exposure as a blur. But that’s part of its creative attraction. Holding your camera still, while something in your scene moves is the first of the three main ways people use Slow Shutter Cam creatively. It’s a technique that big-camera photographers have used for many years. It allows us to create the classic waterfall image, where the water is smooth and fluffy, and the image where lights on passing traffic create a trail (see below for a variation on this).
This technique can be used in more creative ways too if applied to things other than traffic and waterfalls (eg people).
The second, more creative, technique is to move the camera on purpose while taking the photo. The combination of this technique and the use of the app’s light-trail mode has produced a very characteristic “look” in more experimental mobile photography. When people are included in an image of this type, they take on a Modigliani-style stick-insect aspect and it’s a look that has been widely used.
An example of a stick-insect person achieved by moving the camera slightly
It’s a technique best used when an image contains very well delineated blocks of colour. One of the leading proponents of the technique is American artist, Cindy Patrick, whose beach scenes are some of its best examples.
The third technique is to move the camera in parallel with a moving subject, a technique known as panning. If you are able to keep your frame more or less fixed on your subject, the long exposure will give you an interesting mixture of well-defined features and blur.
Examples of panning with Slow Shutter Cam
While primarily an app for taking photos, it does have an amazing post-production feature that you will not find on a DSLR: freeze-frame. This feature effectively divides your long exposure into multiple frames, the first and the last frames being very sharp and the ones in between having varying levels of blur. You can save any of these frames and then, using an app like Blender, blend them together to your heart’s creative delight.
So when people say mobile is all about the processing, remember Slow Shutter Cam. Although the images it allows the user to make may often have a painterly or experimental look, it in fact takes us back to the roots of photography by allowing us, especially if we use the techniques mentioned here, to feel we are really drawing with light.
This article originally appeared in FLTR magazine