Apr 14

What happened to all the mobile photo apps?

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 this week 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 that is 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 - unwanted thing 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.

For me, then, and probably for a lot of other mobile photographers, I’m transferring skills I learnt on the mobile to my big camera photography.

Parallel lines

Apr 07

Spending less time, effort and money on the street

I went to a brilliant exhibition of street photography recently in London called Only in England, featuring the photos of Tony Ray Jones and Martin Parr. All the photos were taken in the 60s and 70s and so were all taken on film. I was with a group of photographers, Click London, who mostly use mobile cameras. The most fascinating part of the exhibition for us mobile photographers was a wall covered with printed negatives, showing the ones that had made the cut and the ones that had been rejected. It reminded us of our own mobile shooting: they shot on film but they still got lots of duds too! On our digital mobile cameras (especially with our new burst functions) we thought we took lots of frames before we got a good one. Looking at Tony Ray’s contact sheets, he probably took as many photos as we do now. He just had to spend a lot more time, effort and money doing it.

Many of our group are avid street photographers and Tony Ray-Jones and then later Martin Parr are two of the England’s greatest street photographers. Each day as we look through our Instagram and Flickr feeds it is easy to see their influence. People are striving to capture that moment on a street where everything comes together in perfect balance, where the look on a face coincides with a gesture elsewhere in the frame. They very rarely equal the standards set by these two photographers as shown in this exhibition. To get a good street shot requires a combination of various factors: 1) a sense for when something is about to happen; 2) an eye for the right composition; 3) finding interesting subjects; 4) lots of time: the longer you hang around, the more likely it is something will happen; 5) lots of frames: we can see in this exhibition that Tony Ray-Jones used up a lot of film.

We think we get a lot better at photography thanks to our new technologies. But in fact, comparing our photos to those of Tony Ray-Jones at this exhibition, we see that it’s only in one out of five factors that we are helped.

On the street

Mar 24

EyeEm, Getty and the carpet shop

The recent EyeEm news reminded me of when I bought a really nice carpet in Morocco. EyeEm has agreed a deal to feed some of its users’ photos to Getty. This, only a few weeks after it set up its own stock archive Marketplace. We can only assume the Getty deal was because a) they realised they would never make many sales on their own; and/or b) they got a offer they couldn’t refuse from Getty; and/or c) they planned it all along. Which brings me back to my carpet metaphor.

I bought a carpet once in Tangiers. It was the end of my week’s stay. We’d been shown around by our guide, the very friendly Youssef. Like many Moroccans, when speaking to you he almost always ended his sentences with “my friends”. He couldn’t have been more helpful throughout our stay. Then on the last day, Youssef took us on a coach trip out of town. A lovely little town, he said. Our last stop on the tour landed us in a huge out-of-town shop full of all sorts of touristy things. Welcome, he beamed to us, arms open wide, the owner of the store at his side. I felt slightly deflated, slightly misled. I thought back to Youssef’s relentless kindness during the week. But the shop was actually quite good.

And that’s how I feel about the EyeEm-Getty deal. Our photos are there already, they didn’t say this wasn’t going to happen (though they didn’t say it was), and they’ve got to make a living (from our photos). But what “deflates” me is thinking back over the obsequious talk of friends and community, of how precious and unique our photos are, of heart, blah, blah, blah. Thinking back, I don’t think they meant a word. It was all just to get us in the shop.

Mar 17

Not so mobile these days

After last week’s musings about postso.com, the idea that mobile isn’t actually that brilliant is still knocking around my head. It’s partly about my gradually but surely deteriorating body - my knees are playing up a bit so I won’t be out and about as much and my eyes are starting to struggle too. And it’s partly about having a lovely new computer on my desktop. I don’t like to be away from it for too long (someone said I should go and see that film Her, about a man who falls in love with his computer). And I’ve also always been very proud that I can touch-type. Yes, at one point a very promising career as a secretary beckoned for me. And though I am now past my type-writing prime, I can still knock out the words at a fair rate. So for me it’s a big advantage to be able to type out my photo captions at my desktop rather than on the tiny screen of my iPhone.

So I can do my posting and my captioning from my desktop. But what about the apping? Well those lovely people at postso.com (I’m not on commission, I promise) just released some editing tools too! My go-to mobile app for apping is Snapseed and I used to have a desktop version but it’s disappeared. Later research reveals it was enslaved by Google+ and I can’t see a way of extracting snapseeded photos from it. (Can Google really make apps disappear from your desktop if they buy them?!?). But further research reveals there is a small number of desktop apps that imitate mobile apps.

It’s funny how we’ve come full circle. We used to love new mobile apps that did things that were previously only possible on desktops. Now I’m looking for apps that I can put on my desktop that do things I used to do on my mobile. I was chatting with Glyn Evans, the founder of iphoneography.com, and he said the app that opened his eyes to the possibilities of this new photography was Camera Bag. I see there’s now a desktop version available. Maybe I’ll get a copy to replace my missing Snapseed.

I won’t be out and about that much when I’m older

Mar 10

Mobile no longer so cool for Instagram

In Instagram’s early days, it used to say something very cheesy like “Sharing your mobile photos with the world” on the single web page that it used to have on the internet. Instagram’s big thing was that it was mobile. Mobile was cool. But then, without great fanfare, it dropped the “mobile” bit on its strapline, signalling that, hey, we’re cool about you wowing followers with 300mm zoom shots with a Canon 5D. Big cameras, aswell as mobiles, were cool. But if you wanted to post big-camera photos to Instagram, you had to transfer them to your mobile first, which was a bit of a faff.

Then, as Instagram grew, businesses (Burberry is the classic example everyone gives) started using it as a way to advertise. It’s a great way to feed your customers pictures of new products, or of snazzy events you’re organising. Mobile was the new way to grab your customers’ eyeballs. They weren’t chained to their desks on the internet, they were out and about checking their Instagram feeds while break-dancing along the street. Some of those businesses amassed huge numbers of followers (thanks mainly to Instagram putting them on their suggested user list) and so more businesses took notice of Instagram. New apps, like Nitrogram and Simply Measured, sprang up to support the business of using Instagram to sell stuff. And so, following in the footsteps of Twitter, as Instagram became A big business, it became big business itself. These apps tell us there are optimal times for getting more likes and followers on Instagram. So a marketing junior at Burberry would get up in the middle of the night, upload a Canon 5D photo from the previous night’s launch party to their mobile and then, bleary-eyed, fiddle around with his iphone, copying and pasting in a pre-prepared caption that they’d emailed themselves, and then post it to Instagram to get the maximum number of likes in the Japanese market. Then go back to bed.

Until now. I’d googled it before without success, but I tried again: “Schedule Instagrams desk-top”. A link to a Facebook discussion and halfway down the page: “Try postso.com”. I did and it works. You can now schedule Instagram posts from your desk-top.

So we’ve come full circle. Mobile is no longer cool. Of course it isn’t. If you’re running an Instagram business, you don’t want to be tippy-tapping captions on a tiny screen, mobile photos aren’t that good a lot of the time and you don’t want to get up in the middle of the night for your Japanese market. Postso doesn’t seem to have been authorised by Instagram. It doesn’t have to access Instagram’s API because it emulates it (whatever that means). But Instagram most certainly knows about it and since it will most certainly boost its own business interests, we imagine it will turn a blind eye. That’s cool.

Posting for Burberry to get the Japanese market: not cool.

Feb 24

Blown out

This is a follow-up to last week’s bloggy about a big-camera photographer who said he used his mobile phone camera as a “notebook”. I wonder if he ever went back to that train platform with his big camera to properly re-take that lovely Magritte-esque image that he captured with his humble mobile phone camera? It looks at another example of big camera photographers’ attitudes towards mobile.

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 I recently found that the new Canon 5D mk iii had added an in-camera HDR option (I wrote about all this for FLTR recently). 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?

This is something I’ve come across before. Big-camera photographers sometimes almost deliberately create crap photos 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

Feb 17

When is a photo not a photo? When it’s a note

I was admiring some lovely photos by an excellent big-camera photographer the other day and I noticed that one had been taken on a mobile camera. It was a picture of some commuters standing on a misty train station platform. In the notes to the photo, the photographer said that “often I use my phone camera as a notebook”. Which I thought was an odd comment. It was a beautiful image already. It was an image that had been taken on the spur of the moment, as the scene (reminiscent of a Magritte painting, he noted), unexpectedly unfolded before his eyes. So an image, like many, that was only captured because the photographer had his mobile phone camera with him at the time. The best camera, etc. as the cliche goes.

But in what sense is this picture just a note? Is he going to come back later with his big camera and recreate the scene? The scene was a fleeting moment, gone in probably just a couple of minutes. The mist would have lifted by the time he’d returned and the commuters would have got on their train into town. It is unlikely to ever be recreated in that exact composition and light ever again. And it was a photo that already stood up on its own as a very strong image. Somehow the assumption is that the photo wasn’t a proper photo (it was merely a “note”) because it hadn’t been planned and wasn’t taken on a big camera.

Hold that shadow just there while I get my big camera

Feb 10

iPhoneography teaching career takes unusual turn

My iphoneography teaching career took a rather unexpected turn a couple of weeks ago. I received an email from a man who found me on the internet and asked if I could give his wife a private iphoneography class as a birthday gift. I imagined myself jumping out an iphone-shaped cake, declaring “Surprise!”. My bearded middle-aged and slightly chubby face would muster the biggest smile it could, but even in my imagined fantasy the birthday girl still only stood there, slightly bemused. “A what? For my birthday? “.

"Well," I replied to the email, "that’s a very … thoughtful gift", not wanting to turn down good business. "Where would you like to do the class? I could come round your house, or meet somewhere in central London?".
“Well, actually,” came the reply. “We’re in Zurich. Could you fly over in the morning, do the class in the afternoon, and then fly back in the afternoon?”. And before the end of the day, I had received an email from SwissAir confirming my flight. When the birthday came, I flew off to Zurich, and, with a red hanky in my top pocket, met up with the lucky lady on platform 9 of the main train station, accompanied by her husband. We had a lovely time wandering around old Zurich, taking photos and then dipping into coffee shops to do some photo apping.

I hadn’t been advertising this service but it follows another private lesson after, again, I’d been found on the internet and persuaded me to do some private tuition. In this case, the classes were closer to home, North London, and took the form of me going around to the homes of four charming ladies, all young mothers with children at school during the day, for four weekly sessions. The story of that one is told by, Emma, who found me on the internet, on her excellent blog LifeofYablon.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, the first is that it gives me an excuse to mentally jump out of an iPhone-shaped cake and shout “Surprise!”. The other is that I’d quite like to do some more. So if you know anyone who has a birthday coming up, or has some time to spare during the day, you can find me on the internet.

OK, first thing. That’s not an iPhone camera.

Feb 03

It’s quite a good camera

I came across an interesting article the other day in the New Yorker. In it Craig Mod said two things that stuck in my mind. The first was that the iPhone’s viewfinder was great for portraits. Of course! I said to myself, mentally slapping myself on the forehead. Taking pictures of people with the iphone camera means you can carry on looking them in the eye and they can carry on interacting with you as a normal person, not a person with a piece of kit covering half their face. So, in portrait photography, we’ve progressed from a man (and it usually was) in the late nineteenth century hiding himself under a dark blanket to take a photo, to one where he (or she) takes the picture holding a small piece of equipment in their hand, away from their body and their face in full view of the subject. Having a large viewfinder also makes it easier to compose your shot. I’ve taken photos surrounded by other very serious photographers using serious bits of kit and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of them use the screens on the back of their cameras as a viewfinder. I think the action of looking through the screen on the back is too closely associated in their minds with amateurs, so they don’t do it. Even if it might actually help them compose their picture better.

The second was that editing or processing on the screen is a very tactile experience. He likened it to the old days of developing photos by putting them in chemical trays and then poking them around until you got something you liked. And I’ve often thought that the process of editing a photo on the iPhone screen is very much like painting. A dab here, a tiny touch there. And I know a lot of graphic artists use the iPhone and the iPad in this way. Editing photos this way is certainly easier than clicking with a mouse in Photoshop.

Many people have talked about two of the iPhone camera’s strengths being that it is unobtrusive and always with you. And here are two more advantages that we perhaps hadn’t articulated before. I recently bought my iPhone 5S off the shelf for hard cash (quite a lot of it) rather than as part of a phone deal, so I’ve started thinking of it as a real camera. Which, as Craid Mod points out, it is. Quite a good one.


Jan 27

5 ways to get on the Instagram suggested user list

This article originally appeared on Focal Press’s MasteringPhoto blog.

I recently asked to be put on Instagram’s suggested user list. I’d heard that sometimes if you just ask, they put you on it. If you get on the list, you instantly get a flow of about 150 new followers an hour. Some people who were on it for a long time have more than half a million followers. I asked because more followers means more commercial photo opportunities. Businesses ask you to attend swanky events and post pictures about them to your huge followings. But they replied, it wasn’t true and that it required a “secret sauce” to be put on the list, but wouldn’t tell me what the “sauce” involves. So I did some analysis of current suggested users and tried to work out the recipe myself. Here are my conclusions:

1) A consistent theme. If you live in Peru, post pictures of Peruvian landscapes. Lots of them, keep posting them and don’t do anything else even if you’re bored out of your mind of Peruvian landscapes. If your Mum visits wearing a funny hat, do NOT be tempted to take a picture of it and post it (that’s what Facebook is for) amongst all your Peruvian landscapes. Instagram HQ seems to like their users to be easy to categorise by themes (eg the vintage cars user, the colourful architecture user, the Peruvian landscapes user, etc.).

2) Minimal processing. This may seem slightly strange for an app whose initial success was largely due to its retro filters, but now, three years on, filters are firmly out of favour. Instagram launched with the aim of allowing users to beautify their images because “iPhone photos suck” but now very few of their suggested users do more than a bit of tweaking (Instagram HQ seem to like a de-contrasted VSCO look). So forget tilt-shift, Hipstamatic, Earlybird, fancy frames and all those other features so characteristic of mobile photography in the early days. And forget about any weird stuff: my search didn’t find a single suggested user who used layers or had a graphic or experimental style. Perhaps surprisingly too, Instagram HQ seem happy to feature photos taken on big cameras, so don’t think you have to stick to your mobile.

3) Various photographic things that seem to push the buttons at Instagram HQ: minimalist compositions, converging lines (they can’t get enough of them, especially symmetrical ones), pastel colors, backlit figures in the middle distance, feet (you may have seen enough feet-from-above photos to last a lifetime, but Instagram HQ seems to like them), jumpstagrams (especially back-lit ones), snow, trees, mountains, reflections (especially of trees and mountains). If you can do a back-lit jumpstagram with a mountain as a backdrop, that’s perfect.

4) Post photos of beautiful people. Although Instagram HQ does seem to have a preference for landscapes (good if you live in Peru), photos of people will not rule you out as a suggested user. But if you are a people person, I advise featuring good-looking people, all the better if they are models and/or celebrities. Instagram HQ has little time for grizzled tramps or obese middle-aged women on public transport, or any of the seedier urban subjects that mobile street photography is so good at.

5) Other non-photographic options: a) Know someone at Instagram HQ. Proving the old adage, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, one Instagram power user suggested he was put on the user list because he knew someone at Instagram HQ; b) be some sort of celebrity, like a rock star (eg Madonna) or an Olympic snowboarder. If you are really famous, you can ignore all the above photographic tips as it’s fine for your photos to be completely rubbish; c) Live in the US. For a global platform, Instagram HQ has a strong preference for US-based users. The US has 4% of the world’s population but, in my sample, 61% of suggested users were US-based; d) have a job that suggests you already have a cool aesthetic sensibility (eg architect, graphic designer, psychologist, an environmentally-friendly lace maker, etc).

Looking through my own Instagram feed (@rugfoot if you’d be so kind as to follow me?), I realise that I fail on every single one of my own suggestions. I take photos of anything and everything (from seagulls to Star-Wars themed marathon runners), I love massively over-apping my photos sometimes, I generally avoid all thing things in point 3 because I’m sick to death of seeing them, I like my faces ugly on public transport, I’m not a celebrity and I don’t live in the US. So no surprise that my polite request was declined. And if I didn’t stand a chance of getting on the Instagram user list on the strength of my photos already, I think I’ve probably even less chance now ; ) .

Nice reflections of trees, but where are the mountains?