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
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
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.
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.
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).
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?
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. Probably 99% of the pictures we see now are made of electronic pixels. And of those, maybe half are viewed on our mobile screens. This is all very unscientific, I know, but bear with me. In olden days, like a couple of hundred years ago, ordinary people probably only saw pictures in churches. Some pictures in churches are pretty amazing enough to our eyes today: imagine how amazing they must have seemed to people who only ever saw a few pictures in their lifetimes. No wonder they believed in God!
I recently had the pleasure of seeing some of my mobile photographs beautifully printed and hung on a gallery wall. They’re in the Terry O’Neill Award exhibition at the Strand Gallery in London until the end of next week (if you’re in the Charing Cross area). Printing off mobile photos, transforming them from 3x3cm digital images on a screen to 30x30cm prints on a wall, really brings them to life. Not surprising really, because they’re 100 times bigger. Yes, that’s right. From 9cm3 they are now 900cm3. Up big, you see details you didn’t see before and you experience them in a completely different way. A couple of years ago, I printed off some of my own photos myself and put them on the wall around my house. Not only does this allow you to see them larger, you also get to spend more time with them. We have access to millions of pictures on our screens now and by the law of mathematics (lots of maths in this blog!) that means we probably only view each one for a few seconds. Living with your photos, inhabiting them, is a really good way of seeing which ones stand the test of time. Some pictures that I thought were really good have faded and some that I didn’t rate that much have continued to give me pleasure over time.
Pictures in an exhibition (photo: Bal Bhatia @mrwhisper)
Terry O’Neill is a legendary celebrity photographer, who found fame taking photos of the likes of Clint Eastwood, The Rolling Stones and pretty much every mega-star you could think of in the 60s and 70s. He has been running a highly respected photography competition for eight years and, last year, he launched a mobile category. Needless to say, I didn’t mention this news to anyone before submitting my own photos, hoping that no-one else in the mobile photography community would notice the competition, thereby boosting my chances of winning. My plan obviously worked as I won the category!
The awards ceremony is tonight and I’m feeling a bit like Father Ted after hearing he’d won the Golden Cleric award. But, don’t worry, I’m not preparing a 2-hour long acceptance speech, settling all the old scores of a lifetime, though this blog is, quite clearly, a very thinly-veiled excuse to publicise the fact that I’ve won it.
But I do have a serious point. Like many other people, Terry O’Neill now views mobile photography as a sub-genre of photography where some good work is being done. In recent months, we’ve seen The British Journal of Photography, one of the photography world’s most well respected institutions, launch a mobile-only magazine, called FLTR. Not long ago, Time magazine featured a mobile photo on its cover. Last year, the Taylor Wessing Portraiture prize included a mobile photo in its exhibition. And I noticed (when scouring the internet for more mobile photo competitions), the Smithsonian, another highly respected competition, now also does a mobile category (don’t bother, it’s closed for this year).
The Terry O’Neill Award ceremony tonight brings together the winners of the various categories to announce the overall winner from them. I’m looking forward to chatting with some of the winners of the other categories. Will they think any less of me as a mobile photographer? Do they use their smart phones themselves to take photos? Are they on Instagram? Of course, I think it’s great that Terry O’Neill is taking mobile seriously and has decided to launch a category for it (even more so, since I won it!), but it would obviously be too controversial to award the main prize to a mobile photographer. Whether it would or it wouldn’t, I think the excellent work that I’ve seen in the other categories makes it extremely unlikely. But you never know, dear reader and mobile photographer, put a note in your diary to send in some photos for next year’s competition.
Wouldn’t it be funny if a mobile photographer won the Terry O’Neill one day?
I tweeted that Instagram’s predictive naming had a bug (it does). Nothing very controversial there, nothing for them to take offence at. If anything, I was doing them a favour. You might think they’d just acknowledge it. No need for a RT, but maybe just a “Thanks, we’ll check it out” or a one-click favourite. But no, answer came there none. It seems a bit rude and, as my old Gran used to say, good manners cost nothing. Or do they? With an operation the size of Instagram’s, to reply to every one of the tweets directed at them (or even just the polite useful ones) would cost a fortune. Or would it, in relative terms, for a company worth $1bn?
So I tweeted I thought Instagram never answered tweets. And someone came back to me (not Instagram) saying Instagram have never had good customer service. It wasn’t just now they are huge, they were always very aloof from their users, which is a bit unsociable for a social media platform. But then I thought, can we really talk about customer service? Are we really their customers? After all, we don’t pay them anything. Aren’t we more like their raw materials (and so deserve to be treated as such)? Of course they need us, like they need raw materials. Without our numbers, our data, our activity, Instagram would have no value. But Instagram’s policy has always been to keep its distance. They give a nudge here and a tweak there and, notwithstanding a full-scale PR fire-fighting operation (like last year with the TOS furore), generally they stand back and let us get on with it. Provided the platform is robust and well-designed, they don’t see the need to intervene. It seems to be their policy to not engage in any dialogue with their users. Whether we are customers or raw materials, Instagram seem so sure of the durability of their platform and the strength of their position that they see little point in wasting their time on us. Whatever my old Gran used to say, time is money after all.
Maybe I’d get a better response that way?
May I first of all wish all my readers a happy new year. There aren’t many of you, so you can rightfully feel I really do mean it in a very personal way. And I hope you received all the photographic gizmos and gadgets that you’d asked Santa for and that you are well rested to go snapping into the new year. And I hope you didn’t worry too much about my 1 week absence over the holiday period - I hadn’t planned to skip a week (even though I did last year) though an impromptu drink down the pub turned out rather longer than expected and the blog went by the wayside. That’s what the Christimas holidays are for I guess.
Anyway, I digress. One of the few Christmas gifts that has not already made its way to a nearby charity shop (in many cases I’m sure, making the return journey) was a book called How Music Works by musician and former Talking Heads man David Byrne. He says that the experience of music is very much about context: in a literal sense, the venue you hear it in can make a big difference to how it sounds; less literally, you hear music differently if you’re already feeling a certain way; often the music we most remember is when we are most impressionable when we’re young. Some time ago I drew a parallel between music and photography. And an excellent article called Goodbye, Cameras in the New Yorker (which I found through the equally excellent FLTR magazine), points out that photography is also very context-sensitive. There’s loads of meta-data attached to a photo (your location, the time and date) of course with more data probably likely to be attached in the future (the author mentions radioactivity levels, fitness levels, social status, etc), but perhaps a more important context is the conversation that the photo generates online. The photo takes on a whole new lease of life when you see the reactions it gets from people. And many people’s photo feeds on social networks have been picture-tracks (ie like sound-tracks) to their lives. I self-indulgently mapped out mine a while back. Us mobile photographer types were already saying that social networks and mobile cameras generally have breathed new life into photography ages ago, but it’s good to be reminded of it by The New Yorker no less (come on guys, do try and keep up): social platform networks have breathed new life into photography and all those old fogies that go around moaning about people take photos on their mobiles should be reminded it of it at every opportunity.
Are you bored of Instagram’s filters? I found an article on Australian Vogue today through the Twitter feed of @oggsie (he picks up some interesting stuff) about Instagram filters and which ones to use. Articles like this were everywhere two years ago. Instagram was all about the filters. Not only did people debate which ones were the best, but Instagram’s whole ethos was founded on their mission to improve mobile photography, because (and I paraphrase Instagram’s own words) “iPhone photos suck”. Many journalists mistakenly thought Instagram’s value (which later took tangible form in the famous $1bn price tag) was all about its filters, rather than its huge user base and the shareability it had introduced to photography.
But look at the photos of the users on Instagram’s suggested list now and you’ll see that not many of them are using Instagram’s filters. Almost all of them do have some editing (because, yes, most iphone photos do suck), but they look like either minor tweaks in one of the many editing suites around (eg Snapseed or Filter Storm) or they use more understated filters like VSCO’s. The desired look seems to be desaturated, spacious and unhurried: the sort of look you might find in the annual report of a bathroom fittings manufacturer. Out is the sort of in-your-face look you’d get with Instagram’s X-Pro or Lo-Fi filters. I’d love to see the stats for how many pictures now use Instagram filters compared with a couple of years ago (I’m sure someone at Instagram HQ has given the powerpoint on that one already - did someone at that meeting suggest they dump them completely?). But while most of us lost interest in applying their filters a long time ago, it definitely looks like Instagram itself is now bored of them too.
Where have all the Instagram filters gone?