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
Survey of independent mobile photo blogs
The grandaddy of mobile photography blogs and the source of the name for the new genre, iphoneography.com, closed towards the end of last year. No wonder - competition is fierce. Launched in November 2008 and running for five years, iphoneography.com was ahead of its time, with its unbiased reviews of the many apps and mobile photography gadgets that were emerging at that time and news about a photographic genre just starting out in 2008. But now as Instagram users pass 150 million and Flickr tells us the most used camera on its platform is a mobile device, demand for written content about mobile photography is strong. Today’s range of websites and blogs dedicated to mobile photography offers us a variety of app reviews, news, photographer interviews, competitions, tutorials and opinion.
Launched just after iphoneography.com and still going (just) are LifeInLoFi, which produces reviews and some quite insightful editorial, and P1xels. Dedicated to fine art mobile photography, this site showcases artists and has organised many real-life exhibitions and initiatives. Also in the fine-art space are iPhoneArt, again showcasing and interviewing artists and now moving into the gallery business and The Art of Mob, which showcases mobile artists and provides how-to tutorials. Another blog with arty aspirations is AMPt Community, though you will have to apply to membership to access all its features. Grryo (recently re-branded from the equally uncatchy Juxt) has a similar community-oriented approach, with a strong heritage in street photography and an archive of interesting and socially-aware photo stories from its contributors.
All the main photo-sharing platforms such as Flickr, Instagram, EyeEm and VSCO run their own blogs and many of them produce good content. An unofficial Instagram blog, Instagramers, which has probably done more to promote Instagram than Instagram itself, gives news about the general mobile community and features on the activities, both on- and off-line, of the more than 330 local groups around the world it has given its name to.
Anyone who has tried to deliver content for their own blog will know that the pressure to produce good material regularly can be hard. For this reason, some of these blogs will go off the grid for weeks, sometimes months, at a time, and some will post regularly but not very often. But one blog that seems relentless in its flow of news, views and features is The App Whisperer. This blog offers some of mobile photography’s best known names as columnists, alongside reviews, competitions, app giveaways and tutorials. Specialising in tutorials is another of the longest-running blogs, iPhoneography Central, while a relative newcomer, The iPhone Photography School, produces some excellent hints and tips pieces. Another website that gives budding mobile photographers help and support through its chat rooms and network of supporters is Mobitog. Some of the interesting newcomers with their fingers on the pulse and often quicker to react than the big boys, are bloggers like skipology and moblivious.
While all the above blogs are sustaining their efforts through advertising and/or the promise of a big pay-day when traffic is strong enough to sell out, two blogs are subscription-only (sold in the form of apps): FLTR and Mobiography. FLTR has the considerable backing of the British Journal of Photography and so is able to run some impressive interviews and is produced with a high level of journalistic rigour. Mobiography has produced an impressively consistent flow of content from many of the genre’s insiders and after a year of issues now seems to have survived the initial precarious start-up period.
With so many blogs competing in the same space, some blogs, like Mogitog, have found a clever way of delivering content without very much effort, using aggregating “newspapers” that simply pull news and features from original sources, via websites like paper.li. Titles, such as The iPhoneography Times and iPhoneography Today, are usually completely automated. They point at the real blogs and their robots extract news stories using a variety of logarithms and tags. There is usually no editorial intervention at all so they sometimes (thanks to their targets’ tag-savvy authors) include stories that are of no relevance to mobile photography. But often they gather together quite good “best-of” selections of daily mobile photography blogging output.
While many of the blogs’ content may vary in quality, be very sporadic or sometimes amount to little more than sponsored content, there are some good pieces to be found in the iphoneography blogosphere. Many are trying to monetise their traffic, so we will be watching to see if their commercial deals compromise the quality of their content. And while the blog that gave its name to the sub-genre may be no more, there are many iphoneography (or mobile photography) blogs out there doing a good job filling the space that it left.
A version of this article originally appeared in FLTR magazine
If you love your photos, back them up
Are there any sadder words than “I didn’t have it backed up”? My house was burgled many years ago. The only things I couldn’t replace were some photos on a laptop, which I didn’t have backed up. It was an unpleasant experience but it gave me a healthy obsession with backing up my photos. Backing-up options have changed a lot over the last few years. My burglary took place in 2005 and backing up to the cloud was not an option then. At that time, basic backing up would have meant copying files from my laptop’s hard drive to CDs or to external hard drives. I could also have drafted in some IT expertise to send files down a broadband connection to an off-site storage solution.
I wish I’d backed up
Today when people talk about backing up their smart phone photos, they often think about transferring them to a computer hard drive. It’s true that your mobile camera is fragile and easily mislaid so the photos you take on it should be backed up somewhere. And you also want to regularly free up space on your camera roll. So, yes, don’t treat your mobile phone as a place for storage. But simply transferring your photos to your computer is not a good back-up. You are simply moving them from one vulnerable storage place to another only slightly less vulnerable place. Hard drives fail and can be stolen too. The same goes for external drives and discs.
Fail-safe backing up has to be off-site, in other words, in the cloud. And while backing-up is important, it’s not a lot of fun, so you don’t want to spend a lot of time on it. Choosing which files to back up is a waste of your precious time. Your approach should be to back up everything you produce automatically using auto-upload, and use date and time stamps to quickly identify photos if you need to retrieve them. If you post pictures to Instagram, this can help give you a time picture of when you took your photos. But you should not be use it as a back-up service. It is possible to download your own photos one by one from Instagram (via such proxy websites as Statigram) but the versions of the files are very compressed and so are not good back-ups. Likewise, iOS allows you to automatically back-up all your photos in the iCloud for free, but the file sizes are reduced and after you’ve taken your 1,000th photo, the first one will be deleted unless you buy a package. Flickr is different to Instagram in that you can download full-size versions of your own photos. And with 1TB of free storage (equivalent to around half a million mobile photos) you are unlikely to run out of space. It is also one of the services that offers auto-upload: by ticking the box, every single photo you take will be uploaded automatically to Flickr, allowing you to rest easy that all your mobile photos are backed up. Another photo-sharing platform with auto-upload is Google+. Like Flickr, this is an option if you are looking to recover individual photos, but not if you want to recover a large number. And in the cases of all these free photo-sharing platforms, downloading more than one photo at a time is very time-consuming. So they are only really good options for retrieving one-off photos.
Flickr can automatically upload every photo you take - you can hide your out-takes from your followers.
One option that gives you both auto-upload and the ability to manage your photos in bulk is Dropbox. For around £50 per year you can buy 100MB of space. Compared to Flickr’s free 1TB, this may not sound like good value. But Dropbox’s advantage is that the uploaded photo files can be managed as files sitting on your computer’s hard drive. So you can choose a block of them and move them, or create folders. This ease of file management is its main advantage over Google+ too. Google’s cloud storage solution, Drive, does allow you to replicate its file structure on your computer (as Dropbox does) but unfortunately there is no auto-upload option for photos.
Dropbox can auto-upload and let you manage photo files as if they were on your computer
Lastly, many people import their mobile photos into iPhoto, Aperture or Lightroom before deleting them from their camera rolls, as a way of managing them more easily, not for back-up purposes. But if you do this and use a cloud back-up service for your computer, those photo files will also be backed up. A service like Backblaze wirelessly backs up every new file that appears on your computer automatically for around £2 per month. And if you’re in the (good) habit of deleting your entire camera roll in one block to free up space, but want to keep particular photos without having to find them each time to prevent them from being deleted, a very useful app is Private Photo Vault, which allows you to protect individual photos.
Whichever solution you choose, if your photos are important to you, please back them up.
This article originally appeared in FLTR magazine
Can you print mobile photos?
Can you print mobile photos? I recently curated an exhibition of mobile photos and this was a common question. And contrary to popular belief, yes you can. Usually. It depends on your files’ resolution and size. Photos produced by mobile phone cameras are usually not much smaller than pictures taken on big cameras. A standard iPhone 5S photo is 3264 x 2448 pixels, while the largest JPEG that can be taken on a Canon 5D mk iii is 5760 x 3840 pixels. But there are various reasons why your final mobile photos may not be big enough for printing. Many apps, like Hipstamatic, allow you to shoot in higher or lower resolution. So be sure to choose the largest resolution option before shooting.
And a lot can happen to your photo after you’ve taken it in full resolution. In a recent FLTR article I wrote about backing up your photos. One of my points was that you should make sure your photos are archived in full resolution just in case you want to print them. Many platforms will archive your photos, but not in full size. During the process of uploading your photos to the platform, they get compressed. If you view these compressed images on a digital device’s screen, especially a small one like an iPhone, you won’t notice any loss of quality. But for printing, you’ll need high-resolution files. Another way you may lose pixels, especially in a genre where people process their photos quite heavily, is by importing them into an app for editing. Many apps will compress the images before importing them, some with a warning, some without.
Many apps will downsize your images before allowing you to process them
So if you paid a little extra for a camera phone because of the large number of pixels it promises, you will lose your apparent advantage as soon as you use some apps for editing. And this may make a difference to your picture quality if you want to print very large, so check your final pixel size before you choose how large to print. You can see the pixel size of a picture in the Info section of any file on your computer or, on your phone apps like like Lab or MetaData will tell you a picture’s pixel size (along with a lot of other information).
So if you’re sure you have the highest possible resolution file, you’re ready to print. What printers should you use and what can you print on? If you use a photo-sharing platform like Instagram, you’ll find various photo printing services that make it very easy for you to print straight from the platform. But again, remember to watch your pixels. If your photo is stored on a sharing platform in low resolution, it will also print in low resolution. To get best value from your prints, think about what is fit for purpose. You can spend a lot of money on high-end printers and if you want to show large prints to be viewed under bright lights, this will be money well spent. However, if you simply want to put a small print in your dimly-lit hallway, then a cheaper online option will do fine. If you have the patience and time, you can even try printing on your own printer, though these prints tend to fade quite quickly and if you add up the cost of paper and ink, it may not turn out to be such a good-value option. Likewise if you want to frame your photos, there are many more or less expensive options. For classic 1:1 Instagram and Hipstamatic photos, a really cheap (but good) option are the 12” frames (designed to display vinyl LP covers) sold by Tiger for £6. Obviously off-the-shelf frames are cheaper and will be fine if you can tailor the size of your prints. Before sending your photos to print, however, you should make sure your screen is showing more or less what your print will look like. In other words, make sure your screen is properly calibrated. Professional printers can help you do this, or you can find a lot of useful information on how to do this online (for example here).
Finally, prints don’t have to be on paper. There’s a myriad of possibilities, from mugs to tee shirts to calendars. Real-life vehicles for your photos can be great ways to put your photos to work. I recently produced various calendars on Snapfish’s excellent printing platform and sent them to potential clients - a socially acceptable way of forcing people to look at your photos for longer! Whatever you print your photos on and however big, in a digital world where a photo can have a viewing life of just a fraction of a second, if an image is deserving of a longer viewing life-span, printing it and then living with it over time can be highly rewarding and instructive - you get to know which pictures stand the test of time. In my last piece on backing up I said that if you love your photos, you should back them up. Well, if there are some photos that you really love, then back them up - and then print them.
This article orginally appeared in FLTR magazine
Point and don’t shoot with iPhone 5S camera
I know the iPhone camera isn’t technically a point-and-shoot. But you’re supposed to be able to just pick it up and shoot, right? So it’s a press-slide-and-shoot. Except with the 5s, there’s a stage missing in that description. Unless you tap on the screen before you shoot, your photo will most likely be out of focus. Check out the details from two photos below, taken seconds apart. They have the same lighting conditions (very bright so no danger of camera shake interference) and were taken from exactly the same distance using the native iPhone camera, but the one on the left was taken without tapping and the right one was taken after a tap. You can see there’s a major difference in resolution, which is clear to the naked eye in the photos at full size.
The 4s didn’t seem to take out-of-focus shots if you didn’t tap. I know about tapping to focus and expose on particular points, of course, but the iPhone camera was supposed to auto-focus if you didn’t tap, right? Let’s hope Apple sorts this out for the 6. Or maybe I should use one of those camera replacement apps that I’ve been so dismissive of lately!
Instagram power users keep censoring me!
I say “keep” but actually it’s only happened twice (that I know about!) in the last few weeks. But that’s good enough for an iphoggy blog right?
I don’t generally follow power users on Instagram because it’s not sociable. They have so many comments from their thousands of followers they either don’t have time to reply or they simply don’t see your comment. That’s fair enough. But I do follow some if I like their pictures, though I know the relationship will be like watching TV - very one way. But very occasionally I feel I have something insightful to say (you remember, I had that thing I said in early February last year right, that was insightful, wasn’t it?) and I just want to get it out of my system. So, without going into details, I made a couple of comments on two power users’ feeds that I thought were making valid contributions to quite interesting debates. And they got removed! OK, you might disagree with someone, but do you have to censor them? That’s what the Stasi did, it’s what despotic regimes do. And my comments weren’t in the slightest offensive/abusive/whatever. You, dear reader, will know that my views are never anything other than level-headed and tempered, expressed in a mild-mannered and friendly manner.
So what’s going on with these guys? Could it be that, like despotic regimes, power users, with their thousands of followers eager to have some of that power-user aura rub off on them, have become too used to people lavishing praise on them? The fawning comments that accompany even the dullest photo by a power user might (understandably almost) lull them into a sense of their own unquestionable importance. Any dissenting voices, even mild ones, cause them surprise and anxiety. Could it be that the pedestal that Instagram has put them on (to further its own commercial interests) is a place (unlike real life) where they feel immune to any type of criticism? Instagram power users have genuine commercial importance as mass-distributors of advertising for brands, but do some perhaps mistake this importance for a different type?
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.