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
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
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.
Gray’s Anatoly: And the winner is…
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?
Gray’s Anatoly: Call me a bad loser…
I recently received the catalogue from the Taylor-Wessing Portrait Prize exhibition through the post. It includes all the winning photos currently being shown in the National Portrait Gallery. It doesn’t include any of mine, which weren’t selected. The voice in my head as I write this is that of Charlie Brooker, who is one of the subjects in the exhibition. Which brings me to my first gripe. It seems to me that you have a very good chance of being chosen if your portrait is of someone famous (or even just fairly famous, as in Brooker’s case). If it’s The Queen of England or the Head of the United Nations, you can pretty much guarantee you’ll get in, even if your photo is underexposed, out of focus and has a coffee cup stain on it. Celeb faces will get the punters in the door and they also mean the photographer must already be relatively well-established, which means the judges are on safe territory if they pick them.
So to my second gripe. At the risk of revealing myself to be embarrassingly out of touch with high-end photographic intelligentsia, this collection of photos exhibits a very narrow range of human emotion. Seriously, people just aren’t that serious. Even if you ascribe to the questionable blank-expression theory (I don’t: in my view, a blank expression is still an expression), the fact that 90% of the photographers exhibited do makes for a monotonous visual and human experience. Especially in the pictures where you just know the subjects have been told “Stop smiling!” by the photographer, the resulting images become so cliched as to be laughable (well, we would if it were allowed).
And finally, and speaking of cliches, here’s a bit of a cheap (though irresistible) shot. The red-head thing was already a massive cliche (according to the Portrait Salon, a group of photographers that celebrates the 99% of submissions rejected by the official Taylor Wessing jury), yet the judges seem to have gone the other way, as if to spite the mockers. This year’s exhibition is not only peppered with red heads, there are no fewer than three sets of red-headed twins. Are they doing it on purpose just to make people laugh? Say cheese!
Gray’s Anatoly: Fishy Images
I wonder if anyone said “Nice capture!” or “Awesome catch!” to Cartier-Bresson. These days they’re comments you see a lot on the photo-sharing platforms. A while back, I didn’t really like the terms “capture” and “catch”. For me, it sounded too much like fishing. I much preferred “nice shot”, like golf, or clay-pigeon shooting. (I’ve never been fishing or clay-pigeon shooting). But I’ve seen the comment so much that it’s grown on me and it got me thinking about the similarities between taking photos and fishing.
I was thinking about it more when I started using the new iPhone 5S. Its new burst function takes around 10 frames per second. If normal photo-taking is like fishing, this feels like trawler fishing, I thought. The first time I used it was in a crowded Portobello Road market. I held up my phone, walked forward into a sea of people, and kept my finger on the button. With the 4S, I’d have got 4 or 5 frames, by tapping repeatedly. Now I can get 40 or 50. My net comes up full of fishy images. I don’t think Cartier-Bresson would have approved.
So is it too easy to get good catches now? Well, you still have to decide where a good spot will be to lower your photographic net. And you still have decide to what depth to lower it and when. And you still have to decide what your best fishy image is, when you sift through the many sometimes infinitesimally different pictures that you capture, looking for that killer one, that decisive image, or “moment”, as Apple are calling them now. Come to think of it, that’s one modern term Cartier-Bresson might have liked.
Fishing for images in Portobello market
Gray’s Anatoly: Make a calendar and force people to look at your photos for a whole year
The other day I was reminded of that line in the Smith’s song, Frankly, Mr Shankly: “Sometimes I feel more fulfilled, making Christmas cards with the mentally ill.”. Snapfish have this really excellent online tool for making calendars out of your photos and I’m getting a worryingly large amount of pleasure from it. So far I’ve done a calendar for my golf club (now in its second edition), one based on my music photos and I’ve just finished one of my mobile photos. I say “worryingly” because it feels like it’s not a very professional or creative thing to do. It involves a lot of sorting and classifying. Yes, going through old photos, putting the best ones into folders, choosing a certain number of portrait ones and a certain number of landscape ones, trying to choose some that match a particular month on the calendar (ie a sunny picture for August and a snowy one for January), putting two or three that go well together on the same page. So, worrying, because it’s a slightly mechanical thing to do. If I wanted to present it as something of greater value, I might say I was curating my photos. Are there other examples of photographers or artists who have applied their work in very practical ways? Come on, help me out here.
Calendars are a great way of forcing people to look at your photos for a whole year. The aim is that the recipients will feel so touched that I have thought of them at Christmas, gone to all that effort of wrapping up a real object, writing a little note and then going down the post office to post it, that they don’t immediately throw it in the bin. I’ll be very pleased if about 10% of them end up hanging on walls. I will put a copy of each on walls around my house - I find it’s good to live with them a bit. You learn what works and what doesn’t. And I think it’s nice to give those otherwise purely digital images some corporeal existence, a new purpose in life.
The cover of the 2014 rugfoot mobile photography calendar (signed copies available).
No such thing as a free lunch in photo-sharing platforms
Yay! I set up my own website! That’s the third one I’ve created in my lifetime and the experience is always exhausing. My head craned towards my screen, my eyes strain to check the brackets and the commas in that tiny little font that they use. One little piece of punctuation out of place and the whole thing can come crashing down. And you have to scour blocks of code to find where the problem is. There’s no undo button so you can’t just automatically reverse the brainless error you’ve just made.
My new website is a simple shop window for my mobile photos. I’ve curated the photos into subjects, so it’s a place where people can browse the best of my work without having to see my family snaps or be distracted by a third-party photo-sharing platform’s ads or branding. Each time I’ve gone through this process, I realise how much human resource, expertise and money must go into those slick photo-sharing platforms, which are a thousand times more than a shop window. They are incredibly complex and powerful machines. We take them for granted and we never expect to pay for them. And we are outraged and dismissive if there is even the slightest glitch. Yet we can’t ask for our money back because we didn’t pay any to start with. But as we all know now, we still “pay”, just not with money. We pay through our personal data, we licence our photos to be used in ads and on some platforms now we will be exposing our eyes to ads. But this is the new economy. There’s still no such thing as a free lunch: we just don’t pay for it in luncheon vouchers any more.
Setting up a website can be exhausting