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?
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!
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
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: 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).