Regardless of the camera we use, light is still everything. The camera that most of us will have most of the time is the one attached to our phone and on the basis that the best camera we can have is the one that we have got on us, then maybe more should be made of the opportunities that this presents.
This post, being the first of 2019, will be set around making the most of our camera phones, an easy to keep New Year’s Resolution, not necessarily as a primary, go to, choice of camera, but on the basis that it is the most portable and the most accessible. Few of us feel properly dressed if we leave the house without our phones, but that’s another problem.
The camera’s on modern phones are really quite remarkable in their capacities to capture decent images. Things that mitigate against them tend to be form factor – what they feel like in the hand – dynamic range – the amount of light that can hold detail between the very brightest to the very darkest part of the image – and a lack of optical zoom, for the most part.
Note that the word megapixels doesn’t appear in this short list. My cheap and cheerful phone, bought in 2017, has a 12MP rear facing camera, the same as the original Canon 5D. Top end phones are now boasting 20MP plus cameras. Megapixels are rarely a problem these days.
That said a camera phone makes for a lousy sports camera and when on safari and photographing prides of lions the distance we would need to keep to fill the frame would be well beyond wreckless. Similarly a 20 by 30 foot poster at 300 dpi is going to look pixelated (from most cameras it has to be said) but then you wouldn’t print that big at that resolution.
Everything that we did in our 101 Corner series can be done, effectively, on a camera phone (Links to: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10) and we need to see our camera phones as our primary practice camera, if not our primary camera (as some professionals do) the one we can use over a luch break or someother gap in the day – it doesn’t have to be a long one, most of the things we will talk about can be done in ten minutes as effectively as sixty. Sometimes more so as we are forced to do rather than ponder.
So we need to make an ally of our camera phones convenience and we need to make the most of its features and take account of rather than make an issue of its limitations. All camera set ups have limitiations. Without exception. Doing something about it delineates the photographer from the person with a camera.
The first thing to note is that most of us will be shooting with a fixed focal length lens, usually around 27mm equivalent on a full frame camera, 18mm on an APS-C. This means wide angle shots which means filling the frame means getting close to small and people sized subjects. Use your feet to zoom not the digital zoom on the camera – it rapidly degrades the image quality.
It also means that we need to pay more heed to having something in the foreground to skirt the problem of having unproductive negative space that diminishes the impact of our main subject. We could also use leading lines and/or forced perspective, or moving to reframe to combat this. Remember the object is to fill the frame with our subject.
Zooming aside, there isn’t a lot that we can’t do with the right app (I will come to lighting presently). If the native camera app on our phone is limited then there are plenty of others available. The one I use (Android) is Open Camera that gives a lot of control (DRO, HDR, Manual, Exposure Compensation, Differential Focusing, Noise Reduction, Burst Mode, RAW etc).
Apple has a very good native app but generally lacks manual controls. There are plenty of other apps available such as ProCamera (widely recommended), VSCO, Camera+ 2. As with all these things, it comes down to personal preference regardless of operating system.
There is also the question of an editor. Now there is a big difference between slapping a filter over a mediocre image and editing for the best effect. As a development tool the object is to get things as right as possible in camera and then edit as necessary. As for apps we can do worse than Snapseed, but again there are plenty to choose from and it is personal preference that matters.
Lighting, bearing in mind we are making the most of what we have, or can be very cheaply obtained, really should remain natural. The single LED is fine up to about arms length (and that is being very optimistic), may be synched as a flash, but will be very slow.
For slow read useless in most situations. It can be OK in macro but even that can be fiddly. Stick to natural light, though you can get a ring LED light for about a tenner (AKA a selfie light, which tells you what you need to know), are you going to carry it with you everywhere?
And this, more than anything else, is about looking for those opportunities everyday life gifts us, using the best camera we have, being the one we have at that time. It is about sharpening our skills, its about injecting some fun into parts of the day.
It can also be about trying something new, say like street photography (if you want to be incognito plug in your headphones and use the mic switch to activate the shutter) , or a project as we discussed in the last post.
It is the New Year, time for resolutions, make one that’s fun and easy to keep.
Lighting options, from basic budget and food photography after break, special thanks to the ever inventive Ian Coombs for the artistic food plates, and to Myk Garton and Richard Clayton among others for their light tutorials.
The most important thing in photography is light and the best camera for the job is the one you have got on you. Two propositions that in themselves are their own truths. That said the cameras that we have offer us varying degrees of flexibility. Beyond developing us by making us think of the things that we do automatically more deliberately, an effect that quickly wears off, new/new to us equipment is just another way of getting the job done, maybe a little easier.
These days we are as likely, in fact, more than likely, to move from a camera phone to a more traditional form factor – something we think of more as a traditional camera – as a means of getting “better” photographs. Form factor is the physical size and shape of a piece of equipment. These days we think of cameras as being, mostly, hand holdable items. Certainly, when coming from a hand-holdable device like a camera phone, we look to how the camera handles, where the buttons are, weight and heft, balance.
Different formats have different aspect ratios, basically the ratio of the width of the sensor to the height. The 16:9 of our camera phones fits the the aspect ratio of our TV’s. Mirrorless and DSLT APS-C crop sensors are usually 3:2. DSLR’s (and SLR’s) 4:3. That effects how we frame – one isn’t necessarily better than another – because those are the dimensions we are given to work with. Those frames are given and we tend to adapt accordingly. It becomes more evident when we move between formats, such as cropping a 3:2 to a 4:3 competition format, especially for prints.
The sensor size is usually the single biggest factor in overall quality. Not necessarily the number of (fantasies of camera company marketing departments, by and large) but the size and number and layout of the pixels. A phone sensor is approximately 5mm x 3.5mm, a full frame camera 34mm x 24mm. Compacts, Bridge Camera’s, Micro Four Thirds, APS-C come in between. Bigger is generally better.
More complex is the arrangement of knobs, switches and dials, which at best will be software options, more likely not options at all, on a phone. Full manual is a lot easier concept to mount on a larger form factor.
On the flip side pure convenience, connectedness with programmes and channels that enable sharing of pictures, and, not least, portability are on the camera phones side. These days people rarely travel beyond the front door without their phone and therefore a camera. The biggest downside remains those lower quality images, which look fine on a phone screen, probably the most frequently employed method of display.
Although what we see as a “proper” camera these days is subject to change, the fact remains tha the best camera you have is the one you have got, but there is no escaping the fact that cameras still take pictures but photographers make photographs. Make a poor photograph and it will not be improved one iota by how much money was spent and how sophisticated the means of capturing it were. It will remain poor.
Last week we put forward the proposition that light is everything in photography. It is. This, sooner rather than later, leads the photographer to the question of “Settings”. Indeed the more time we spend on the internet the more it would appear that settings are the most important thing in photography. They are not. Light is. This obsession as Mike Browne points out, is nonsense on stilts. Settings do not lead to the picture. The scene, what we are taking the picture of, leads to the settings. The light is what nature or the photographer, makes it (natural/artificial light). Light is everything in photography.
The principles set out using a portrait setup are applicable to everything else. A good way to think about using light is that we are manipulating the direction of light and from that the direction of shadow. The same effects can be replicated using a torch or reading light, LED or other strip light, a flash or a specifically designed lighting rig. A piece of grease proof paper makes a great diffuser. Black card or material makes a good flag. Aluminium foil makes a good reflector. The important thing is to practice. As with last weeks video a simple set up is best. To remove the effect of colour use black and white. Try replicating this short video on your own table top.
Last meeting was our annual thumbing of the collective nose to Cartier-Bresson’s fear of the contrived, the Creative Round. In that all of photography, from one point of view, is contrived, we can take comfort in a Sontagian view that Photography is a “Promiscuous way of seeing” and here are we. It is also another way to open the arguments between the Get-it-right-in-the-camera-ista’s and Ye-accolytes-of-photoshop, but we won’t.
Congratulations to the winners, (Check out the Facebook page or the website) this in some ways is the hardest round of all to to enter, not least because the definition of what we mean by creative is quite fluid. It stems from an original thought or vision. This gives us less chance to take the image we want by accident, the surrealist streak in photography if you will, as it tends to involve a lot of planning and preparation. The flip side of this is that the deliberation it involves is good for us in all the other forms of photography, because it is a productive habit.
“A skilful photographer can photograph anything well” according to John Szarkowski. So that doesn’t mean just slapping on a filter over an existing photograph and calling it creative, though there is nothing to say that you cannot. Passing a superficial inspection is one thing but the photographs that hold the attention are rarely going to be constructed that way. Skill in photography is as much about practice and deliberation and attitude as it is in any other form. The trick for the hobbyist is not to make it a burden, but to enjoy and enjoy learning.
It’s why having a theme works for our development. Yes it is fun (for us, the rest of the family can feel a little left out) to take a camera everywhere and photograph what takes our fancy or arrests our attention, but when we narrow ourselves down we concentrate on looking, and looking for associations with this idea, which we are using to organise our output. A photograph.
It brings us back to that deliberate frame of mind again. This is also something that helps when we feel that we have plateaued in our development. It can be frustrating to not quite get what we visualised, but also it can be the brain’s way of telling us time to try something different. To create a random element in that, basically to set the challenge, use the theme link above and use this preset random number generator to pick a topic from those 328 themes; get a camera; your least used lens or least used camera even, and get right on it.
There is something to be said in rekindling the simple pleasure of just taking a photograph in a spare five minutes. It can be as simple as arranging things to hand on a desk or a table and practising the basics of composition, because nowhere is boring when you have a camera in your hand.
To give a couple of examples:
Whilst waiting for the potatos to boil I took about four frames of a satsuma and a couple of apples, altered saturation and played a bit with curves and made them presentable if not earth shattering images. Of course, if I wanted to become rich I should have taken photographs of the spuds.
Waiting for a relative to get ready I was struck by the incidental arrangement of my Works ID badge and glasses on a side table. Nudged things around very slightly, took it, cropped it square, painted a bit of blur on it. Quite like it. Doubt I will see it hanging in the Royal Society of Arts any time soon, but hey, I got a small sense of achievement out of it.
Same occasion at the other end of the trip, I was waiting in a coffee shop and set myself the challenge of getting the branded coffee cup and the illuminated sign in the window. A bit of cup shuffling, bit of Dutching (avidly watching all those 60’s Batman shows as a kid finally paying off), applied a saturated, bluish, filter to tone down the harsh lighting, job done. No need to buy a new dickie bow for any award ceremony on its account, but that’s fine. I had observed, visualised, framed, captured and post processed in under two minutes, made a photograph that gave me a small sense of having done something, enjoyed doing it and the result. All this by taking a camera to (some) things that make you go Hmmm.
All these were shot and processed and uploaded to Flickr via my decidedly mid-range mobile phone, which has three times as many pixels as my first digital camera had, two very capable editing apps and a link to the internet, all in something that fits in the palm of my hand. The fact is, for a very high percentage of the day I have access to a camera. Yes I prefer to shoot with my camera body and detachable lenses, yes I can potentially do more with it, but the equipment isn’t the point, making the image is. And no one knows what camera was used and very few actually care.
Restriction is as much an opportunity as a wealth of opportunity. This can be shooting with a different lens or one you don’t use very often, a different camera (including your phone camera if you don’t use it very often) close ups (not necessarily macro), wide angles (making sure to include something in the foreground) there are plenty of variations. A simple one is to deliberately frame a portrait and a landscape version of the same image, being careful to compose the best image in each.
As we gave him the first word we will give him the last, in the interests of symmetry, a noble subject for an image. Henri Cartier-Bresson said of taking a photograph that the thinking should be done before and after the taking of a photograph. Make that gap your Zen Moment. Take that time just to enjoy being a photographer.
Dockside this week, the last meeting of the 2014-15 season, near full moon and clear skies and the biggest boat ( the Lady Sandals, a private yacht that was, maybe, once owned by the actor Nicholas Cage for a few days, who also, I seem to remember, once owned a castle hereabouts he never visited – he is a man of expensive hobbies) seen in the basin for a long while (the MV Balmoral possibly accepted and then there wouldn’t be much in it either way though she was in the Bristol Channel I believe). We met under the “Big Shiny Ball” aka “The Disco Ball”, in reality the Planitarium in Bristol’s Millennium Square. Can’t say my own pictures were particularly heart stopping but I do have one, straight out of the camera, absolutely no post production, that apparently breaks the laws of physics. Need some time to puzzle that one out, or possibly engaging a Galactic Lawyer, but hey can’t say the evening wasn’t productive!
The Millennium that the Square celebrates was supposed to bring in many apocalyptic changes. Photographically it marked the beginning of the commercial change from film to digital and the relegation of a dominant medium to a men-in-cardigans-sucking-teeth medium in a couple of years. Then nostalgia isn’t what it once was. Stephen Mayes in an article in Time Magazine (thanks Mark Stone for posting via Facebook) this week argued that the changes were bigger than we first thought and that the photograph as photograph isn’t “Dead as many have claimed, but it’s gone“. The interconnected context of a photograph today, never mind the volumes of data about ourselves their sharing gives away, does not represent the optically and physically fixed idea of an article of record we think it does. Only a third of any image produced digitally, represents this century and a half truism of an unadorned record (and that was always at least part myth anyway), the rest of a JPEG or TIF file is interpolated. And the data in a RAW file, the digitally closest thing to a negative, can be manipulated in a near infinite number of ways. He cites Kevin Connor’s conjecture that the camera has evolved from picture making device to a data collecting one.
This does actually matter in our interconnected world, one where the next evolution of the i-phone may have a 12mp camera and 4K video capability, but also one where ALL the data on the phone, your life, good days, bad days and secrets between friends are shared globally in real time without you ever thinking about it. The delete button ONLY works on your phone. The myriad privacy statements and unread end user licensing agreements (EULA) allow us, distracted by the shiny things that these little miracles do and say, to unthinkingly give away data worth billions and permanently record those things we, maybe, one day wish had been left to fade from memory. Oh yes the digital camera now fits right in and not just camera-phones either because we upload/share not just the image but the exif data as well, maybe add a few comments, most of them instantly forgettable, lol, corny or otherwise steeped in a sauce of our own delusional wit, rotfl – to the point of incontinence. The point is “Except in photojournalism, there will be no such thing as a ‘straight photograph’; everything will be an amalgam, an interpretation, an enhancement or a variation – either by the photographer as auteur or by the camera itself” (Mayes after Marc Levoy).
My answer to that is, it always was. Composition? Decisive moment? Story telling? All a part of the art from day one because it was life imitating art at the beginning and ever since the very presence of a camera makes a difference to the way people act. That’s why “authentic” street photography sounds akin to stalking or surveillance in behavioural technique. That, however, maybe to (slightly) misrepresent Mayes, who is actually pitching that the photograph has and is becoming much more. It may, at the simplest level, represent a 2D representation of a 3D world but that 3D world now includes other experiences. Like the hyperlinks in this post represent layers of definition, interpretation and ultimately meaning through multiple perspectives with the text serving as guide in the same way as the image fires the story we put to it. Another point that this raises in my mind is that photojournalism isn’t immune from these things it is enhanced and increasingly depends. Apart from? Especially? Isn’t a crowd sourced citizen journalism closer to the notion of a cinema verite (Though someone still has to curate it)? And who has got the time to navigate this planet around every image world? Apart from Cultural Historians, Auteurs and the long term unemployed “Ain’t nobody got time for that“. Maybe that is the point. An image has a during, usually of a fraction of a second, we can only speculate about the before and afters for the most part.
Without a doubt photography is changing. Arguably there are fewer professionals around these days and someone turning up with a camera is no longer an event because everyone, virtually, has a camera as long as they have a Smartphone – and not just in the advanced economies. Mind you, turn up with a tripod and everyone thinks you know what you are doing. Within seconds you can be surrounded by men-in-cardigans-sucking-teeth telling you that nostalgia isn’t what it was and sticky fingered children asking you what that button does (not to ignore a few sticky fingered adults making off with your camera bag). Mayes is right though, new technologies, or the shrinking and disseminating of old ones does ask questions of society, not all of them comfortable to answer and in a culture of exploitation for profit the balance of privacy v profit will not naturally fall to the best individual interests of you and I. Then can you take the word of a bloke on the run from the World’s Creator Myths for breaking the laws of Physics?
N E X T M E E T I N G
Back to School for the first meeting of the 2015-16 calendar. Bring along your images of the summer and share.