Having been on Instagram for a few months now, and having to consciously separate out mobile photography as something that’s done independently from my ‘more serious’ work – I’ve had some time to rationalise my thoughts around them whole sub-medium. What I’ve found is that having a dedicated output channel for the results not just makes you look more actively for opportunities to use it, but also adds a layer of confusion: how do you decide when do you use what?
The bottom line is that you’re always going to be carrying your phone, so there’s always the mobile medium as a minimum level. That minimum quality level – quality, capability, overall shooting envelope – keeps increasing. It’s now at the point where for the majority of the population’s uses, sufficiency has been passed, and we’re getting far better results than minilab prints; control is back in the hands of the people (though not all of them know how to use it). Previously – for me at least – a camera phone was device of last resort, when I really didn’t expect there to be anything worth shooting, but then got caught with an opportunity and no other camera; it’s a bit like saloon derringer tucked into a boot. Or a dagger. Then there are occasions on when you might carry something with more potential, for example a fixed-lens large sensor camera like the Ricoh GR, or a small mirrorless camera like the GM1. These are situations in which photography might not be your primary objective, but there’s a potential for an interesting image; somewhere you may not necessarily have been before. These are your sidearms; I think of the GR as a Glock or FN Five-Seven. There’s no need to talk about shooting seriously – I think we all know what we’d carry under those circumstances; we go loaded for bear and prepared to shoot the images we want to make. This is being loaded for war. (Following the analogy, I suppose a commercial shoot is like a invasion campaign against a small nation.)
And here’s where the lines are getting fuzzier and fuzzier: smartphones replace compacts, both in ease of use, image quality and postprocessing power. Compacts with larger sensors and small mirrorless replace entry/ enthusiast DSLRs. Full frame DSLRs overlapping medium format. And then what? Though my personal requirements for sufficiency have now changed significantly following the Ultraprint medium, I find myself in either of two modes – either the output is purely for web or regular print, or ultraprint. The latter requires a D800E or MFDB, tripod and big lenses. As for the former? Anything goes. The problem here is that you may well come across something that could make a great fine art Ultraprint, but if you’re caught short with only your cameraphone or 16MP, you’re stuffed. Even the GR – which has outstanding pixel quality and shows the limits of what APS-C can do – is barely enough for an 8×12″. I recently decided against buying a D4s for that reason – even though its ergonomic and low-light capabilities are something else, 16MP just isn’t enough to make a 13×19″ Ultraprint. Needless to say, I find myself carrying the D800E/ Otus combination quite a lot these days.
And here we move on to the hypotheses:
New media open up new avenues for experimentation.
I think this one is pretty self-explanatory: if you’ve got a new camera or new lens or new processing, you’re going to try shooting out of your typical comfort zone to ‘see how it looks’ – it might work, it might not; but either way, you’ve added to your knowledge base for future images. And you might find something in there which is useful. It encourages experimentation both upstream and downstream – photographing subjects which you might normally pass by, or subjects which you might not normally attempt (e.g. street photography or moving subjects with a MF Hasselblad).
The output medium matters.
I think it’s very important to be clear about what you want to use the resulting images for. If it’s solely instagram, then it’s stupid to use a proper camera – there’s just too much fiddling required to transfer. Remember that workflow matters: the smoother/ faster it is, the more likely you are to use it. If you shoot different subject matter in different ways with different output media, there’s no conflict; I’d never shoot a commercial job with an iPhone, for instance. The aim is always the highest possible image quality; the question of what to use thus never arises. But if you’re casually photographing urban abstracts – which could well make interesting Ultraprints – then if you’ve only got your iPhone, you’re going to be disappointed come print time. Similarly, you’re going to be unhappy if you’ve lugged 3kg of camera and lens around for a day and not shot a single image. Fortunately, for most people – the output medium doesn’t actually matter; they just want to show it to as many of their friends as possible, which means whichever online medium is the most popular at the time.
Social media should in theory drive creative evolution
Once again, photography comes back to psychology: the vast majority of humans seek affirmation from their peers, which in turn has a positive effect on their self-esteem, and results in a repetitive cycle. Therefore sharing an image that proves popular will in turn encourage posting of more images, experimentation, etc. However: what proves popular is not necessarily ‘improvement’ from a traditional standpoint; it’s probably going to be eye-catching, but for the wrong reasons. It’s much easier to make (or process) an image that breaks pattern and in turn attracts attention because it’s oversaturated or over-bokeh’d rather than because it makes you think through careful subject placement and implicit storytelling. Unfortunately, the cycle is also self-reinforcing, which means the more retina-searing HDR images get shared, the more popular they become, and the more difficult it will be to break the preconception that all HDR must have funny colours. The job of the serious photographer gets harder.
Simplicity is the key to fun, and eventually, quality and innovation.
I suspect the two things that made mobile photography really take off for the masses was the fact that it was really simple – aim and hit the button – and convenient. Even when more advanced ‘traditional’ photographic features crept in, this didn’t change; they tried to hide the features behind poor UI, or just plain got the UI wrong. I still think the best implementation of exposure/ WB/ AF is Apple’s touch to focus/ expose/ WB – it’s intuitive and easy. Still, most people don’t bother to use it before jabbing the button and wonder why focus is out and things are too dark (or bright). Bottom line: taking away the confusion makes you focus on the most important things: light and composition. And I’m sure this has raised a whole group of very competent photographers from an artistic/ compositional standpoint; the technical bits might be missing, but they’re relatively easy to develop later on.
Putting control back in the hands of the user will result in a period of chaos, then advancement.
This is only natural: until you figure out exactly what control/ workflow method is best for achieving what result, the results are going to be somewhat haphazard and inconsistent. For the most part, casual camera users – and some photographers – are accustomed to working within whatever presets they are dealt; be it by the minilab or their camera’s presets or JPEG defaults. Software filters with instant previews make the result instantly visible to the user; they might not necessarily know why they are attracted to certain outcomes, or that there are better ones (and more control), but at least it’s a small step forwards. Eventually, some of these users will naturally be driven out of curiosity to want more – and that’s when the real conscious control over the output starts to take place. Those of us who know how to get the results we want with the controls we’re given – be they limited or extensive – are looking one step further beyond the level of control into the ergonomics and ease of control. A D800E is an extremely flexible machine, but there are elements to its UI that still leave a lot to be desired – lack of user memory presets, for instance. Mind you, it is definitely possible to take all of this far too seriously; I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s had decision paralysis over which equipment to pack for a particular outing.
To be continued in part II. MT
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