Photoessay: Invisibility, revisited

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Towards the end of 2013, I put forward some thoughts on the idea of photographic invisibility. I now realize that we can actually get pretty darned close to this: the concept of hiding in plain sight comes to mind. If something is commonplace, then it no longer stands out. Big cameras and lenses used to; less so now simply because of the increasing proliferation of DSLRs. Even more than that, the cameraphone is so ubiquitous that we are effectively conditioned to ignore it. So, why not harness this invisibility?

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The next natural question is of course whether the resulting images are any different, or whether one is still biased towards a more conventional method of photographing and composing. I can say personally that it took some time and conscious effort to make the most of the phone, and even then, I’m not fully sure that I managed to fully adapt my process methodology to the medium. For instance, looking like an inept tourist works quite well; I generally don’t do this with the Hasselblad, though. Similarly, depth of field is pretty much infinite – and it seems that with the new OS, the iPhone can shoot and focus very, very quickly indeed. Better yet, exposure and focus seem to lock if you pump the button fast enough.

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I also noticed that subjects not just ignore phones, but underestimate the width of the lens and assume you’re either shooting past them, or they’re in the frame and duck – both of which produce some rather interesting results. This is of course a good thing for those of us who know how to make the most of perspectives!

Given that the current state of cameraphones is pretty advanced – and we’re not even talking about the enormous 40+MP sensors in the current generation of Nokias – it’s no surprise that image quality is surprisingly good, especially in bright light, and if one is careful about exposure. In my opinion – a good 16×20″ is definitely possible with some care, though it of course won’t be quite as detailed or smooth as something from a larger sensor. Can it be processed to hide that fact? To some extent, yes. Resist the temptation to sharpen in postprocessing and treat it instead as 35mm film, with slightly indistinct edges/ high frequency detail at that size, and it’s surprisingly printable. Especially in B&W.

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Note that I’m not talking about using apps/ filters/ the detested hipstagram here*. If you treat the files as you would those from any other camera, with a quick pass through ACR to adjust exposure and white balance (yes, JPEGs can be opened in ACR – right click in Bridge) – then you’ll find that under daylight circumstances, they’re no less manipulable than any other JPEG; albeit one that’s from a camera running slightly high default contrast. The same goes for B&W conversions: performed in PS with the normal amount of dodging and burning.

*Don’t worry, I haven’t completely lost it.

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I’ve also found that the ability to tap focus and expose is both a fast and effective way of ensuring consistent results. On top of that – the iPhone’s HDR function is actually very useful too; not to create garish tonemapped results, but to extend dynamic range somewhat in very high contrast situations and prevent unnaturally abrupt highlight clipping. In any case, I’m going to stop at this point and let the images complete the article/ photoessay. MT

All images in this article shot with an Apple iPhone 5.

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  1. rpalmgren says:

    Love this picture!

  2. Wonderful images, Ming. The is the greatest advertising you can have for your skills as a photographer.

  3. Ming, I’m a recent follower of your blog. It’s awesome – I can’t believe I didn’t know about it sooner! What a treasure trove of amazing work, articles, and insight. Thank you for sharing so much!

    Quick question that I didn’t see answered in the comments: what app do you use on the iPhone? Do you use the “Camera” app that comes with iOS 7 or something else from the app store?


  4. Ron Scubadiver says:

    Ming, you must have steady hands because these images are much sharper than 90% of the iPhone stuff I have seen. I have found the effect of subjects underestimating the width of a lens to work even with my D800/28 f/1.8G and even more so when the 20 f/2.8 AF is mounted.

  5. Insanely great stuff!!

  6. I quote jay maisel- “if you are in shadow and your subject is in the light, you are invisible.”
    Would be nice if someone made a list of ninja tips like the above.

    • Unless you like to shoot backlit subjects like me 🙂

      • For backlit subjects, I have this technique. I stand motionless in the way of the incoming people, with my eye to my viewfinder. After a couple of minutes, people will leave you alone for the nutcase you are.
        Using an electronic shutter helps alot here, at the least, one with electronic first curtain.

  7. Every time I read your blog and take a look at your iPhone pictures I feel like I need to throw my DSLR in the trash can, thanks for that… =(

  8. Sheena John says:

    Hi Dave,

    If you don’t happen to follow this fellow’s blog, I thought I’d share this with you. So now I don’t have any excuses not to take good street shots… (I’m not good at the subject, but now apparently I don’t even need a specific camera to try it out). Expect you can (or have?) get great shots like this too.

    Camera choice = A good sensor + how & what one sees + ease of use. Not camera with biggest sensor/high mpx any more or high $$$ (the Leica stuff I’ve always wanted!). Sports & wildlife excepted. What an opportunity (with decent light I suppose).

    He mentions the Ricoh GR which I had bought in the fall and love it. I haven’t taken any street shots yet… just my usual subjects.

    Happy New Year! And happy photographing.

    Sheena .. Sheena John 847-651-3855

  9. This just aptly demonstrates that while gear is good, vision is better. And you have the latter in spades, Ming.

    Well, if I’m honest, it sounds as though you have the former in spades, too. 😉

  10. roadtraveleradmin says:

    Lots of comments to read and some of them quite long… Before reading any comments, but after reading your post, I forwarded your blog/email to those I thought would appreciate your work and said:

    Even with an iPhone, Ming is a fantastic artist!

  11. This is going to sound like a strange thing to say, and I imagine it might be misinterpreted: I wouldn’t feel like a photographer if I were using an iPhone.

    I’m not questioning the pictures that people can get with them (the shots in this article are proof that it can be done), but it somehow just wouldn’t feel right. I can understand “the right tool for the job” and “it’s the person, not the camera” – both of which I agree with entirely – but…somehow I seem to have drawn a line at the iPhone.

    This could be a snobbery phase: a few years ago I swore that I could never use a camera without an eye-level viewfinder, and now neither of the two main cameras I use has one. And I have to admit to being intrigued by that new “41mp” Nokia (although apparently you can’t get it in Japan because of some incompatibility with software systems or something else I don’t understand). But by and large I just couldn’t imagine getting into the experience of shooting with a phone. I have an iPod touch and I don’t use the camera unless I literally have no other choice and I absolutely must get the picture.

    I think it comes down to experience vs result: for instance I don’t particularly “enjoy” the experience of using the DP Merrill 3 – the LCD is terrible, the battery life is worse, etc – but the results more than make up for it. Whereas my recently acquired GV Ricoh V is a lot of fun to use, and gives me surprisingly impressive results (the bokeh is very nice and I was quite surprised at how close the detail got to the Merrill files in some instances). I don’t like the experience of shooting with the iPod touch and the results have never been satisfactory to me. It therefore loses on both counts (for me).

    I suppose the point is: if something like the Ricoh (or the Nikon Coolpix A, or anything along these lines) is not that much more difficult to carry around than an iPhone, and only a little more conspicuous (which can be negated with a little skill and ingenuity), why would we use an iPhone? If we are serious about photograph, we should always have a camera with us, and while you seem to think that the camera in the iPhone is good enough (and I’m happy to take your word for it), it is surely not as good as the recent small APSC or even four thirds cameras. Or is it…?

    Just wondering out loud, though, and in no way questioning the pictures here – some of which are really impressive.

    • Completely agree with you on the ‘feel’ part: the iPhone does not ‘feel’ like a camera. It just happens to be a surprisingly good one, and in an opportunistic situation, acquits itself well.

      Frankly not much of the modern stuff feels like a real camera, but then again I’m very partial to my F2T and Hasselblad V cameras…

    • Tom Liles says:

      I agree with you on the iPhone, too, Mark. In my case, I decided it was on the experience side you mention: because it didn’t offer me the basic photographic controls — and basic is all I’d ask for, beg for nothing more, in fact — I’m talking:

      — shutter speed
      — ISO
      — decoupled focus and meter point
      — bonus control: WB

      [I don’t think I need aperture control on an iPhone]

      As these are out of my hands [I can’t freely bias an exposure a way I want] the iPhone camera doesn’t feel like a camera camera to me. Though on resolution spec alone, the iPhone beats quite a few capable cameras.

      I am considering moving up to a 5s though: mainly so iOS7 doesn’t move as quick as treacle and kill batteries in a matter of hours; but also because I hear the sensor is a bit larger in the 5s [I have the 4s] and the lens has been improved: overall a little better photographically. Bloody expensive things though.

      • Short answer: you don’t need all that anyway, because of the way the camera is programmed. Tap to set exposure and focus, tap again to shoot. I wish all my other cameras operated this way…well, the ones I don’t have to use with flash, anyway.

        • Tom Liles says:

          No way, MT—there’s no route to exposure comp. there. I’m assuming you mean you can do that in Ps, etc., but we also know 8bit jpegs don’t stand up to much.

          I often find the classic meter-fooling scenes where the whole frame is bright, or dark, and I’ve no tone to tap on that I’d like to define as “mid,” “zone 5,” whatever…
          Or the other scenario, the thing I want to meter off and the thing I want to focus on (closer up shots) are in different bits of the frame, or at completely different brightness levels, or both.

          I’d settle for just an exposure comp. button. Or is there one in there and that’s what you’re telling me?

    • Here’s a slightly contrarian view: I don’t know why more self-professed rangefinder fans don’t flock to cellphone cameras or non-EVF cameras! If camera shake is not an issue (ie. having the eye as a 3rd point of contact for stabilization), and the screen is visible (not always true in very bright light), then it ought to offer all of the visualization advantages that rangefinder users profess to love. I like that you can hold a phone at arm’s length, see the whole scene outside the camera, see the subject approaching the frame, and be able to time the composition with great precision. Anyone else?

      I’ll also claim that holding anything bigger than an iPhone at arm’s length, like an E-M1 with the 12-40/2.8, looks stupid, and I refuse to do it because of that. It’s not a good reason, but I don’t claim to be a flawless human being either. 🙂

  12. Love your photos! You may have just answered my dilemma. I am fairly new to photography. I’ve been using my iPhone 4 then upgraded to an iPhone 5. I thought I was getting some decent photos. Then I got a Nikon D3200 for Christmas. I don’t know the first thing about the different settings. I know that comes in time but I’ve always been somewhat impatient! Anyway, I still have a couple of months to make up my mind if I’m going to keep it. After seeing your photos, I’m thinking maybe I should save my money ($700+ since it came with two lenses) and stick with the iPhone 5. Especially since it’s a hobby for me and I have no intentions of becoming a professional. Any thoughts or comments? Thanks!

  13. Jorge Balarin says:

    Time to buy a cell phone. Do you know I never had one ?

    • Tom Liles says:


      That’s seriously a worthy achievement in today’s day and age, Jorge. Really special. You’re like one of those guys born outside the Matrix.

      Don’t spoil it and buy one! 🙂

      • Jorge Balarin says:

        Thank you very much Tom, and don’t worry, since many years I’m saying that I’m going to buy one : )

  14. compulady says:

    I think they are more interesting because they are in B&W.

  15. Get an Epson 4990 flatbed for that 4×5 view camera. As a matter of fact, I’m selling mine 😉

  16. Fred Mueller says:

    These phone-cams are just going to wipe out the camera industry as we know it – remove the broad base of cheaper P&S almost completely, and lay bare the marketing conceit that a better box is what most people should aspire to. Why buy a Cross pen when the trace of a $.19 Bic is indistinguishable.

    Also, there are just SO MANY PHOTOS being generated. Everywhere …

    Ming, I admire you greatly, especially your writing, but I really don’t see the point of “street”. Yes, some of your shots are quite nice, maybe even exceptional, but man, just what is the point (besides demoing the iPhone) ? Should we photograph everything that occurs. Too much information is no information at all. Too much imaging is blindness. Yes a “monkey on a typewriter” may eventually produce a sonnet – but who wants to be the poor zoo keeper that has to do the checking ?

    I wonder if most of us reading here are actually are getting the message – that you, Ming, photograph at the same high level (virtually indistinguishable) no matter what you have in hand. Flip side = many of us will produce exactly the same personal dreck no matter what we are holding.

    depressing – but everyone is not a rock star after all

    • No, we definitely shouldn’t photograph everything that occurs, unless you can make the photograph interesting. However, since even the phones pass the sufficiency bar, there shouldn’t be that much we cannot photograph, and well – the limits are eroding, I suppose.

    • Here is an alternate view respectfully intended for further discussion … Why should anyone take piano lessons? There’s way too much noise in the world already, and everyone just plays the same things over and over again (scales, finger exercises, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, etc.). I think that it is an artifact of the last 3-5 years that taking a picture also means displaying a picture. Thank you, social media!

      And because a picture is so easy to interpret — what does Bach’s Prelude in C Major mean anyway? — there are all sorts of psycho-social baggage bound up with the display of photos that may cause even more oversharing. Look at my great life! Look at the cool camera/car/clothes I just got! Look at my mad camera skills! Look! Look! Look!

      I’m hoping that there is still a group of people for whom this is a personal hobby, and that the personal edification of the activity is the reward. Dave Hickey once pointed out that when you think about it, art is a really weird thing to do ( Here’s to more weirdness in the world, even if it’s the nth picture of the same street with the same formation of people, because that picture’s not the end of the journey

      • Tom Liles says:

        Hi Fred, Hi Andre,

        You both encouraged me to think (a bit) about this… I’m with Fred on these two points:

        1) Who wants to be the zookeeper that has to do the checking?

        2) Why buy a Cross pen when the trace of a $0.19 Bic is indistinguishable?

        On (2) I guess internet sized jpegs are the great leveler… Yeah, MT says he can print pretty big with jpegs from an iPhone, but look how many pixels the iPhone gives us—I’m still on the 4S and that has more resolution than a well spec’d interchangeable lens digital camera I bought on a whim in 2008 [the Panasonic DMC-L1] before I became interested in photography proper. The DMC-L1 is no slouch and can print up to A3 size without much difficulty; that in mind, it isn’t such a push to imagine A3+ sizes from an iPhone. Though it’s still remarkable. But the point at hand is that downsized to, say, 1500pixels a piece [long side dimension, etc] the well taken iPhone image and the DMC-L1 image are most likely hard to tell apart. And as Ming has just displayed for us here, and a few of the community have added voices to: hard to tell apart from most any other camera.
        So why buy the Cross? Selfishness, pleasure, gluttony, aspiration [ideas of personal potential], bragging rights or more kindly, maybe just something to talk about. Marketing definitely plays to this, outright seeks to exploit it, but it does not invent those drives. As always, for a glimpse of the bad guy, take a look in the mirror.
        [But what’s so off-balance about being the bad guy?]

        On (1), I have to step up and be the hypocrite I am, and at once agree and deride the torrent of dreck that there is; at the same time as being a prime contributer to it. I bought that DMC-L1 in 2008, used it for a few months, got bored [too lazy to learn] boxed it up and moved on to the next thing; never thought about it again for the intervening five years. Until that boxed up DMC-L1 popped up and back into my life start of last year/end of year before, and hey presto, I’m like photo-junkie numero uno these days. And in this year of photographing not-very-dangerously I took a dormant Flickr account opened in 2008 from about a hundred or so uploaded frames to more than five thousand two hundred now. And nearly every one of them is dreck. And I continue to pile on the uploads. This leads me into Andre’s great post:

        …the personal edification of the activity is the reward

        I think this may be it. But wish to bring out, and embrace, the selfish angle inherent. I’d like to distinguish myself from the serial selfie takers, the endless parade of snaps of cats and dogs and badly WB’d interiors of trendy cafes or restaurants; as though what I do is worth more, more righteous in some way. But I can’t. My Flickr is full of self-portraits [though, I have recognized that at least half the time, it’s just to sate a shutter urge or to avoid the confrontation of having to ask someone to pose for me, candid and close up]; my Flickr is full of what must seem like empty moments to anyone except me. So I’m exactly the same as the instagrammers and people we like to say have no interest in photography. I’m right there with them, piling up the dreck ever higher. Only with better equipment [ignoring preceding arguments] and a bit more know-how.
        And yet… and yet, I do think I’m different. Last year, the year I piled on 5K snaps online [from a pool of many many more], I had a good time. Genuinely. And it was from the taking and making of a picture… and, yes, from the publishing [posting, sometimes sharing on a group, on Flickr] too. Would I be as happy without some kind of output medium [some kind of Look! Look! Look! outlet], perhaps not. But I’m without doubt that I’d still be happy. I could settle for never being able to show anything, if it meant still being able to own cameras and go out and take pictures [but I’d demand that I get to review the shots on the back screen; if that wasn’t available then, no, I’m not interested].

        Reading Andre’s link there — what a good one! — I’m back to questioning the photographer who announces “I do it just for me.” I see Dave Hickey and his interviewer speaking of art as propositions that are argued for or against; not as vehicles for truth or fact. That’s a good one. And so, on “I do it just for me”: I think that’s a kind of half-hearted egoism that doesn’t go far enough. It should be something more like: I do it just for me. Here, look at these things I made: I’m right and it’s your duty to agree. It’s about acclaim, and 100% on one’s own terms… that’s perhaps why acclaim gained through popularist means feels so phony to us all. The minute you pander, the less authentic you become. No one likes a lier.
        [though we all majorly have pants on fire]

        Of all people, Bruce Lee springs to mind. Speaking about his martial arts [fighting, violence, basically] he succinctly commented that it was just a matter of honestly expressing oneself. Of a punch, he crunched a fist and tensioned his arm and spoke to his interviewer “like a punch, if I’m going to punch you, I’m really going to punch you, man… really put my whole self into it, like ‘this is me, man'” [I’m paraphrasing but being as faithful as I can from memory]. No talk of winning and losing and technique now, just expressing yourself—the ideal being 100% self-honesty. I think this is a very deep and enigmatic psychological truth, to be found everywhere from the scriptures of the Hebrews to the more bonkers implications of our most on the edge physics. Bruce Lee was a champion cha-cha dancer and I think this is not just coincidental, either. Self-expression, and the corollary that to properly express oneself requires supreme honesty… these are thoughts that will crop up in any object of human endeavor, perhaps. Including photography.

        So the dreck is dreck. But there is honest dreck, dreck trying to be honest, and dreck that is all pretension and calculated. The latter probably being worse than unthinking unaware dreck like the monkeys’d do with their typewriters.

        So, I’m off to make some more dreck now.
        Who’s up a for lunchtime photo walk 🙂

        • Oh, but if you DO print large, I can assure you there’s a difference. And an enormous one. (No pun intended)

          I’m up for the walk, but because I’m on a reportage job for the company that’s boring the tunnels for Kuala Lumpur’s new subway all of this week already…pair of D800Es, one Zeiss 2.8/21 distagon and one Otus – an awesome combo!

          • Tom Liles says:

            A pair of D800Es 🙂

            Sounds like an interesting assignment, Ming. And an interesting engineering project; and when the engineering project is completed, another interesting KL spot to hit for when you can do a photo walk for you.

            [If you’re using speed lights, and in a hazardous area that requires you wear a hardhat at all times, how’d you get your eye to the finder with an Su800 in the hotshoe? Put the hat on backwards? Now there’s a selfie I’d like to see 🙂 ]

            • Very. Didn’t use the speedlights – not allowed in areas where they’re working underground in relatively dim light as it’s going to interfere with their vision.

        • Tom and others, if I’m misinterpreting you, please let me know, but it sounds like your idea of a photograph is as an object to be shared. What do you think of photographers like Vivian Maier or Saul Leiter who mostly took photos for themselves and whose photos weren’t really seen until much later? Or for purer self-edification, someone like Garry Winogrand who says that he takes photos to see what the world looks like in a photograph? I would suggest that sharing is but one use of a photo, and that online social media has greatly exaggerated this use of photos in the last few years, which has had both positive and negative effects on photography in general.

          I have another point to make about craft and technique, and self-expression, related to your Bruce Lee analogy, but I’ll save that for later.

          • Believe it or not, I don’t actually share most of the images I shoot and keep. Partially because they’re for me, partially because they’re for clients.

          • Tom Liles says:

            Bonjour Andre. Acclaim is the word to focus on. I think it’s about acclaim. One way of getting that is through sharing; but sure, to get acclaim (and no droll three-card-monty stuff with semantics here), you’re going to have to show someone something at sometime… At the moment social media — sharing — is an easy way to do that (though we’ve had some great discussions on the output medium and presentation environment, and its effect on people’s reactions/opinions/judgement). Not all people sharing on social media are aspiring artists; but we also have to recognize that “art” and “artist” are fluid terms not fully decided by just the individual. A culture chooses; an individual propositions (or not, the culture may just appropriate). The battle never ends. No-one *knows* because it’s never won. No truth or fact, just propositions (call it a branch of philosophy?).
            So the instagrammers and duck-face girls may really be the avant garde (and us the fakes). As I’m sure you’d be the first to remind me, no voice is going to boom down from the sky and tell us. Gordon mentioned a while back, even the Google Maps car’s images can be proposed as art… Mmm. One way to frame both sides of the proposition view: is a guy a Canadian just because he says he is; or does he need a warrant (a passport) from his government to say that. Is a Jew a Jew, a Christian a Christian or a Muslim a Muslim just because they say they are; or do they need to do something, have something, to qualify? How about “art,” “artists,” etc?
            Both sides can be argued, but we shan’t get too deep into this as fun times with the Steve Huff guest reviewer guy (I’ve genuinely forgotten his name) come flooding back. The guy who… ah! No—Mr. David Babsky! I knew I knew that. David’s views on what “art” meant seemed quite rote and pedestrian; though outside of attempting to talk to the Great Wall of Babsky, I remember the rest of us had a discussion about who decides on art and its value. It was good.

            So, acclaim.

            Unless it’s the “just for me” thing that MT has spoken of here (and previously). Acclaim by one, and one only. Keeping it private, exclusive. I do that too, as I’m sure you do and most of us here in all likelihood. And Vivian Maier, Saul Leiter, GW, as you mentioned. I can sympathize with the view that this may be the purest form of photography, but as I mentioned above, I can also see — in fact I might even be leaning toward now — that it can also be seen as a kind of half-hearted egotism. It’s my aesthetic choice, but I’d rate all out egotism a better option; especially when we’re talking about something like egotism!
            Photography, like writing, like most of the endeavors we label “art,” is an act of ego first and foremost. Without that, no-one starts anything. And to attempt to say this doesn’t apply, that one’s pursuit involves no ego, or opinions about oneself, but still eat the cake of picking up a camera and recording images—that is the summit of phoniness. Record for what? Even in the case of the audience of one, it’s simple to point *that* out as an act of ego. If no ego were somehow the case, buy a junk camera that just makes the noise and go out with that? But if it really were the case: the individual in question has no need of a camera (no desire by their own definition). The latter action (taking photos) excludes the former claim (not an act of ego) and exposes the pretense in making it. Photography is an act of ego: for art, for pleasure, for fun, for spite, whatever. An act of ego. You decide to do it.
            I come back to my aesthetic choice here, well no, I’m couching it in terms like “my aesthetic choice” which is true, but not the whole truth—it’s what I believe to be the objectively correct philosophical stance, that if you’re going to be engaging in acts of ego, then be an egotist. There’s no room for wall-flowers and shrinking violets if that’s what we’re up to. As I say, not to do that just comes off like half-hearted egotism, rather than Bruce Lee’s fist crashing through to announce: here, this is me.

            Acclaim was the word I chose to characterize this with, but it’s a penultimate term, at best. Behind acclaim are desires for recognition and recognition is about existence.
            It can’t be lost on any of us (here) that given a camera, any one of us (us being “people” now) will take a selfie. That we have this word for it now is a reflection of how many people own cameras (of one sort or another). But we all do it. Just a matter of time. This insatiable urge to take oneself, the pattern can’t be lost on us. And it’s from the proest of pro photographers — artists through cameramen — down to clueless teenagers and even my four year old daughter, once she figured what the camera did, that do it. I.e., *anyone*, basically.
            There’s the inherent ego-centricity of us humans; but I think it is more than that. It is about existence. A kind of testing? (Somehow, learned from where I don’t know, a mimicry of the way matter and energy, reality itself, works => self computing self recognition)
            And here I hit the bedrock that I always seem to hit: existence –> to make that possible, information and language. But to stick with existence: since we need a nominally external observer to confirm the existence of an object, where does that leave these photographs that never get shown to anyone?

            So not only are they incomplete expressions of the author (because he or she hasn’t proposed them to anyone other); but they are also of questionable ontological status. Or just questionable artistic status, to keep it sane.


            Previous gumpf also answers the question, but on Vivian Maier and Saul Leiter, the obvious point to make is that we are observing and looking at their work which *has* been shared (put out there). That it didn’t happen at a certain time seems unfortunate but not important.
            On the wider issue of non-observed works—again I’m reminded of Kant’s “things in themselves”… when sensation by any means of an object is impossible (which has to mean an object which has zero causal effect on reality) it’s actually very simple—that thing is not real, i.e., that thing does not exist.
            The art of Vivian Maier, etc., doesn’t become art until someone says it is—recognizes it. Just as it’s hard to say the negatives themselves have questionable existence, metaphorically, until detected by people; and a questionable existence, absolutely, if the fabric of reality (the matter the energy) cannot detect them (which of course they can, I know because we eventually found the negatives, extant).
            So that’s that.

            On the famous quote of Winogrand, I’d love the chance to answer him back:

            Bullshit. The number of developed rolls and film you put out in one year, say, to be charitable, should be plenty to show you what the world looks like through a lens. This answer sounds like the equivalent of practicing your best face in the bathroom mirror. Try again. Be honest.

            But honestly from this side: who needs what GW says his work is about? We have the work!
            (All we need. It’s like biographies of famous writers—everything you needed to know about them was in the work, not the biography)

            Besides the preceding, I was going to mention my skepticism about the artist being the best witness for what his or her work is about… But seeing as we were quoting the greats (and Winogrand is a great, no doubt) I wanted to say goodnight with a nice one I heard William Eggleston say. Asked about what he was up to, what he was photographing, he replied:

            “Life today.”

            • Photography is definitely selfish. It assumes that the audience wants to see the way the photographer does; it assumes that your vision is worthy of sharing. Even if you do it for yourself only, and show nobody, then you’re holding back and not sharing. You can’t get away with it 🙂

              • Tom Liles says:

                Thanks MT. What Fred said also definitely holds though—who wants to entertain all that sharing?
                I once heard someone liken the internet to a stadium full of people with bullhorns, all shouting full blast, about themselves. I laughed and thought “yeah.” Then that little voice in the back of my mind said, it’s about you.

                So I’m torn on this one; it’s a work in progress. I guess all we can do is follow Bruce Lee’s advice and just do what feels honest. If uploading/printing/whatever 40 per day is what that is, OK. If it’s one every year, then OK. Honesty really is a good word because it insulates against worries about kidding oneself and taking easy options [not taking chances], or getting too big for one’s boots and talking more than walking [hubris; false pride]. I think honesty is probably a thing that takes some practice. And some getting used to. And let’s face it, more courage than most of us have [social graces all go, as does all self-deception].

                I’ll settle for being politely honest and not an artist, and trundling on with my snaps. And my nice cameras 🙂

                • Thanks all for the interesting discussion so far! I think we are of two minds about this, but that’s what makes this discussion interesting. What do you think about things you do just to amuse yourself: doodling, idly humming, or even playing a musical instrument for yourself? Perhaps it’s a kind of stress relief or something else, but it’s done just for yourself.

                  I can say, hopefully without any pretension, that I understand what Winogrand is saying. I find myself photographing light patterns just to see what they look like, or to see what I can do to them with some tonal adjustment in LR or PS. I’d say almost all of these pictures would be terrible judged by Ming’s 4 qualities measure, but that’s OK with me because the goal is not to make an outstanding image, but just to satisfy my curiosity. It’s kind of like a really primitive version of what Ming talks about in part 2 of his anxiety of infinite composition article.

                  I think there are many uses of photos besides sharing that’s underappreciated. From what little I’ve read about Maier and Leiter, it seems to me that their intention was something other than sharing (though Leiter did do slideshows of his photos to close friends) or only seeking external validation.

                  • It’s more than that: it’s experimentation to build up your battery of experience so you know how to handle a given lighting and compositional situation. Do it enough, and it means you can always get the shot under pressure. I do it all the time, too…

                  • Tom Liles says:

                    Hi Andre, I’m certainly in two minds about it; never mind the both of us 🙂

                    OK, so just to clear up on Winogrand [and my response to him yesterday had iPhone and sleepy typos in it — I meant to say “developed rolls and prints — but I hope the meaning still came across –> GW knew what his pictures looked like. Assuming those glasses actually worked], in his case he can’t get away with saying that, Andre. You can, I can. It’s debatable whether Ming could [but MT has never said something like that (have you Ming?); and I doubt he would, or could! Ming’s control over his equipment, and is this the article to say that on or what, and his mental library of scenes is too great and he knows it, therefore wouldn’t venture to feign an “aw shucks” explanation like GW tried to, I’m sure]…
                    Of course no-one has absolute knowledge of what a subject is going to look like through the lens, never mind with all our exposure choices on top, but pre-visualization and a more than good idea of what the world is going to look like, photographically, before the click is certainly within all of our gifts. Not a stretch or a mystery. I’m not close to even 50% of mastering it yet; but still, even a no-one, a beginner, a novice like me has a clue what a photo’s going to come out like, what the world is going to look like through a lens. I can shoot film now because of that. For Winogrand — of all people that serial snapper GW — to earnestly say he’s just trying to find out what the World looks like through a lens, seems, well… it doesn’t play with me, at any rate. I’m quite sure he saw quite a few of his own prints, etc.
                    [The dynamic element in photos, like what stranger’s faces close up, etc., are going to do can’t be pre-visualized, sure, but GW didn’t say or imply that; he said what the world would look like. He could’ve been a bit more intellectually honest with a different choice of words. I don’t think it was a oversight or honest mistake: I think he was consciously aiming for something that he thought would sound good, perhaps camouflage his real intent, and overplayed it.]

                    And of course there is room for experiments, failures, plain snapping [sating a shutter urge; I get this a lot] and roads to nowhere. As there is in any art or creative or scientific endeavor. Any human endeavor. You know dancing, Andre, I’m sure those impeccably disciplined ballet artists who, like classical musicians, have basically been honing their skills since childhood [easily the most refined of all artists, in my view], I’m sure they often just want to let it loose, do weird stuff, pointless stuff, moonwalk, do the mash-potatoes or whatever. But it is a counterbalance to something, surely.
                    Letting of steam? Effing-a-right: that’s what my lunchtime walks with a camera are all about. I feel like I’d be lost without them now. Where I get into two minds is the friction between the joy of just taking pictures in its own right, which was in your opening comment above and I’m 100% down with and can attest to; and the slightly suspect other reading of that, the nihilistic tone wrapped up in doing something with no further goal or purpose. That seems very empty and almost a sin against the universe to me. We’re talking about teleology.
                    Letting off steam is a counterbalance to something, as you imply when you point it out, Andre. As are the experiments and pictures of textures, light, patterns that we all do and never publish—they are, as Ming says, not self-enclosed, not silo’d photographic actions that happen in isolation. They are bits of learning, bits of unlearning, bits of progress or procrastination: all part of the narrative of our journey to being better. “Better” is totally up for discussion and will probably vary for us all, but we all picked up a camera for some reason. Whether we know it or not. Getting that answer may be the whole point [at which point we stop?]. Else, why would we pick up the camera? [the nihilist has no need for these efforts]

                    Camus’ piece on Sisyphus comes back to mind…

                    On Maier and Leiter again, honestly I think people with their degree of skill were being dishonest to themselves if they intentionally were not showing work [that they themselves rated, felt it was worth the effort to make] and made up a story to explain why they didn’t. In VM’s case I think there were mitigating social circumstances. But still, there’s a difference between trying and being shut out; and not trying at all just because you imagine you’d be shut out or it’s easier on the ego not to. You slipped the word “external validation” in, but again I chose my words badly and would like to steer away from that tint to it, and say it’s more like “confirmation.” Which hopefully conveys a little more of the ontologic meaning [over the value/judgement one]. But it is still about about acclaim:

                    => I do it just for me. Not for you. For me. Here, look at these things I made: I’m right and it’s your duty to agree

                    But behind acclaim, recognition; and so existence [and why I reach for “confirmation”]. Seeking to confirm the proposition that what they did was good and was worth it [let’s just leave the “it is art” proposition out]. To the person that responds, “I don’t need validation, or confirmation, if you want to put it that way…” I would reply: then you don’t need a camera, do you? This is not about the experiments and roads to nowhere and beautiful failures that we don’t put out, but the photos that we felt had worth and were worth it. Were good. Are good! Limiting them to an audience of the author only, but at the same time asking for the status “good” to be attached seems, as I say, an exercise in half-hearted egotism.
                    I’m supremely aware that MT has said he has work that is just for him and won’t get shown. As the gatekeeper to that work, that’s MT’s decision and I can respect it—though that’s not hard as I have no choice but to. But I would hope, that when [if!] MT gives up photos [to tend to his investment portfolio], or pops his clogs, that that work may trickle out. Future generations can stumble across it and, like VM and these lost rolls of GW or SL, etc., etc., they can be put out in the World and regarded. I’m not fan-boying, MT; I have this hope for your photos, Andre, for mine, for anyone’s…
                    If you honestly thought something was good — and I’m in Bruce Lee mode now, I mean really “this is me, man” honest self-expression territory, forget rules and guides and judgements — not to put it out there is to deny yourself in some way. And that’s not just a wound to oneself [I have no philosophic commitment to the absolute separation or discreteness of things].

                    So, a another arguably good photo is out in the World, then. So what? Exactly, so what? The constant frothing of propositions and arguments for and against them is the ball game. You see why Camus’ treatment of Sisyphus comes back—there is legitimate honor in being the soup and believing that that is all there is. Contributing to it [negatively or positively].

                    Rather than hot-air merchants like me, waffling about it in nooks and crannies [ha!] of the internet; it’d be a million times better to shut up completely [and I know everyone prays I would] and go out and take photos. And let them do the talking.

                    Therein lies the grand point about sharing, printing, showing another person, etc., communication [information + language]. You can have a conversation with yourself and think of that as communication… but, well, we’ll leave it at that shall we.

                    It’s lunchtime! 🙂

                    • I have a pretty good idea what I expect, and a firm idea of what I want them to look like – but the testing is necessary because the cameras themselves don’t always respond as we expect…

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      Sure thing on your testing MT. But that’s a phase, and mostly an initial one at that. As you say, you already have a firm idea of what you want the result to look like. That’s the opposite of GW is trying to sell.

                      GW reducing GW’s, or anyone’s, entire oeuvre to an extended and insanely (as in completely unrealistic if we’re to take the words as read) over-exacting product test exercise in “what happens when….?” — the guy himself opening the door to that — seems like a radical, and tragic, takedown of the work. Just doing the test over and over and over and over and over again. Like, Garry, when do you figure out: “OK, that’s how that looks.”
                      [more or less, of course: we already spoke about absolute knowledge]

                      I don’t believe GW for a minute.

                    • Agreed; that said our respective attitudes towards the final image differ in an unintuitive way: I have a pathalogical need to see the result. He doesn’t; hence all of the undeveloped film. I get anxious if files sit for longer than a few days – even though I know what they’re going to look like. Or perhaps it’s because I know what I want them to look like that I feel the need to finish the process ASAP in case that clarity of vision diminishes with time (as it no doubt will).

                • The minimum cutoff is when you think it’s good enough. Your definition of ‘good enough’ will of course vary; and the motivations why one does it also defines your whole raison d’etre as an artist. Most of the time, though, I think not enough time is spent in the editing and culling: ‘good enough’ can be pretty sloppy.

                  • Tom Liles says:

                    But, one man’s sloppy…

                    [I do have views on objective worth and rules of artworks though, so I’m with you, MT; just saying 🙂 ]

          • Tom Liles says:

            P/S can’t wait to hear the point on craft and technique, so please do tell!

            • Nothing terribly profound, just that intentions can be obstructed by technique. I’m sure Bruce Lee could not have done the kinds of things he did if he was an overweight couch potato. Intention (and commitment) is good and necessary, but craft and technique have to be good enough to get out of intention’s way.

              • Tom Liles says:

                Umm. I thought about this on my train ride in this morning, Andre. Yes, it’s a matter of fact that Bruce Lee couldn’t do the moves he could if he wasn’t in the condition he was in; just as you couldn’t conduct Tristan & Isolde if you didn’t know a bit about music and literature and human emotions…

                But Bruce’s point was about honesty. It was about truly honest self expression. I think bodily condition and skill set and technique are now irrelevant to that. As it is about right now [all we have, of course]. A series of “right nows” into the future, i.e., the set of all instances from herein. If me, an overweight couch potato nowadays, decides to punch, say, if I put my true and honest self into that, no this is the wrong word, if I channel the true me, as I am, through that punch, make it a delivery vehicle for the true me right then and there—then isn’t that 100% honest and true self-expression. Even if on impact my wrist folds and I hurt myself more than my opponent… It might be that I have potential for punching — like an acorn has potential to be a great Oak — and it’d be my duty to progress, through dialectic, to realize [real-ize; I want to highlight this verb] that potential. That would be the narrative I’m at once duty bound to write, but also that I chose to write myself.
                No, just picking up a camera isn’t a contract to become the #1 photographer in world. But it is a contract to be 100% honest and self-expressive of that reason you picked one up in the first place. The contract, on one level, is not some physical law of the universe and we are free to break its terms and intentionally arrest our development or not inquire as to our reasons for picking the camera up. This would probably lead to putting it down again in most cases. Que sera. As Fred said, we can’t all be rock stars…

    • roadtraveleradmin says:

      Fred Mueller says: snip…
      “I wonder if most of us reading here are actually are getting the message – that you, Ming, photograph at the same high level (virtually indistinguishable) no matter what you have in hand. Flip side = many of us will produce exactly the same personal dreck no matter what we are holding.”

      That is exactly what I got out of it, and essentially my comment when I forwarded the blog email to friends.

  17. Very, very nice.

  18. Inspiring as well as additional support for the cliche, “A poor workman blames his tools”.

    This gives me much to think about. Thank you.

  19. Incredible set of photos from a mobile. Congratulations Ming!! You just destroyed any piece of pride left in me having own a FF and lots of lenses…I hate you!!!…now time to crawl back to the corner and cry….. 😉 anyway, any chance of getting your b&w street photography series out as a photo book?

    • Haha, thank you. Rest assured I still shoot with larger formats, and increasingly so these days. I’ve just made an enquiry on a used Arca-Swiss 4×5″, so I may well be going even larger soon…

  20. Proof positive that it’s not the camera, but the craftsman using it, that makes an image. After several generations of iPhone, I switched to the Samsung S4, which surpasses the iPhone. Try one out and you will be amazed!

    • I’m sure it does. I just dread the task of extracting my data from the iPhone…and it works for me, so why fix something that isn’t (very) broken? :p

  21. These photos are terrific not only in content but also in perspective. I love the third one! I take many pics with my phone, but am nowhere near understanding the terminology and techniques in this blog. Thanks for broadening my horizon today!

  22. Once again, terrific photos that show what can be done when the photographer has a great eye.

    Your essay also reminded me of a pet peeve (frustration) that I have had for years. If you try to take your DSLR into a theatre, museum or similar venue you will have to leave it at the front. Specific example: my wife and I were walking around NYC as tourists. We went to Radio City Music Hall at the end of the day for a performance and of course my camera was confiscated. I tried to point out that everyone was carrying point and shoots with greater telephoto capability than my 50mm, but no one cared. The situation today with far better sensors on even smaller and more ubiquitous devices makes the situation even more ridiculous.

    • Thank you.

      The irony, eh? Not a bad thing if you know what you’re doing, though. Rules that were made for old tech and advances in science mean those of is who are creative enough can still get away with it. Still a good reason to have a decent compact…

      Personally, I won’t go anywhere that makes me abandon my cameras. Partially because of insurance/ liability issues, but also because I refuse to support businesses that are so shortsighted and stupid that they can’t see we’re doing them a favor by putting out good images for free…

      • Andy Gemmell says:

        “Personally, I won’t go anywhere that makes me abandon my cameras. Partially because of insurance/ liability issues, but also because I refuse to support businesses that are so shortsighted and stupid that they can’t see we’re doing them a favor by putting out good images for free…”

        Ming all due respect, however there is more to life than photography! Don’t let pieces of history pass you by…or you pass them by…

  23. Great stuff Ming!

  24. This is the best — most beautiful, most stunning, compelling, and inspirational — proof yet that “our gear isn’t the limitation.” This post deserves the widest possible audience. (Hear that, Freshly Pressed editors?) Beautifully done!

  25. stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

    Hmm, invisibility due to camera size? Well, I`d like to put my three czech hallers on the discussion counter. The invisibility? rather not so much until you shot with minox in the folded newspaper in film days or in nowdays a smartie hidden behind buttonhole., though I admit there`s an old trick pretending you`re talking while pressing the shutter release. But that`s stealth not invisibility. Believe me, they do notice you, whatever you happen to lift to your eye, be it a brick or pebble. I would rather vote for a lack of importance in eyes of beholders when using smartphones because everybody else snaps with them, contrary to serious business feel attached to a proff DSLR. Strange enough, openly demonstrating your photo endevour like putting big camera on a tripod in the middle of busy spot can, after a while. get you more anonymity then pretending you`re just fooling around.
    Anyway, as said nice picts. Prague is a photogenic city one must say.

    • I’ve hot several minoxes, just not any film!

      Invisibility is when you achieve your goals by not breaking pattern or standing out. In Japan, that mean any camera goes. In other places…less so.

      • stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

        Minoxes are things of beauty ( somebody should put a sensor in them keeping the rest).
        It must be to-days Japan which I dont`t know. I recall Daido Moriyama saying that you could get in trouble some seedy places by taking a pict and he was on his own turf! Must relay to good old yakuza days. And it`s quite diffy for a white not to stand out in african market 🙂
        As to pictures, my fav is the one with pigeons, very poetic.

  26. Leandro Gemetro says:

    I sincerely love the set man. At the same time it makes me hate my equipment for being bulky and expensive!
    I still do street photography with my D800 and my bulky 24-70 and I get nice results. I think posing as a distracted tourist still makes bigger difference than how stealth the camera makes you be!

    Typical reaction to an offended person:
    “Oh, you were in the frame, sorry! Such a bad luck!”

    • You’d be surprised how often that works. Paradoxically, it takes competence to feign incompetence to deliver your intended results…

  27. Amazing photos, even without considering the camera used! In many ways, this is more inspirational than the high-$$$ equipment reviews … not that I don’t enjoy reading those. I find a little comfort in the fact that an unsubsidized iPhone without a contract is more expensive than a GR. :p

    BTW, are these pictures in B&W because you don’t find the color from an iPhone satisfactory?

  28. Christian says:

    Great shots! However in Sweden there is almost no light at this time of year. So the iPhone mostly creates a horrible blury and noicy mess. I’m om iPhone 4 though 🙂 Shutterlag is also a pain.

    • The 5/5s got a LOT faster in terms of lag and shot to shot speed after iOS7, which is pretty much the only good thing about that OS in my opinion. I agree that iPhones in winter in the north make grainy messes…but you could do the same thing with a Ricoh GR: similar FOV, but much better sensor.

      • Christian says:

        I know:-) I own and love the camera to the point where I feel naked without it.
        Although I have been thinking a lot recently about sensor size vs depth of field vs iso recently. With a large sensor I can use higher iso, but also need to stop down more to get more DOF. Especially with zone focusing where a smaller aperture is required on larger sensor. Do you have any thoughts on where the sweet spot lies sensor size wise for street under these conditions?

        • I think the GR is about as large as I’d want to go, to be honest. Anything more than that and you’re really fighting for sufficient DOF or fast focus in rapidly changing situations. That said, I have done street photography with the Hassy and digital back…

  29. V e r y Nice photos! I have too many cameras and an iphone – you’ve given me a lot to think of.

  30. Your usual exceptional standards, even with an iPhone!

    These look good enough for a print run – could be one of the world’s first iPhone pics sold as prints for collection. (Ben Lowy’s were sold for publication)

    • Thanks! I’ve sold many images from my iPhone already, and there are a bunch in the Getty main library.

      Prints of images are always available; you just have to tell me what you’re looking for 🙂

      • roadtraveleradmin says:

        I’ve sold an image for publication in a brochure that came from my 4s, unedited.

  31. Don Moraes says:

    THESE WERE TAKEN WITH A CAMERA PHONE?? Damnnnn…that’s insane. Those three photographs from the wedding are absolutely fantastic. Someone could have told me that these were taken with a Leica M9 and I would have believed them in a heart beat. After seeing the photographs I actually had to scroll up to find out what camera-lens combo you used…still can’t believe that these came out of a cell phone. Simply amazing…! While I am sure that YOU would be able to replicate this kind of quality with just about any modern day camera phone today, just out of curiosity, was this from an iPhone 5??

    • Check the exif if you still need convincing 🙂 Our gear isn’t the limitation, and hasn’t been for some time. The sack of meat operating it is…

      Yes, iPhone 5.

      • John Driggers says:

        Two words: Oh Yeah!
        That applies to the concept, the photos, and the PP.

        • Haha. Well, PP can’t fix or add something that wasn’t fundamentally there in the first place (challenge somebody to draw in convincing shadows or change the direction of ambient light) – and I didn’t do much to the files other than desaturated and apply a curve. The iPhone’s jpegs don’t have much latitude for processing before they fall apart anyway. But yes: ultimately it’s all about the idea.

  32. iskabibble says:

    The vast majority of “candid” shots that I see fail to capture ANYTHING of interest and thus bore me to tears.

    Nice photos in this essay though.

  33. Stunning pictures.


  1. […] recent posts illustrated with images from a phone and compact respectively were posted specifically to illustrate this point: just because a camera […]

  2. […] Visit Ming’s blog for more great pictures and articles. […]

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