Mobile photography, the future, and the masses: part I

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Sleeping dogs and all that.

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.)

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Return of the shadows after The Haze

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.

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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.

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A Modern Mobile Phone Chiaroscuro.

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.

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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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  1. Interesting that you have mencioned the lack of save presets on D800. For most people this isn’t a serious factor, for me its a HUGE issue and one of the things that made me opt for a D610 instead of the D800.

    • It’s annoying enough that I land up having one body set up permanently for studio, the other for reportage, and try not to switch them.

  2. Reblogged this on InSitePhotographic and commented:
    from Ming Thien Photographer

  3. randomesquephoto says:

    I believe you would enjoy the Vsco cam app. You can spot meter and focus separate. Skip the filters and you have a good Ming tool.

  4. This does make me wonder if mobile phones were as simple to capture images, as you described above, but nowhere near as convenient in quickly and easily sharing them, what the state of affairs would look like today?


    • Hard to say – we had camera phones for some time, but I think only when a few things came together – cheap/fast data, social media, acceptable resolution for most people – that mobile photography really took off. It’s impossible to separate mobile phones and shared images anyway – especially since photography is a form of communication, and the camera is now in a communication-dedicated device…

  5. I can’t wait to read this in detail. Also. I assume you’ve read the backgrounders? McCluhan etc? Would be a good thing for a longer stretch of historical context.

  6. Jordi P says:

    Nice topic to read about! I did write a comment about it on your sufficiency article.

    I love what my smartphone does, .
    Despite being a 1/3.06″ sensored cam, with a fixed lens; DR seems comparable to that one would get about half a decade ago with a proper camera, no OIS, oversharpened output, and god save you when it has to go beyond ISO 200 to 400. That being a flagship model…
    But it’s with me all the time. I am a student and always on the move, commuting or being around campus. As it is a phone, it is much more unconspicuous than any camera (unless in a touristy zone) thus I miss almost nothing.
    1st goal of my photography with it is documenting: Done quite well
    2nd goal of doing casual photography: That too.
    In a month I’ve shot 500 photos with it. Quite happy with a lot of them, at least for the memento quality they hold.

    I do believe in the convergence of devices, if manufacturers put bigger sensors (1/2.3″ to 1/1.7″) on them instead of the current 1/3″, no need for P&S for “everyday matters”.

    I want to print some of the best to see how the files fare, even do some giveaway of friends’ snapshots. As of sharing, I love that it synchs in dropbox and I’ve got the files in the cloud by the time I am home.
    I pondered about joining instagram, but I don’t think it’s worth it as there’s a lot of people indulging in there and the only reward is just some hearts or likes. Aside of square not working with tight rectangular composition!

    • Agreed: there will come a point, very soon, where the compacts no longer make sense. If they added an optical zoom or the like to the camera, there’d be even less reason. Reality is that the extra processing power inside one of these phones compared to your typical compact more than makes up for the missing pixel area. As for printing – an ideal file will go to 13×19″ quite easily, but of course not an Ultraprint…

  7. Michael Matthews says:

    Marvelous photos, extraordinary composition and color. If Apple would put that camera and chip in an iPod Touch, I’d buy one tomorrow. iPhones in the US are sold, for the most part, locked to a cellular carrier which subsidizes the purchase price by charging an onerous monthly minimum fee for data transmission. I’m addicted to using a Tracfone for $8 per month. Sufficiency. Just no pictures.

    • Thanks. At least you get a subsidy: here, we either get something that’s insultingly low (‘Pay 80% of the phone’s price but sign up for a two year contract at $80/month!’) or pay for the device outright.

      • Yes but on the flip side it’s more affordable to buy outright here. People here tend to run away from contractual obligations if telcos offered really cheap monthly contract deals.

        • Commitment to anything is a problem with Malaysians in general…I’ve had 15 people say ‘yes, I’m interested, definitely coming’ for a workshop and then…two actually turn up.

          • We have the same issue here in Seattle. I do not think that it just Malaysians that have issues with making commitments. I suspect that some folks, for whatever reason, do not understand that saying “yes” and not following through on their commitment is actually more rude than just saying “no”.


  8. liramusic says:

    What if I responded this way. (Here Lira goes again.) What it I suggested that it matters not which. It does if a print is needed but what if I suggested that the camera is for the comfort of the photographer and has nothing to do with the art. It hilt me like this. It is truly strange. I play jazz trombone. How good I am is not the point exactly but I do it professionally. I can be at a flea market and find a junk trombone and play it. I can accommodate it’s limits, huge limits, which I can figure out in 3 seconds, and just…play it. That’s my job and I can make music on junk. Or at least, I am what I am. I am exaggerating the idea because I’d struggle with the junk piece in a hushed theater, but I am what I am and that remains whether I am holding junk or gold. If it is a trombone, I am in charge, not the thing itself.
    Not that I am on some high level, but that is not the point. It is a little like seeing your photos above, Ming, and thinking, everything you do has a look.
    One more example and I will hush. My wife is a cook. We’re vegan and so she does it from ingredients. I can ask what she is making and if, as in IF, she is in a good mood, she says “the kitchen sink.” She can cobble ingredients and make an amazing dish with, well, for lack of a better metaphor: junk.
    Hey, cool: Dogs-a-hanging-out. I mean, that’s the husband, right? Touch his wife and he’ll say hello in a way you’ll never forget.
    A perfect place to end my entry.
    Warmly, jw

    • Makes sense – we can make do, and perhaps even make art in its own charming kind of way, but it’s the knowledge that lets us transcend the hardware (or exploit the limitations of the hardware). But yes, the right tool does the job much better. Would I prefer an Otus? Definitely. Do I always want to carry it? Not really.

  9. Some extremely interesting points here.

    “…the vast majority of humans seek affirmation from their peers”. This is true, of course, but…there’s a way to get around it. A while ago I had the audacity to email a well known National Geographic photographer, showing him a series of shots I had taken based on a famous picture of his. He replied, and not only that, he commented on my pictures, not unfavourably. Since then, I have had essentially no interest in getting critiques from anyone else, certainly not on places like Facebook where the average denizen wouldn’t recognise good photography if it introduced itself.

    “New media open up new avenues for experimentation”

    Yes, exactly. I think it was Araki who said something to the effect that if you want to change the way you shoot, get a different camera because they all have their own personalities. I had a (bad) habit of exchanging cameras a lot, and I found that what you (and Araki) say is true…for a while. Then you run out of ideas and assume that you need new stuff to get your inspiration back. My current setup covers almost anything I can imagine shooting. It’s then up to the photographer to use their imagination to find inspiration, rather than doing it with new gear.

    PS that first picture is (and I know you spent time in England, so you’ll get it) the dog’s bollocks 🙂

    • Ah, but if you have enough gear, after a while you can just rotate back to something you might not have picked up for a while…and it becomes pretty much new again. Or like dating your ex…

      First picture – haha!

  10. Brilliant read. Thank!

    It’s funny, I have this dilemma with my iPhone all the time – I very seldom find myself shooting with it. Despite it being quite capable in good light and always with me, I shoot almost exclusively with my Canon S100 (for now, my Otus800 equivalent). Any scene that moves me enough to take a picture must surely be worth that little bit of effort and consideration (and having in RAW) – if not, perhaps it wasn’t worth shooting in the first place.

    Phone cameras have tweaked that logic by lowering the “minimum effort required bar” to such a degree that people are no longer required to be objective about the photographic qualities of a given scene. iPhotography has become a sort of “proof of life”. You went out last night. You had fun. Oh, and here is a photo to prove it. Like. A friend may “like” the fact that you went out regardless of the merits of the accompanying image, but the message that is perpetuated is that your photograph was great, you should definitely take more!

    I think the thing that is important to understand is that not all the people who are taking “bad” pictures are necessarily striving to be or become photographers. Some would probably stop taking pictures all together if they didn’t have a camera phone and a means to quickly share their imagery with the masses. Others may see this low effort entry into photography as an accessible and enticing platform to grow, learn and become more self critical – perhaps, without a camera phone, they might never have discovered photography at all.

    At the end of the day I think that more people taking photographs is always a good thing. Sure, eyeball searing HDR and lomo filters may flood the pipelines, but at the end of the day the elements that make a great photograph remain the same. If your work is good enough, you will stand out in this sea of mediocrity. If your work isn’t good enough you will need to put in the effort to improve it. And if you aren’t willing to put in the effort, perhaps photography isn’t for you.

    Photography is effort.

    • Worthwhile photography is effort. It always has been. Just because the image-making tools are simpler and easier to use doesn’t mean that the thinking/ composition has become any easier, and yes, people are mistaking low-effort social media plugs for encouragement.

      As always, the problem boils down to education: if you can’t tell what’s good or bad, you’re going to keep doing the same thing. Or worse, mistake bad for good or vice versa. Accessibility goes both ways. HDR and lomo filters aren’t needed if the photo is good to begin with.

      • I agree completely. Filters, for many, take the place of great lighting or composition in providing that initial wow factor that pulls the viewer in. Unfortunately, with no substance to engage and hold them there, the illusion is quickly shattered. One of the major problems with iPhotography as a learning platform is that it provides you with no restrictions. Up until just recently, the traditional route for learning how to take photographs was through film. By it’s very nature, film photography provides inherent restrictions that force you to be self-critical and considerate of every frame. The process of developing a roll is expensive and time consuming (more so if you are handling the processing yourself). The quicker you improve your technique, the more time and money you save.

        This kind of restriction, I feel, is required for transforming iPhotography into a worthwhile learning platform. Imagine if every social networking and image sharing platform restricted you to one upload per week and your phone restricted you to 1 shot per day. People’s reluctance to “waste” a shot would subconsciously lead them to self-critique and consider what makes a scene worthwhile before pushing the button. This would naturally lead people to ask questions about advanced controls and image quality – after all, if you only have 1 shot, it better be good. Who knows, you might even find people upgrading to more serious gear in an attempt to access this greater level of control.

        All good, self-motivated education starts with a genuine question. The current state of photography does not inspire questioning, which is a real pity because never before have the answers been so easily accessible.

        Thanks for your time

        • I’m in two minds about this: the iPhone is a very strong tool for teaching pure composition because it puts all of the technical stuff in the background, and forces you to think about framing, timing, and to some degree, exposure. If it looked good on an iPhone, chances are it’ll blow you away if you use a proper camera and get the technical bits right. That can be trained easily; composition isn’t quite so simple.

          As for restriction – you’re talking about the benefit of tight curation. I think you’ll see this happen in the site’s flickr pool; look at what gets in now vs. the early days, and you’ll see quite a big difference.

          I agree with you on motivations: unfortunately human psychology is such that if there’s no obvious reward, there’s no serious effort put in. Sadly, most forms of learning – especially in the creative disciplines – are like this.

        • Hipstamatic, of all people, once had a feature (“Disposable”) where you could only take 24 shots, and not see them until you were done with 24 frames. It may have been one use too and you were forced to buy a new download after 24 frames. To no one’s surprise, it failed.

    • I just wrote in my blog an entry touching upon this very issue, though with a slightly different approach: I have an iPhone that is always in my pocket but, as Matthew mentions, I never use it as a camera. Should I have nothing else with me, probably I would simply not take that picture. Is it a capable device? Probably, but for me photography implies a whole process, and the phone just doesn’t enter that equation. That’s why I bought the GM1, which is in my handbag almost 100% of the time, within reach should I need it at any given circumstance.

      • Whilst I liked the size, convenience and image quality of the GM1, it just needed too many steps to get it shot-ready: lens cap off, switch on, extend lens – that’s three. The GR is ready to go if you hit the power button. I suspect the RX100III might well justify closer inspection for that reason; these kinds of cameras are what you carry if you’re not consciously going out to photograph, but don’t want to let an opportunity pass by. And by very nature, if the photography is opportunistic – they have to fast to respond.

        • You are right, Ming, that’s the biggest downsize I find in the GM1 (together with the far from idea manual focus system), but I’m about to pair it with the new Panaleica 15mm which will automatically remove both inconveniences, let’s see how well these 2 little things match!

  11. Fascinating read Ming! Really shows how important knowledge is in making images.


  1. […] the previous part of this essay, we discussed how diversification of media and bringing control to the masses changed the face of […]

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