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

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Imaginary visitor

In the previous part of this essay, we discussed how diversification of media and bringing control to the masses changed the face of photography; today we’re going to continue with some thoughts on the current standard-bearer for that camp, and some concluding thoughts on what it means for everybody else.

The iPhone 5S is probably more camera than 99% of the population need or know how to use.
I use the iPhone as an example solely because it’s the one I’m most familiar with, having had several generations and seeing the camera go from a joke, to usable in emergencies, to surprisingly good, to very competent, and finally past the point of sufficiency. From the photographer’s standpoint, it’s an interesting device solely because it passes the point where the camera is the limitation and puts things squarely back into the photographer’s hands. It’s more than fast enough, and the incremental improvements in maximum aperture and pixel pitch, combined with high speed bursts that increase dynamic range, lower noise and provide a form of electronic stabilisation have increased it’s capture envelope considerably. It responds very quickly, and has a greater range of adjustment latitude than before – the spot meter is now more like a spot meter than a focus-point weighted one.

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But for most users, all they need to know is that it’s better. The few things that recurrently come up in discussion of good images or cameras with laypeople centre around ‘clarity’, ‘zoom’, ‘low light’ and ‘sharpness’ – aside from zoom, the iPhone 5S has three of those licked. Even if the majority of users cannot translate those properties into technical characteristics, they can see the differences; differences which cause images with those particular characteristics to stand out. They all revolve around subject definition and isolation – be it edge acuity, microcontrast, separation by color or depth of field isolation. ‘Zoom’ is either a holdover of some extremely compressed telephoto images that have stood out to the lay observer by virtue of being so different in perspective, or from the late 80s and early 90s marketing where something else quantitative was needed for products to win direct comparisons before the megapixel came along.

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Assuming you are outputting to online/ web viewing and social media, with the rare small print – if any – the iPhone is more than capable enough for all of these purposes; under ideal conditions you could even make a decent 13×19″ print (though not an Ultraprint, of course). At a pixel level, I can’t help but feel there are more artefacts from smoothing/ noise reduction than the previous iPhone 5 – or possibly the auto HDR process and electronic image stabilisation – but it is still no worse than a small-sensor compact, and shockingly very comparable to the Ricoh GR Digital III’s files from not that long ago. The one place it falls short is in the color department – and I suspect that’s because the entire imaging pipeline is 8-bit and of a compressed color space from beginning to end in order to speed things up. As a consequence, colours are not quite right, clipping occurs, and the boundary tonal transitions aren’t as smooth as they could be. The files cannot take a lot of processing before starting to show artefacts and degradation. Too bad it can’t output a RAW file then, or at least a 16-bit TIFF. Frankly, I’d even settle for a lower default saturation – that might be less pleasing to the average consumer, but it would mean that color channels don’t clip as fast.

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Morning texture

The device itself is no imposition to carry, and it serves multiple other functions for which the user is already going to be carry a device anyway. In short: given that it was never really designed as a primary capture device, what it can do as a camera is pretty astonishing. And what really puts a lot of compacts to shame is the smoothness and level of intuition with which it goes about its business – it’s fast at everything; the HDR function doesn’t look garish and genuinely does extend dynamic range; stitching is real-time and almost always gets it right; video quality is surprisingly impressive, too.

You might have guessed that the images in the first and second parts of this essay were all shot with an iPhone 5S; I’ve had several months with it and found myself using it far more than I’d initially expected. They have been processed through my usual PS workflow, but no more than I would have done with a conventional camera – probably less, in fact, because the files simply don’t have that much latitude.

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Birth of a thought

Conventional camera makers are going to have to innovate to survive.
The other reason I’ve used the iPhone as an example is because of the sheer simplicity of its UI: you tap once to set and lock focus and exposure, and again to capture an image. All of the conventional controls for adjusting aperture, shutter speed, sensitivity, focus point, white balance etc. are completely absent – and unnecessary. In fact, shooting with the iPhone over the last few years has completely changed the way I set up my compacts – they’re all in Program, single-point AF mode and spot meter now. I just half press to lock exposure and focus, and shoot. Much faster, and no less control. Makes you wonder what on earth all the other buttons are for.

In my mind, the only camera that has taken this ball and run with it – so far – is the Leica T. Say what you want about pricing/ aesthetics etc – the technical sufficiency is there, and the UI can be a simple or as complex as you require; this deserves some credit (even if they were aping Apple from a design standpoint).

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Lenses through with which to see the world

The trouble is that we are still using legacy camera controls derived from a period where there were fewer pre-capture variables to adjust. Instead of devoting some serious thought to a means of making the new parameters more easily and intuitively controllable, we have lazy manufacturers milking the ‘retro’ trend for everything it’s worth, and consumers giving them tacit approval by opening their wallets. This is not only poor design, but lazy arrogance. Even the transitional digital bodies – our current crop of DSLRs – don’t really feel that well integrated; we’re used to them because they haven’t changed drastically, but at the same time I can’t help but wonder every time I pick up my D800E: there are no more different parameters to control on this camera than say, the Ricoh GR, but why does it feel like there are buttons everywhere and I’ve got to carefully check precisely how the camera is set up to avoid any nasty surprises? Frankly, the last time there was innovation in digital camera ergonomics pre-iPhone was the standardisation of the D-pad-with-shortcuts-plus-a-few-other-buttons-paradigm for compact cameras. Frankly, I still can’t understand why the screens on most cameras are so poor compared to phones – the retina LCD on an iPhone is a $20-25 part; surely it can’t be too much to ask for on a $3,000 camera. Leica and Hasselblad are particularly notorious offenders here.

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What used to be status is no longer status

What should really have cued in the camera brands to the sea change about to happen is the fact that social media photography and the volume of images taken didn’t really increase drastically because of compacts or mirrorless or DSLRs; it was because of the camera phone. It’s also clearly not a size thing, because I seem to find increasing numbers of people shooting with tablets, which are possibly the most unergonomic cameras ever. But composing on a screen that large and fine is something else altogether, as anybody who’s used a view camera will agree.

Serious photographers need to be much clearer about their objectives.
This proliferation of new output media and lowering of the sufficiency barrier for equipment has opened up far more choices for photographers. In fact, I think it’s confused the issue significantly, to the point that the whole reason for getting into the game is sometimes obfuscated. As convenient as I find the iPhone, compacts and mirroless, I still carry the D800E and large lenses frequently because I know that I’ll regret it if I come across a scene that has the potential for an Ultraprint, but I lack the necessary capture device to make it work. Similarly, there’s the other conflict: why carry something of that inconvenience when less will probably be enough, too? And here we stand debating internally while our light fades.

I’ve long said that the limitations today are still ultimately down to the sack of meat behind the camera; that has not changed one iota. It’s just that now, more than ever, we photographers need to be very clear about how we want to display our images, and what we might possibly use them for in future; without this it becomes impossible to have any true creative clarity because one’s mind is preoccupied with matters other than composing and exposing the scene at hand. Even worse, the output will be compromised because we selected the wrong tool for the job, and the output medium might well punish us for it – it’s not just insufficient resolution that we need to be concerned about, but also display size: something that works only at very large sizes won’t necessarily work in a small, compressed online format. The enormous number of images captured and published every day means that they’ve turned into a disposable commodity by default, regardless of merit; it’s much more difficult to differentiate something truly special in the online space than it is amongst 6ft prints, for instance. In fact, I think it’s probably time for all of us to do a little soul-searching: why do we photograph? What do we want to do with the images afterwards? MT


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  1. How easy it is to attain the goal is not always the optimal route for humans.

    Sometimes people like to have a little more direct input.

    Some people deliberately buy manual transmission cars rather than automatics, and pride themselves on little things like rev matching and smooth transitions.

    Some people love to fish with fly gear, one of the most difficult yet rewarding ways to catch fish. There are plenty of easier ways for the masses to hook dinner.

    Why do you photograph?

  2. I’ll never see/use the Leica T, but take a look at Canon’s EOS-M for a great example of an iPhone grown into a camera. Dimensionally, the body is like a thicker phone; operationally, nearly everything (P/A/S/M and creative modes, aperture, shutter, ISO, metering, etc.) is controlled via an excellent touchscreen that feels and operates just like any Apple device. Playback uses typical tap/spread/swipe gestures. The UI is intuitive, it has a pared down menu (when needed), and only a few customizable items (on the four way controller, which has some useful settings but can mostly be ignored). Most of the time I’m just working with the basic shooting screen with aperture/shutter, exposure comp, and ISO control icons. Touch focus, press shutter for a very fast three shot burst, done.

    I thought I’d hate it. I grew up shooting film, and am still thrilled to be able to change ISO without waiting until my 24/36 shots are finished. I’ve been less than impressed with touchscreen operations on some of the cameras I’ve looked at, either due to complexity or lack of responsiveness, and was leaning towards something like the Fuji XT and its manual controls. However, when the EOS-M dropped to fire sale price last year ($299) I got it with the 22/2.0 pancake, so I could experiment with an APS sensor/fast lens combo with a minimal equipment investment, in case I did a crappy job.

    I assume this camera was supposed to appeal to people taking cellphone photos who were interested in upgrading to a camera. But it cost too much to start ($800), got bad press for slow focusing with initial firmware – and perhaps people wanting to develop their photography want something (thank you, marketing) that says “real camera”. Mostly, though, as you say above, with the current level of quality, phones are probably all the majority need/want for their purposes. Convenience and portability can’t be beat.

    For me though, someone used to photography with a traditional camera, who has gotten a bit intimidated by the complexity of the most recent models (do I really need to look at five websites to figure out how to set it up, and am I somehow less of a photographer if I don’t reprogram my six buttons, and adjust the tone curve?), the EOS-M has been unexpectedly thought provoking. I’d like a smaller single AF focus box; ergonomics could use a tweak; a magnify icon in playback would be quicker than a finger spread; and if there was a viewfinder I’d probably like a wheel on top for adjustments. But these are very minor niggles. (The sensor supposedly isn’t the latest and greatest but that’s not an issue for me personally.) The three native lenses are very, very good. The EOS-M is a great implementation of iPhone-like control and usability. It’s a great example of combining modern technology to streamline traditional photographic function.

    However, Canon itself has only halfheartedly supported the EOS-M, its cautious first toe dip into the mirrorless waters. Leica notwithstanding, I suspect we are some years away from such stripped down operation being a more universal paradigm. Cell phone photographers won’t need it; more experienced photographers (and technical types who like their gear) may find it lacking. Marketing may encourage people to want more and more buttons, bells and whistles. But there are some things Canon has gotten really, really right, and when the sack of meat behind has it’s act together, it’s fast, easy and capable of great photos.

    • The EOS-M has a pathetic native lens selection, like the T, focus is glacially slow to the point of being intolerable, and the build leaves a lot to be desired. There’s also no EVF option so you’re left holding it unsteadily at arms’ length. The only good thing about it is the control wheel around the shutter, and the relatively low price because nobody wanted one…

  3. More to think about, Ming. Thanks again for excellent articles and independent thought. I’m always intrigued by what you have to say about the subjects that interest you. Having been a teacher and an avid photographer for most of my life; well over 30 years, I find myself looking inward at what really makes the activity of photographing an experience that attracts me so much? Your articles here bring to mind the idea or concept of “reward”. I’m finding that a rewarding process involves some effort that I personally make and the reward is the result that I personally accept or receive from the process or activity. I think that the pleasant surprise of having a device capable of extracting a pleasing image while at the same time posing a genuinely enjoyable experience to use, with an overall result that meets or exceeds my expected needs, gives me a sense of great reward since, 1) I need to have a phone anyway, so from that standpoint, the ‘camera’ is free or extremely low cost, 2) the portability and availability relieves me of another thing to ‘think about bringing with me’ and thus lightens my load not just physically, but mentally, and 3) emotionally, it gives me a better ‘fall back’ as it improves since the disappointment in NOT having my pro gear is lessened to the degree the phone’s camera can do the job decently. Maybe a fourth aspect of the reward is, for a photographer, the pride and self satisfaction in presenting a pleasing photo to others where they might imagine or think I used a very expensive or complicated device to obtain such an image, which reinforces the knowledge that the most important piece of equipment we ever apply to photograph a scene is that which resides between our ears: our minds. Thus, the reward to effort ratio appears to be subjective but inherently important in my own way of experiencing a lasting and satisfying relationship with photography.

    • Thanks. The ‘reward’ portion has gone from internal to external – people are seeking it from others, not from themselves. And that’s probably why we see so many random unstructured attempts at image making more frequently than a conscious effort at self improvement…

  4. interesting observations. at the risk of getting too abstract, i think much photography is a reaction to the loneliness of the modern world. more connections, but less connected. a photograph is an amazing way to say ‘I was here! look what I saw’ with the hope that someone will reply, or reach out, or simply share the experience, thus alleviating some isolation and loneliness. a hundred years ago extended families for together and shared special occasions (and even not so special ones) in person. now you have little groups or individuals going about their lives and using photography or other technological mediums to share those experiences remotely or over a period of time. how many people who are truly at peace with a monastic or solitary existence feel compelled to document it in images?

    for me, the question is simply whether the tools i’m using to share convey the depth and interest and intrigue or excitement and wonder of a place. perhaps it’s my limited skills, but my iPhone doesn’t quite get there. an owl high up in a snow tree, brilliant city lights in a sapphire night sky, the rush of traffic in manhattan at night, a curious, tiny insect on a leaf, a lonely man walking down the sidewalk on the other side of the street, etc. i find that my dslr with a couple lenses, and occasionally a tripod, helps me to create an image that’s closer to what i felt or found interesting about the moment. sometimes my iPhone can do that for me, but not often. we all see the world a bit differently – and that’s part of what we’re sharing.

    • People who are at peace with their existence don’t feel the need to share it – whether they document it or not. There are plenty of things I photograph for myself which I don’t share, nor do I feel the need to.

      The iPhone doesn’t get there yet, but it probably will eventually…technology improves faster than human creative vision.

      • Many people in the modern world have been raised to think of themselves as demigods; the self-esteem movement run amok. What results is a culture of narcissism, for which endless “sharing” of trivia is considered perfectly normal, and perhaps necessary. It is the compulsion of people who are not at peace with themselves. Digital photography has been a force multiplier of these tendencies, because taking pictures is essentially free.

  5. Would you consider a 28mm Master Class video?

    • If there’s enough demand…sure! But the people who tend to shoot with wides on camera phones aren’t the kind that take photography seriously enough to pay for education…

  6. During the past 30 years I have spent in the software industry, I have always wondered about software developers and marketing peoples thinking that the more features available in a product the better. Microsofts Office suite is probably the best example of this approach. Innovation become synonymous with adding new features, not simplifying functions and enhancing what Fredric Brooks JR defined as conceptual integrity and it breaks totally with the principles of axiomatic design for those interested in engineering :-).

    A SLR from the mid 1970ties provides four controls (film sensitivity, shutter speed, aperture and lens focus). To create a correctly exposed and sharp image the photographer had to master these controls, including their internal dependability and effects on the exposure. The architecture of cameras was stable over decades. No huge changes from the Leica of 1914 and the Nikons of 1974.
    Also then new features was added, such as metering in the 1970ties and autofocus in the 1980ties.

    Looking at the digital SLR´s of today, its possible to claim that they have become bloated feature driven software products in their own right. Vendors compete adding and packaging various software features into different mechanical bodies with limited focus on how to reduce product complexity. The new Leica T is in many way a step into the right direction. The Nikon DF is most likely not as there are probably too many control wheels from a puristic design view. The iPhone (or equivalents) has become the camera of choice for many
    snappers who love to capture their families, their travels and everyday life and share it instantly with friends across social networks.

    It must and should be a paradox that the mobile phones in many ways are the reportage camera of today. You can snap a shot and have it published in seconds. A capability not available on the DSLR´s top models, particularly the ones aimed at action, wildlife photography such as the Nikon D4s… …

    The vendors would benefit from following the motto of less is better and instead of adding new features and functions to their cameras focus on good and simple implementations of the the “essentials” in a minimalistic way…

    • I’ve been trying to tell whoever will listen the same thing for a long time; but none of the manufacturers seem to be interested. They only want to compete on tangible, quantifiable metrics: X has more pixels or scene modes than Y therefore it must be better. Never mind the rug being pulled from under their compact cameras by phones.

      Frame rates and resolution are no longer the preserve of the big cameras, either – 15MP at 10fps on the E-M1, even 8MP at 10fps on the iPhone! Processing and intelligent design choices make up for a lot of the feature bloat. Frankly, there should at least be an option to not have it; perhaps dynamic buttons or touch screens are a good way to do this.

    • Larry Kincaid says:

      Sad? Perhaps from the point of view of those who come to Ming’s web site. But if you look back in time a bit, you’ll remember that most people in the world used simple Kodak or Brownie cameras to take snapshots of their friends and family to make small prints with to show or paste into scrapbooks. Go back and look at your parents or grandparents scrapbooks and see how many photos would qualify as “art” or images to be published. Some, of course, but not many. That was not what they wanted to do in the first place. Then higher quality P&S that were used for the same thing. Superman type phone booths to get into to take “selfies” with. How many bought Leica’s, Nikon or Pentax SLR’s for this purpose? Too expensive and not much better for their purposes. The P&S’s had built in flashes; you had to attach one to the SLRs and many people couldn’t get them to work properly anyway. So, two worlds of photography (or more). So, what’s wrong with the phone taking over this nice function for most people? They weren’t planning to buy better cameras anyway. It almost boils down to why carry two objects around when you only have to carry one. Meanwhile, the remaining camera and lens manufacturers are turning out brilliant new technology for those who want more out of a camera and lens. Those of us who want more are very lucky these days. What’s disconcerting or sad is the possibility that more of them will go under due to extreme price pressure and phone competition. And it will all stop. What we want, not the jpg’s to share during, not after a party, or selflies. Those will get better and better for a while. I’m looking forward to trying the new Sigma Quattro, to see if it’s possible to improve on that magic image. I could care less about higher ISO’s; I have an Olympus M1 for that. All relatively cheap. The younger generation doesn’t understand that the $300 Pentax spotmatic (a bit cheaper than the Nikon) that I bought in 1969 for $300, would cost me US $2,000 today or so. It hardly did anything compared to the digital Nikon you could get for that price today, or the $1800 Leica T! (okay, without lens). I hope everyone gets the point: in those days that $300 was too much money for most people and too much camera for what they wanted to do. What’s changed?

      • Valid points. My audience isn’t mass, that’s for sure – and I’m aware of that.

        What’s changed? The ultimate potential is much higher, and technical quality has moved on…but I doubt the same could be said for the people operating the cameras.

        • iskabibble says:

          I don’t see the need to put down the general population over and over again in your writing.

          • I’m not putting anybody down, they are truthful observations: ask anybody if they care about photography to the same extent the average reader here does, and they’ll tell you no.

        • Michael Matthews says:

          So true. The Pentax Spotmatic, in its day, was a wonderful camera. I had one. It was stolen. I bought another. Now, thanks to Larry Kincaid’s post I realize how much beyond my means at the time they were. Having recently unearthed a box of 40-year-old Kodachrome slides, I also realize how wretched my photography was. Doing a little better now, but it’s largely due to improvements in technology providing more flexibility both before and after the shutter is released.

        • If image quality from mass-market devices is passing the point of sufficiency, does that not ultimately diminish the market or payscale for photographers i.e. people who seek to make images vocationally? Supply of people “equipped to the point of sufficiency” increases … some of those people learn to use their devices … therefore supply of images increases and price of images decreases and all that.

          On the consuming end of things, we’d usually consider that a positive development.

          But what of quality?

          I’m reminded of 100+ year old homes that have fine workmanship built into them. Today even most of the wealthy in our society do not pay for such fine workmanship. They can’t afford the detail work that was once commonplace in homes. There’s a very small number of people who pay for restoration work to older homes and I’m not aware of much else of a market for such work (at all). Why did that happen?

          Roughly 200 years ago there were a range of hand-made chairs, with some crude but some “common” chairs were positively beautiful and created with workmanship. Factories came along and pushed out the building of hand-made chairs. The factory chairs were and still are ugly lumps of wood compared to those hand-made products. (Which is interesting —- factory methods never developed or never could be developed to replicate the fine detail and beautiful shapes of the hand-made products.) The hand-made ones effectively disappeared for so long a period that nobody who knew the techniques or understood how to use the tools was left living. The methods in shops evidently weren’t documented — so today people interested in this sort of thing now need to pick up the antique tools and try to reverse-engineer how they were once used. Compared with virtually 0 in the 1960’s/70’s a very few people today now buy products made with the traditional methods so the very small market looks like a ‘revival’ of interest.

          Both of these cases seem to involve a shift towards “cheap” rather than “quality” but neither involved self-made cheap. Are these applicable/relevant to photography?

          • Technical sufficiency; not creative/ artistic sufficiency – if anything, that’s gone south. (Arguably, the ability to tell the difference has gone south too, so perhaps the overall bar has been lowered, too.)

            Sadly, you’re probably right – there is definitely a trend towards cheap; a few clients can still tell – and will pay for – quality, but most frankly don’t appear to care much. Whether it’s because budgets do not permit or they can’t differentiate, I cannot say.

            • While writing I had supposed that seeding technical sufficiency into the mass market would lead to a percentage of those people learning and becoming creative/artistic. Since it’s now easier to make and to publish images, I suppose also that we see more sheer quantity of noise than before. Yet I had envisioned seeding effects to produce a net gain in quantity of creative/artistically competent people.

              But, now, I take your point about the bar being lowered.

  7. Epic.

    *gives up photography, becomes a hermit*

  8. nothingbeforecoffee says:

    ” I think it’s probably time for all of us to do a little soul-searching: why do we photograph? What do we want to do with the images afterwards?” MT

    Great piece Ming, with a big ending.

    For me, photography is often about the taking of the picture the way that catch and release fishing is about the stalking and the capture and not about the frying pan or the taxidermist . At those times, the iPhone is more than perfect. The great gift of photography is that it helps me to see more clearly. Love your blog, Ming. It’s often as challenging as it is instructive.

    • “The great gift of photography is that it helps me to see more clearly.”

      Spot on: to make a picture we have to be able to see, to be able to see we need a reason to do so. The two feed off each other.

  9. As a former D700 50/1.4D general purpose shooter who used Photoshop/Lightroom to process images and printed them using custom profiles and paper, I now use iPhone 5s exclusively. What I’ve discovered over the years is that I like the act of getting out and taking pictures most. The camera or device should be small, simple and always with me. The iPhone is brilliant for what I like to do. Light, composition and subject matter are my only concerns.

    Using the iPhone, my original images show up in iPhoto where they are saved to external drive each month. Images are also auto updated to Google Plus at standard resolution (2048 x 1536 which allows you to store as many pictures as you like without touching the 15gb they give you) where Auto Enhance works super and the Snapseed editing software is really quite remarkable. Every now and then I’ll print a few 6×9″ for my albums, and they look great to my eyes, though no ultra-print!

    No more DSLR. No more Adobe. No more hours behind the computer culling through images and processing and printing more than I need.

    • It depends very much if you a) need bigger output; b) need to shoot in low light or tough dynamic range conditions; c) need a FL other than 28mm-e. Otherwise…I agree.

  10. Kristian Wannebo says:

    This should be said more often.

    A question :
    “… my compacts – they’re all in Program, single-point AF mode and spot meter now.”
    How about lens performance – at least for some compact’s lenses:
    Aperture priority at about f: 2.8 – 4 could avoid soft corners and diffraction? ( Not as quick, of course, as you have to watch exposure time more closely.)

    “… a little soul-searching: why do we photograph? …”
    ( Because I like to.)
    Time for another of your variants “To photograph or not to …”? 😉

    – – –

    [ Typo: (under last photo)
    “What should really have cued in the camera brands to the sea change …” (?)]

    • Pick your compact and you’ll avoid the lens problem – either because they start faster and are already stopped down by f2.8, or because the lenses art f2.8 are already excellent (GR, Coolpix A).

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        I finally understood that sentance … and learnt some more English.
        (Late, only occasional i-net.)

  11. Great article Ming, enjoyed the read and agree with it all.

    But you missed one thing…..SELFIE!!!!! 🙂

    • *Bangs head against wall*

    • Tom Liles says:

      Ming does selfies with Hasselblads, CrazyP 🙂

      • Sigh. No comment!

        • Tom Liles says:

          Picture paints a thousand words 😉

          Joking aside—for anyone wondering what on earth we’re on about, this is an excerpt from the Engineering Art in Metal show Ming did. Check it out in the Film Diaries section.

          • I was dared! And you know you can’t turn down a date and keep your honor…

            • Wow hadnt seen that! I bet a part of Ming enjoyed it 😉

              Though on a serious note shows how things evolve and the influence of social media. Phone makers as a consequence putting more effort into the front facing camera because of the selfie. Who knows what the next craze is….but there is always a chance that it will have a positive impact on the more serious photographer.

              • Tom Liles says:

                Film Diaries is a gem—I revisit it at least once weekly. I think I’ve read the F6 piece about a thousand times… I recommend reading and rereading it CrazyP. Also the Hasselblad intro piece—it’s good information for any kind of used analog camera buying and it helped me choose good used cameras, three times. When as a total newbie I had no right to make such good buys.
                Also Inspiration From Older Cameras. Also the On Assignment section—though we’d love to see more there; it’s a great crib sheet too.
                I enjoy the reviews, I enjoy the essays — I live for essays — but perhaps all in all, my favorite among the wealth of information here is still… the conversation below the line. I shall NEVER forget lainer1 recommending MT to join an arabian horse syndicate, or otherwise take up unicycling. Gold.

                Honorable mention for the time Ming went into Shakespearean verse; and everyone below the line followed suit.

                • I don’t recommend reading it if you intend to keep your bank balance intact…

                  On Assignment is a little limited because of a) embargoes and b) a simple lack of time for me to shoot b-roll and myself shooting and setups and the like – lately schedules and budgets have been so tight that there’s simply no time left over; I have to be on the ball the whole time. Sorry, but blogging about the job isn’t the priority – it’s getting the job done.

                  Good thing there’s the below the line to help hide that deficiency…

                  • Tom Liles says:

                    Sure thing—On Assignment is a lucky plus; I’m thankful it merely exists. There’re no flat demands to add to it; but it is a brilliant corner and I’d be lying if I said I’m happy never to see the method that went into another Assignment. Very sympathetic to time restraints: I’m walking home at 23:45 local after another eleventh hour copy job (boom boom); if someone had asked me to lay out the day’s work today, and yesterday — most days in fact — they’d get to talk to the hand. I’m a total work shy prima donna though—there is that.

                    I took the F5 out this lunch and had an hour of pleasant goodness… there are times when I consider swapping it — straight swap with another photog — for an F6. But then I take it out and couldn’t bear not to have it. And indeed my bank account couldn’t bear to have both.

                    So I just read your SWTL piece and dream 🙂

            • Tom Liles says:

              /nod of approval

  12. I’m very surprised that neither of these posts has mentioned the Nokia Lumia 1020. Yes, it has poorer shot-to-shot times than the iPhone or other small-sensor phone camera competition, but it does have a 2/3″ sensor (so more than 4x the area of an iPhone), and extremely good resolution. Obviously you never want to use the 41MP at 100%, but the 5-8MP downsampled images have remarkable detail that you’d never expect to be able to get out of a phone.

    On top of that, it can shoot RAW, which actually does improve latitude. The craziest part is that it has 10.4 EVs of dynamic range, or just half a stop away from Canon APS-C DSLRs of just a couple years ago that most people obviously thought took “good” photos. And the interface is very slick, and gives you as much control as you could want over the exposure variables with a very unobtrusive UI.

    I don’t actually have one, but seeing the output from it has really shown it to be head and shoulders above all the competitors.

    • I suppose it’s the ‘medium format equivalent’ of a cameraphone. I have used one, and it’s slow and awkward compared to the iPhone. Response is dire; it feels like you’re using a compact camera from 10 years ago. It simply isn’t the spontaneous tool that a good compact should be. The other problem is that if I’m going to have to deal with large raw files, I’d rather have a better source to begin with – it defeats the point of convenience and speed.

      • I’ve got the Nokia Lumia 920 and I love the images I can get on it. But, as Ming says, the response is dire and I’ve missed so many shots because it is just so slow. I don’t know why Nokia couldn’t improve the AF speed on the 1020. However, the OIS is excellent, the colors are captured beautifully, and low light shooting of non-action scenes is class leading. Dunno why Sony and Samsung can’t get it together and compete. Hell, Nokia doesn’t even make cameras like they do.

        I wanted to upgrade to a small capable compact and explore multiple focal lengths, better low light capability and overall responsiveness. This took me from something like the Canon EOS M, to the Sony RX100 Mk II, to the Fuji X-T1 and Olympus E-M1. Now I’m considering full-frame cameras like the Sony A7 and Nikon D610 in combination with a small compact. And, of course my Lumia 920 (until a faster update to the 1020 comes out).

        • Funny how things go back in circles – I’d actually suggest you have a look at the GR, or forthcoming RX100III.

          • Cheers, Ming. I was looking at the GR today. I purchased the E-M1 with 12-40 f2.8, yesterday, and was looking to return it (I took some night street shots yesterday and after seeing the noise at 1600 and 3200 I wanted to cry). Hence, I was considering the FF cameras with the small compact. However, I could not return the E-M1, which was just as well because I do love that camera and figured I can get around the noise issue.

            If I buy another camera it might be the A7 with some manual focus Voigtlander lenses for night street, architecture and landscape (but there is a fair amount of potential overlap between the A7 and E-M1)… decisions, decisions. Still interested in the GR, as it is only 2mm longer than the Nokia (which is 26mm equivalent) so I like that focal length, too.

            Great article, Ming. After I have purchased this gear I have to just let it all go and return to the source of why I am learning to take photos, which is how I feel about what I see and sense around me. The more my ego gets involved the less creative I am.

  13. I was think about these two articles yesterday because of two incidents:

    1. I ran out of film walking around, and had to use my iPhone 4 to get a picture. And a week ago, I had just put my GR away, (plane was about to land) and saw a great scene passing by, and the iPhone happened to be handy. It made one of my favorite images ever even if I’d wished I had the GR on hand for better technical quality. Still kicking myself for that …

    2. Seeing this great BBC report on the Leica centenary:

    This may be heretical, but the iPhone may occupy the same niche that the Leica rangefinder did 60 or 70 years ago. This says it all (about 1:08 into the video)

    “Its strength is that it’s incrediblly simple to use … It’s incredibly ergonomic and feels part of you, but you make great pictures with your head and your heart, not necessarily with the camera. Professionals tend to use it for jobs where you need to be quiet and unobtrusive.”

    He also goes on to point out that HC-B used one focal length for his career.

    Which part of this isn’t fulfilled by the iPhone today? None! And in its day, 35mm film was considered inferior in image quality to larger formats, just like the iPhone’ s tiny sensor.

    • 1. I must be one of the few idiots who chooses their seat based on what they might fly over.
      2. Pretty much – but if you ever say something like that to the hardcore Leicaphile, expect to be bludgeoned to death.’

      Smaller negatives are always inferior to larger ones because the resolving medium is the same, just scaled; sensor tech isn’t quite the same (though it would be if all sensors were made up of the same photosite ‘building blocks’). But regardless, both emulsion chemistry and sensor engineering has progressed since the early days – just look at the difference between the first iPhone camera in 2007 and the one we get today in the 5S. I wouldn’t (and didn’t) even dream of using the 2007 version; but the 5S actually impresses at any level for some things – speed, ability to live stitch full resolution panos, etc.

      • Haha, same here for 1. I composed square knowing I’d crop the wing out.

        Not worried about 2 — they are too nervous about ruining the minty virginity of their cameras with blood and my hard skull. 🙂

        • I forgot to mention that my 4 was annoying me because it would reset the focus/exposure lock area after each shot, so I’d have to set it again, otherwise it would try to decide for me/ I don’t know if later iPhones also do this, but I ended up using Pro Camera, which isn’t as responsive as the native camera app.

          • My 5s appears to hold it for a while then move. Doesn’t bother me; responsiveness is far more important. Ability to shift WB would be nice too, but it doesn’t appear we’re going to get that.

        • That’s what they use other brands for 😉

  14. I agree that with the appearance of a wide variety of devices for making photos, the quality of photos actually decreases. Or better to say, its’ harder to find actually talented photos, among thousands of pics made by “photographs” who just purchased an iPhone. But at the same time the availability of quality photo devices, makes it easier for talented young people to develop their photo hobby in something more

  15. Pete Su says:

    One tradeoff with the high resolution screens might be that you need a relatively beefy CPU/GPU to drive them. Even at iPhone sizes there are a lot of pixels to push out to the screen, and I get the impression that the embedded processors in these digital cameras are not really up to the task. The camera companies do a lot of custom hardware for image processing, but leave the “unimportant” tasks like putting up a good UI to the cheapest crappy off the shelf parts they can find, I bet.

    • That would make sense, though there does seem to be some focus on the image processing engines in the newer cameras – at the mid/high end, at least. Remember though the iPhone has more pixels on its screen than most cameras; it also has significantly more processing horsepower and a dedicated GPU – I’ve never seen anything stitch quite as fast as the iPhone…

  16. Adamant says:

    You’re right that smartphones are quite good these days if you’re in good light and don’t mind a fixed (roughly 30mm) focal length. For many people, that seems to be enough. I do wonder, though, whether they realize how much better their Facebook vacation albums would be if they upgraded to even an advanced compact or entry-level DSLR. Proper optical zoom can work wonders. 200+ snaps from the same basic position at the same wide-ish focal length quickly become dull, no matter how many Instafilters you apply. This is especially true when you’re shooting anything except people. A friend recently visited Easter Island… and shot the entire journey with his iPhone. So many landscape shots with empty foregrounds and tiny points of interest way off in the distance. Painful.

    • For a 28mm guy like me, the FOV works just fine. However, I doubt most people know how to handle a moderate wide well, and that typically lands up with distorted portraits, keystoning and empty foregrounds.

      Forget the hardware upgrade, they just need to learn composition.

  17. blotzphoto says:

    I love your take on the simplicity of use the iphone provides. I find myself using my Olympus EP-5 in almost the exact same way I use the 5S, with the touchscreen on and using my fingertip to select focus and metering point. It’s a free and easy way to shoot and can feel creatively liberating.

  18. Timely and pertinent–we know that Smartphones now are a mainstay for a wide range of photographers and users. Thank you for giving your professional opinion about these devices, which as always comes down to the “truth” in a stilled moment: the vision of the individual.

    • I think the issue is going to get more ‘serious’ if anything – Apple patenting folding optics solutions, bayonet mounts for lenses…I believe they have the potential to take it mainstream in a much bigger way than the camera makers simply because it’s less intimidating.

  19. Ralf Neumann says:

    As a long time reader of this blog and admirer of your work I thought your current article quite timely.
    Not sure if you know Julian Calverley just published his iPhone book.
    Would love to see a book with some of your commercial work, especially watches.

    • Sadly, there’s no money in it – unless somebody is going to pay for the publishing, it’s just going to be expensive.

  20. Reblogged this on Scribbles and Snaps.

  21. JohnAmes says:

    Ming I can’t help but think that your fine article today asking the question “why do we photograph” has hit the nail on the head. It is clear, to me at least, that for most folks the answer is “to show things on the web that look good in social media forums and blogging platforms.”

    There is no getting around that fact and it’s sort of sad.

    • I agree – that’s very sad indeed. We’re not creating for ourselves, we’re not creating for others, we’re creating in the hope of assuaging our egos and vanity.

  22. My iPhone 5C is my first iPhone – before that I had a Samsung and a Sony – and I can confirm that the camera in my iPhone is far more superior that the ones in my previous smartphones. Perhaps I’m being unfair and the newest models have great cameras too, but to be honest I couldn’t even be bothered to try and make photos with my previous ones. I was walking around where I live yesterday (Barcelona) pretending to be a tourist and making snaps of some of the interesting buildings, when the battery ran out in my camera. The iPhone made a fantastic emergency substitute. 🙂 Have a great week!

    • I think you’ll be quite excited to find out what Google announce in Google I/O 2014. It is being asked a lot and one manufacturer has actually done it so far. Shoot pictures in RAW mode on the phone. So potentially there’s an opportunity to gain a little more information than ‘just’ jpegs.

      • Finally! Though I suspect the files may be quite poor – there’s a lot of processing that goes on behind the scenes; take a close look at the pixel level of the current JPEGs and it’s fairly obvious…

  23. Going from bottom to top in thoughts. I considered the output comment, then thought about large format. Quite often the affects from using 4×5 are somewhat lost at smaller reproduction sizes. Movements to alter the plane of focus are one more obvious difference, but for more straight forward captures, smaller output reproduction is not a good way to show the potential.

    My newest smartphone has a reasonably good camera, and a bunch of post effects built-in. However, I just don’t use it that much, nor do I feel much of a desire to use it. Smartphones are enough for most people who just want to post to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other social media, but I want more. The ironic thing to me is photography enthusiasts very willing to accept the lack of controls on a smartphone, yet some remain quick to bash a compact camera for lacking a dial or control. Maybe the camera companies created this, with the long list of feature in every compact. The Nikon 1 J1 and V1 were enough camera for most people, yet the denizens of the internet wanted more control dials and knobs.

    I have downsized, and I know other professional photographers who have downsized. Despite that, there are certain clients who will want to see us arrive at a location with a big camera (or two). I’ve picked up a Coolpix A recently for those times when I don’t need to bring a big camera, though it would also make a good back-up camera. A lucky find of a WC-E68, that happens to work on a Coolpix A, gives me a compact superwide solution too. Shame my lighting gear is still fairly large and heavy. 😉

    • Even lighting has downsized quite a bit – speedlights can do the job of studio blocks from not that long ago. Sadly to understand the beauty of simplicity you have to go through understanding why you need it first.

      • I’ve done that for a while with Speedlights, then kept adding more. Finally went towards Alien Bees because the output was just not enough for me with Speedlights. The other issue is lighting modifiers, though more long case issue, and not really heavy. Joe McNally is really good at using lots of Speedlights, which guided the direction I first tried. Funny how the weight adds up when you have four or more Speedlights. I know a few pros moving to the Profoto B1 set-up, but the price level doesn’t speak to me. 😉

        • I still like the flexibility of placement and lack of bulky power sources – using at least half a dozen here, and still much more convenient than B1s (though I admit I too considered them).

  24. Loving the first shot.

  25. I photograph because I want to have proof of the life I’ve lived, my parents photographed a lot of my childhood so I’m able to see moments that that would otherwise be a half complete mental image.

    So I photograph to document my life and have something to show my future family. it’s also a medium to express myself.

    Regardless if it’s me walking in the bush, photographing a wedding or playing with lights inside my home, I photograph as if I am trying to capture the memory the best way I can.

    My nokia comes in handy because it does capture good images and I can quickly share it then and there should I need to. Social media hasn’t changed how or why I photograph, it just makes it more instant and with less time in post although I usually shoot first with my GX7.

  26. Carry a Sigma DP1, 2 or 3 around and you’ll be able to make some serious prints from the files of a camera that’s a lot more easy and convenient to carry than a D800 with Otus.

    • I have. And I can’t. The workflow is a disaster and high ISOs are unusable, plus your lens is two stops down. The cameras are good but do not have the same tonal response or usability.

      • iskabibble says:

        The work flow is a disaster for YOU. I have seen utterly spectacular gallery prints made from lovely Sigma Merrill compacts that left me speechless. Huge, enormous prints, that held up well to serious close inspection.

        Perhaps if you learned how to use these cameras you’d get more out of them. Some things take time, a lot of time to learn.

        • And free time isn’t something I have a lot of. So yes, the workflow is a disaster for me, but that’s always been implicit. And you can make spectacular prints with a pinhole if the idea holds together. Equipment is largely irrelevant.

          • Thought I should weigh in here. I agree with Ming on the general under-utility of the Merills. I used a DP2 and made some spectacular prints too. However, the responsiveness is way too slow to carry as a separate device on walk-abouts. The DR isn’t handy, the slow lens, the software compatibility issues, unusable ISO over 400, low battery life etc… you get the point. Now if they could include an ability to make and receive phone calls on the DP2 merrills, that would perhaps change my mind.

  27. William H. Widen says:

    I sometimes think that in the digital photography world we are headed to a space where a digital camera will be nothing more than an ultimate high quality RAW capture device, with all of the interesting work done in post and not on the scene of caputure–including a post algorithm for different focal lengths, exposure, film speed etc. The ultimate RAW would always record at high shutter speed–to capture the “real” raw information, and then computers would simply convert that information into whatever sort of image effect you wanted to achieve, including creating motion effects by converting RAW information at 1/1000th of a second to what it would have looked like at 1/30th. You would, of course, have a 50mm app, a 90mm app, a 35mm app, etc. through which you could run the RAW information. For convenience, your phone or other ultimate capture device would have one or more of these installed so you could instantly convert the RAW data into a jpeg that could be posted in real time. The sophisticated “photographers” will no longer be those who can achieve an effect on the spot–but solely in post.

    Now we live in a hybrid world. There is, of course, still a lot of skill to get the right kind of RAW file from which the post processing can occur–but we are getting to the point where a lot can be done in post to work with, and radically improve, a pretty marginal initial capture–and this is easier to do if you are not printing large but posting on the web. This seems to me like it will change, as even less of a premium is placed on the initial capture phase than today. The “on the scene” work will, in the future, consist of merely framing and “being there”–stock apps will convert this information, much like a full auto setting on a DSLR today but on steroids. The experts will do more than use the stock apps, but they will be experts with computers, not experts with using equipment on the scene–on the scene they will be framers only. Indeed, they may be expert searchers for images “seen” by others through a future version of Google glasses (or similar device). The zone for operation of old style photographers and photography–those who must manipulate equipment on the scene to get a useful capture– will again become the province of a small group who shoot film–either for the experience or the aesthetic or the satisfaction of being able to create a successful capture on the scene. The traditional photographer who sets aperture, film speed, chooses an exposure time and a focal length on the scene of capture will be an oddity–either a hobbyist or a professional who caters to the crowd who buy bespoke shoes in London.

    • Ideally yes, but no matter how high quality your raw file, you can’t change physical arrangement of objects in the scene in post, or lighting…you still need to get it right in camera.

      • William H. Widen says:

        Yes. In the future, we must still all be “framers”–although I can imagine a world in which computer programs are used by some to search for, and find, the interesting “frames” seen by others through Google glasses, etc. Other than an activity such as this, there will still be a place for the expert “framer” who sees a scene with balance and interest, and elects to make the capture. That still requires a great deal of skill–maybe, if not certainly, the most important skill. But the need for other expertise in on the scene capture techniques will diminish–I think of it as a super and comprehensive “unsharp mask” that corrects and adjusts everything–not just minor focusing errors. In a way, it frees the photographer from the burden of technical mastery and allows him or her to just “see” things that others do not–and capture. The art of seeing (which is what photography always was in its pristine form) will be free from an oppressive technology–but only because a vastly more complex technology will sit behind it.

        • The framing might well take place post-capture, if we ever pass the ‘effectively infinite information’ point. That may well include dynamic range and refocusing, too. But not changing light or physical position…

          • William H. Widen says:

            Not physical position in any near term world. But I could even imagine adjustments to lighting via computer manipulation. To a limited extent, you can add things like spotlights from different directions in GIMP–it is really special effects kind of work–beyond changing exposure on a slider or adjusting highlights and shadows–but even that is a form of light manipulation. Your thought piece on advances in phone cameras makes me think we may be getting close to an algorithm dominated post processing world with a vastly diminished premium placed on the technical expertise associated with traditional on scene capture as we know it.

            Indeed, you iPhone pictures are so compelling, you make me think we might already be there.


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