Photoessay: Observer and observed

IMG_8722b copyHunter and spotter – from the Hanoi Cinematic Masterclass

What I’ve always found amazing is how completely inconspicuous and transparent mobile phones are. They’ve become such an ubiquitous part of daily life that they’re not noticed; like hats in the 20s and 30s. Not having one is the exception. Surprisingly, I’ve also found that aiming your phone at something to take a picture – complete with awkward stance, delicate ‘I’m-going-to-drop-this-thing-becuase-the-ergonomics-are-bad’ finger poses and device held at arms’ length – is completely ignored even though it’s a lot more obvious than using a camera discretely. Have we learned to filter it out during the few short years of mobile photography? Evidently so. I’ve gone from seeing a cameraphone as completely useless to a curiosity and masochistic challenge to an interestingly stealthy way of observing the world: it has properties that cannot be replicated by other cameras, which in turn result in fairly unique images. First of course is ubiquity and stealth; second is silence; third are generally fast/intuitive interfaces (tap to focus, expose AND shoot!). You can get in close and not be seen. Or be seen and nobody feels intimidated, at least in my experience. I find this odd since you’re far more likely to post on FB with your iPhone than your 4×5… In any case, I present today a series of what I’d think of as observations – both as observer, and observed, and an observer observing the observers. Enjoy. MT

This series was shot with an iPhone 6 Plus and processed using the Monochrome Masterclass workflow. IMG_8472b copy

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Portal to the world, now

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Portal to the world, then

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Observer’s post

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The parents’ dilemma: never enough, until one day…

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That eternal question of the outcome if nobody is there to see it

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Watch closely for a reaction

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Some things are unavoidable

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I see room for another piece

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The cause, the solution, or merely oblivious?

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What you seek is inside (not online)


Prints from this series are available on request here


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. No if only they could invent a smart phone with a waist level finder 😅

  2. I’m in agreement with you, more or less. I occasionally do a bit of what you could call ‘commercial’ photography. I could probably do 100% of it with an iPhone, as the intended publication medium is social media and the web.

    Of course the issue of focal lengths is important to acknowledge. The Moment lenses are the best there is (AFAIK) but there is no super-telephoto just yet. BTW I made my own macro lens (from an old 35mm compact) and it’s sharp and contrasty and cost a few bucks. Way cheaper than something like an Olloclip and of higher quality, too.

    Let’s acknowledge that the reason why the iPhone is used for so much photography is because Apple does the best it can, given the innate limitations. They ask themselves, “How do we make the best possible phone camera?” Excellent lens, excellent sensor (and appropriate resolution – Schiller said at one keynote address that while other phones pack in the megapixels, Apple will never do that).

    My point is simply that we’re seeing as much quality as possible put into as small a form factor as possible. The quality game is still being played. But it’s in a different way.

    So yes, 35mm movies look better than iPhone footage. And yes, a Leica M9’s files can be enlarged more and look beautiful. But: look at what the iPhones gives you!

    • There’s one more thing: consistency and ease of results for a wide variety of situations (even if it comes at the expense of flexibility and control). For most users, this is an acceptable tradeoff.

  3. All but one of these fine images is more black than white. Maybe you should change B&W –> B&w. 😉

  4. Another irony is that you can’t walk into a theatre or most live events with any DSLR, no matter how small or cheap because they don’t want you to take photos. Yet today’s cell phones not only take great pictures, they can film the entire event. Apple is bragging that the camera on their next IPhone will out perform intro level DSLRS.

    Great images, as always, Ming.

  5. I’m teaching a “How to get better pictures from your cell phone” class for teens this spring at a local art gallery. I’m going to use this article in the introduction! Thanks for much for posting it.

    The gallery offers “real” photography classes for teens every summer but attendance, and interest, is low. I’m hoping to get some excitement from a class that embraces the cell phone as a photographic tool rather than dismisses it.

    Thanks Ming!

  6. I’d never have guessed these were from an iPhone without being told. Amazing, but then the processing is superb. But … is it possible to achieve this level of processing elan using finger-poking on the phone itself or on a tablet,say? If not, hmmn, one is still tied to that laptop or PC back at base. Anyway, very encouraging. I think I might try some experiments over the weekend!

  7. Wonderful images Ming. I am always amazed at your iPhone photography. It just shows that it is not the camera.

  8. Ming, I was really surprised that a smartphone was capable of such results. But, then, I thought “no” it wasn’t really the phone, it was the skill and seeing eye of Ming, The Photographer.

  9. John Nicholson says:

    Fascinating pictures and superb processing! I like your reflections, too. Thanks.

  10. Consider that camera phones are free too. Don’t actually cost you a dime! You’re buying a telephone and getting a free camera.
    For web publication I can rarely see the difference between phones and expensive cameras. When I opened up this article I thought Ming had been out with his Ricoh GR.

    • For web publication, the quality bar is really quite low – composition and lighting make far more of a difference, and even then, by the time oversampling has been taken into account – the iPhone is still more than sufficient.

  11. When I walk around in Venice or other touristic cities with the Q I’m almost unnoticed. When I do it in the little village where I’ve grown up people look at me with curiousity.
    Personally I have always tried to avoid bigger cameras on my spare time, trying to “dive” deep in the crowd.
    It seems I can’t take a photo with my smartphone: the experience of doing it is somehow mediocre (not talking about the IQ output here).
    As another reader pointed out, RX1 or a Q, or a compact mirrorless camera can be equally “invisible”.
    We are used to see so many smartphones at events that a picture of an old lady enjoying the event without one goes viral..

  12. scott devitte says:

    I was in a far eastern european country recently in a very mountainous region humping and shooting an event with 2x RED Dragon and heavy CN E prime lenses, and was surrounded by a crew with Iphones and small stabilizers and some tiny add on wide/tele lenses, they had iphones on drones. They were getting paid more, were in brand new Land Rovers as opposed to my hired 30 year old Toyota, weren’t breaking a sweat, editing as they shot and pretty much defining the future of such things. They were very well funded. Also in this small country all the locals were photographing/videoing the event and each other with smartphones, and I mean constantly and everything, and were rabid users of Facebook. 2 + 2 went together very quick and I realized the merging of amateur and pro is happening at a rapid clip and a whole new aesthetic is emerging. What struck me most was the fluidity and acceptance of the smartphones while there was an obvious wariness about the pro gear. With Apples vast resources how long until an Iphone merges with and surpasses RED,ARRi or Sony spec?

  13. These are really stunning. I’ve got to use my phone more. My big camera gets in the way.

  14. …so there is a market for smartphone form factor professional cameras? 😄 i rememer a war reportage shot with smart phones because they are light weight, sufficient quality for online publication and of course subjects did not mind a smart phone in their face as opposed to giant DSLRs. Furthermore, they took pictures of each by smart phones already, so another guy/reporter doing the same was not objectionable. In such extreme cases i wonder you may even get shot if you get too much into their face 😲 thanks for the interesting article.

    • There’s also the instantaneous transmission ability.

    • I’ve been trying to imagine just what a smartphone-form-factor, professional camera would look like and do. Ming shows that great work can be accomplished with a smartphone–imagine improving a couple of parameters (such as image quality and low light AF/shutter lag) and maybe its another Barnack?

  15. Another factor for being unnoticed may be that the environment is assuming you are taking a selfie.

    • Good point. Works better for attractive women though.

    • John Brady says:

      Good point Michael – it’s not just selfies though, it’s that phones are now so ubiquitous that we aren’t threatened by them and don’t even notice them. Whereas someone with a camera is clearly taking a picture, someone with a phone may just be using an app or checking out Facebook.

      It makes me wonder if Apple will ever open up the RAW format on their iPhones, or indeed create their own higher-bit replacement for JPEGs (as one of the few players in the industry with the clout to make this stick).

      Ming, nice set. I’m curious how you managed to get a slow enough shutter speed to blur the motorbike in that second-last pic – was it just shooting near dusk or in shadow?

      • I suspect that Apple can’t open the raw format without making it precooked (and there would be little point since much information would be lost) in order to maintain the illusion of file quality – there is very, very heavy processing going on to hide sensor limitations.

        Motorbike – shooting in near dusk.

  16. I would say, if using your cell phone has become inconspicuous, it is only because the people who would notice it’s use, are so absorbed in their own cell phones, they notice very little of what is going on around them. In that sense, bulldozers have become more inconspicuous.

  17. Hmmm. Maybe I should postpone the purchase of the Leica SL. 🙂

    • The usual question applies: what does it do that your current gear does not? There are things that they have to fix in firmware first, and the lens behaviour is somewhat anomalous on occasion…

      • I have no intention in getting one, Ming! 🙂 It was an attempt at humour! That is, we sometimes like to believe that expensive gear equals great images. That said, in terms of the stealth factor, I think I could have done these with my RX1R or Q. I do like taking risks and see a lot of value Capa’s adage that “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”.

        • Phew! I guess sometimes things do not always translate 🙂

          Sure – I could have done them with the Q, except I didn’t have one at the time.

          • I think compact cameras are also venturing into that category of everyday technology that we filter out. Some smart phones are actually bigger than cameras. Ipads certainly are!

  18. Very nice pictures, Ming. I love the contrast in the pictures!

  19. The tonal quality and dynamic range are rather better than I expected. There are some very nice images in this group.

  20. very nicely done.
    it really is pretty astounding what can be accomplished with a “phone” by somebody who knows what they’re doing.

    • Counterpoint to the ‘you clearly rely only on gear and are an amateur’ commenters 🙂

      • ha!
        imho there has never been a time in history where gear is LESS of a factor in the quality of an image. it’s pretty much all up to the user at this point.
        i saw an award winning feature film shot on an iphone last week. granted it did not look as polished as something shot by roger deakins on an arri alexa ($60k plus lenses) but it was perfectly watchable and the content was the focus.

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