Photoessay: the ever-present scrapbook, mid-2018 edition

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I’ve written several times in the past about the legitimacy of phones as photographic tools My main assumptions have always been the same: that a) one does not compose any differently; a 28mm-e FOV is a 28mm-e FOV and does not change with recording format; b) you are aware of and shoot within the limits of the hardware, i.e. dynamic range, light, ability to handle motion, stability etc; c) you’ve almost always got it with you, so the opportunities are simply greater – especially the larger your primary hardware becomes. The number of excuses have gotten fewer too, as phone camera hardware has improved – but not as much as the processing software behind it. I’m currently on an iPhone 8 Plus, which has dual cameras (primary, 28mm-e, stabilised; secondary, 56mm-e, unstabilized, and a stop slower). I find that I use the tele camera a lot less than I’d have expected – probably given that its working envelope is very small due to the lack of stabilisation and what appears to be diffraction limits (not surprising given the extremely tiny pixels – in the 1um range or so). I’m also finding that whilst images look great at normal output sizes – say up to a moderate monitor – they really fall apart at full resolution, with perhaps even less pixel-level integrity than the earlier generation of phone sensors. I suspect this is because there’s a lot more processing going on to optimise things for straight out of camera use; blame the social media generation. They also won’t print well. These images either look okay as they are, or are going to present nigh on zero latitude for post processing – a fact confirmed by the surprising gulf between raw files and JPEG. Shooting RAW is a pain, requiring you to do it in LR Mobile (and very slow) – so I’ve only ever tried this on an experimental basis. I can’t help but feel though in some ways the limitations are somewhat part of the stylisation; mostly to do with handling of deep shadows and contrast. The camera’s limits do nudge you unsubtly towards shooting in a certain way; all devices do this to some extent, I suppose. Presented today is what I think of as a “scrapbook of experiments from the last six months I didn’t think you could get away with doing more seriously”; somehow the compositions are a bit more minimalist or stark or whimsical than what I’d do with a larger camera, though that’s not to say the results aren’t interesting…MT

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  1. Hugh Rigley says:

    Oh the grammarmanity!

  2. Hugh Rigley says:

    Hey Ming,

    Have followed you for some time now and have never seen images that I like better artistically imo. If I was to accomplish just one photo of such artistic quality I would celebrate it for years.


  3. This article really points out the great leaps the so-called “1-inch” sensor has made. The Sony RX100 line, especially the latest 2 models have none of the issues that a phone-camera has, and they aren’t any larger. They make fine prints as well. The Sony RX100 models are not user friendly to handle, IMO, but the RX10 line, and some of the Canon and Panasonics are excellent.

    I’m now of the opinion that the APS-C cameras are not necessary. It’s either a 1-inch or full-frame sensor for me.

    • You might find that the APS-C sensors have made similar technical leaps…there is still a massive difference between APS-C and 1″. Less so between FF and APS-C, so I’d agree on skipping a size.

  4. These are beautiful! you are a wonderful photographer!

  5. Michael Gent says:

    Where does the camera phone go from this point in its development regarding IQ for the enthusiast user. Small sensor DOF accepted for what it is, but crop zoom seems to be its major compromise that needs addressing by optical zoom somehow???

    Love the very strong images presented here Ming, colours bold but realistic, testament to your workflow.

    • Optical zoom or dual camera (more compact, no moving parts, software scaling for intermediate magnifications) – or multiple sensor and some sort of computational averaging. I think results at the pixel level are going to continue to be ugly for a while longer, but at least at whole-screen resolution (the most common output size), things will look great. That, and other computational tricks like simulated shallow DOF. I’m not against it if done in such a way as to be indistinguishable or at very least not visually jarring, but if it’s obviously fake – that’s just distracting.

  6. gourmetmarichef says:

    I love your photos! I will follow you on instagram!

  7. I’d assume the images are processed with your usual ACR workflow and not on the device itself?

    How do you feel the camera compares to the previous generation? You did touch on the processing being more aggressive, and I was wondering how you find to compared to, for example, the iPhone 7?

    • Yes. I could process on the device now though – LR mobile is quite mature and effectively mirrors what we have on the desktop.
      Not much difference to the iPhone 7 (unless you count the inept fake DOF/ lighting modes). The 7 got a bit mushier from the 6, which was probably the best balance between envelope and pixel level acuity. Color and tonal gradation on the 7/8 generation is better though. White balance remains terrible and easily fooled under anything but daylight, plus Apple’s native processing software doesn’t have a proper WB adjustment – it’s missing the green-magenta axis slider.

      • alvareo says:

        I know you mention RAW shooting being a pain, but I think the surprising amount of editing you can do with them (shadow lifting, highlight recovery, detail level when there’s no noise reduction is crazy!) is worth it for selected situations. Either way, great images, as usual!

        • Actually, I’m coming to the JPEG approach from the opposite end where I usually process every single raw file individually and have developed several workflows specifically to make this process as efficient as possible…so yes, I’m well aware of what you can do with a raw file. 😉

      • Greetings Ming – Have you compared the iPhone X or Xs mushiness to earlier models with regard to the pixel acuity and color/tonal variation you mention here? Sorry if I’ve missed this elsewhere. Thanks for what you are doing here. –Scott

        • Oddly enough, no. There’s never been any real motivation to do so; I’ve always thought of iPhone images as ‘look at as a whole’ rather than pixel peep – probably a holdover from the early days of phone photography where there wasn’t really anything to see at the pixel level anyway 🙂

          Tonal variation and color range is about as you’d expect from something with ~1um pixels: not very much; the computational photography elements are going some way to make up that gap, which is rapidly shrinking, but still has some way to go…

  8. William B. says:

    Looking at your last two photoessays one thing is very apparent. “It is not the camera, it is the photographer”. Early in my career there was a transition from the Rollieflex to medium format SLRs. Those who could afford the cost may have two lenses (or in the case of the Rollieflex, two cameras.) Many highly successful photographers only had one medium format camera with a 80mm lens. It does change they way you think (It actually requires you to do so.), but it never prevented one from producing good images. As always Ming you have a VERY good eye for photography.

    • Thanks – keeping that eye in practice is the objective of the scrapbook or ‘visual diary’ style of working…it is as close to equipment-agnostic ‘pure seeing’ as one can get, which can of course be retroactively applied. Even now, I think you’ll find that whilst a lot of us career pros have a huge amount of equipment (guilty!) there tends to be a favourite combination or two that we seem to use for most of the pictures we love. In my case I have something like seven or eight bodies and forty lenses, but 99% of the time it seems to be either something around the 70-e range (H6-100 and 100mm, X1D and 90mm), or the D810/D850 and 24-120/4 VR. Not so far off the one lens/camera… 🙂

  9. I am a cell phone photographer, I guess. Sadly, the professional photographer lingo is lost on me. I, for what it’s worth (coming from a non-pro), find the colors and contrast herein fabulous and the way in which you perceive and capture what is before you is quite cool & appreciable!

  10. I wonder how many phone photographs are ever printed.

  11. David Burns says:

    Ming, no-one else has mentioned this as yet in reference to this article, so I will. The images in this particular piece are truly superb- whatever the hell they were shot on!

  12. In my humble opinion, your iPhone photography hit a peak in the 6 Plus era. Maybe it was different in-camera software, maybe post-processing, maybe just frame of mind at the time. The last of the three is more probable. The standout shots are usually those with relatively low contrast or gentle highlights (if there is a difference). Some of them came with an absolute shock upon realizing they were shot with a phone. As you wrote long ago, the real limitation now is the sack of meat behind the viewfinder. Kurt Vonnegut could not have said it better.

  13. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Ming, I read what you have to say – up to this point – but of course you would be well aware that these “wretched devices” have improved markedly, already – and no doubt will continue to do so. They have plundered a HUGE percentage of the photography market – and no doubt will continue to do so.
    For the present, I agree with your assessment of their image quality – good enough for what most people use it for anyway, but nowhere near good enough for my purposes, as I print practically all my photos (all the ones I want to keep, anyway – and some I don’t, but give to friends, because I only took them for those friends in the first place).
    And I am old enough to be “stuck in my ways”, and want (a) a telephone to make telephone calls on** and (b) a camera to take photos. [**OK – I confess – I also use it to send & receive SMS messages]
    At this stage, I have taken about half a dozen photos OF cellphones – one I rather like, of a young kid, one evening in Montpellier, taking photos of his parents and their friends with a cellphone that belonged to his dad – and a batch of photos of two complete jerks “sur le Pont d’Avignon”, getting everyone else’s photos and getting on everyone else’s nerves, one holding & using her cellphone and the other (her husband, I imagine) holding a great big board over her head so the sun didn’t spoil her screen image while she tried to work out what to photograph. When I started photographing the second lot, my “cellphone shots” worked very well – everyone started laughing at the two jerks, so they fled – LOL

    • I’d argue they even created an entirely new market of people who simply didn’t photograph before – some of whom move up; some of the more serious guys move down; in the end, there’s probably a net expansion (I guess?). I still want a separate device mainly because I believe in specialisation…even if the idea of one size fits all seems nice. 🙂

  14. Terry B says:

    Ming, I just love it when you press the “Abstract” mode button on your cameras. Thought provoking, but entertaining at the same time.

  15. For what it’s worth, you can open the iPhone DNGs in desktop Lightroom or Capture One (or whatever), and the image quality is… surprisingly good. Better than the JPEGs the phone produces, especially in fine detail.

    The main issue is that it’s such a hassle to actually get the DNGs from the phone to the computer. I do it (when I can be bothered) using a combination of the Halide camera app, and then exporting from that to my Dropbox.

    • Agreed – you have to shoot a third party app, which is slow, and then transfer and PP, which rather defeats the point of spontaneity…

  16. Ming

    Have you tried the Camera Pro app for RAW shooting and full manual control. It’s very good. I do all my PP in CS6 as agreed that LR mobile is far too slow.

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