Photoessay: An exercise in masochism

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In the unlikely event you might have gotten the wrong impression from the title, let me set the record straight: the masochism refers to attempting to photograph architecture with an iPhone. There are far more reasons not to do so than otherwise – lack of perspective correction, for one. But there might still be reasons why you would: the intellectual exercise; practicing the discipline of composition and light (you definitely don’t have much else at your disposal), only having the wrong focal length on your other camera (or no other camera at all), or because…well, sometimes we all get lazy. Or have to make Instagram fodder. Curiously, I find that the typical clean blue skies I prefer for architecture do not play well at all with iPhones; they land up turning into a noisy mess. I suspect on these smaller sensors, the blue channel is taking a serious hit – worse still if you’re adjusting exposure to avoid clipping in some other area. Something to watch for when postprocessing, and selecting subjects. MT

This set was shot almost entirely with an iPhone 6 Plus (there might be some 5S in there) from various places around the world over the last year or so, and processed with Photoshop Workflow II. You can also look over my shoulder at the underlying postprocessing in the Weekly Photoshop Workflow series.

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Photoessay: Invisibility, revisited

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

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The iPhone as a camera

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I admit to being one of the skeptics who didn’t believe that anything that wasn’t designed primarily as a camera would be able to function in a worthwhile capacity as one – I remember my first camera phone having all of VGA resolution (a Nokia 6600) and not being very much good under any conditions. In fact, the thing didn’t even have autofocus, much less any sort of manual adjustments. Successive phones thereafter all came with cameras of some sort, mostly held at the 1.3 megapixel level with sensors about the size of this full stop. In the meantime, I was shooting with APS-C DSLRs – no comparison!

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But the relentless pace of miniaturization eventually delivered a sensor of sufficient quality and resolution, coupled with a decent enough optical system, that I put aside my biases for long enough to give one a decent try. That was the iPhone 3GS – it had a 3MP camera with autofocus; tap to select the focus point and lock exposure. A little, bit like weighted spot metering. I got a decent image or two out of that.

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The waiters

The iPhone 4 was a revelation, however. Not only was the sensor and optics greatly improved, we finally got a decent field of view – my favorite 28mm! Still tap to focus and expose, with no provision for adjusting any controls anywhere. Despite all that, it was (and is) possible to get some pretty good shots out of the camera – especially considering it’s a phone first, small computer second, and camera somewhere around a distant third.

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Filling stop

In other ways though, it shows. Despite the increasing complexity and controllability of competitors’ offerings, Apple decided to keep it idiot-proof and deny the iPhone user any sort of exposure control other than the pseudo-spot meter. Nokia released a 41MP sensor that used binning to generate some of the most amazing 8MP images I’ve seen from a small sensor camera – let alone a phone – and Apple just quietly went to 8MP, and fiddled a bit with the FOV again, so it’s probably closer to 30 or 32mm in the 4S than the previous 28mm.

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I don’t have a 4S, nor do I intend to pay the Apple ‘upgrade tax’ every year to buy one. The iPhone is a great piece of technology, but I’m entirely happy with mine until it breaks, or the new model actually offers something I want that I can’t currently have. And only then will I think about buying another one. (From a commercial point of view, I actually find it pretty amazing that they can turn a $800 precision device into a piece of fast moving consumer electronics.)

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What the iPhone lacks in controllability it makes up for in development possibilities – just so long as you stay within Apple’s limits. I still remember the app which had a shortcut option to put the camera shutter onto one of the volume release buttons – it got pulled, only for Apple to subsequently add it as a system option to the latest version of iOS. To be honest though, I’ve tried most of the popular photo apps and find them a bit cheesy. Instagram, Hipstamatic and Camera+ are the prime offenders: use the app, and your images look the same as everybody else’s who used the app – what’s the point of photography if you’re going to produce the same work as the next guy? They might as well forgo the camera and just put in a library of random images that appears whenever you press the shutter instead.

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Auckland marina sunset

There are some good apps, however – PhotoForge is one of them. It comes much closer to being Photoshop lite than Photoshop Mobile does; that I find pretty amazing. Still, I wouldn’t do any serious editing work on that because it lacks the fine control of the real desktop version.

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Dew on leaf in playground

I want to talk about three more things before I close.

Firstly, real world limitations:
– You can’t control white balance. This is the biggest of them all, to me – especially when the iPhone 4 does a pretty poor job at deciding what color something is. Shade is much too cool, and incandescent is much too warm. And worse still, it tends to blow out the channels so you have no hope in hell of recovering any tonal information later.
– You can only control exposure to a certain degree, and that’s linked to focus point. Generally, this is okay because it’s how spot metering works – you expose for your subject, which you also obviously focus on. However, I find again that the latitude of adjustment for exposure is limited – perhaps because the camera has an electronic shutter only – so sometimes it can’t give you a fast enough shutter speed, or a slow enough one. It would actually be nice to know what exposure parameters the camera chose, too.
– You can’t control the output JPEG parameters. All you get is Disneyland color mode – that’s it. Again, once a channel goes, so does any hope of recovering tonal information.
– Speed. Focusing speed, shooting speed and shutter lag are all slow – the 4S improves on this slightly, but still feels unresponsive compared to a good compact like the Ricoh GR-Digital III or IV. Realistically, that means you’re not going to be shooting anything moving, unless you prefocus.
– Tap to shoot. The lack of a physical shutter button means awkward hand positions and ensuing camera shake while trying to poke the button on the screen. Sure, iOS5 gives you the option of using one of the volume buttons, but it isn’t a solution – you still need to touch the screen to focus.

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Secondly, advantages and strengths:
– It’s always there. We always carry our phones, and even if I didn’t, the iPhone 4 is small enough and sleek enough that I wouldn’t notice it in my pocket.
– The image quality is finally good enough. Hell, even Getty Images thinks so – I’ve got photos in the library that were shot with an iPhone 4.
– It’s silent. Thankfully that annoyingly cheesy shutter sound can be silenced by putting the phone in vibrate mode; or you could just stick your finger over the speaker opening.
– Connectivity. Sometimes, you need to share an image – something stupid, something important, something for information only. And you can’t do that easily with a camera that isn’t also internet-connected.

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Just another KL traffic jam

Finally, possible improvements for a future version, bearing in mind the original Apple gestalt for simplicity:
– More latitude for auto white balance and the touch-spot meter
– Show us what the exposure is! I want to know in advance if it’s too dark or will be grainy etc.
– Two more manual settings: ISO, and image output parameters.
– RAW files (we can dream, I suppose). I still have to run the jpegs through photoshop to pass muster, so I might as well start from a better base. Sorry Apple, there’s just no way you can develop one set of color/ tone/ sharpening settings that are going to work under all situations.
– Two stage shutter button, or if Jonathon Ive lost a few points of his bonus percentage for each button he added, then make both of the volume buttons do double duty: one to AF and lock exposure, and the other to shoot.
– Put the damn camera in the middle of the phone, at least in a position where you’re not likely to stick your hand into it if held in landscape orientation. The design of the phone is superb, but it’s way too easy to stick your finger into the lens.
– Better low light performance (taken as given)
– More speed! (taken as given)

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The Interrogator, or Behind the two way glass

In conclusion, I use the iPhone a lot as a camera because of one reason and one reason only: it’s the one I know I always have with me. (And even if I did have another camera, what would I use to take pictures of the camera? photographer’s joke 😉 MT

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Magritte strikes again


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