The Camera Does Matter (it just depends…)

There are many photographic clichés and my least favourites one goes “the best camera is the one you have with you.”

You’ll see it on so many camera forums trotted out by those who like to make themselves look “expert” in some way. Now, while clearly you can’t take a photo without a camera, I have to challenge the thinking behind this particular cliché which is that you can take a prize-winning photo on a pinhole camera and you can take a dreadful snapshot on the most expensive camera money can buy.

While it’s true there are many ghastly photos taken every day on cameras costing many thousands of Pounds, it’s incredibly unlikely you’ll get a prize-winning photo on a pinhole camera or cameraphone.

blurred, colourful photo of fairground waltzers ride

When I take personal photos like this the camera is less important

I’m sure someone somewhere has taken a photo with a cheap camera or on a smartphone which they’ve managed to sell to a newspaper or won a prize with somewhere, but this is to ignore the fact that the world is vast and the “infinite monkey” theory will disprove any sweeping statement. Except it doesn’t disprove anything, because I’m talking about likelihood. I’m also talking about context in which a photo is taken and the context in which it is to be published.

Of course if you get a nice colourful snap on your phone it’ll look lovely on the internet, which will prove you didn’t need a big fancy camera to take that photo. Try to sell that photo to a stock library and it’ll get rejected on the grounds that it won’t come up to client requirements for image size and quality.

Take a photo of Lord Lucan riding Shergar through the lost city of Atlantis, and no newspaper or magazine will give a stuff about the quality, they’ll be tearing your arm off at the elbow to get hold of the image. They might even offer some money to publish that snap. It wouldn’t even need to be particularly sharp.

Now if I turned up at a client’s job with nothing more than my iPhone I think the client would be rightly upset. Replying “but this is the camera I have with me, therefore it is the best camera” would go down like a lead balloon.

And so I’ve re-written this cliché. It goes “the best camera is the one you have with because it’s the best camera you own and because you’re being paid to use it.” There, that’s fixed now so I can go after my new least favourite cliché. Just as soon as I’ve worked out what it is.

Stock Emo

The stock image library Alamy has just launched Stockimo, a new app for the iPhone which allows users to upload their phone pics directly to the library, and in spite of myself I’ve been using it.

Railway lines out of Exeter, filtered to look hip

Mmm Exeter suddenly looks more interesting don’t you think?

I say in spite of myself because I’m not a huge fan of stock imagery to start with. I have about 500 images on Alamy, and I’ve had that same number of pictures there for quite a few years. To make any decent money I’d probably need upwards of 4,000 images there. I rarely add to my collection because stock isn’t how I generate income from photography. I’ve always worked best when on commission to produce a particular set of images for a specific client, and I find going out to shoot stock just doesn’t inspire me.

So why am I playing with Stockimo? Partly because I thought it would just be interesting to see how the app worked, partly to see what sort of images Alamy are after.

The app works pretty well, you can take a photo from within the app or choose an image that’s already on your camera roll. You caption it, add tags (which are the words clients will use to find the image), answer some model/property release questions and upload it. After a variable wait from a few hours to a day or so, you get an update to tell you whether or not the image has been accepted.

Here’s where Stockimo is a bit different from the regular Alamy image submission process. With iPhone photos they’re not looking at technical quality (it’s much lower on an iPhone of course) so much as the content and “emotional impact” of the photo.

Most of what I’ve uploaded (36 images so far) have been accepted, but I learned some early lessons. The first being not to be too light-

Landscape view of a section of  a section of Cley Hill near Frome

Making the colours a bit hyper gets a higher rating, though I still won’t touch HDR

handed on filters. Alamy want you to batter your image with the hipster-filter-stick until it’s begging for mercy. Vignettes, light leaks, desaturated (or massively over-saturated) colours, retro textures, you name it. Throw enough effects at your image and chances are they’ll love it.

The images are rated by a mysterious group of “experts” who rate it’s emotional impact (ie how many filters used) and it’s saleability. Top score is 4, bottom score 0, and as long as your image scores above 2 as an average of all the judges’ scores, it’ll be accepted.

Angled photo of a boy on a bike on a cycle path

This first version failed to pass

I’ll be honest, I’ve found it interesting to trawl my older images, re-edit them and see whether they get accepted or rejected and what scores they get. Some scores surprise me while others seem low, but the scoring does give a guide on what to aim for and what to avoid.

Hipster photo of boy on a bicycle on a cycle path, filtered with muted colours and orange light leaks

Feel the emotion! This version passed

The question is whether I’ll take fresh images to upload on a regular basis. From my view as someone who isn’t a stock fan, at least this is minimal effort for the small returns stock image licensing delivers. I don’t see it damaging my commissioned work, so on balance I probably will. In reality I doubt I’ll upload enough to ever have any more than a homeopathic ratio of images within the many many thousands of images which will be uploaded, so it’ll be interesting to see if I ever sell anything. So I’m going to treat it as a bit of fun, see where it goes and not get too emotional about it.

A long-winded way of saying I haven’t lost my hobby

Looking down Great Pulteney Street in Bath

Who can resist a pretty sunset?

When I was a wee lad, photography was one of my hobbies. I also played guitar (badly). I still play guitar (badly), but until I was given a prompt to think about it, I thought I’d lost the other hobby because it became my career.

It’s true though that ever since I took up photography professionally, I’ve always enjoyed having a hobby camera to swing about and use for off-the-cuff shots. I still own a Yashica T3 Super, an excellent compact film camera with a Zeiss T* f2.8 lens, though I never use it.

Before people started paying me to take photos for them, I was always interested in using recent photographic experiences to inform my next outing with the camera. Looking through the prints from my first 35mm film camera, a Voigtländer, I would work out what I’d done right and wrong (and why I needed a better camera), and use that knowledge next time I went out.

A view of a grassy field rising up to a line of tall, straight, leafless trees in winter. There are vehicle tracks in the grass

Sometimes I’ll catch a good view while out cycling

These days for “fun” photography I generally carry my Fuji X20. I know it’s not going to give me the quality of my big camera, but it does give me a quality which looks great on a screen (and sometimes an old timey print!) and still lets me twiddle the dials I get to twiddle on my big camera, so I can have some creative control too.

A white bracket fungus growing on tree bark

I love shooting close-ups of fungi, even if I can’t name them

My iPhone is also handy, but apart from picking a subject and an angle, the only creativity I can have with that is with in-built filters, and I prefer my photos to be seen as close to their original state as possible (ie, little or no filtering). It’s also not so great in tricky lighting. The iPhone doesn’t allow me to skew the exposure much or play with depth of field either, so although I’ve taken some pictures with that of which I’m quite fond, it’s the X20 which I routinely use out and about.

The X20 has limitations as does any camera, but it’s particular mix of them forces you to see and record things differently than you would with an SLR. Sometimes I find the experience frustrating, sometimes rewarding, and sometimes it’ll feed back into what I do for my professional work.

When a client recently asked me if photography was still a hobby I struggled to answer, but now that I’ve thought about it a little more I can see that it is still a hobby, but one that informs my professional work. It ties in nicely with my cycling hobby sometimes, but I can’t say it’s improving my guitar playing.

An Instagram Update

Those of you who pay attention will recall I recently wrote about my first foray into Instagram. I said it was more about the filters and effects than the content of the photos and I now think I was wrong.

It’s true many people shoot and edit their images in Instagram, but the beauty of Instagram is that it is primarily a way of sharing images. The pictures themselves don’t have to be shot in Instagram, or even on an iPhone to be shared this way.

I’ve uploaded images from my professional portfolio as well as more fun pictures from my personal life. A more recent fascination for me has been the introduction of the Panorama mode with the new iPhone operating system. Not only can I now shoot panoramas using this function, I’ve also been experimenting with it to see what weird effects can be achieved by panning in a way the phone and software don’t expect and seeing how they deal with it. As an example, see my “torn” ukulele photo below my more standard panorama.

panoramic photo of heathland near Bournemouth, Dorset

A fairly standard panorama, though I’m impressed with the iPhone’s quality here.

photo taken using the iPhone's panorama function to create an abstract photo of a ukulele

Torn Ukulele effect using the panorama mode on the iPhone4s


Other Instagrammers build up massive followings and the most successful of them do it by shooting in a very consistent style – whether on their iPhone or by uploading images from their SLR cameras isn’t always clear, but consistency seems to be the key issue. I personally prefer to share a mixture of portfolio, experimental and personal-moment (drunk in the pub) snaps. I might take a photo of some recently published work and share it on Instagram so people get a better idea of the kind of work I do. I simultaneously share my Instagram posts on Twitter and sometimes Facebook too, which means I can reach an even wider audience.

If you’re on Instagram look me up @takeagander and let me see what you do. One account I’ve been especially impressed with recently is @tonytanktop who creates larger images from tiles of individual ones. A brilliant way of using the technology and the sharing platform in an unexpected way. I suggest you look him up too and prepare to be dazzled.

I think it’s fair to say, I’m starting to understand Instagram a lot better. It’s becoming a business tool as well as a way to have fun. My initial cynicism (and I’m a natural cynic about these things) has given way to greater curiosity to explore more boundaries.

Reputation Gone in an Instagram

This week’s massive news is that I finally succumbed and upgraded to an iPhone 4s. I know the iPhone 5 is on the horizon and it’ll probably have interchangeable lenses, hover mode and a function for printing money, but I don’t need those things.

However, anyone who thinks I’m behind the times in mobile phonery should consider I got my first mobile in 1990, a barely-pocketable Phillips for which I paid about £500 up-front just so I could make calls at a cost per minute that would make a lawyer envious. I made very few outgoing calls.

You wouldn’t believe the similarities between the iPhone and the Phillips of yore. Both mess up the shape of your smoking jacket when carried in the pocket, and both have a battery life shorter than Jimmie Krankie’s inside leg measurement, but among the thrilling features not found on the Phillips is the camera.

People rave about the iPhone 4s camera and the various apps you can use with it, the most popular being Instagram. With a few friends already using Instagram I had to give it a go and early indications are I will have to watch my step or become hopelessly addicted to photographing flakey old doors, kittens, funny signs and the sun as it shines through translucent leaves, cobwebs and dandelion heads.

I think it’s fair to say though that Instagram is more about the filters and effects than about the content of the images. You can take a photo that previously would have been fit for the bin and make it quirky and interesting by fiddling around with it, adding a vignette and a sepia cast or whatever you fancy.

Is it still photography? Well, yes I suppose it is. It might not be photojournalism. Much of the time it might not even result in an interesting photo, but if photography is about looking at the world in a different way, Instagram seems to be about looking at photography in a different way. I’m not a huge fan of the billions of images uploaded to the web every second of every day, but it’s not a tsunami that will stop any time soon, and I’m now responsible for a small share of that.

Exit road from Longleat with road cones down the centre

Is it art? Who cares?

What iPhonography (yuckword) and apps like Instagram allow me to do though is step outside of being a professional photographer and explore a less serious side. If I wield an SLR people expect me to take great pictures of whatever I’m looking at. With an iPhone I can join the party and use photography as a bit of fun and no one will expect me to produce stunning art. Either that, or they’ll see my Instagram efforts and think it represents my professional work.

Now that I think about it some more, I wonder if that Phillips still works? It might just save my reputation.

Crikey! Let’s save some money!

Many businesses are understandably looking to cut costs in these tricky times. Since the start of the credit crikey* one area where businesses have sought to cut those costs is in the photography they commission. They have looked to achieve this either through using more stock imagery (though that often ends up costing more than commissioned work) or by shooting the photos in-house, using whichever member of staff might be available and have a suitably “professional”-looking camera.

Of course I’ve watched as some of my own clients have gone through these motions, though I’m glad to say that for the most part they come back to me once they realise it’s not so easy to get the photos that help their business do better.

For many marketing managers though, the quest continues. The camera manufacturers keep putting out the hype about how their camera will help you shoot like a pro (didn’t the last camera they made promise that? and the one before it, and the one before that, and the one…) and off they go to the camera shop, or Amazon, with the company credit card in hand ready to splurge on the latest piece of Japanese jewelry, to the tune of a sum not dissimilar to a day’s fee for a properly-equipped professional who will have some things the Nikanon Powercool 1,000Ti won’t have; training, experience, an eye for what works and what doesn’t and a view of the design brief for the brochure or website into which the pictures need to sit.

barbary lion

Get closer with your iPhone. Go on, I want to see what happens…

So when I saw this headline “The iPhone Fashion Shoot” I thought “here we go again.” Or something along those lines. Because many will see such titles and think, well if the iPhone is good enough to shoot fashion photos then it’s good enough for the company headhots! To those people, I suggest reading the article first. It’s certainly interesting to see what is possible with a humble iPhone, several thousand pounds’ worth of lighting in a studio, with hair and makeup artists primping models to perfection, and after the shoot having all the shortcomings of the original shots taken out by a lab of Photoshop professionals.

The point is, it wouldn’t matter if the iPhone had the most incredible built-in camera in the world. The camera doesn’t take the picture, the photographer does, and the camera can’t even conceive a photo before it’s taken – again, that’s what the photographer does.

To the credit of the author of the iPhone piece, they admit the phone itself is just a tiny part of the process. In effect, they were just looking to see what was possible, regardless of the other requirements of the shoot, and to that extent it was an interesting experiment.

But if you have a company and an iPhone, or even a camera bag full of all sorts of expensive toys, I would suggest you think about the one piece missing from your Billingham bag of shiny things. The professional.

*A phrase I first saw used by the World’s greatest living wedding photographer.