What You Don’t Understand About Mobile Photography

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Editor’s note: Mobile phones often get a bad rap from diehard DSLR users, but for some it’s their only tool they need in their bag, and a powerful one at that! Nettie Edwards gives us a peek into how her focus on mobile photography has shaped her work.

Some years back, my brother called me to ask for a bit of advice. He was upgrading his cellphone and wondered if I could recommend one with a decent camera.

My response was, to say the least, rather snotty.

I had a phone and I had a DSLR camera, both of which did their jobs very well indeed, so why would I want to combine them? Why on Earth would ANYBODY?

Mobile Photography is not like camera photography.

A quick look at my resume indicates that at some point between then and now, I shifted from being a 20th century Luddite to the sort of person whose evangelical zeal for camera phones may make you wish to avoid entering into conversation with me at parties.

What happened?

Well, here’s just a little of my back story.

Some years back, my brother called me to ask for a bit of advice. He was upgrading his cellphone and wondered if I could recommend one with a decent camera. My response was, to say the least, rather snotty. I had a phone and I had a DSLR camera, both of which did their jobs very well indeed, so why should I want to combine them? Why on Earth would ANYBODY?

Where Did I Come From?

In November 2009, I myself was considering upgrading from cell phone to smartphone. As a Mac user, the compatibility of the iPhone 3G was attractive to me, so that’s what I went for, little knowing that this was one of those decisions labeled life changing.

The iPhone 3G didn’t have a great camera but it was the one that was always with me so I never had to miss a photographic opportunity should something catch my eye.

Furthermore, because it was a phone not a camera, I didn’t feel snobby about how I used it. This led to me to experiment with image making in fun ways I’d never tried before such as throwing my iPhone up in the air or poking it into holes in the ground (I drew the line at dangling it down the toilet bowl).

Suddenly, photography felt fresh, playful, and exhilarating! I hadn’t been this excited about it since I was a teenager and my mom let me borrow her Instamatic for a school trip to France.

Mobile photography capiblities in a café setting. © Nettie Edwards

Plus, I could take photographs and process them on one tiny, lightweight device, just about anywhere: in line at the supermarket, on the bus … even in the bathroom … because my iPhone came with keys to the recently-opened App Store.

It was a smorgasbord of inexpensive, bite-sized photo-editing morsels usually found mainly in expensive banquet hall editing suites such as Photoshop.

Editing capibilities for mobil photography. © Nettie Edwards

During the first couple of weeks of owning an iPhone, I was a woman possessed, downloading and experimenting with every photo and art app I could find.

Apps that applied filters and special effects to a photograph as I was shooting it added a fascinating dimension to image creation.

Further intriguing possibilities were presented by apps that applied filters after shooting. With the touch or sweep of a finger across my phone’s tiny screen, I could adjust light levels, color saturation, sharpen, blur, crop, retouch, create photo composites … stick an enormous cat on the top of my grannie’s head.

Could photo editing really be so inexpensive, easy, and portable?

Here Comes The Change

Feeling certain that I was onto something special (because let’s face it, the omission of a comprehensive cat sticker library has always been a massive oversight by the developers of Photoshop), it wasn’t long before I put away my DSLR camera and my computer to become a committed member of the Mobile Photography movement.

Mobile photography can keep pace with DSLR photography ... if used correctly. © Nettie Edwards

Mobile Photography is not like camera photography. There’s a different relationship not only with the device but with the subject … there’s less intrusion with more intimacy.

Many photographers say that they produce much more personally meaningful work with their phones.

Why Might This Be?

Is it because our mobile phones have become so much part of who we are?

Often, our phone is the first thing that we look at in the morning, the last thing we look at night, the thing we reach for when we wake in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep.

What are a lot of us doing on our phones in those bleary hours? We’re checking our Instagram accounts to see if our friends have posted photographs or if anyone has liked and commented on ours.

Instagram? That’s people posting photos of their dinner and kittens and the crazy party they went to on Saturday night, right?

image10Instagram is a planet-sized photographic conversation where everyone can talk with anyone about anything. © Nettie Edwards

All images © Nettie Edwards

Well, yes … and no. The combining of camera and phone has led us to communicate more visually with each other. Instagram is a planet-sized photographic conversation where everyone can talk with anyone about anything.

And that’s its unique value.

Photographers hook up with other photographers, share ideas, organise  exhibitions, promote their work. Are you aware of how many businesses, publications, museums, galleries, along with their curators have Instagram accounts?

Following some of them presents photographers and artists with the possibility of getting their work seen by a wider audience.

Could This Be Something You Could Use?

What’s that I hear you saying?

“Ok Nettie, you’re making this sound like a lot of fun, I can see that it might be useful to open an Instagram account and the idea of photo editing in the bathroom is growing on me, but you’re not a commercial photographer, you’re one of those artsy-fartsy types that delight in making blotchy, blurred photographs. Phones just can’t compete with high-end cameras when it comes to producing the quality of image needed for commercial and editorial work.”

We live in an age of connected image making, of immediate, democratic storytelling. Does this alarm or excite you?

I can’t disagree with the point you make and would never try to persuade you to give up your cameras, but a great camera kit was never the entire picture and it certainly isn’t now. The cameras on our phones have changed the photographic landscape, how we view it, how we travel across it, and why.

Are you up for this journey? If so, it might be better to travel light.

Fine! Take It From Somebody Else!

In his 2013 essay The Graying Of Traditional Photography And Why Everything Is Getting Re-invented In A Form We Don’t Understand, professional photographer and author Kirk Tuck challenges his readers with a bracing call to arms:

My generation is busy testing the “aspirational” cameras to see just how perfect perfect can be. And we’re losing ground day by day to a generation that realizes that everyone must ‘seize the day’ in order to do their art while it’s fresh.” [full article]

We live in an age of connected image making, of immediate, democratic storytelling.

Does this alarm or excite you?

Today’s camera phones are sophisticated creative tools but even in the early days of development, despite numerous technical limitations and detractors, there were professional photographers giving serious consideration to potential of Mobile Photography.

In my next article, I’ll be sharing stories from some of the rapidly-growing band of professionals who are embracing the joy of mobile.

In the meantime, if you haven’t done so already, I urge you to go out and shoot photographs with your phone, maybe even download one or two photo apps and experiment. Most cost less than a cup of coffee and are very easy to use.

It may not change your life [as it did mine] but you could discover a very useful addition to your photographic toolkit.

What are you waiting for? Go on, pick up that phone!

You know you want to!

 

Nettie Edwards

Based in the UK and working throughout Europe, Nettie trained and worked as a theatrical designer for over 25 years before accidentally becoming an award winning, internationally exhibited fine art photographer, combining iPhone photography with obscure 19th century plant-based printing processes. She also writes and runs workshops about these things.