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Saturday, October 25, 2014

Why iPhonography (in my case, could well be any smart phone)

It is easy to listen to music and read books on a smartphone, even watch short movies or videos. I can write short notes or even poems on my phone but I can't write a book with it, this exercise demands more specifics to be performed. Same is true to play music, GarageBand allows to create and edit some melodies but it will be sure difficult to complete a 2 hours 4 acts piece. These are artistic activities that need a time and a specific environment, comfort, large screen, professional keyboard... . In the same way Iphone’s camera restricts much of what we can do, no time/aperture control, too much depth of field, no tele-lens, undesired flare, 8mpx, 8 bits JPGs only… we can surely not make a full series of studio shoots but we can take process and share immediately, where ever a connection is available. The definition is low compared to an medium format but far better that the one of instamatics we had in the film rolls era.

I started to do photographs with my iPhone for the following reasons:
1- voluntary self limitation
2- ability to process on the spot
3- fast sharing
and I keep using it because I like its
4- constant availability
5- discretion
1- Limitations
I was a kid when I started to take photographs and it was with 110 and 126 format Kodak cameras, just what a boy can easily get and carry.
These were rather limited cameras indeed :) . I was around ten when I started to use a 120 format Rollop camera, a less lucky competitor to Rolleiflex. This Rollop had a fast and really descent 2.8 80mm lens but as it was the rule at the time showed any aid except a lock on the EV commands allowing you to balance rapidly from slow to fast speed without losing your setup. The finder was made of glass with a grain as fine as a wc window. The pose-meter was the film cardboard box.

The Rollop was a 1956 model already 15 years old when I enjoyed it. Later I have used many different cameras including Polaroids. Polaroids again offered the great appeal of high-priced films, low def and a slow camera, this forced you to think twice before pressing the shutter. Nowadays sharing a photograph costs nothing and a 2 years old D-SLR in the hands of an amateur has often make more shots than a Nikkormat would have ever made in 10 years of professional intensive use.
Digital sensors have often 2 to 4 EVs more span than an old film had and allow working hi-contrasted scenes and backlights with some carefulness we weren't allowed to. Regular films may have a dynamic range of around 5 stops, a bit more for high speed films or with a proper processing. Last generation of B&W films boosted plus and minus 2 EV to that, that is a 400 ISO could be used from 100 to 1600 ISO and still shows a 5 stops range. The JPG has 8 stops capacity but the processor works to get back highlights and shadows into the range. Most of digital cameras register 10 or 12 stops and just compress it in the JPG 8 bits / 8 stops format while recording the picture, this is why it is important to record RAW picture for later processing. 5 to 8 stops is what you need to cover both the fully illuminated area and the open shadows of a sunny scene when the sun is not in the front of the camera. But if we want a back lighted scene with a correctly exposed sunny sky and very deep closed shadows to be correctly exposed we may need 10 or 12 stops, reduced in processing and/or post-processing to the 8 stops limit.
Coming back to my iPhone I prefer to shoot square. The first step is to blackandwhite the picture. This forces me to think in term of light and contrast instead of colours, just as when I used my Rollop and FP4 or HP5 rolls.
Having no zoom or interchangeable lens forces me to seek from the start for the optimal spot to make the shot, and often forces me to renounce to beautiful scenes that would have needed a 300 or a macro lens.
Deciding for the square format avoid losing time to think portrait or landscape and forces me to look for more creative point of views to better fill the square. The square format also better fits to diagonal compositions than the long/oblong 2:3 classic size (the historic 24x36mm 135 format rolls).

I still carry a camera with me, not always a SLR with a bag’s load of lenses but preferably a compact with interchangeable lens and APS-C sensor, in my case a Sony NEX with his surprisingly good native kit zoom lens. So availability is not the 1st criterion when I choose to shoot with the iPhone.

The square format and the 12 poses monochrome films I used forced me to concentrate on details just as being at the right distance and having the aperture and speed ready. I often even preselected the distance at a time autofocus wasn't even a word. It was hard to shoot more than 1 square every second and anyway I didn't have the money to play such a game. The very limited EV span offered by the FP4 rolls forced me to be precise with the controls, especially when playing silhouettes and backlights.

Knowing that I will not collate multiple poses but use one of the softwares available on the iPhone forces me in the same way to renounce to very extreme contrasts that the processor will not be able to handle.

Instead of pushing the limit by carrying a full range of equipment I just decide to limit myself and do with what I have at hand.

Next I will share more about the limitations and the "low resolution" of the iPhone.

Etienne Calame 

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