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Saturday, November 1, 2014

Smartphone photography: street vs fine-art photography

Before to get deeper in the process let's talk about street photography. There never has been so much people taking pictures, from smartphones to large format cameras there is a large range of analog and digital formats that suit to everyone purpose and purse. The debate about photographs and cameras/lenses quality is not new, it happened before already with the Leica and continued for years between 35mm and middle format and between middle format (120 rolls, 4.5x6 to 6x9cm) and large format (4x5" to 8x10"). To decide for a medium and a format it is necessary first to understand the user's needs and settle the goals, then it is possible to choose and evaluate the tools. The goal we are talking about here is non-commissioned/amateur "street photography" that will be shared on digital media. This is not professional cover, studio still-life, sport or wildlife photography.

Outdoor photography can be split into two main branches: fine-art and street. The split occurred when cameras get small, lens fast and films fine enough to catch on the spot scenes of the streets' life. Before the Leica borrowed to the movie industry her 35mm roll films even hand-held 4x5 chambers required flash lights and could not reload fast enough to make "street" possible. Lenses were not fast and it was at the time necessary to ask subjects to pose for a few seconds at least to set the camera and trigger a single good shot. In many cases the photographer had to compose a simili scenery of the regular life for the purpose of the photograph.

a 4x5" with bulb flash
2 to 3 kg with flash and lens
During the wakening of the street era those 35mm photographers were often considered as making low quality unworthy photographs compared the 4x5" and 8x10" large format cameras.120, 220 and 620 roll films allowed larger images of generally 6x9cm but the cameras where rather mechanically weak for an intensive field use and lenses were slow. Hasselblad will come around only around 20 years later and the new twin lens Rolleiflex offered a quiet fast lens for the format at f3.8 but with no interchangeable lens still couldn't offer the versatility of the 4x5" field or the new smaller Leica.

In fine-art the scene, the time (light and seasonal elements) and the composition is chosen by the photographer and the settings are made in anticipation of the print that is already minded. Anyone would probably agree that the absolute master is Ansel Adams, but there are many more great fine art photographers, amateur or professionals. Nick Brandt and Yann Arthus-Bertrand are good example of fine-art photographers who succeed to maintain the tradition and innovate. Another extreme example of fine art photographer is Ian Ruther and his mobile maxi chamber taking collodion unique giant photographs on metal plates.

In streets of course the photographer anticipates places and light conditions but "street photography" is unplanned photography, you take what you get. "Life" herself make the composition and the lighting. During heroic times street photographers didn't have always a darkroom at hand and when acting professionally they often had to
The Leica III, less than 1kg with lens,
Leica offered a Sumarit f1.5!
send rolls back to the agency letting darkroom photographers developing the precious material and making prints according to some hasty notes sent along the rolls. In "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" the lead character is a darkroom photographer and archivist who actually never met the magazine star field photographer Sean O'Connell, all having to fight in a digital world where archives are no more made by archivists. There has been so many great photographers it is hard to make a list but the pioneers André Kertész, Robert Capa and 
Henri Cartier-Bresson (Magnum), and Jacques Doisneau (Rapho), inspired generations of younger street photographers.

Now these times are over and most photographers use digital cameras and can check on the screen and even start to process on a laptop before sending the files to the agency or the media.

Kodak 620 (6x9) with f6.3 
Today it seems there is in the public an understanding that "a good photographer must have a big camera". "Big Camera" here meaning a D-SLR with a large zoom lens for a public who is not aware of other formats. Even brands which end in "on" are placed at the top while Sony Fuji Olympus or other Pentax are considered as non-professional cameras (I use Sony myself). This is probably the result of good advertising campaigns and years to see Nikon and Canon brands on the waistcoats of many sport photographers. Today mega-zooms and megapixels is advertised as the key to the door of the photographers' heaven, and beside the brand ending in "on" the non-initiated asks immediately "how much pixels?". This is some points to discuss too, but later.

I will not argue here about the importance of the camera format and of the lens quality in fine-art since there is no true limit as we have seen above. But in street photography smart phones offers features that make them one of the alternatives to consider. They offer very interesting tools, one of them is the ability to process on the spot and this gives a new
Rolleiflex f3.5
dimension to street photography, and it is not only to share immediately.

When I was in my twenties the first video cameras went into the market. At 250 lines they couldn't compete with the super-8 from Kodak and many photo retailers rejected the products as unfit. The result is that the TVsets re-sellers took over and the camcorder market lefts the hands of the camera makers and sellers to move to the electronic giants' purse. The reason was that the clientele was already accustomed to watching TV with practical resolution not so far above the VHS's 250 lines. The poor quality as defined by professionals wasn't a poor quality as perceived by amateurs. 

Nowadays a tremendous part of photographs are shared and viewed on digital media and viewed on screens with HD standards. It is therefore unsuitable to reject smartphones just because of less pixels, smaller sensors and the absence of true aperture and speed settings.

Next week I will share some though and experience about processing "on the go".

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