It’s probably fair to say that the last few months have been challenging for many of us. I don’t want to indulge in hyperbole about sacrifices, as being asked to stay at home and avoid contact with others didn’t seem much to give in the context of grand-parents who may have lived through wars and fought for their country. However, Coronavirus and lockdown made many of us worry about health, vulnerable loved ones, jobs, and money.
As lockdown in the UK had started to ease, I had a chance to spent more time outdoors in one of the south London’s many “commons”. For those outside the UK, a “common” is an area of public ground like a park which is essentially left to grow wild. My walks coincided with a period of bright early summer weather, so I started to take some photos with my phone when out walking.
I shared some of the results with DS’ Pascal, who being a French gentleman is always full in his praise, and suggested I should make a series about my lockdown walks.
The final inspiration for this article actually came from a prompt on my phone to make a photobook of pictures from summer 2020, complete with a selection of pictures. I thought it was a good idea to print out photographs that would normally languish on my phone, as a personal record of this strange summer, and it reminded me of Pascal’s suggestion for an article.
For anyone who may remember, I wrote an article last year about the surprising virtues of a relatively inexpensive phone. Unfortunately, it had to be replaced after an accident just before lockdown, but fortunately as it hadn’t cost too much, it wasn’t an emotional wrench, and I happily got it’s replacement model, an Honor 20 Lite, made by Huawei.
It has 3 cameras on the rear: a 26mm f1.8 main camera, a 17mm f2.4 secondary camera, and a depth sensing module to help create shallow depth of field effects. On the front is a mind-bending 32Mp selfie camera.
The cameras won’t win any awards as it’s sensors are small and cheap, so images tend to be a little noisy and ISO is capped at 3200. Further, the jpeg engine tends to be a little saturated and over-sharpened. However, small sensors with relatively fast aperture lenses combine to make low ISO photographs with near infinite depth of field, and the camera app combines scene recognition AI with lots of modes. Like most camera phones, it makes the process of capture, editing and sharing very easy.
When taking photos with a “proper” camera, we tend to get ourselves very bogged down with settings, and few amateur photographers I know would ever leave their camera in “P” (auto programme) mode as they feel they need to take control. As a result, pictures may become less spontaneous, and the experience can be more about the camera and the lens than it is pictorial quality.
The other challenge when using “proper” cameras is that amateurs start using words like “workflow”, insist on always shooting in raw, and obsess about pixel level detail at 200% magnification and whether the corners of their photos are sharp. The result is further obsession about technical detail that may not add anything to pictorial quality, story telling, or mood and atmosphere. One of the favourite lenses for my Minolta SLR was a 100mm f2.8 prime with a variable soft focus control. A rotating collar introduced controlled spherical aberration which gave pictures anything from a subtle softening to a diffuse glow, and the joy was in discovering subjects which suited the effect and using it to enhance the pictures.
Using a camera phone, shooting jpeg, and post processing using Apps on the phone creates a different aesthetic imperative. Corner sharpness and pixel level clarity become unimportant as photo editing Apps tend to focus on features like filters to create a “look” rather than obsessing about the type of accuracy and fidelity that desktop raw development software tends to prioritise.
When I share my pictures to Pascal in email I describe my processing technique as “hack and slash”, as it’s not particularly subtle, and the jpeg files often go through the ringer as they get edited multiple times.
I use Snapseed and Adobe Photoshop Express to post process my pictures. Snapseed is particularly good as it has some interesting features. The HDR-scape tool can create HDR style results from a single file by applying tone mapping to the shadows and highlights, and has a number of styles that work best on certain types of picture. Although extreme HDR processing has a bad name, it’s a useful filter to lift dark shadows or tame highlights in pictures with an extreme dynamic range, like the one above which was shot into the sun. In fact, I have been quite surprised by the dynamic range of my cheap camera phone, and the amount of detail that is lurking in the shadows of it’s jpegs.
Snapseed also has a very powerful perspective correction tool, which as well as providing horizontal and vertical perspective correction will even fill in missing areas caused by the adjustments, often surprisingly well. A healing tool also allows basic retouching to remove objects by automatically cloning from the surrounding area, and again works well.
Snapseed also offers a number of “filter” type tools which I use extensively to give pictures a “look”. “Vintage” can apply a number of colour cast filters to create a nostalgic film-type look, as if taken on an old camera. “Grunge” applies colour casts and a range of textures to pictures to create a distressed “grungey” look. “Retrolux” creates a variety of cross-processed looks for a retro expired-film look. “Drama” has a number of styles that apply some combination of tone mapping and clarity to bring out tonal contrast and details.
The effects can be stacked and combined, so it’s well worth experimenting to see how pictures will look, as you can undo any effects if you don’t like them. With experimentation, I’ve started to understand which tools and effects will work best with certain types of photographs to give an appealing stylised result.
I use Photoshop Express to finish the pictures, as it has better controls to adjust black and white points and other exposure parameters, and can resize images when you export them. Sometimes, I may also apply a further Adobe filter, as it too has some pleasing black and white and retro effects.
I’m looking forward to making a small photobook of the pictures I’ve taken with my phone this summer. As many of the pictures were taken in good light, the camera used it’s lowest ISO, and so the pictures are surprisingly clean and detailed. More than anything, taking photos this way has probably led to far greater experimentation, and I don’t think I would have produced such stylised or interesting results if I had taken them with a “proper” camera.
Finally, if I’d told you I’d taken then with an expensive hipster rangefinder camera, would you have known they actually came from a phone? Photographs should probably evoke an emotion, and for me, some of these are much richer than anything I might have taken with a “real” camera.
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