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.
Never miss a post
Like what you are reading? Subscribe below and receive all posts in your inbox as they are published. Join the conversation with thousands of other creative photographers.
Please log in again. The login page will open in a new tab. After logging in you can close it and return to this page.
Great photographs, and I like that they have been made on a camera phone. There is a feeling in the article that the simple Camera phone lacks the technology of a ‘proper’ camera, maybe, but the tech in a camera phone is astonishing nevertheless. Couple it with an app like Snapseed, and you can produce great photographs, as this article proves. Camera phones, I agree, can led to more spontaneous photographs, but if we can be brave/strong enough to leave our ‘proper’ cameras in P mode, maybe we can make more spontaneous images. I’ve just thought….believe that P mode really means “Professional”…might work.
I like the idea of “P” for “Professional” 😉
Our phones have camera modules just as good as those fitted to low end small sensor cameras. Where they benefit is because the have fast aperture fixed focal length lenses, rather than very slow aperture zooms, and they automatically optimise the pictures and make post processing and sharing so easy. In my mind, the phone is just as legitimate as a “real” camera, provided you understand its limitations.
This article wasn’t about whether phones are good or bad cameras, but actually about how easy they make the creative process during a difficult time.
I also heard A was for amateur and M was for Moron – can you confirm this 🙂 ??
When the tools get out of the way, vision and imagination have room to do “their thing” and we often surprise ourselves with the results.
Europe is not my favourite place to traveI – I’m an Asia/Africaphile – but what I do envy is that sense of deep history that North America often lacks; especially in the west where I live. I absolutely love the old mill and the way you’ve treated it. All that’s missing is a vulture perched on the roof and bats exiting the windows … there must be an app somewhere for that. And the Nostalgic Ducks look like and old master painting … a joy to look at.
Well Done Sir.
Thanks for your kind comments.
What’s interesting for me is that the tools we have on our phones make it so easy to post process our photographs, and tend to encourage types of processing and experimentation that many wouldn’t dream of using on their precious raw files. Certainly, the software I use on a PC doesn’t offer the type of filters and adjustments that phone Apps do. Mostly desktop software focuses on fidelity rather than stylisation, which I think is often looked down on by many amateur photographers. I think both have their place, but also increasingly feel that style and atmosphere are more important than pixel level detail, colour accuracy or sharp corners.
You are aware aware that snapseed is none other than and android version of the Nik Collection – created by the same developers ? And that a few years ago when google bought out the Nik collection they released it as freeware for the PC. All their creative filters are accessible from most of the PC post processing tools like Lightroom etc. I have the freeware version released some years back and will gladly send you a copy to experiment with if you do not have it.
I wasn’t aware of that, or if I once was, I’d forgotten. I don’t use Adobe for post processing, so I don’t take an interest in plug ins and filters etc. I know some DS contributors tried ON1 software which takes a filter based approach to post processing, but I didn’t get on very well with it and didn’t particularly like the results. I think for a new generation of photographers, this type of post processing is probably the future, rather than the more traditional tools that many amateurs have preferred.
DXO acquired the Nik Collection, made it available at no cost for a couple of years, and then updated it to make it compatible with the recent versions of operating systems and continued its development. It’s available for purchase from DXO for those interested.
Thanks for the information. I might take a look if there is a trial option.
Thanks John. Some of these follow a trend in previous articles I’ve written here about camera phones, where post processing, filters, or even pushing them to extreme can create pictures with an almost “painterly” look.
Adrian, I have a confession to make. I shoot with my two Niks – the D500 & D850 – but I also shoot with a “pocket rocket”, because I never want to be caught with “NO” camera ever again – and a lot of the time, I shoot with slightly larger Canon Powershot (also pocketable), which has such bloody awful controls & menu system that I generally only use it on AUTO. Like a latter-day Kodak Brownie.
I know a lot of complete amateurs, who shoot with all sorts of stuff. Commonly they use cellphones. Some are a little more advanced. And a number of them ask me to do post processing for them. Their minds aren’t restricted by all the “rules of composition”. Their minds are completely oblivious of things like diffraction, bokeh, depth of field, shutter speed, ISO, pixels, and so on. They just want to take a photograph, and show it to their friends.
And it is remarkable how remarkable their photography is.
It doesn’t matter a damn which camera any of us shoots with – WE are the ones that have to make the photograph – the image – the picture – whatever you want to call it. The camera is just a means to an end. And we “photographers” often lose sight of that.
Here, instead, we have someone out to enjoy a walk – create a record – and coming back with a succession of stunning images.
Ending with the “best spider shot in show”.
You’re not Pascal’s only “victim”. He told me ages back that we all go to a location removed from where we live, to take out photos – never taking photos around our own home. Being a “difficult child”, I treated it as a challenge, and have been taking photos around here ever since. It provides a remarkable stimulus to “creativity” – you keep trying to create “creative” shots of “familiar” things.
It can be educational in all sorts of ways – making us look at the same thing in different ways – with different light – or simply making us “look” – so that we see things we didn’t, earlier – or, if we did, we saw them in a different way.
And I can see that happening in your images. “Satanic Mill” and “Steampunk” – “Monochrome river” and “River cottage”
Obviously we’re not seeing A2 sized enlargements here – but how many of ANY of our photos are ever printed that large? And the sharpness in some of this shots makes nonsense of the idea that we need a $5,000 camera to take a worthwhile photograph.
Thanks for sharing your lockdown “loot” with us.
Hi Pete, I’m also surprised at the clarity and detail in some of the pictures. Most were taken at the cameras base ISO 50 and are surprisingly clean and detailed. The phone has an 8Mp 17mm equivalent second camera which has incredible barrel distortion that is digitally removed post capture, but the pictures remain pleasantly “sharp”. It’s made me realise how much I’d like a pocket camera with a fast 17-50mm lens!
LOL – the nearest I’ve ever got – and I’m sure there must be other, better options – is my little Canon Powershot. Bugga all distortion – and an F/2.0-3.9 24-120mm equivalent lens, on a 1 inch sensor.
Of course it’s not the same as my D850, or my D500 – but I’ve taken some wonderful photos with it.
Bottom line – it’s not what you have, it’s how you use it – that’s what takes, and makes, the photo – the image.
And one of the best photos I’ve seen in the past 12 months – one I had the privilege to post process (I was there when it was taken, but it wasn’t me who took it) – was taken on a cellphone. Everyone who’s seen it, is smitten by it!
When Nikon announced their “DL” compacts with a 1″ sensor, one had a 17-50mm equivalent lens. I realised it would cover a huge amount of my daytime travel photography needs, and was eager to see what it was like. Then Nikon cancelled the programme as it wasn’t cost effective. I just wish another manufacturer would release a 1″ sensor model with such an adventurous lens. Until then, it seems even a camera phone can make surprisingly good pictures, especially when it had a 17mm equivalent lens!
I really like your Satanic Mill and Steam Punk images. They remind me of the Polaroid transfers I tried to do back in the day.
Thanks Paul. I think many of the filter based Apps for phones give the kind of aesthetic we associate with old equipment and all its technical “imperfections”. As emotional beings, I think those imperfect images instill emotion in us, whereas the pixel perfect photographs today can be emotionally sterile. I freely admit that many of my photographs here would be weak if presented a captured, but take on a new life when given all these imperfections and nostalgic looks.
All to often the more we learn about photography and composition , the more wrapped in technology and technique we become. I am sure we can all benefit from following Adrian’s example and taking days off to simply ignore technical settings revel in the moment of our surroundings in a more creative manner.
As I have been known to say, it’s not the camera that’s important, it’s the person behind the camera that matters. And you’ve proven my point exactly, Adrian!
Your images are wonderfully evocative and moody – some being very painterly, and each in turn being a mini-masterpiece.
Thanks for sharing your images as well as your detailed advice on post processing. Kudos to you!
Nancee, thanks for your very kind words. I’ve long said I’m just the monkey the presses the button. If you saw the original jpegs for most of these, they would see rather unremarkable, but I’ve discovered ways to process them to make potentially very weak photos much stronger by use of atmosphere. I think we discussed similar things last year when I showed some camera phone pictures from a trip in Asia. As I mentioned in another comment here, I think the type of processing like some shown here evokes emotion in us because of it’s echos of “old times” and a kind of prophylactic nostalgia.
That’s a very nice set, Adrian, well done!
I particularly like the color palettes and subtle glow of ‘Woodland Path’ and ‘Glowing Path’. And the 19th century Corot-like atmosphere of the duck pond in the sun.
And thumbs up for your plan to make a book of these images; the process of editing, pairing images, deciding their sequence, designing the layout, etc…, will bring the collection to a whole different level. The style of the series would fit perfectly in a Moleskine notebook.
Normally after a holiday I make a photo-book of some of my pictures, as I find it a great way to show the photographs and also remember the trip. Over the last few years I’ve had a lot of family problems and just don’t seem to have had the time and motivation to make any. I think a small book of this strange summer would be interesting. I think for all the wrong reasons these could be some of my most memorable pictures in quite some time,