Why your smartphone is the best camera

Today’s guest post is from Matthew Murray, originally appearing in his blog,  here.

Last year I watched a documentary about legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. An audio track of his voice recorded in 1973 played while his iconic black and white images flashed across the screen.

The best camera

One passage really struck a chord with me, both in terms of photography and life in general.

“But life is very fluid; sometimes the pictures disappeared, and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t tell the person, ‘Oh, please smile again. Do that gesture again.’ Life is once, forever.”

Sadly, my life is a little too busy to be standing around with a Leica Rangefinder watching the world go by. Yet I want to capture my daily life, photograph my children and the places I visit.

I used to feel guilty that I didn’t always have my Nikon DSLR with me. The only camera I had on me was the one on my iPhone, but that was just for convenience, for fun. Mobile photography is not a serious form of photography… or is it?

Around the time I was struggling with this dilemma, I picked up a book by American photographer Chase Jarvis called “The Best Camera is the One That’s with You”.

This book is full of creative photographs Jarvis took with his iPhone 3 a few  years ago. Accompanying the book is an iPhone camera app and a community centered around mobile photography.

For me there were three messages from this book. Firstly, using an iPhone is a legitimate form of photography. Secondly, it’s not the camera but the photographer. Or as Ansel Adams put it “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” Thirdly, it didn’t really matter what camera equipment I owned, if I didn’t have it with me it was useless.

Splashing through puddles, Victoria Point.One of my favourite photos, ever. Shot on an iPhone 4.

Using my iPhone

In March 2011, I started using my iPhone at every available opportunity to photograph my children and daily life. Instead of using the inbuilt camera app, I was attracted to using apps such as Instagram and Hipstamatic that use square image formats and come with old school camera filters and effects.

The reason I was attracted to the square image format was nostalgia. Some great films throughout photographic history have used this 1:1 image ratio – Polaroids, 120 roll film (used by Rolleiflex TLRs and Holgas among others) and 126 film (used in millions of Kodak Instamatic cameras in the 60s and 70s).

Childhood nostalgia

All of the photos taken during the first 6 or 7 years of my childhood are square 4″ x 4″ prints with with rounded corners printed on Kodak paper. Mum and Dad must have had some kind of Kodak Instamatic camera which took 126 film cartridges.

One of my favourite photographs from this era is an image of me and my sister taken at a park somewhere in Brisbane. I am laughing in the foreground while my sister is smiling yet squinting in the bright sunshine behind me.

Matthew and Catherine, circa 1977

Does it matter that this photograph was not taken on the most up to date, technologically advanced equipment available at the time? Not in the least bit. Thelo-fi style of our family photographs is all part of the charm. Around 1980-1, Mum and Dad upgraded to a 35mm compact and thus bigger 6 x 4 prints started to fill our photo albums. Although those photographs are treasured memories, they don’t feel as classic.

When I was looking through thousands of photographs to use in this blog post, I found a photo that I’d forgotten about. It was a photo of my daughter at Cleveland on Brisbane’s Bayside during a family outing. It illustrates the ‘best camera’ philosophy well.  My iPhone was the only camera with me that day yet I managed to capture a moment in time – my daughter playing in the sunshine, stopping briefly to give me a cheeky grin.

Why is your smartphone the best camera?

Here are the reasons why I think your smartphone is the best camera.

  1. It’s always with you. Sometimes the best photos are taken in the most unexpected places at the most unexpected times.
  2. It’s tiny. Relatively speaking. No need for a backpack to carry all of your kit when you’re using your smartphone.
  3. It’s easy to share. 3g and wifi enabled, it’s easy to share your photos by MMS or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, Pinterest and other social networks.
  4. It’s easy to do arty stuff. There are so many camera apps available for both iPhone and Android that allow you to do all kinds of arty stuff – filters, adding text, and even post-processing on your phone.
  5. People are more candid around smartphones. You’re not sticking a 300mm telephoto zoom lens in their face, so people aren’t so self-concious.
  6. Smartphones replace compact digital cameras.  As smartphone cameras improved in recent years, sales of cheap point and shoot compact digitals nosedived.

Dusk over the gum trees, taken on my back deck

Mobile photography has come of age

Over the last 6 or 7 years we have seen the growing use of mobile images used in the press and displayed as art.

Camera phone images from the public started to be used by the media during events such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the July 2005 London bombings. In 2010 a New York Times photographer used an iPhone to illustrate a front-page story about the war in Afghanistan. The photograph, taken with the Hipstamatic app, won 3rd place in the Pictures of the Year International photojournalism competition. In 2012, mobile photos are used extensively by the media.

Other indications that mobile photography has arrived include

  • The rise of social networks such as Instagram around mobile photography.
  • Dozens of camera and photography apps available for both Android and Apple (though apps available on iOS are superior at the moment).
  • The iPhone Photography Awards is now in its 5th year.
  • Last year there was a mobile photography conference.
  • Many blogs have sprung up including the excellent Iphoneography.
  • Other websites such as Eyephoneography (in English and Spanish) promote exhibitions and works of mobile photographers.
  • Leading online software training company Lynda.com now have a iPhone Photography video course by leading iPhoneographer Richard Koci Hernandez (looks great from the preview I’ve seen).
  • Online collectives such as Advanced Mobile Photography Team (AMPt) are active on Instagram, showcasing mobile photographers from around the World.

Where to next for mobile photography?

Mobile photography will keep getting bigger, better and more sophisticated. Just today (28-2-2012) I read that Nokia has announced the Nokia 808 PureView smartphone with a 41 megapixel cameara featuring a Carl Zeiss lens. Yes, that’s right, a 41 megapixel camera in a smartphone. Of course megapixels are not the only factor determining image quality, but that is incredible.

Give it a try!

New to mobile photography? Jump in, give it a try, you never know what images you will capture. After all, life is once, forever.

My Hipstamatic iPhoneography

  • Most of my mobile photos are on Instagram – search for user mattbrisvegas
  • If you don’t have Instagram, you can still see my photos on the web thanks to Gramfeed. 
  • I have a handful of mobile photos on Matt’s Hipstamatic photo board on Pinterest.
  • To keep me roaming the streets at night I’m also doing the 365 Project this year, purely with iPhone photos.

Article and photos re-printed with permission from Matthew Murray.

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