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A decade-long journey – Learning to love mobile phone photography

When I recently tendered to run a social media and photography training course, I must be honest and say that I did so with a slight nagging trepidation. 

It’s not the teaching by a long shot!  I have discovered a real passion on that side – I run all sorts of classes from studio photography skills, to using flash guns to social media training. 

The trepidation came more because the photography focused solely on mobile phones. 

For a long time, I avoided the mobile phone for photography like the plague.  Until relatively recently, I would even carry a Canon Powershot G16 – a camera that is halfway between a compact and DSLR – for social media posts.  I simply refused on the whole to use mobile phones, seeing them as beneath a pro’s remit. Part of it is of course that mobile phone tech was way behind the curve, but I also bore a deep-seated grudge against the tech related to having worked as a photojournalist in the past. 

It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment when my passion for photojournalism began to wane.  It did naturally fade over time as bountiful assignments became harder to access and pay stagnated. 

But when it comes to the pure passion of it, I can name actual moments in time when a large chunk of that passion died inside me….Like the time in 2011 when I was part of the press pack photographing Michelle Obama here in South Africa.  As is customary, we were given small time slots – almost as an after-thought by organisers – to shoot in the most compact spaces shoved together with way too many other colleagues.  Getting the right shot became a balancing act between inhabiting the best space for the best angle and being courteous to your fellow photogs.  Tensions naturally rose between us but on the whole, we did a great job of getting the shots and allowing others to also do so in a delicate physical dance.

So, when a young lady – obviously not part of the press pack, and probably part of a PR team, stood right at the front and raised her iPad to block nearly everyone’s view destroying any semblance of balance we had tried to maintain in that high-pressure moment, an outcry quickly went up from the press pack desperate to get their shots.  That she refused to budge, somehow claiming that her and her damn iPad had as much priority as those behind her simply trying to do their one job with all our expensive equipment, sent a shockwave of despair through me that I haven’t forgotten to this day. 

We were a little more polite and muted in our response than we would otherwise have been, especially given the level of jumpy U.S. security personnel doted all around us.  Usually the most vocal, an agitated middle eastern-looking figure like myself near the President’s wife would not have gone down well I calculated and kept quiet. 

And so a decade-long grudge began against mobile phone-related camera tech.  There is a strong, well-trodden argument that citizen journalism has contributed heavily to the demise of the once great profession. 

So back to present day and having to focus exclusively on mobile phone tech for the course at hand, I was a bit hesitant. Part of me was curious though to see what was achievable, so I decided to put my iPhone X through the ringer so to speak and see what it could really do.  By its end, I was honestly pleasantly surprised – in fact, I can begrudgingly say, I was blown away.

Look, a quick and swift disclaimer is that the iPhone is nowhere near a DSLR as yet.  And not just on picture quality, dynamic range, low-light picture quality and all the other markers of high-end image machinery, but especially in terms of optical lenses of course:  The digital zoom is terrible on an iPhone and should never be used (better to crop later in post). 

It hasn’t even surpassed the Canon G16, but – to my great surprise (or even dismay) – it is now very close to the latter. 

In technical terms, the image signal processor is a lot faster allowing one to capture action a lot closer to real-time than before.  The dynamic range – one of the biggest issues I had with mobile phone cameras – is also a lot better too and in an increasing number of lighting conditions, can do a good enough job, especially now with all the post-production options available.

The portrait and macro modes allow close-up work and depth-of-field adjustments, both when shooting and in post that in a narrow range of lighting conditions, can create excellent images to give DSLRs with all the bells and whistles a run for their money .  The iPhone does have a tendency though to overexpose images, and slightly over-sharpen and increase contrast in auto mode, but this can be adjusted and muted – especially with the use of AE and AF Lock and if taken into consideration, can actually be beneficial, adding depth and richness to an image – on a computer screen at least. 

What I like though about the mobile phone is the unobtrusiveness of it.  Walking around with two DSLRs and a telephoto lens to boot used to invariably illicit a certain type of defensive reaction in reportage that was mostly detrimental to the overall image and required a lot more attention to how to approach subjects and time-consuming effort to make them feel at ease.  Not so much with mobile phones.  They allow you to capture more natural subject reactions a lot faster and without looking so conspicuous and all the inevitable questions that came with each shot. 

But ironically what I love most about mobile phone photography are the very technical limitations that made me avoid it in the first place.  For me, it takes the medium back to its early to mid-20th century roots – having to rely almost exclusively on lighting, mood and composition to create a great image without any real technical support. Sure, images are a lot more hit and miss, and the conditions required to take a great image are fewer than the far greater latitude a DSLR would afford you. But they are catching up.

Depressing or exciting depending on where you stand, I have a feeling this conversation will be a very different one – even in 5 years time – if the lightning advances that have already been made in the past decade are anything to go by.

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