The Best Camera is the One That’s With You

“The best camera is the one that’s with you” is the title of a 2009 book by Chase Jarvis. With his book about iPhone photography, Jarvis popularised the notion of the smartphone camera revolution. An accomplished photographer, Jarvis’ acknowledgement of the smartphone as a new era of popular photography was significant.

At the time Jarvis released his book (and Apple Store “Best Camera” application) the iPhone was the most feature-rich and impressively performing smartphone camera. Other phone manufacturers were quick to recognise the significance of the camera to the worth of their smartphones and, in the years since, have also advanced fantastic quality camera smartphones to market. In 2010 the release of Instagram to iPhone users, with its plethora of post-process filters and enhancements, and its 2012 release on the Android platform finally meant that expressive smartphone photography had become cross-platform and therefore accessible to everyone.

Usage statistics for Instagram are impressive. As of last year, an average of 80 million photos per day are shared on the app, accruing 3.5 billion likes daily. More photos than were taken during the entire 19th century are now taken every two minutes. Amazing numbers.

How did we get here?

Photography has gone through several significant innovations over the years since it was first invented. From its start as a large format medium, with complicated development processes and huge levels of skill required to produce quality images, through the lower resolution 35mm revolution, the advent of colour film, the digital SLR revolution, the “point & shoot” digital camera and now the smartphone, photography has repeatedly broken ranks with its own advocates. At each stage, the “purist” photographers have resisted these changes. Ultimately, though, each innovation has become the norm and at each stage, directly because of these innovations, photography has become more accessible, photographers more prolific and their images more widely seen.

Where to next?

It’s impossible to predict the future. There are still some obstacles in the path of smartphones, but I can’t say they’re impossible to overcome. At the moment a smartphone can’t match a DSLR for reach. The physical dimensions of the smartphone alone mean that it is not possible, optically, to deliver on telephoto images of comparable or even adequate quality. The image sensor in a smartphone is very small because the optics in the camera’s lens are required to be very compact. In order to capture a telephoto image, a “long” lens is required. A long lens on a smartphone would radically alter the dimensions and form factor of the smartphone itself. Right now, that doesn’t seem plausible. But the leading edge of technology is far ahead of where we think it is. The most recent innovations we tend to see are at most proofs of concept. But this is far behind where technology usually is. So who knows? But we do know that the innovations necessary to make the smartphone camera the only camera you might ever need is still at least some way off.

We do know the digital point and shoot is dead at this point. There is no future for a low quality image camera that may fit in your pocket but doesn’t have the ability to share on Instagram or Facebook, and you can’t make a phone call on or chat and share on WhatsApp.

But there is still no viable pocket device to match the photographic versatility of the DSLR. At least for now, there’s no reason to believe that this particular medium is dead. But, as Chase Jarvis quite rightly says, the best camera is the one that’s with you. The DSLR is cumbersome but the smartphone is not, and that means that it is more likely that the best camera – adequate for the task or not – is not the DSLR that you left at home but the smartphone, right there in your pocket.

Is Photography Art?

This question is as old as the medium of photography itself. How can something as simple as pointing a camera and clicking a button possibly qualify as art?

As a photographer, I spent decades asking that very question. Before we get much further, it’s important for me to make clear now that the answer that I have to offer is far from conclusive, may not be what you want to hear and is even subject to change further down the road. In order to answer the question, you first have to establish what “is” is.

As simply as possible, you can’t answer the question “is photography art?” objectively because what art “is” is entirely subjective. The answer requires a qualitative standard that is unachievable in subjective questions. This simple truth alone precludes any definitive answer to the question which would be accepted by all. So here, instead of finding the answer I’d like to explore the question.

Distinguishing Arts and Crafts

There is no separation in life between the culture we live in and the art which describes it. You can craft a response, fashion a utensil and even draw a conclusion. Art is a medium we use to describe and comment upon life, but it is so intrinsic to our culture that the distinction between the life we live and how we describe it blurs completely.

Photography has in some ways a similar paradox. The process, or act, of photography is confused with the expression or language of the same. In fact photography is both an art and a craft. The process of photography – i.e. the lens, the camera, the tripod, the shutter, the aperture, the ISO, the editing and the sharing – is the craft. The product – the image that results from the craft – is the art. That seems reasonably simple, doesn’t it? So why is the question, whether photography is art, even a question?

I think that it is in no small part photography’s inherent versatility that is the cause of the debate. Photography is a useful medium not just for artists but also for documentarians.  A photograph for the purpose of creating a factual record, rightly or wrongly, conflicts with our notion of art in the same way that we don’t perceive a story in a newspaper as art in the way that we regard a novel or a poem as art. And yet materially, with both the newspaper and the novel, the medium is the same. It is the written word. Similarly, with the photograph, the image is the result of the endeavour. It is a blend of both the purpose and the content of the image which determines whether that image is art or not.

The Implicit Value Of Artistic Labour

To further confuse and conflate, photography is not just versatile, it is also accessible. Who, today, does not have instant and easy access at least to a camera phone? For the past century, increasingly, most families had within them at least one parent who documented the raising of their children. Capturing those moments – assuming kids are willing subjects – is the simple process of pointing and clicking. Today photography is as much part of daily life as breakfast. The days of slideshow evenings by enthusiastic parents and holiday-makers are long gone, replaced by the instantaneous distribution of every first step, spoon fed, high school graduation, dog walk and hearty meal, each trickling down to friend’s and relative’s pockets via Instagram and Facebook.

The accessibility of photography has never been greater, its cost has never been lower, and this is without question a golden era  for the craft of photography. But is it a golden era for the art of photography? Possibly. Possibly not. I think it depends whether or not you recognise the distinction, and what it is that you think art “is”.

If you don’t distinguish between the art and the craft of photography then it’s apparent that anyone can be a photographer and therefore by extension that everyone’s an artist. But it might be equally as reasonable to conclude that, because everyone’s a photographer, therefore nobody’s an artist and that the act of photography is not the demonstration of artistry or the expression of art, because it’s so easy to do. The view you take rests on your perception of photography as a craft and also as an art form, and on your perception of the impact that the reduced skills required in the craft of photography over time has had on the artistic labour required to create it.

Whichever view you personally take, the aggregate result of greater accessibility to photography seems to result in a pervasive reduction in the perceived value of photography as an art form. Simplistic though it is, there’s an entirely subjective but undeniably powerful belief that it’s not really art if anyone can do it.

So, Is Photography Art?

A definitive answer remains elusive, complicated by the inherently subjective thing that art is. Rather than being informed (by me or by anyone else) whether photography is art, it is instead incumbent on the asker to find within themselves whether they accept photography as an art form or not.

Ask yourself if an artist could express their art through photography. If you believe so then, implicitly, you accept photography as a medium of artistic expression and, therefore, you accept that photography can be art. In doing so, you are not declaring that every photograph is art, merely that the medium itself can be used for that purpose. You do not have to give consideration for whether it is easy for an artist to produce photographic art, only on the merit of the achievement – does the image function in the desired way to express the intended feelings and thoughts of the artist? Is it good art?

I myself have resolved to this position. I believe photography is a medium through which an artist may effectively communicate. Moreover, I feel that photography is probably the most robust and most widely accepted form of modern art to date.

The question should not be whether or not photography is art. That, it turns out, is the wrong question. Is the potter’s wheel art? Is the kiln art? Is a pot of paint art? Is a sculptor’s chisel or a cross-stitcher’s skein of thread?

Instead, the question that should be asked is whether or not the photographer is an artist. And the answer to that question, at least, is: “sometimes.”

Saturation

Spring is beginning to show. It’s  a slow and very gradual process but there are signs that we’re turning the corner. Flowers are beginning to erupt in meadows and some trees are even beginning to blossom. They’re few and far between but they’re still turning up.

Days are getting longer. The windows of opportunity to catch some brighter skies outside of working hours during the week are expanding, and we start with the best hour too… “Golden Hour” – the last hour before sunset, when the sun’s light takes on a wonderful golden glow. As long as it’s not cloudy, of course. Generally, during this process, photographers like me begin to feel like photographers again. The obstacles in the way of taking photos at leisure gradually fall away as the sun climbs higher and higher in the sky, and as subjects begin to present themselves more readily.

Life everywhere is beginning to reappear, and it feels good.

My favourite seasons are Spring and Autumn, not just because of the variety in colour in those two seasons but also the variability in weather. Spring, I find, brings the best mix of sky and clouds. I love the colours in a sun-drenched scene with thundery blue-grey clouds in the background. That mix of texture is the thing I miss most about Spring in the depths of other seasons.

Here in the North of England, Autumn colours are usually fleeting and it’s not uncommon for the leaves to turn their amazing shades of gold and copper and then shed completely without a single sunny day for photographers to take advantage of their spectacle. Spring, on the other hand, takes time to assert itself. Over the Spring transition there is usually a good mix of sunny spells and the opportunities to make use of the light are more abundant.

Good times ahead.

Taking A Camera Everywhere

For the past 20 years one thing I’ve made sure I do is to take a camera with me wherever I go.

Leaf; Golden Acre Park, Leeds

For the longest time this has meant lugging a not-so-light camera bag everywhere.

These days smartphones mean that you don’t necessarily have to do that, but my experience with smartphones so far suggests that it’s still worth lugging around a weighty bag, just in case. This isn’t a reflection on the quality of smartphone cameras so much as a reflection on my choice of smartphones. My phone is cheap and the camera on it isn’t really all that amazing. Honestly, the camera wasn’t the main consideration when I bought my phone, specifically because I take a camera everywhere with me.

Strid Wood, Bolton Abbey

As well as a smartphone I also have a couple of GoPros, a bridge camera and a DSLR, and I even have a dashcam recording every mile in my car. I believe I’ve become addicted to documenting everything that happens, or at the very least having the ability to document everything at all times.

Dad feeding Maisie

Though it occasionally is a happy accident, not every photo that I take is intended as a work of art. My photography in general has two main facets, one of which is artistic expression and the other which is documentary. Occasionally, and I think these are my favourite photos of my own, my photographs are both. This probably makes sense because, to my mind at least, the best photographs are those which convey a story with an emotion attached, or which invoke an emotion related to the story by virtue of its expressive nature – artistry, if you will.

Maisie, Otley Chevin

Not all cameras are created equal. Although the latest GoPro cameras are able to store still images in RAW format, most smartphones and bridge cameras only save images in JPG format. RAW image formats contain significantly more detailed information captured by a camera sensor than JPG, but the extra data results in significantly larger file sizes in an image format which can’t be shared on Facebook, Instagram etc.

Discarded Roses, Lawnswood Crematarium

For purely documentary photography JPGs are generally adequate, but if your intention is to create art from your documentary photography, beyond very minor contrast/brightness tweaks, then it’s likely that you will want to edit your images after the fact. To do that most effectively requires that you shoot in RAW.

Of the cameras that I own, only my DSLR currently has the ability to store images in RAW format. And because every photograph I shoot, whether documentary or artistic, I want to have the option to create art with, it’s probably inevitable that I will continue to carry a heavy camera bag and lots of lenses everywhere I go.

Shooting The Sheep

My dog hates having her photo taken. It really doesn’t seem to make any difference how I approach it, or how surreptitious I am, Maisie always seems to catch on that I’m about to take a photo and she turns away or hides her face. It seems to make no difference if I’m using my DSLR, my bridge camera, GoPro or even smartphone, she always catches on before I can get focus and she dodges the shot. I have no willing muse.

So I take a lot of photos of sheep. Sheep aren’t self-conscious, they don’t care if they’re showing their good side or their bad, they only seem interested in eating grass and standing around, sometimes alone and sometimes in small groups. There are many sheep in the Yorkshire Dales and surrounding areas, so they’re an easy subject to find, and they’re somewhat iconic of the area, perhaps even as much as limestone outcrops and walls, and lime green fields peppered with old stone barns.

Over the years I’ve become rather fond of the sheep I encounter as I meander the dales and, though I couldn’t claim to be an expert on the different breeds that exist, I do notice distinctions between them. As a photographer, though, sheep can serve a useful function as the subjects of photos. In the Yorkshire Dales, sheep can help to convey the context of an image. They imply a peaceful, rural and fertile environment, the suggestion of timelessness or of time standing still and the harmony of farming in hand with nature. Everyone understands that sheep are timid, gentle creatures.

Because of this, sheep can also help to convey the scale of a landscape without compromising the image, far better than a car or a brightly dressed backpacker. Particularly in the Yorkshire Dales, sheep are an integral part of the landscape.

Yet, at the same time, sheep intimate a distinct story within the landscape. In Spring, lambs are symbolic of the rebirth of nature after the winter months. During the summer, sheep are synonymous with lazy, hazy days spent idly in meadows. During “golden hour”, and in the autumn, sheep are warm and fuzzy, soft and at peace, and yet in the snows of winter, sheep are the protagonists with whom we empathise in the battle against the wicked cruelty of icy blizzards and bitter temperatures.

Sheep are all things, not least to photographers in the dales.

Hug a sheep.

Dabbling in Infrared

Over the years I’ve come to, and wandered off from, infrared photography many times. For my photographic audience there seems to be something of a love/hate relationship. It seems to be a Marmite or Vegemite situation. Those who love it seem to embrace it strongly while others, rather than having a take-it-or-leave-it view, often seem thoroughly dismissive of it. Me, I blow hot and cold.

Today my infrared images are usually dramatic, even extreme. They’re punchy, contrasty and usually quite striking. While that might sound all to the good, it’s actually more of a bug; a legacy of my early ventures into the medium that I sometimes think I need to get clear of.

My interest in infrared originates from my early black and white days, and particularly the days when my black and white images were nondescript and truly lack-lustre. Over the years since I’ve come to realise that the black and white work I did was this way because it was itself poor, not because it was black and white.  But a poor image is laid bare when it’s black and white and its lack of redeeming features is its most notable feature of all.

So, in an attempt to make my black and white images more interesting, rather than upping my photography game with better composition and more interesting subject material, I ventured into the infrared. It seemed to work. At least, to me.

Infrared photography is…

Most photographs you see capture or encapsulate a scene, envisioned by the photographer. They’re usually captured with visible light. Infrared photographs encapsulate scenes which are not, by and large, visible light. Instead, they are photographs capturing often recognisable scenes – trees, lakes, buildings etc – in a slightly unfamiliar way, collecting the light from the sun which passes in the high frequencies of the infrared end of the light spectrum. At this end of the spectrum, things look somewhat different, contrast is different and colours are not how you’d normally see them.

Visible Light image (same location, slightly different composition):

Colour infrared photos out of the camera look like monochromatic red images. Here’s an example:

Using an image editing program, it is possible to separate out the colours in the scene in many ways in order to create an image which is appealing or striking. The results are very much up to the photographer, in the choices made in the editing environment:

Colour Infrared:

Black & White Conversion:

Challenges in infrared photography

Infrared photography is much more difficult in the digital era. Cameras today don’t do too well with light in the infrared part of the spectrum. It’s not that they can’t see it – they see it all too well – they just don’t want to.

One of the curious features of infrared light is that it doesn’t focus at the same point as visible light. An autofocus camera that sees infrared light can be tricked into focusing badly, often several feet too far distant. To solve this problem, camera manufacturers fit an infrared “cut” filter over the camera’s sensor during construction in order to cut or block infrared light, leaving largely only visible light entering the sensor. The reasonable presumption is that viewers of photographs from the camera are only interested in seeing in-focus images of things they themselves would/could see.

Amateur infrared photographers like myself usually use what’s called an IR “pass” filter on the front of the camera lens. This filter seeks to exclude visible light and only allow through light in the infrared spectrum. There are several popular infrared filters, ranging from around 590nm (really yellow, not infrared) to 950nm (deep infrared), the frequency of light in the spectrum below which the filter seeks to exclude. The most popular filter frequency among infrared photographers is 720nm, which is edging towards infrared but is technically still within the band of visible light.

Infrared digital photographers, therefore, are working with equipment which is working against them at the outset. The photographer is filtering out visible light and the camera is filtering out non-visible light. How does this conflict resolve? With long exposures! In order to correctly expose a photograph with these two mutually exclusive modifiers, infrared images may need to be exposed for anything from 15 seconds to 2 minutes, and potentially even longer depending on set aperture and available light.

And to top it all off, because the IR “pass” filter attached to the front of the lens is almost completely opaque, this makes it virtually impossible for the camera to focus and almost impossible for you to see in order to focus too. To be sure of your composition and focus, it is necessary to either perform these functions before attaching the filter, before taking the image.. or to fly by the seat of your pants, make educated (or otherwise) guesses, manually adjust to compensate for infrared focusing differences, attach the filter and take your image. Chimping (the colloquial term for checking your results on the LCD screen at the back of the camera) only gets you in the ball park and more often than not you don’t really know what you’ve achieved until you’re home at your computer and reviewing your images on a large screen. The process of capturing an infrared image is as close, today, to that of the original work of the pioneers of photography as exists in any form of photography. It’s arduous and uncertain.

So what’s the appeal? I think it’s the challenge inherent in the endeavour. There are cheques and balances in IR photography. When things work well, you can genuinely create drama out of a mundane scene, and create interest where there shouldn’t be. But it isn’t an easy process, in fact it’s fraught with challenges. When you get a well composed image, with an interesting subject AND it has the added drama or mystique of a surreal infrared scene, the results are thrilling. Literally thrilling. The difficult process of capturing the infrared image is in fact immensely rewarding. And even though not everybody likes the results you get, those that do so REALLY do.

Drip!

At this time of year there isn’t much light about, even in the middle of the day when the sun is as high as it gets. Photography can get a bit frustrating when you’ve been out shooting, get home only to discover in Lightroom or Bridge that all the images you captured, that you were initially quite excited about, have slight motion blur in them due to low shutter speed. By the end of November, you’re feeling pretty demoralised, and there are still four months of crappy light to go. This is the lot of the British photographer.

The lesson, of course, is to remember to take a tripod with you wherever you go. My tripod is great. It’s solid, able to bend and crouch and get into every situation I ever ask of it. But it’s heavy. Damn, is it heavy. I bought it before carbon fibre was really a thing, or at least an affordable thing. As a consequence it’s rare that I take my tripod out with me.

So we’re well into February and the days are getting longer, but the light is still a bit pants. The other night I decided to grab the tripod and camera, and stay in. The kitchen tap thus became the object of my obsession for half an hour, as I set up a single flash to backlight the tap, and attempted to time photos to capture droplets of water as they fell from the faucet.

17-55mm, 1/160 @ F/8, ISO 100

I used a Nikon D5100, Nikkor 17-55mm F/2.8 @ 55mm, F/8, 160th second. The flash was a cheap Yongnuo YN460 remotely triggered with a pair of RF603N IIs.

I took about 40 images, most of them mis-timed, even having switched to manual focus. The D5100 does have a bit of a delay on shutter release, but with the drip being fairly regular this wasn’t so much of a problem. The problem was my trigger-happy finger competing with a sluggish brain with no sense of rhythm. When all else fails, blame it on the dyspraxia. Ultimately, though, I got shots I was pleased with, and enough of them that were consistently good that the final image selection was not difficult.

As noted by my friend on Facebook, there is deformation in the large droplet. Comparing different shots, where the droplet had reached slightly different distances from the tap, it does appear that the droplet “wobbles” as it falls.

17-55mm, 1/160 @ F/8, ISO 100

This one’s probably half way to the sea by now.

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