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.