Nov 09 2009

the best iPhone photography app

Much of the talk about using the iPhone camera surrounds additional apps that you can use to tint, crop, zoom or selectively focus your photos. There are titles that bounce around the internet like Must-have apps for iPhone photographersThe Five Best iPhone Apps For Travel Photography and The Best Camera “ecosystem”.

I find some of the apps useful for making it easier to crop, adjust the exposure and upload to a photo sharing site; but I find that most of the tinting and special effects features to be cheap tricks. Most of the time the app will simply transform a bad photo into a bad photo with a blue tint.

To me, the most most important app is the person taking the photo.

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Surfer on the Venice Beach boardwalk

The beauty of the iPhone is that it’s always with you. The camera function is both very easy to use and at the same time very hard because it’s such a simple camera. The camera works great for basic snapshots of friends, but I wanted to see how it would perform in the stress test of the Venice Beach boardwalk.

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Beach visiter taking a cool drink by the iconic wooden umbrella clusters

The boardwalk is both a target rich environment with a collection of colorful characters, and a very challenging place to shoot. The light is harsh and the action is quick.

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The palm reader's sign blocked the sun creating a perfect north light studio

You have to look for the places that either have good light already or find a simple way to control the light. There isn’t an app made yet that will help you identify ways to control light by shooting your subject in front of a backdrop, or moving them in front of the sun.

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I moved the stilt-walker in front of the sun and palm trees

Since we use the iPhone’s screen to preview the photo, shooting into the sun is even harder. Unlike looking through a camera viewfinder, on the iPhone you have the confusion of the reflection on the screen and the glare behind the phone. Half the time it seems like I’m guessing at the composition. The shooting is similar to using the cheap plastic Diana camera where the joy come from the surprises created by the lack of control.

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Catching action is an advanced skill

The other issue with the camera is the shutter lag. Venice Beach is full of action and all good street shooters pride themselves at being able to capture the “decisive moment“, but with the time delay you have to press the shutter button a half second before you think something may happen. (You can control this a bit by being aware that the shutter is actually activated by releasing, instead of pressing the shutter button.)

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Quick movements often produce a warped effect

There is also a odd warping effect that’s created by the iPhone using a rolling shutter. Instead of the exposure being created all at once by the aperture effect you see on the screen, the scene is being quickly scanned. In the shot above, the head section was scanned first and the legs moved to the right by the time the scan made it down to the bottom.

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The light weight of the iPhone makes it easy to shoot down

One of my big shooting surprises is that now I’m often holding the camera straight out and shooting down. Instead of having my face up to the view-finder, the iPhone already starts away from my face and it’s a quick movement to point the iPhone down. Instead of the normal Hail Mary Shot that photojournalists use in a crowd to get the camera higher. I’m finding that I do the same thing shooting down. I simply guess at the framing and swing with the action.

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There's a whole new world down below

For most people, I suspect the hardest part about doing iPhonetography is using the moderate wide-angle lens. The view is similar to what you would get on a full frame 35mm camera using a 35mm lens. Our minds are very good at zooming into a scene to examine the front wheel pattern above, but we’re less well trained to see the wider view while being aware of all the action that’s shown below.

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Learning to see all the elements in the wide view is an acquired skill

I’m constantly working at striking the balance between simplifying and getting something interesting in the frame. When I first arrived at the beach I noticed a large sailboat on the horizon. But it was too small in the frame by itself, so I chased it down the beach while searching for something to place in the foreground. First there was a volleyball game, then a life-guard stand and finally I spotted a surfer balancing a board on his head to change his shirt.

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A balance between a simple background and a foreground surfer to fill the frame

Years of experience and learning to see like the iPhone camera is the real secret app in iPhonetography.

None of these photos required any special app filters or effects. I did use my normal workflow of opening the photos in Photoshop CS4 Camera Raw (even jpgs from the iPhone can be processed this way) and making some simple exposure adjustments and clean-up.

I took these shots in preparation of teaching an iPhonetograpy class at the Julia Dean Photo Workshops. The class is scheduled for December 6th. I hope to see you there.

Mark Harmel

harmelphoto.com

@MarkHarmel

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