Thursday, December 25, 2014

Reflections on Photography & Mobile Phones

 

Nokia Lumia 930 mounted to an SLR GorillaPod through a RetiCAM adapter

 

Today we start with a question that will lead to other questions.

As an enthusiast photographer, how often do you use your mobile phone's camera, especially if you deem it "good enough"? Is it only when you need to take a picture and don't find your camera available? Or do you always consider that you have a camera with you in the back of your mind and keep your eyes open for photo opportunities?

That takes us to an even more important question. What do you do with the thousands of photos you've taken (and will be taking) over the years? How do you share your photos? And with whom? And what percent of the photos you've taken have you shown to someone else?

 

I initially planned to post about my recent experiences with mobile phone cameras, but I think this might be a good introduction to a larger scale discussion about "What do you do with your personal photography?"

Here's my version of the story, so grab a cup of coffee or some popcorn and come sit across with the others near the hearth, I love details, and this won't be a short piece.

As an Egyptian, during my wee years, photography as a concept was usually limited to passport shots, wedding photos or official family portraits. It is not common (but not impossible) to see people taking photos on the streets, except in pure touristic areas.

Nowadays, due to the social networks boom, it is pretty common to see people using mobile phones to take facebook & instagram group photos and selfies. Even mobile phone manufacturers are marketing improved front facing cameras, something I never ever bothered to check if it works or not. I am currently not a fan of taking photos of myself, my food, my kids or my outings to post on facebook for other people to see and comment on. My main use for facebook is to have access to certain groups for buying & selling photography equipment, and receive interesting things shared by friends. And those of my facebook friends who keep sharing each and everything they come across, are quickly unfriended, or at least unfollowed if I want them to keep in touch with me over facebook.

Galaxy S4, Stockholm

 

Back to street photography. Despite the "mobile phone photography" cultural shift caused by social networks; especially in the larger cities in Egypt, it is still a rare sight to find someone carrying a DSLR or a mirrorless camera roaming the streets and taking photos. I tried to do it a few times, and it always felt like I am a single actor on a stage, and the center of everyone's attention. Everyone is taking note of me, even becoming a bit apprehensive that my camera gets pointed there way. And with all the current security threats, it is an extremely easy way to get apprehended in a moment’s notice, until you can prove that you were not surveying the area to plan for some threat or attack. Four years ago (before the recent political issues started, and things were relatively stable), I was out on the streets, with 3 of my friends, taking photos of one of my friends’ car: we were stopped by 5 policemen, and spent more than one hour explaining why we were taking photos at that place, until they apparently got bored and returned our IDs and let us go.

Point is, street photography is neither common nor easy in Egypt, if not dangerous in the first place (both ways: thieves attacking the rich looking subject, or security/policemen being edgy and/or aggressive). Not to mention the fact that as an Eastern culture, people expect privacy even on the streets, and do not accept someone taking photos close to them (I am one of those people by the way), and there is no law to allow or ban photography in normal streets to protect either party. So, as an enthusiast photographer, I am fairly restricted to taking photos in places where having a camera is expected: scenic areas, weddings, private clubs, open areas, restaurants, and of course at home.

Galaxy S4, I have no reservations to pull it out at any moment
Because it takes good pictures

Being restricted that much, and watching other bloggers out there roaming the streets and taking nice photos is torture. My only outlet consists of taking family photos (95% of which I don’t show on this blog), friends in rare occasions, and good scenery in even rarer occasions. I also enjoy taking product shots, especially my own photography gear. And that's the main reason I don’t post a lot here, because I usually don’t have enough good photos to share with you. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I am so into photography gear in general (besides being an engineer and a general gadgets geek). For example, in the past month alone, I was hit by a huge GAS burst, and acquired two new cameras and 3 new lenses!! Did I post about any of them yet? I am dying to! I have a zillion things I want to say, but I don’t have enough images toshow for my posts, and I don’t fancy posting random mediocre images around the house for the sake of writing a post. Sigh!

That said, allow me to reflect a bit about using mobilephones for taking photos. I hardly post images online except for this blog, and since 95% of my photos are personal, they are usually kept in digital format over several household devices (tablets, mobile phones, PC, TV, etc…), and there are the occasional prints. The reason I mention this is to share that I am not eager to take photos of every event happening to me or around me and share it on social networks. The general rule is that I only take photos, or more accurately, I only consider photo opportunities when I have a good camera with me, and that’s why I owned the RX100 as a carry-everywhere camera (now replaced with the LX100). So when I don’t have a camera, I hardly consider my phone’s camera, which I mainly use to scan documents and receipts into evernote. Their quality is not that good, they have a permanent wide-angle lens which doesn't work for me most of the time, the images fall apart quickly in less than goodlight, have very shallow latitude for post-processing (especially if the AutoWB screwed up), and never showed pleasing skin tones.

My trusty Galaxy S4


This somewhat changed when I first got my Galaxy S4 phone, it had quite a good 13 MP camera, that I started enjoying shooting with my phone more often. I posted about it here. And when the Galaxy S5 was released (up until the S5, I had all the previous Galaxy S series phones, I always sold the older one and buy the new one. Where I work, I get periodic allowancesto buy new phones), I only heard good things about its camera, it had a new 16 MP BSI sensor which promised better performance than before, and had excellent 4K video recording as well. However, in actual usage, I found the S4’s still camera performance to be better, but I was smitten by how sharp and detailed the 4K video output of the S5 was when downscaled to a 1080p timeline to the degree that I bought a RetiCAM solid tripod mount for mobile phones.

4/5 of my Galaxy S family, starting with the S2 to the left up to the S5 to the right. Notice the ever increasing dimensions
S4 was as large as I was comfortable with, but my last for the S5 convinced me the slight increase won't matter. It did!
RetiCAM tripod mount for mobiles, a classy piece of machined aluminum.


But alas, just two months after buying the S5, I was tantalized by Nokia’s Lumia 930 flagship (known as Lumia Icon in the US), it had the right looks, right hardware, rightcamera (20 MP RAW shooter), right accessories (free Qi wireless charger & treasure tag), and a totally new to me Windows Phone 8.1. It was also considerably cheaper than the S5, so I bit the bullet and bought a black one and sold my S5. I was enjoying the new OS experience, it really is very good, but still has a few issues to resolve compared to Android & iOS. The main issue is that several major app developers didn’t consider Windows Phone as an existing OS.

Flowers, Galaxy S5
Car Cleaning, Galaxy S5
Not a pretty picture, but shows how the dynamic range can be pushed for modern mobile phone cameras. This was one shot, no HDR.

 

The Lumia 930 had the best stills camera of all the phones I used, and that is saying something. The main camera attractions are the full manual camera controls (and I mean full, as in you-have-a-slider-to-change-focusing-distance full), the RAW shooting; which gave me a huge benefit to adjust WB in post under tricky lighting situations, the dedicated camera key; which gave me better stability than poking the screen using my finger, and that it accurately metered the exposure relative to my focus point; which made shooting with back light very easy. It had really crappy 1080p video though, and I didn’t investigate its video capabilities any further.

The coolest home screen ever. Lumia 930.
RAW dynamic range, Lumia 930

 

I was happy using the Lumia 930 every day. I got quite bored with Android (or is it Samsung Android looks’ the culprit?) and was happy trying a new OS (for those are thinking iOS, I had an iPad 2 and currently have an iPad Air, so I am quite familiar with iOS). It certainly didn’thave the flexibility of Android, but the concept of having a desktop where you can pin tiles (the icons you see on the home screen of Windows Phone) for almost anything in the phone (a facebook event, a maps location, a note, a picture,etc…) is an excellent idea that is both time saving and easy to use. Cortana (Siri’s & Google Now's nemesis) was also a better assistant than Google Now, and it was easily accessible by long pressing the search button (the new Denim update will allowit to be called from the lock screen too). The screen colors and white balance can be thoroughly adjusted, and I also enjoyed immensely the phone’s UI & fonts and the small-caps titles. I started shooting pictures confidently in lowlight conditions knowing that I have 20MP flexible RAW files to play with. The Lumia's RAW files have more highlight recovery latitude compared to JPEGs (the phone can shoot RAW+JPEG), and AutoWB mistakes can be simply corrected.

Sony Z3 Compact, my best experience with Android so far

 

It was all good and happy, except for the size, weight and battery life. The phone weighed more than all the previous phone I owned, and it was starting to bother me. The size was already smaller than the S5, which was a nice thing, but it was still larger than the S4, and weighed a lot more. The battery lasted a full day under normal usage, where my S4 & S5 easily got through two days with one charge. Then there were the raving reviews of the new Sony Z3 Compact, top hardware specs and camera in a slim and light body that I missed since my Galaxy S2 days, with a 2-days-at-least battery life. It looked even better than my Lumia. Moreover, the LG G Watch R was released,which I’d been fancying for a while, but it works with Android phones only, hmm. As you can guess, after 2 months of owning the Lumia 930, I found a good home for it, and bought the Z3 Compact and an LG G Watch R, which might be a subject for a later post.

20MP sensor with a G lens


I am happy to report that the phone's camera is good enough. And the sharp 4K videos are back, in addition to a bonus 120fps 720p mode.

In conclusion, You read above about the circumstances surrounding my photography experience, and what comes of the resulting photos. Let us hear how you share your photos with others, and what do you do with it?