Phoning It In

“The best camera is the one you have with you.”    Anon

Nearly four billion of us have smartphones. Pretty much by definition a smartphone includes a camera (as do many simpler 'dumb phones,' if that's the opposite of a smart one). It's obvious that picture making has become a dominant feature in the long list of things our phones can do. I suppose it's equally obvious that being a telephone falls pretty far down that list, a comment I base entirely on the crappy call quality everyone seems to complain about, but that's off-topic here.

Phone pictures: they're everywhere. Billions upon billions of them. The sad truth is, most of those photos should have remained untaken, but who am I to limit the fun people have snapping pictures of the Whopper and fries the likes of which no one's ever seen before, or the baked jalapeño and mayonnaise cranberry scone they had for brunch? This is, after all, the Age of Perpetual Connectedness and Here's What I'm Doing Right Now, and we should all be more awed and intrigued than some of us are, I suspect. Still, among all the crap phone photos littering the cyberscape there is excellent work, some by well-known photographers. This proves (at least) two things:

Android powers my current (January, 2021) phone. It's not too old, but I won't mention brand and model because it'll be obsolete before I finish this sentence. I've not done much with its camera beyond using it as a data collection device. When shopping, especially when doing research for a product I might buy, I'll photograph a model number, specification sheet, or the box on a store shelf. I'm a fan of Google's Keep app, in which I've got notes for a wide range of subjects, from article ideas to book reading lists to favorite wines and where to purchase them. The phone's camera plays a role in many of those notes. Its 12+ megapixels and software enhancements for things like low-light or panorama photography are overkill, wasted features for what I do with it. On rare occasions I've snapped a photo with my phone for articles on this site, usually to show a shooting set-up with my DSLR and tripod, or to show some aspect of a product or arrangement of equipment. I'd call these “documentary” photos, certainly not in the category of art.

Sanity Is Having The Right Tool For The Job

On 19 January about 20 minutes after the sun set behind the hills beyond my kitchen windows the sky lit with eye-popping color. The day had been gloomy and gray, typical for January here in western Montana; the sudden burst of color against the darkening sky caught me off-guard. Knowing it would last only a few minutes I grabbed my phone from its belt holster, stepped out on my west-facing deck, and made three photos. I didn't mess with any camera settings, leaving all the defaults: full resolution, 4:3 aspect ratio, jpeg output, and whatever automation the camera's software decided the scene needed to render it as its engineers thought it should look. Without a jacket at 20°F I didn't want to linger, but I didn't rush the photos, instead taking time to think about composition, bracing the side of the phone against the deck railing, and then very gently tapping the shutter “button.” In other words, I made the pictures carefully, hoping to get the best the camera could deliver in those shooting conditions. A minute after that third exposure the sky went dark, all color drained away.

Since I hadn't had time to grab my DSLR, I hoped I'd gone 'round the bend only a little bit by using the tool I'd used. I had no plans for the pictures other than to look on the phone's very nice OLED screen to see if there was any point in doing this kind of thing. They looked pretty good, so I copied the best of the three (that is, the one Pat liked best) to my computer. A few days later I got around to opening it with Photoshop on the big monitor to play around a bit to see how much latitude I had to work with.

The Result

The colorful sky about 20 minutes after a January sunset

The colorful sky about 20 minutes after a January sunset.

Low expectations minimize disappointment; I expected what I'd come to think of as the typical phone shot. Instead I got a sharp image, with as good an exposure as one could get for the scene's low light, and decent color for the over-the-top saturation of the sky. Nothing in the scene was neutral, with a limited tonal range except for the brilliant sky color. The camera captured that very well. I did my usual processing for winter images, bringing up (brightening) the foreground area just a little, and reducing the blue in the snow. Despite being a jpeg, technically a compressed, 8-bit, 72 pixels/inch file, in this case only 3.5 megabytes in size, the image file behaved just as I've come to expect when working with raw files from my DSLR. I slightly desaturated the magenta in the sky because it seemed so brilliant as to be unbelievable. Toning it down just a little helped make it appear to be a picture made on this planet.

To take the experiment to its natural conclusion I decided to make a print. To properly fit a mat and frame I had on hand I cropped the file to a 2:3 ratio, that of a standard 35mm image, and then resampled the final, processed file to a little over 15 inches high by 10 inches wide (the mat opening being 15" x 10") at the printer's standard 360 ppi. I sharpened the image as usual, getting an on-screen result that looked pretty “crunchy” (as usual) but which I knew would look as it should at the printer's higher resolution. Of the printing papers I have in inventory only one, the now-discontinued Canson Infinity Fine Art Baryta Photographique, using the profile from yet another discontinued paper (Ilford Gallery Gold Fiber Silk) handled the image's wide color gamut.

The resulting print is everything I could hope for. It's nicely sharp without nasty artifacts or aberrations, the color and luminance (exposure) are very good, and it's on my favorite paper (alas, on one of the last sheets I have). What's not to like? It is now framed and hanging on the wall in a local gallery show, something I never expected to do with a “phone picture.”

In their current shapes and sizes smartphones present a terrible form-factor for a camera. They're awkward to hold and, without some kind of support, difficult to keep steady. You must tap a button on the screen, which is contrary to all conventional wisdom for keeping the camera still when making an exposure. (Yes, I know many phones allow you to use the switch on corded earbuds as a cable release.) By default these things make jpegs, which means the camera's software has processed and compressed the image file, a bit depth of 8-bits, the sky whatever blue an algorithm decides it should be, the exposure as bright (or not) the same software thinks the scene requires.

I don't expect to do a lot of photography with my phone, but there may be times when it's the camera I have with me, and it may often surprise me with the resulting pictures.

Some phones, including mine, can make .dng files, which don't have some of jpeg's limitations. In my very limited experiments doing that I've found those files process in the Camera Raw program (part of the Photoshop group of applications) much like any raw file. There's some real potential there, something worth more study.

I've no idea who coined the quote at the top of this article, which I first heard or read many years ago. It does not mean any camera is better than nothing. A better quote might be “Always have the best camera with you.” (Mike Johnston).

January, 2021

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