Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Mobile Phone Nature Photography

All photos on this blogpost were taken with my iPhone4 and are presented without post-processing.

I was a rather late convert to photography.  I bought my first camera as a present to myself for my 30th birthday (an early mid-life crisis, and I couldn’t afford a Porsche).  The same is true of mobile phones – I bought my first mobile rather late, well into the naughties, and long after they’d been adopted as a supposedly essential item by many.  I’ve never been a great lover of technology, and I’ve always been attracted to the simpler, more primitive, more immediate ways of living life.  The shady woodland canopy and burbling waters are far preferable for me to the tall towers and moaning traffic of the city; the scratch of pencil crafting words on paper is a much more enjoyable way to write than the regular, monotone stabs at the computer keyboard (every letter of the alphabet with the same dull thud, anonymous and indistinct); I prefer acoustic music to electronic or amplified music (and I don’t think of myself as a classical fuddy-duddy, but I just think there’s more immediate expression if you can feel your breastbone vibrating with the resonance of another, real, human voice – as with all the arts, we don’t just hear music: we feel it too).

So it’s perhaps a surprise to me that I now engage in nature and express my love of it in carrying around heavy, modern, digital camera equipment which turns the natural image into numerical data in a form that would have perplexed even Pythagoras who spent his life arguing in the beauty of mathematics in doing the very same.  Even more perplexing that I have recently found myself engaging further in the world of simplicity by using my mobile phone to photograph nature, rather than drawing it (pencil of course), painting it, or photographing it on a film camera.  But to me, the engagement with the natural world represents a much more honest way to spend a life than much of the offices and board rooms in which I’ve spent many years and grown to resent. 

Okay, so I must fess up that I spent this afternoon reading Shakespeare’s As You Like It for the 20 somethingth time this year, the pastoral play in which a life in the woods and in nature is compared with life of corrupt civilisation and the court.  Shakespeare very skilfully makes the argument well balanced as to which life is better, but personally I will always fall down on the side of the woodland.  Having also taken a morning stroll today in Sherwood Forest, just a couple of miles up the road from where I live, and come back to read the description of Shakespeare’s Duke living ‘in the Forest of Arden and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of they did in the golden world’. Pastoral literature from the ancients to the 16th century so often calls up images of a golden age, but with the forest now exploding into Autumnal colours, you could be forgiven for experiencing an attraction to this ‘golden world’ in another sense, with great immediacy, here today.

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Shake it up baby now, twist and shoot!
Life is full of contradictions, and photographing with an iPhone4 and posting the pictures and writing about them on a Google blog is about as far removed from the natural life as we can get, but it’s the end that I’m interested in, rather than the means. There is great simplicity and honesty in mobile-phone photography, a sense of honesty in the image, and a contract between photographer and audience that is still in tact today (I think) after some viewers will understandably question the truthfulness of so many modern photographic images.  The images I take on my phone represent my encounters with the natural world as honestly as my work with the digital SLR, but taking pictures with a mobile phone helps to reinforce the point.  The photographs are exactly the image that appears on the screen before your press the button to capture it – only a fool would photoshop mobile phone images; for anyone else, it just wouldn’t be worth it.  And so perhaps these images might persuade others whose only camera is the built-in automatic job on their phone, that nature photography is an art which they might like to join in with as a way of discovering nature.  People might realise more fully the immediacy of these images – this is what the natural world actually looks like through a mobile phone (so what are you waiting for? get outside and take a look!!).

Exposure and White Balance locked for the moody, blue cast.

So, having only dabbled in mobile-phone photography before I decided to venture out for a couple of mornings and try to push my camera-phone as far as I could and see how it would perform in the light just before and just after sunrise.  I was out on a series of dawn shoots with the big camera, but the iPhone was out of my pocket and in my hand alongside the SLR, and I was surprised with just how well it handled some challenging conditions for photography.

The final shot.
This may seem a gimmick of an experiment, but it is not.  I’ve heard many professionals bemoaning the fact that everyone now seems to have the equipment to let them take really good photographs (I cannot see why that’s a bad thing, but they seem to think it is) and I can’t think of a better way for the next generation to learn about nature and enjoy spending time with it.  It’s also easy as a photographer to feel too comfortable with your equipment, to the point at which you stop trying to figure out how to do new things, and just slip into well-tried routines and angles.  I can only speak for myself here, but battling with the mobile phone, thinking hard about how I could get the exposure or focus to behave in certain unusual ways really made me think my way right around each image before taking it.  It’s a breadth and depth of that which, if reapplied to my SLR photography, could really help me to raise my game.

More than anything, however, it’s fun. These wee five-megapixel images are just an opportunity for me to get out and have some fun in the natural world without stones of judgement chained around my neck.  They’re just pictures that I enjoyed taking. That’s all. It’s immensely liberating, and it allows you to have fun in the natural world without disturbing it or destroying it.

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If I was late to adopt the mobile phone into my life, it’s because I had something of an aversion to it.  And, to be honest, I still do.  This hasn’t got anything to do with the fact that I prefer trees to transmitters or any other anti-techno argument; it is simply the image of the mobile phone user that Dom ‘HELLO!!’ Jolly attempted to ridicule into silence, but simply made more prominent.  That bellowing businessperson or screeching socialite connected to goodness only know who goodness only knows where, whilst disconnected from the people and the world around them; at best they appear to be oblivious to their surroundings; at worst, they are ignorant of them. 

All this talk of phones helping us connect, and yet for these people they cause them to lose connection with the world around them, giving attention only to a person from whom they are removed, a far-off reality in which they will never be able to immerse themselves fully or even mindfully.  It would be a mistake to blame the technology for this – it is always the person behind the din that is responsible.  In fact, the technology itself can help to reverse the problem, connecting us with greater attention to the world in front of our eyes by looking and taking photos.

It’s such a simple approach, it hardly needs such advanced modern technology for us to make it happen, but the technology can help bring us back when we’ve lost our way.