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The changing face of mobile photography

Mobile phone photography has come a long way since the first grainy iPhone shots started a phenomenon.

Craig Swatton/iStockphoto

In just a few short years, smartphone photography has reached critical mass. It used to be the case that a camera module on a phone was a curious anomaly rather than the rule, but now you would be hard pressed to find a mobile device without a lens on it somewhere.

To demonstrate just how much mobile photography has permeated contemporary society, take a trip through any tourist venue and count the number of people taking photos. No doubt there will be a mixture of compact cameras, SLRs and mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (ILCs). But just as many people will be using a mobile device to snap a photo. You might even let out a chuckle as you see someone lift a tablet to the sky, poised and ready to grab that happy snap.

Today, smartphone camera technology has reached a point where most devices are good enough to produce images for newspaper front pages, be used in a professional capacity at a wedding or to document major sporting events.

The line between mobile devices and traditional cameras has blurred so much that we no longer question why someone uses their phone to take a photo. The stigma, at least surrounding mobile phone photography, has all but disappeared, except for the most fervent traditionalists.

If anything, traditional cameras have had to play catch-up to stay competitive with their mobile companions. Features like Wi-Fi and near-field communication (NFC) are now commonplace on even some of the most basic point-and-shoots, because photographers expect their devices to be connected. Tools like the Eye-Fi card, which turns a regular snapper into a Wi-Fi-enabled device, have proven to be wildly successful, while hybrid cameras that merge the benefits of cellular connectivity and "regular" camera elements such as the Samsung Galaxy Camera are bridging any remaining gaps between the two worlds.

When mobile photography really started to take off in 2009, many associated it with the iPhone, dubbing the phenomenon iPhoneography. Today, "Mo Pho", as it has affectionately become known, is a legitimate art form. Photographers are finding different ways to express themselves thanks to the limitations and strengths of the platform.

Apps like Instagram have certainly popularised the experience of mobile photography, making it more accessible and social than before. But for professional photographers, phones have opened up a whole other world of possibilities.


Che McPherson has seen this transformation occur in his time as design content lead at iStockphoto, as well as his role as professional photographer for a range of international clients. As part of his role at the stock photo site, McPherson is a senior inspector, who oversees quality control checks for submitted images every day.

In all, he said that there are more day-to-day stock photographers submitting mobile photos than casual mobile photographers looking to make some spare cash from stock images. It's the distinct challenge of working with a small device that lets photographers see in different ways, according to McPherson.

"Once you are a professional photographer, you really always want to look for more ways to be creative and push boundaries," he said. "Obviously, with a professional, you are always carrying around a truckload of gear, and it becomes really laborious. Then it's almost really refreshing that you can have something in your pocket and easy to whip out."

Technical limitations, like noise and chromatic aberrations, no longer pose as big a problem as they once did in the early days of mobile photography. Thanks to higher-resolution sensors and the ability to clean up photos easily in post-processing, McPherson and his team are able to accept more photos than ever before, with iStockphoto receiving approximately 15,000 images per day for review.

"[These days] ... with an image, it's not all about how technically good it is; it's about how beautiful it is and how usable it is," he said.

A picture tells a thousand memories

McPherson strongly believes that mobile devices allow us to capture moments in time that would normally be out of the question if we had to rely on professional gear. "You're getting real, authentic moments using a smartphone, because they are so unobtrusive and accessible," he said.

It's not just everyday scenarios that lend themselves to being captured by a smartphone for posterity. In the competitive field of stock photography, plenty of international brands are seeking images that look and feel authentic. "Nowadays, people are engaging with emotion — a raw, authentic moment," McPherson said. Apple is just one example of a company that has made the explicit connection between memories, emotion and mobile photography, thanks to a recent advertisement that highlights the popularity of the iPhone 5's camera.


But, as we know, these "moments" that McPherson mentioned can be manipulated. The popularity of Instagram filters or presets like VSCo make us react to photos in different ways, whether that's evoking a sense of nostalgia or intensifying emotion and a sense of urgency through black-and-white processing.

McPherson is seeing a trend of stock photographers submitting filtered images that have been processed in such a way as to deliberately elicit an emotional reaction in the viewer.

"Once again, it's a trend or a style - the bigger the style, the harder it's going to fall," he said. "My prediction for the future is that it's really going to phase out. As far as images right now, and being an iStock inspector, we just love to see that stuff. Obviously, it's got a really artistic look. Once again, it's supplying images that simply aren't out there. It's got its own grandeur of style."

The role of tablet photography

Mobile photography isn't restricted to the confines of a phone screen. Tablets and larger phones are also becoming increasingly popular as imaging devices, too — this generation's "large format", if you will.

In many cases, the camera and lens specifications may not be as sophisticated as those found on the smaller-factor smartphones, but many professionals are finding innovative ways to see beyond the hardware limitations.

Rachel Devine supplements her existing collection — including models like the Nikon D3, Hasselblad and Polaroid SX-70 — with a Samsung Galaxy Note 2, which she uses for impromptu shooting and travel photography. Taking photos on a larger mobile device can elicit some peculiar looks; Devine even admitted to giggling when seeing iPads used at concerts.

"People are not used to seeing something so large compared to the iPhone/iPod screens, and anything different tends to cause some people to initially be uncomfortable," she said. "Also, the cameras that are in tablets have generally been not as good as the ones in phones, so there is that assumption that another device would be better."

Rachel Devine

While it might earn the chagrin of passersby seeing a tablet or large smartphone taking a photo, Devine noted that using an Android rather than an Apple device has earned her more curiosity than criticism. "That usually leads to them wanting to see the S Pen in action and discussing favourite photo editing apps," she said.

The convenience of having such a large screen for photo editing and composition is another advantage for tablet photographers. Executive chef Perry Perkins currently uses an iPad for food photography, and while he had a point-and-shoot beforehand, the tablet has opened up many more possibilities for his images.

"Being able to see what I'm shooting on such a large screen means I can angle and crop my shots as I'm taking them," he said. "With food photography, what I'm seeing on the screen is often a life-size image or larger. Being able to email my photos to my computer, and/or post directly to one of my social media pages, is nice."

Tablets have also made it easier for professionals to show clients images during a photo shoot, thanks to wireless tethering. The extra real estate of a tablet screen makes it much easier to review photos, and to engage with them, too. "Since my work is mostly commercial, having the client there to see the images as they are captured opens up a really fantastic line of communication during shoots," Devine said. "Working mostly with kids, I find that my small models are engaged with the shoots more when they can see the resulting images."

Rachel Devine

Some photographers have faced resistance from those practitioners in traditional circles who don't see how a mobile device could possibly be considered a legitimate photographic tool. Though this schism shares many similarities with the transition between film and digital back in the early 2000s, the difference with mobile photography is that it's not replacing one format with another; it's merely offering a different way for an artist to express themselves. Renowned mobile photographer Misho Baranovic said you can't convince everyone that a smartphone or tablet serves just as much purpose as a traditional camera.

"I've found that people who truly love photography don't care what you shoot with; they just want to be moved and challenged by the photographs," he said. "The ones that dismiss what you do often have a vested interest in the definition of photography — usually in relation to equipment or technique.

"The only thing you can do is strive to take, find and showcase the best of mobile photography. Also, you need to keep asking why people want to shoot on these devices, and how this changes the way we capture, share and consume pictures."

Baranovic is well positioned to discuss the changes in the mobile photography scene, being one of the first to popularise and communicate the benefits of this form of expression thanks to his award-winning images. Apart from the obvious advantages presented by near-instantaneous sharing, he mentioned the benefits of having an integrated shooting system for time-sensitive delivery. "In particular, news organisations and brands are seeing the importance of delivering high-quality imagery through live blogging formats," he said. "For example, Sydney Fashion Week partnered with Oliver Lang to Instagram live blog a number of fashion shows over the week. This is similar to what TIME Magazine did when they sent a number of professional photographers to provide rolling Instagram coverage of Hurricane Sandy as it made landfall late last year."

The popularity of mobile apps such as Instagram and EyeEm allows pretty much anyone to edit and share images with a broader audience. But apart from applying effects like different filters, many photographers are also using these apps to share photos taken on traditional cameras, not just those from their mobile devices.

Does it bother the mobile photographer to see these tools used to share non-mobile photos? "I don't mind if people are using traditional cameras," said Baranovic. "But I often wonder why they bother, as it's so much easier to just capture, edit and share directly on the phone. I also find that photos taken on big cameras often lack 'instant' nature of those taken on a mobile device — often jarring with the purpose of mobile sharing platforms."

For many mobile photographers, even those who may not necessarily identify themselves as such, smartphones and tablets have helped redefine the way they approach their art. In today's interconnected world, where every device has the potential to be a new image capture tool, mobile photography is not just about the medium — it's about the message, too.