Mobile phone cameras: ‘A bad camera made beautiful’

Squeezing a lens into a mobile phone may lead to reduced quality, but it doesn’t have to mean bad pictures. Rhodri Marsden takes a snapshot of the photography apps that can make great art
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The Independent Tech

That camera you’ve got embedded in your mobile phone scores highly for convenience. You can whip it out whenever anything catches your eye and snap an image. But regardless of what the makers might say, squeezing a camera into a mobile phone inevitably leads to compromises in quality. While we wait for technology to deliver improvements, we’re turning in our millions to apps that not only conceal some of the inadequacies of our phone’s camera, but transform otherwise mundane shots of a bus station, your sister or your socks into a lo-fi, retro-style image with real character. Facebook walls, Flickr profiles and Photobucket albums are crammed with images that have been generated by apps such as Camerabag, Instagram and Hipstamatic; oversaturated, discoloured – perhaps lacking in realism, but infinitely more attractive than the shot you’d have ended up with without them. As Hipstamatic’s community manager Maria Estrada says: “We take a bad camera and make it worse in the most beautiful way.”

The future of amateur photography bears a startling resemblance to its past: megapixel perfection is abandoned in favour of images that look as if they’ve just been picked out of a old shoebox that’s been left abandoned in the attic for the last 30 years. It’s not just us, either. Professional photographers, seduced by the same simplicity and unpredictability that has made cheap film cameras like the Lomo and the Holga so popular, are also turning to cameraphone apps. American photographer Chase Jarvis recently produced a book of iPhone snaps called, tellingly The Best Camera Is The One That’s With You, while the New York Times printed a Hipstamatic shot of soldiers in Afghanistan on its front page, causing consternation among photojournalists. Should news stories be illustrated by gimmicky pictures produced by toys? The photographer in question, Damon Winter, posted an eloquent defence of his approach online and other photographers rallied to his defence. “There seems to be quite a strong movement away from the perfection of digital at the moment,” says Cardiff-based photographer Rob Hudson. “We have these ridiculously expensive cameras and lenses; there are no dark corners in the pictures any more and sometimes it doesn’t even feel photographic. Photography is about what the world looks like as a photograph. That’s the joy of it – not perfectly reproducing what’s in front of your eyes.”

However, anyone seeking real quality should steer clear of the mobile phone, according to Michael Topham, technical editor at Digital Photo magazine. “If you’re looking to print images, rather than just let them stack up on your hard drive, the difference in quality between a phone shot and a compact camera or DSLR is huge.

“Apps merely replicate the effects of expensive kit and the images they generate will always be grittier and grainier than a stand-alone camera.”

Photographer Laura Ward has a similar suspicion of Hipstamatic shots. “I went to an exhibition of iPhone images recently and it just seemed so lazy,” she says. “They looked as if they’d had a bad Photoshop job. Facebook seems like the perfect environment for those kind of shots; put them into a gallery and I just don’t feel anything.”

However, as photographer Mark Voce points out, it’s the image that counts. “It’s not how it’s made or what it was made with,” he says. “It’s whether the image creates a reaction in the viewer. I’ve had really interesting results from the iPhone, particularly when shooting architecture, so it’s not about the quality of your camera. What’s important is your eye for design and knowing how to create a good photograph.” The quantity of digital imagery we’re generating with the

cameraphones we always have with us means that those lucky moments occur more and more often and the apps that make those images more striking are incredibly popular.

Hipstamatic had, by the end of 2010, reportedly shifted around 1.4m copies. No-one could deny that we’re seeing the democratisation of photography.

“I do love the idea that cameraphones make everyone feel like a photographer,” says Laura Ward. “And some of them are great; myself and a couple of photographer friends held onto our old Sony Ericsson K800is for years – it was such a lovely little thing.” Michael Topham agrees that the ease of taking snaps is important.

“It’s allowing us to get those shots that otherwise wouldn’t be captured. After all, you’re not going to carry a DSLR camera with you every minute of the day.” Indeed, this was one of the defences offered by Damon Winter, the Hipstamatic-toting New York Times photographer; he pointed out that soldiers in Afghanistan take pictures of each other on their phones constantly and thus behave more naturally in front of a phone than they would in front of a huge lens. For all the accusations of apps tampering with reality, the cameraphone is such a part of our lives that it has a greater chance of capturing natural shots.

A side effect of the app boom is the interest generated in old methods of processing film. Swankolab, an app produced by the makers of Hipstamatic, emulates dark room processes on screen, while Polaroid emulators are being being embraced by kids who may never have come across Polaroid prints in the first place; they’re now churning out images that would seem more at home in the 1970s than the present day. The Hipstamatic app itself is billed by the developers as an emulating an rare camera of the same name that was around in the early 1980s; diligent research has failed to corroborate their story, but there’s no doubting its pseudo-retro appeal.

“There’s an intrinsic quality to those old-style shots,” says Michael Topham, “and it’s a really good way of informing kids about old photographic processes that are dying out.”

Mark Voce, meanwhile, sees this as a opportunity to mix and match the new with the old. “I still print in dark rooms using old methods,” he says, “but I might take the original shot with Hipstamatic and process it first with a computer. So I’m combining 21st century capture methods with 19th century printing and the results are really interesting.”

While the debate continues to rage of the validity of using Hipstamatic shots in journalism, the rest of us are just getting on with enjoying the technology – and quite right too, says Rob Hudson.

“After all,” he adds, “pro photographers will often alter the look of a picture using digital effects. And black and white pictures hardly represent what we actually see – so it’s not about authenticity. It’s about the finished product being pleasant to look at.”

If smartphone apps can help us to see the beauty of a particular bus stop, it certainly seems a shame not to embrace them. Especially when they cost less than £1.50.



The best iCameras

Camerabag: £1.19

Camerabag offers more than a dozen filters whose names make a subtle nod to well-known lo-fi cameras – “Helga”, “Lolo”. If you can't be bothered fiddling around on your phone, the application is also available for Mac and PC.

Instagram: FREE

Billed as a “life-sharing” app, Instagram combines a whole range of retro filters with tie-ins to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Flickr; this creates a photo-centric social network where you can easily follow all your friends uploads.

Hipstamatic: £1.19

Hipstamatic is the app most closely associated with retro snapping, and stays truest to its roots by not allowing post-processing; just choose your filter and your lens and see what happens. It's the unpredictability that gives it so much of its charm.

Camera+: £0.59

Flexible and full of features, Camera+ goes |beyond filters, adding controls for exposure, flash, stability, digital zoom, cropping and angling. Not so much a fun add-on as a complete replacement to the built-in iPhone Camera app.

Incredibooth: £0.59

Incredibooth does one thing and does it well: emulating pictures from retro photobooths. “No coins needed”, says the blurb - well, none beyond the 59p it takes to buy the app; use your phone's front facing camera to take the shots, then wait for an authentically lengthy time for the strip of four pictures to appear.

Tiltshift Generator: £0.59

Tilt and shift effects were only ever possible to achieve by using expensive lenses, but now you can do something similar for less than a pound. Originally a web-based service, its iPhone equivalent allows simple control over colour, blur and vignetting effects.

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