Smart phones are increasingly equipped with cameras that in many ways encroach upon the domain of the compact digicam. While their lenses may be somewhat lacking in comparison, there is no contest when it comes to immediacy and connectivity.
A dedicated camera must be plugged into a computer to have the stored images available for manipulation or dissemination on the web. The smart phone, however, short-circuits this, enabling increasingly comprehensive post-processing and direct transfer to online mediums to occur on board: the digital documentation of life has never been easier.
I found out the hard way how the digital compact is no longer a viable proposition for the casual smart phone-owning photographer: I purchased a high-end compact (the well-respected Canon S95) earlier this winter, thinking it would be a good substitute for the times when I couldn’t carry my bulky Nikon D7000 DSLR.
However, despite boasting full manual controls, the ability to shoot in RAW and a host of other ‘pro’ features, I quickly realised that such cameras are merely the worst of both worlds rather than a handy stop-gap.
Fiddly to use, with the resulting images way below the quality of those from the DSLR, I found that I just couldn’t be bothered to put in the necessary work on the computer to get them into shape. Why bother when the iPhone can circumvent all of this?
Perhaps those who don’t own a DSLR might still feel the need for a compact, in which case the way to go would seem to be a so-called ‘bridge‘ camera, compact, but with interchangeable lenses enabling it to do what the tiny smart phone fixed lens cannot.
What has fuelled the smart phone’s usurpation of the compact camera is the sheer number of amazing apps available for immediate processing of one’s snaps. Software such as ‘PictureShow‘ can transform your pictures into black and white, faux retro or lofi with the ability to add noise, frames, and so on, producing stunning results and expanding the realms of creative possibility. ‘Hipstamatic‘ offers similar, but goes one step further in actually turning your iPhone into a retro camera for which an array of different virtual lenses and films can be installed. The twist here is that you can’t change the look after the fact, you have to decide before hand, thus perfectly recreating the old days of analogue photography.
Probably the most successful, however, is Instagram, ostensibly just another iPhone photography app, but to all intents and purposes a form of social networking.
Instagram, like others, enables you to take a picture (or upload a pre-existing one), then apply a themed filter, a frame and perhaps add a ’tilt shift’ effect to simulate depth of field.
The difference is that the resulting snap is then added to your ‘feed’ on Instagram as well as being saved to your iPhone. You can comment on the photos of others, ‘like‘ them, annotate your efforts with hash tags to allows others to find them, and ‘follow’ other photographers, much as you would follow people on Facebook.
I’ve recently been very enthusiastic about iPhone photography after realising that I didn’t need a dedicated camera to get good-looking snaps on the fly because of apps like Instagram, and because it makes me feel part of a community engaged in something constructive, rather than the vacuousness of Facebook.
In fact, my iPhone snapping was starting to rival the enjoyment of ‘real’ DSLR photography: However, I think the initial two-month honeymoon period is over, and I’m beginning to see its drawbacks.
As much as the Instagram software itself is very good and transforms already well-composed shots into works of art (which admittedly when viewed at resolutions greater than that of a phone screen start to lose their good looks due to inherent low-quality graininess), it is the interactive part of Instagram that is starting to pale.
Just like other social networks, the natural desire to share your life (in this case through pictures) just seems to debilitate into an empty popularity contest where the ‘winners’ are those who can gather the most followers and get the most ‘likes.’ However gratifying popularity is (and us humans all seem to like it), as an end in itself it is utterly vacuous and detracts from the nobler pursuit of enjoying a cyber-stroll through a vast gallery of art which is what it should be at heart.
This mass pissing contest results in the bizarre: one man posts a picture of a cup of coffee, not even a particularly arty rendering of a cup of coffee, and it instantly gets over a thousand ‘likes‘ and a line of posters tripping over themselves in praising the author. The same kind of acclaim seems to follow those who are teenage, female and blonde, irrespective of the merits of their artwork, although in this case it is perhaps more easily explained. In either case it has absolutely nothing to do with photography.
Another form of debasement revolves around the fact that Instagram allows one to upload pictures from elsewhere: hence, many folk with amazing photos are actually just cropping their high-quality DSLR masterpieces into the square Instagram format, which seems to be a betrayal of the whole retro-Polaroid fun aspect of the enterprise which the developers envisaged.
As a joke I wrote a sentence using a string of hash tags to comment ironically on the way people follow their pictures with enormous amounts of these things in other to get views. I don’t think anyone got the joke, but it did actually slightly increase my usual number of ‘likes.’
I’m now coming back to the only position that makes any sense to me: photography is a form of artistic expression that to have any value must first and foremost be satisfying to the artist even if it exists within a vacuum. Any appreciation by others must be regarded as icing on the cake, else the pursuit becomes debased by the unhealthy psychological motives so in evidence on the various social networking platforms. This is true no matter if the capturing device is the smart phone or a professional DSLR.
To conclude: on the positive side, the iPhone has enabled us to dispense with dedicated compact cameras for our casual photographic inspiration and multiplied the potential for our artistic self-expression: inevitably the Facebook generation, eager for the approval of as many cyber-citizens as possible, will utilise such portals as Instagram for the dissemination of endless shots of food and self-portraits, but it is still likely that real artistic talent will shine through, even if the signal to noise ratio is likely to be rather low.
And, lest I be accused of hypocrisy, I’ll refrain from revealing my username on Instagram so you won’t be able to ‘follow’ or ‘like’ me…