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My iPhone Photography (Mis)Adventure

June 18, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

The cliched shot of our reflection in the Cloud Gate (a.k.a. the Bean). At the end of May, my wife and I spent a weekend in Chicago for our anniversary. Chicago, being the big city it is and all, parking - especially down in the crowded areas the Magnificent Mile where we stayed - is expensive. The hotel we were staying at valeted our car for the low, low price of $52/day. Not to mention any tipping you might feel inclined to do to keep your car parked in a good space, or not have it driven around like the car in Ferris Beuller.

In my hurry to unload the car the first day we were there, I left a few things in the car, most notably my compact camera (a Fuji F660 EXR). I didn't think much of it at first, as I figured we were going to use the car either that night or the next day. So off I went with my DSLR kit (in "Travel" form), and my iPhone, for those times I didn't want to mess with the big camera. The next day came, and we never actually needed to use our car, and I was being a bit lazy (and cheap), so I didn't pay the valet to grab the car just for me to get the small camera out of; besides, most of the morning I was going to be using the DSLR anyway. 

So, there I was, for two days without my compact camera, relying on my iPhone for the quick grabs I was going to need and want. I started wondering how bad this was actually going to be; with the explosion of iPhone-photography, and all the stories of professional photographers using only their iPhones for weddings, and even the Chicago Sun-Times recently deciding to have their reporters become full fledged photographers with their iPhones, in addition to the rest of their reporting duties. It wasn't even like I was going to rely on my phone for the bulk of the photos, either, it was just going to be some quick things where I wouldn't want to call any more attention to myself as a tourist, or even just for things I wanted to throw up on Facebook and Instagram to share with friends. 

                                                                                      In Use

Our view - and our drinks Probably the best part of the experience were some of the apps I had to take, combine, and share pictures with. While I don't have an extensive array of apps for photo taking, I ended up using a couple that helped big time - one for quick HDR type shots (HDR Fusion), and one for panoramic stitching on the fly (Panorama). Of course there was some Instagram, and just the built-in camera app. I also used the collage-building app Diptic, too, which created one of our favorite images of our visit, from the bar at the (almost) top of the John Hancock Tower, seen here at the left. 

Of course, using the phone is straight forward enough, and there weren't many surprises. The biggest things I had to get used to were the framing, and how close I could get to an object for a macro-ish type shot, which I tended to do a fair amount. I hadn't used the front-facing camera much before this experience, but I used it a bit more, when I needed to make sure I got both the Wife and I in frame.


What I Liked

Unfortunately, this is a short section. The best part of the iPhone-as-camera was the ability to share so easily. While I had a newly purchased Eye-Fi card for my little Fuji, I'm sure it wouldn't have been quite so easy, and certainly not as quick. I was able to take a photo, and send it away to family from the 96th floor of the Hancock Tower. Very cool, but something we're all used to at this point. 

Why it Was My Misadventure

So, as easy as it was to share and take photos, it wasn't a trump card to what I had set up with my Fuji. The biggest disadvantage to the iPhone as a camera is the quality compared to my Fuji. There have been volumes written about the quality of iPhone imagery, beginning with the iPhone 4, and certainly expanding with the 4s (and now 5). However, most of the quality tests take place in (very?) good light, and what we had in Chicago that weekend was anything but. Another from the John Hancock tower. Taken with an iPhone 4s and HDR Fusion app

Most of the weekend was cloudy, with spotty rain showers chasing us (but luckily not catching us... much), which meant outside shots were in decent enough light, but once we got inside, there was little natural light helping with ambient illumination. This meant that the camera was often in situations where it struggles the most - poorly lit, high ISO shots. That sort of situation was why I am so sure I would have had better images to remember the weekend if I would have ponied up and got my little Fuji. The compact camera world has been upping their game in recent years, trying to stay ahead of cell phone cameras, and low light is one area they really concentrate on. Fuji, with their EXR technology, have come up with a very creative take on low light, and it works very well. (Though I won't say unequivocally better than the compact competition.)

The other area I was let down a bit was in the resolution of the front-facing camera, and some of the apps' outputs, which meant prints were almost certainly off the table for a few shots. However I'll take some of the blame for that, having not truly tested the apps for output sizes before that weekend, and getting free versions of nearly all of them. You don't have to have much resolution to share, but I am sorely missing it now that I want to print a bit. I made an 8x8" print of the image above, and our faces are pixelated, suffering from the small output of the panoramic processor I used. The image here to the right was taken with the front-facing camera and the HDR Fusion app, and it is going to be a fair stretch to print, with an output of only 478x639 pixels, or barely 100dpi for a 4x6" print. 

My Panoramic (tm) App photo from the inside of Gino

A quick pano from our stop at Gino's Pizza East, right next to our hotel. There were lines out the door all weekend, not so much on a Tuesday afternoon!

What I Learned

Other than the obvious bit about not complaining when I'm too cheap to get my camera, I learned that what thought about all those posts about an iPhone being a true replacement for a compact camera were not by people shooting in "real world" conditions. Not my real world, at least. My life tends to happen in less-than-ideal conditions; after all, there aren't many big cities that are less sunny than Columbus.  

The photos look great... when they are viewed on a smart phone screen. Get them onto a good computer screen or print, and I definitely start to see the lack of quality. Call me picky, but it is my job as a photographer to nit-pick all my photos; I see things some might never see, but if it bothers me even a bit, I have to do whatever I can to fix it, or I'll always have some reservation over a photo.

Final Thoughts

I have said for years that it's not the equipment you use that defines a good photograph, and you can't be worried about the imperfections of the image if your choice was to either have the photo or not. The photographer controlling the camera is the most important part. While this still holds true, I will admit that I am bothered a bit lot that my (iPhone) images didn't come out nearly as well Our seats at Chicago as I wanted them to (in respect to image quality), and not as well as I know they could have. I am truly happy to even have the images, as I wouldn't give those up for the world. However I'm a little worried that I'll never forget that I had the chance to do better, and let that chance pass me by. 

I know that I'll never rely on my (current) phone to be a "day-to-day" type of camera, and this doesn't come as a surprise to me. I've seen enough iPhone images submitted for print through my day job to know that. I also know that I'm not going to stop using my phone to make images, as it's too easy to share, and it can be a different form of expressing an idea I have in my head. 

So in the end, I end up in the same spot I began. Now, however, I have my own experience to rely on. I will still shake my head at parents in the stands trying to use their phones to take photos of little Jimmy on the football field, or at the 6th grade production of Shakespeare. But I will not change how I've been using my phone's camera: just for quick grab shots to share on social media or with friends, or for those times I just want to use something a little different than my norm.


Just a Few More

Because the best thing you can do with your photos is share them, here are a few more Chicago photos from the phone:

My breakfast at Yolk. Red Velvet French Toast, and Cinnamon Roll French Toast. It was awesome.

My breakfast at Yolk. Cinnamon roll French toast on bottom, red velvet cake French toast on top. Thank goodness we walked 3+ miles after breakfast! 

It wouldn

To our friends, it will come as no surprise that we stopped at a wine bar. In this case, it is Bin 36

From our window seats at the Signature Lounge on the 96th near the top of the John Hancock Tower. This was looking down from the bar at the top of the John Hancock tower - The Signature Lounge on the 96th. We were extremely lucky to have gotten seats right at the window, it was packed that day!


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