We went up to Aramoana as a family trip, a chance to do some photography, and a chance for Sophie to get out with her new camera. But I go to take my first shot, and see “No card in Camera”. Dang!
But the best camera is the one you have with you, so the ‘proper’ camera stays in it’s case and I’ll have to make do with my phone. It’s a brilliant day, with clear skies and the sun low on the horizon. It’s set to randomise the settings. I like this since it gives me the unpredictable joy of using a truly wonderful/awful film camera without the expense of processing the film. (Matty ALN + BlackKeys 44)
Here’s Sophie showing off that she has a ‘real’ camera… (Libatique73 + Big Easy)
Someone ele’s do wanted to get in on the image. Kind of weird with the dogs head not showing (I have another shot where you see the dog more clearly, but I think I prefer this one for sheer funk). (Sergio + Black Keys SuperGrain)
Shooting into the sun will never give you an ordinary shot. But who wants another ordinary photo.
(Jack London + Rock BW-11)
How can a photograph embody emotion? How can a photo capture your feelings? My answer is that it’s a matter of opening your eyes to what is around you. I was visiting an old friend of mine who was dying in hospital. I spent a couple of days beside his bed, and the time was filled with laughter and tears. My friend Ralph is a musician and songwriter, and I’ve known him for three decades. Eventually I needed to say goodbye, and face a long walk back to the motel I was staying in, before catching a flight back home. Ralph was born and raised in Taranaki, noted for the big mountain, Mt. Taranaki, that looks down on the entire province. I remember when he and I left the province in ’79 or ’80 Ralph wrote a song about the mountain, using it as a metaphor for his feelings about the province…
I looked over my shoulder,
and saw the cause of my misery.
It’s a big white mountain
Pretty as it can be
But its ice cold breath, boys,
Be the death of me.
Walking down the road from the hospice I looked over my shoulder, and there was the mountain, looking down on me. Some days the mountain is hidden by cloud, but on a clear day it seems to be visible from almost everywhere. The mountain seemed to embody the complex feelings I had, having just said my last goodbyes to Ralph. I tried taking a photo of it with my phone, but the moderately wide lens made it look further away, and the suburban houses in the foreground seemed to be sending the wrong messages. The mountain was just too small in the image, and you didn’t really see the point of the photo. But when I got to the top of a hill near the motel I saw the mountain between a nest of signs, including one sign pointing towards a cemetery, a give way sign, and a man walking image. It was as if this is what I was put here to photograph. The place was asking me to photograph it. The best photos are not taken, but allowed to be taken. Knowing that the phone camera would not cut it, I unpacked my bag on the roadside – the 6D was at the bottom. I tried a couple of shots but I knew I needed something more. I re-assembled the tripod that I had packed away for travel, and found the ideal spot for the camera (on the road, pretty much in the path of passing cars) with the longest lens I had with me (70mm). I knew a longer lens was what I’d need to make the mountain large in the image relative to the foreground. I took a series of photos with long exposures looking for cars moving, and avoiding getting run over. I figured that a ghostly blurred shot of a car passing would complete the photo, and I think the result works really well.
In post I’ve adjusted contrast and increased the saturation. I’ve applied a mask to the sky and lowered the colour temperature to get the Japanese-y woodblock like colour in the sky (actually that was what the sky looked like, but it bleached out in the photo). I’ve also applied a mask to the signs and brightened them a little to make them more visible. Back at the motel I slept badly, and dreamed about Ralph. I was already wide awake when the alarm sounded at 5:00 am to get me ready for the shuttle to the airport, so I was outside, waiting for the shuttle in the predawn darkness well before the shuttle arrived. Lights over deserted roads and pedestrian crossings on still nights have always fascinated me, although given my state of mind they seemed like crossings over the river Styx. Since I had time to kill I ‘worked the scene’ with my phone. The first image was taken with the Hueless app that is a great little app for black and white photos, and seemed fitting for a fairly noir image.
Then I tried my favourite app – Hipstamatic – and took a bunch of shots with the randomise setting on. I really like the joy of finding a gem in the random combination of “lenses” and “films” you can get with this app. It reminds me of the joys of using a lo-fi film camera where you never really know what you are going to get.
The last shots of this trip are a little more optimistic, but nonetheless are dominated by that mountain, and I still have the words of Ralph’s song ringing in my ears. From my seat on the plane there was a wonderful view of the mountain (that damn mountain) and again I used Hipstamatic to take some shots. These work best in terms of composition – the mountain juxtaposed against the plane’s engine. With the random settings I’ve ended up with two very different treatments – choose the more colourful one for a more optimistic ending, or the muted one for something sadder.
Let’s return to the question I posed at the start. How can a photo embody emotion? Well, the images above certainly resonate to me with some very complex emotions connected with my friend’s passing, and when I look at the shots of the mountain I can’t help but hear the words of his song. They are certainly emotionally charged to me, and I guess you’ll pick up some of that charge from the images now that you’ve read the story behind them. But if you are just looking at the images? Probably the phone images won’t count for a great deal. The last two images are nice shots, but I doubt if they will convey the feelings I had without hearing the story (even though they work well as images). The two street shots are a little obvious. The one that I like though is the one at the top of the page, the shot where the universe asked me to take the photo. At first glance it’s a pretty shot of the mountain with the interesting lines made by the power poles, but the text in the image (on the signs) and the implied movement to and from the cemetery – the main walking towards his grave and the car recoiling from it – give the image more substance.
The other evening I went down to the new cycleway near my house, in the hope the at the city council might have built a nicely photogenic object near my home. As it turns out the cycleway is not as photogenic as I’d hoped – it might be better in fog or rain though. The lights in the distance are quite distracting. You don’t really notice them when you are there, since these are on the other side of the harbour, but they stick out in the photos.
I took a few shots, and I’ve posted the best one here. It’s not a great shot. The lens flare detracts from it, and the lights in the background also remove the atmosphere. But, apart from the lens flare, it is clear and sharp. It was shot with a Pentax K-5 on a tripod, using a Sigma 10-20mm lens.
But on the way home I thought I’d give my iPhone a shot at the same scene. This is an iPhone 4S with a Schneider wide-angle lens, and uses Hipstamatic. The iPhone really is not a great device for shooting in poor light, yet the results here are not too bad. It’s not sharp, but it is atmospheric. Since I used the randomise function on the iPhone (see the post below on serendipity) I had no idea what the shot would turn out like. I took eight shots – four were complete rubbish, and the remainder each had something to recommend them.
With the shot from the Pentax shot you can see the distracting background. I was thinking that some fog or rain might add the atmosphere I felt I needed for the shot I imagined, yet the unusual, LoFi exposure of the iPhone has provided me with a similar effect to the fog.
Conclusion – you can’t expect an iPhone to compete with a serious camera in terms of getting a detailed sharp image, but sometimes you can get an interesting atmospheric shot, a shot where the low quality can enhance the emotional impact. And, of course, the best camera is the one you have with you.
I’ve been intrigued for a long time with Lo-Fi photography – the weird and wacky images that come out of cheap plastic cameras like Holgas and Lomos. I’ve even mastered the art of turning my pristine DSLR images into gritty messed-up, light-leaked Holga images by using careful Photoshop work.
But there’s a problem there. It just doesn’t feel right to deliberately mess a photo up. And it shows. I remember working with aleatoric painting techniques (i.e. splatter painting) back in the 1980s, and noticing that if I exerted direct control the results would be visible. You just can’t fake a chance event.
There are all sort of iPhone apps you can use that will grunge up your images, but something seems wrong about those methods. Maybe it’s just that I saw it before it was grunged up, and I did the grunging, so I can’t look at it with fresh eyes.
The solution here is Hipstamtic’s random mode. Between each photo, shake the camera to get some new random combination of ‘lens’ and ‘film’ and you get wholly unpredictable results. It’s a very nice level of control – you get to point the camera, you get to choose the subject, but the exact treatment that tha camera applies will be a mystery until you it ‘develops’ a minute later.
Recently I was working on a serious shoot using a serious camera with a very wide lens. But since I’ve got my phone on me (hey, it’s a phone, you can actually use it to phone people too) I’d sometimes see a potential opportunity for a shot with a longer focal length. Taking out the iPhone and giving it a shake, it took this shot, using the Salvador 84 setting…
I never expected anything like that to come of the shot, and it would never have occurred to me to lay the image back on itself like that.
Another evening I was walking along a street in the evening in Christchurch to discover that the street runs right through a graveyard. This is one of the shots I took, again with randomised settings. Looks like a poster for a Hammer horror film!
Lastly, the morning after getting that graveyard shot, I woke un in a motel room, looking at the ceiling. The light was coming in through the window, making an interesting pattern. It was actually the iPhone (in alarm clock mode) that had woken me up. The walls were painted a cream colour, but Hipstamatic is much too cool for cream and has tinted the image red.
Perhaps the moral to this tale is that the best camera is the one that you have with you.
I tend to regard the iPhone as a fun toy more than a serious camera anyway, and so I tend to use it on high risk subjects. Things that I might not get the serious camera out for. Most of the shots I take with it are junk, but there are some gems too, and I’m consistently surprised by how many gems come from Hipstamatic’s random settings.
But most importantly, the process is really enjoyable. It’s a lot of fun. Actually it’s some of the most fun I’ve had with photography for a long time!
I don’t plan on changing the way I do my ‘serious’ photography, but I usually have my iPhone in my pocket, and it’s going to be left set to randomise the settings with a shake between photos. It actually adds another layer to the photographic experience. The joy of serendipity!
A new “lens” available for the Hipstmatic iPhone app – Salvador 84. The lens takes the image you shot, copies it, rotates it in random directions, and superimposes it back on in a random location, with surprising results. If you like a bit of fun and playful chance in your iPhone photography, and you are not too worried about representing reality in a normal way it’s a lot of fun.
All images and text © Phil Davison 2012