Monday, July 7, 2014

Street Photography, iPhones and Instagram

All images taken with iPhone 5S and edited with Instagram, VSCOCam, PS Express, and/or Camera +

I love reviewing cameras and I enjoy street photography. I only review cameras that interest me and want to use while shooting on the street. I care less about absolute image quality, but focus on what camera is best for shooting quickly and discretely, important qualities while taking street images. Funny thing, I've been spending much of my time shooting with my iPhone and using Instagram as the primary platform for my street photography work. When I upgraded my iPhone 4 with the latest iPhone 5S back in December, I saw a leap in image quality and felt it was powerful enough for me to shoot with it as a serious imaging tool. What makes smartphone cameras ideal for street photography? Here's a few things I've learned while using my iPhone and sharing my images via Instragram during my street photography project...

It's ironic that I instinctively grab for my iPhone to take spontaneous street photos even though I have a powerful and often expensive review camera around my neck. At first it was an unconscious reaction, but now I do it as a personal and professional challenge. I force myself to use my iPhone to prove that in the right hands, a smartphone can capture great street photo images. I did a recent photo-walk project with a local art school and I showed up to lead this workshop with my iPhone! Ha ha. I think it surprised a few people. However, when I showed them my Instagram gallery, they were surprised. I've even had a few people laugh at me (they brag that they shoot full-frame and even scoff at the idea that I use an APS-C size sensor for serious work) until they actually see my pictures.

I thoughtfully picked the Ricoh GR as my primary street photography camera because it's simple and quick to shoot. My iPhone is my personal organizer, my communication tool, my internet browser, and lastly a camera. However, after shooting all day, I would often check my shot count on my Ricoh versus my iPhone, and I realized 99% of my shots were taken with my iPhone! Most recently, I realize my GR is just a fancy necklace (zero images).

There are many reasons why the iPhone (or any decent smartphone camera) is ideal for street photography, but here are the 3 main reasons I came up with: 

1. It's the most familiar tool that I have. It's in my hand (or near my hand) 16 hours a day. It's the first thing I look at when I wake up, and the last thing I put down before I go to sleep. We grab what we're comfortable and familiar with

2. It's the quickest tool for sharing images, period. Even cameras with built in wi-fi still have to download to some external device after shooting to share. I know some cameras can now directly send images to FB or IG, but it's still a bit clumsy, and it's missing this final reason why a smart phone is better...

3. Image editing tools! VSCO Cam, Camera +, PS Express, Snapseed, Instagram, Hipstamatic, I know there's plenty more. These apps are easy to use, and for the most part are free. Compare this to the cost and complexity of using photo editing apps on our PCs and Macs, and we can begin to realize the huge divide. My wife would never edit pictures on her laptop, but loves using Instagram to edit her pictures on her iPhone

What's the lesson here for camera manufacturers? Don't let what happened to Sony's Walkman empire, or Blockbuster's video rental mega-market happen to camera manufacturer's and their amateur camera market. There will always be a pro and hobbyist level camera market, but the under $500 market is pretty much gone now, except for maybe underwater cameras. Other than that, there's almost no reason to buy a point and shoot camera. The smart phone does everything better except take a better picture. For most in that market, the 'everything else' is more important (ease of use, integration, easy editing, easy sharing). The Leica T is a step in the right direction in terms of interface, but there's still lots of work to do in terms of photo editing and sharing images easily and quickly. Instead of focusing on sensor size, high ISO performance, and fast apertures, camera manufacturers should be working on intuitive interface, the ability to edit in camera, and quickly share the images on social media.

Another aspect of smartphone street photography I like is how close I can get to my subjects without them really noticing I'm taking a portrait of them. As street photographers, invisibility is important. That's why street photographers typically don't shoot with huge D-SLR's and F/2.8 constant zoom lenses. I look around and most fellow street photographers are either shooting with older, compact film cameras, or newer mirrorless cameras. Most of us are also shooting with prime lenses, or lenses that don't zoom. This is for two reasons: size and focal length familiarity. Primes are more compact which makes our overall camera dimensions smaller and easier to shoot with. As well, when you shoot at a single focal length (28, 35, 50mm equiv), your ability to visualize the shot before taking it improves dramatically. I know what I'll get with my Ricoh GR versus my Minolta CLE with the 40mm lens without even looking through the viewfinder or LCD screen. This instinct is important if you want to shoot quickly.

I've become very comfortable shooting with my iPhone's 30mm equiv. view of the world (very close to my Ricoh GR's 28mm equiv. lens); and I've also gotten use to seeing the world as a square (to conform with Instagram's framing layout). Square isn't new. In the old film days, commercial photographers had to shoot album and magazine covers as square; and so did wedding photographers (think Hasselblad). However, because of Instagram (and Hipstamatic) the newer generation have been re-introduced to the square format. I must admit, I too am smitten with 1:1, and it's hard for me to go back to my normal 3:2 and 16:9 aspect ratio. I find that I often shoot with my GR in 1:1 aspect ratio. New habits die hard too...

I also enjoy using Instagram and my iPhone for my street photography because of its limits. It's the same reason why some shoot film, or why some choose to shoot primes. The limits that the iPhone and IG places on my photography means I have to work twice as hard to get certain shots, and other times I shoot differently because of these constraints. When I photograph a car on the street, I'll get more sky or too much street when shooting square versus shooting 3:2 or 16:9; so I have to frame it to include something interesting above or below the subject. When I shoot people, I have to be more creative with my composition because centering my subjects in every image becomes pretty boring after a while. Limits are good, and that's why I'm enjoying my Instagram-iPhonography project as my ability to compose my images quickly has become easier and more creative. 

My editing skills have also improved. I see filters like paint, and I see editing tools as another layer of control I have over my images, like a painter has over his or her canvas. I'm not documenting when I shoot for my Instagram account. I'm trying to create a mood, a feeling, a reaction. The more tools at my disposal, the better.

Thanks for visiting, and please don't hesitate to comment below, or ask any questions you have concerning any of my posted images, which apps I use, how I edit etc. I will try and post a 'how to' video or show a step by step edit of my iPhone images on my blog soon. If you don't have Instagram, I encourage you to download the app and use it as a feed. Find creative artists and follow them to get daily inspiration. Perhaps you'll be inspired to share your images too!

Please check out the rest of my Instagram feed here

Happy shooting and editing!




  1. BHT, don't you ever think that all these photo apps and fancy filters are actually taking away from what's most important in photography? To me that's the subject that you are trying to capture. No amount of filter effect or app wizardry can save a bad or boring photo and it's a shame that people can't see beyond the window dressing. Also everyone is trying to impress and show off instead of shooting for themselves. This climate is producing so much visual noise that people don't even understand what good photography is. The genie is out of the bottle and we can't go back, will it be awful when we can shoot with Google Glass, the ultimate POV? I guess that will just create more yearning for the nostalgia and honesty of film cameras.

    1. Hi anonymous,

      Thanks for your comment. I appreciate you expressing your opinion but doing so with respect. Let's start with what we agree on. FIlters and editing tools can not save a bad picture. A bad picture is a bad picture. We have too much of this everywhere, from Flick'r, Tumbl'r, IG, Pinterest, etc. I also agree that we can not go backwards in technology or cultural norms. Golden Age thinking is nice to remember the good old days, but we can't live dreaming about a bygone era. I agree that shooting film makes you a better photographer, but is it better photography? It's definitely different, but I disagree that it's intrinsically better.

      In the good old days of film, we also had different effects by using different films (b&w, infrared, colour slide, etc.) and different filters (polarizer, gradient, red, stacking, etc.). And don't forget darkroom 'editing' with dodging and burning. These techniques took more time and skill to master, but they were still effects. They could be added to make a bad picture look better, but again, if the picture itself was horrible, no filter or darkroom technique could save a horrible picture.

      Most people who shoot film today seem to want to scan the image and upload into Lightroom, and then add filters and effects anyway. It's not much different than what people are doing with digitally captured images. What is photography today? Previously it was a skill that people had to learn and work hard to make a decent image, and also it cost serious money to buy a camera, buy film, get it developed and printed. Now, your 2 year old can take a decent picture. Is this a bad thing? I don't know. People use photography for different reasons, with different intentions. Some use it as a notepad, some as a way to remember, others to share with friends, others take it as a serious hobby or as an art form.

      The point of my iPhone and Instagram photography article was to point out that there are serious photographers, like myself, who can take a not-so-professional platform with a not-so-serious camera and still produce great images. I can use an iPhone, my Ricoh GR, my Minolta XD, my Polaroid 250... I can use any camera and be able to produce high quality images. That was my point. Some feel that if they run out and buy a Leica M2 and shoot only Tri-X film, that they are automatically serious photographers with a great eye. Some feel that because they shoot full-frame they are somehow better than those that only shoot APS-C or smaller. I run into people like this all the time when I'm shooting.

      I'm amused as they laugh at either my equipment or the platform I choose to share my images. They think because they only shoot with L-series glass that they're somehow better than me. That's ok. They can think what they want. I just wanted to help people understand that it's not the equipment that makes you a better photographer, but it's your eye and your imagination and your vision.

      (part 1)

    2. (part 2)

      I think we can both agree on that point? It shouldn't matter what camera you have, if you don't have a good eye for composition, content, and creativity, your images will always be flat and boring. Yes, many use filters and effects to try to make a bad picture great, but it only makes the image look even more silly. FIlm photography makes it harder to fake, but I remember bad pictures in the 70's, 80's, 90's... all before digital imaging! I think bad images are easier to find and see, but I don't think there's a higher percentage of bad pictures versus good. In some cases, because of digital, it's allowed the learning curve to become shorter and people shoot better now because there's immediate feed-back of the mistakes they make.

      Perhaps this is another article. I think I'm typing way too much! Ha ha. I really do appreciate your comment. I promise to bring up this subject again in another article. You did bring up a few solid points.

      Take care and happy shooting (film, instant, digital, but not Google Glass!!)


  2. can you make video about your photo editing stlye? because your photo is very interesting film looking

    1. Yes I hope to do so one day. It's just working out how I would film it....


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