Ansel Adams Meets Apple: The Camera Phone Craze in Photography

9/25/09Follow @wroush

[Corrected 9/28/09: Chase Jarvis is based in Seattle, not San Francisco. I regret the error and apologize to our Seattle readers!] Seattle-based commercial photographer Chase Jarvis is known for his arresting, color-saturated images of people in motion—skiing, swimming, somersaulting. He’s also known for (literally) trademarking the phrase “the best camera is the one you have with you.” His point is that you don’t an expensive SLR to take great pictures. You can do a lot with the camera in your pocket or purse—which more likely than not is a camera phone.

This week, Jarvis took his slogan to the next level, launching a trio of products—a book, an iPhone application, and a photo-sharing community on the Web—intended to encourage all photographers, pro and amateur alike, to get more creative with their camera phones. This cross-media campaign is a brilliant concept—both as a digital-arts-education project and as a piece of self-promotion for Jarvis and his studio—and it also happens to fit in really well with the theme I’ve been writing about in this space throughout September in “Seven Projects to Stretch your Digital Wings,” Parts 1, 2, and 3. So, if you’ve got an iPhone, go spend $2.99 on Jarvis’s app, called “Best Camera,” and consider today’s column Project #8.

Original

Original

Jewel

Jewel

Paris

Paris

Slate

Slate

Candy

Candy

There are more than 1,300 photography-related apps in the iTunes App Store, but as far as I know, Best Camera is the only one that comes with a dedicated community of other iPhone users. The app allows you to take a picture with the iPhone’s built-in camera, apply a range of cool digital filters and effects, and then upload your finished photo to a gallery that’s constantly being updated, in real time, with new photos from other Best Camera users. You can give the photos you like best a thumbs-up, and browse photos either by popularity or recentness.

In addition to introducing you to a bunch of other creative souls, Best Camera will let you play with your own images and perhaps invent your own new styles. That’s thanks to a surprisingly flexible interface for applying various filters to your raw images and changing the order in which the filters are “stacked.” The filters themselves go well beyond the typical gray-scaling, contrast-enhancing, or redeye-reducing algorithms you’ll see in other iPhone image editing apps: working with Übermind, a Seattle software development firm that specializes in photography-related applications for desktops and mobile phones, Jarvis dreamed up a dozen effects altogether, including four “signature filters” inspired by his own photographic styles.

It’s hard to describe the signature effects in words, but one filter, called “Jewel,” gives photos a warm, rich, almost antique look, while another called “Candy” creates an intense, high-contrast, caffeinated feeling reminiscent of Jarvis’s advertising photography. At left, I’ve lined up examples of the same photo from my own iPhone album, altered using the “Jewel,” “Paris,” “Slate,” and “Candy” filters, respectively.

As someone who loves to spend time looking at other people’s photos and trying to understand their styles—I could spend hours using the “Explore” feature at Flickr—I think the community feature of Best Camera is especially fun. It’s a nice feeling to upload a picture and then see it appear in the public gallery, which is accessible right from the app. You can browse the gallery from a desktop browser, too, at www.thebestcamera.com; the bonus, if you go there, is that the “recipe” used for each photo—that is, the combination and order of digital effects the photographer chose—shows up right alongside the image. (You can see all of my Best Camera photos here.)

Jarvis certainly isn’t the only professional photographer singing the praises of camera phones. Shawn Rocco, a staff photojournalist at the News & Observer in Raleigh, NC, shoots with a long-since-obsolete Motorola E815 mobile phone. In fact, the American art world seems to be developing a bit of a fetish for … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.ericsiegmund.com/fireant/gallery/ Eric

    I wonder if the observation that we’re “living in the age of lowered expectations” also applies to photography, and whether the relatively lower quality of camera phone-generated images is a fad. Or, perhaps I should say “different quality,” quality being in the eye of the beholder. Many camera phone images seem to be remarkable only with respect to the technology used to generate them.

    That said, I have to admit that some of my favorite images have come from my iPhone. There’s a certain freedom that comes from accepting the inherent limitations of a 3 megapixel photo taken through a dodgy lens, and worrying more about the message than the medium. If nothing else, camera phones seem to be repopularizing lomography!

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    “Lomography”! Now there’s a word you don’t hear every day. I had to go look it up. According to Wikipedia, it’s photography using cameras from Austrian firm Lomographische, which are known for their “unique, colorful, and sometimes blurry” images.

    Eric, I actually feel the same ambivalence you do about all of this. As I wrote my column yesterday, I also thought about going into the question of whether playing around with an image using digital filters pre-defined by experts like Jarvis really counts as “creativity.” But I ran out of time! That’s a subject for a future column, I guess.

  • http://www.ericsiegmund.com/fireant/gallery/ Eric

    I don’t think there’s an opener big enough for the can of worms involved in defining creativity! ;-)

    To me, the end result is what’s important, not how you got there. The digital artist or photographer may excel at the most arcane of tools, or she might just use canned filters, but the viewer probably doesn’t know or care if the resulting image strikes a chord in his soul.

    After all, most photographers don’t build their own cameras and lenses.

  • Rich

    The title of Javis’ book — The Best Camera Is The One That’s With You — really says it all. I have an iPhone, but I tend to pack a Canon when I think that picture taking might be a possibility. But truthfully, the iPhone is more apt to be in my pocket than is the Canon (or both of them).

    Picture taking opportunities present themselves all the time. Keep your eyes open to the possibilities and keep that iPhone or Canon or whatever handy!

  • http://www.djbphoto.com Dean Birinyi

    I am always perplexed by people who seem to feel the camera is what makes a photographer. For the millionth time it’s the artist eye, imagination and talent that makes a great image not the tools he/she works with.

    I remember back in the late ’80’s a couple of guys went on a nationwide tour with a red couch and shot everything with a cheap little P&S camera… The coffee table book looked great because the photographers practiced their craft rather than worked their equipment.

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  • Tom B

    For sure, it is the imagination of the photographer; not the camera– that makes for great art. Having said that, better cameras give you way more options and make some kinds of images much easier to capture. I do a lot of macro. And I use advanced settings a lot– bracketing, etc.

  • John

    People usually criticize the iPhone for the 3MP camera. I think the number of pixels is the least important factor here. The lens, noise level, white balance and autofocus speed are all more important.

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  • Ben Swanson

    These days, now that the iPhone has a far more powerful camera, the most important element is how you’re processing your photos on your iPhone. For Ansel Adams quality photo processing on your phone I suggest checking out Hipsta Hipster Cam from http://www.hipster-camera.com