Ansel Adams Meets Apple: The Camera Phone Craze in Photography

[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 mobile-phone photography. “The Relentless Eye,” a two-month juried exhibit of hundreds of mobile-phone photos launching today at the Helen Day Art Center in Stowe, VT, is just the latest tribute to the craft.

Amidst all this fuss, it needs to be said that mobile phone cameras have their limitations. They usually have tiny sensors, meaning they have fewer pixels to work with than dedicated cameras. And they have small, fixed lenses that don’t let in very much light, so it’s hard to capture moving objects or to get clear images in low-light conditions. There are times when quality and performance really do count; if the best camera is the one you have with you, then I’m really glad the Apollo astronauts took Hasselblads to the moon, and not iPhones.

Popular photos from the Best Camera communityBut if you spend some time looking through the iPhone photos that Jarvis and other users of his app have snapped, you quickly realize that art is often about turning limitations into inspirations. In my personal experience, the iPhone camera produces pictures that are relatively grainy and splotchy; bright light sources have a tendency to bleed across images, and you get glows and haloes where none existed in real life. But many of Jarvis’s own shots use these odd effects to beautiful advantage. I can’t show any of them here due to copyright restrictions, but there’s a cool gallery at his site, and Jarvis has collected a whole bunch of his iPhone shots into a 256-page, $20 softcover book entitled, naturally, The Best Camera Is The One That’s With You. (You can order it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble; ads for the volume are built into the iPhone app and the community site, which is part of what makes the whole campaign so clever. But be warned as you explore Jarvis’s photos, writings, and videos: he isn’t exactly short on confidence or ego.)

The newest iPhone model, the 3GS, has video recording capabilities as well as a still camera, so a whole culture of iPhone videographers is now sprouting up. But I’m stuck with a 3G for now (AT&T won’t let me upgrade until December), so I’ll have to wait for a while to start hacking around in that community. By the way, I’m aware that this column may sometimes sound like it’s “all iPhone, all the time”—but the truth is that the iPhone is simply the best consumer-level platform these days for creative digital experimentation, so I can’t help myself. If the rumors about an Apple tablet device are true, I’m going to be spending a lot of time writing about that in 2010. Next week, though, I promise to write about something non-Apple-related. Probably.

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

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

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