Camera apps in photojournalism

Damon Winter defends his use of popular iPhone photography app Hipstamatic to win third prize in a photography contest by Pictures of the Year International.

People may have the impression that it is easy to make interesting images with a camera app like this, but it is not the case. At the heart of every solid image are the same fundamentals: composition, information, moment, emotion, connection.  If people think that this is a magic tool, they are wrong. Of hundreds of images taken with the phone over those six days in Nahr-i-Sufi, only a handful were worth reproducing.

I have no problem with his use of Hipstamatic. People have been manipulating photos forever, even in the darkroom days. It was just more labor-intensive back then. My FB wall has been a bit oversaturated with Instagram and Hipstamatic photos, but a lot of them are more interesting than the thousands of flash-whitewashed portraits that most people post to FB.

If anything, the bad photos from those apps (not every photo benefits from a Lomo or Polaroid look) just proves that what you pay a professional for is some things a camera can't guarantee: composition, their choice of how to maniuplate each photo, getting in the right position to get the right photo, using the best tools at hand, etc. The skill of photography isn't just about buying the right camera and pressing the shutter release.

Everything HDR

A natural consequence of the convergence of video and still photography is that everything is going HDR (high dynamic range). Examples:

HDR was possible before video/still photography converged, but it was a hassle. You had to fix your camera in position, usually on a tripod, for multiple shots, and that alone is too much work for the vast majority of photographers.

But many still cameras can now shoot video at the same resolution as stills, and many digital video cameras have sensors that shoot each frame at resolutions previously reserved for still cameras, and following both those trends to the horizon point leads to the same HDR method: shoot two or more frames in rapid succession at different exposures, then blend them to produce a single HDR still. If the frame rate is high enough and the camera decently stable, you no longer need to lock the camera down. With convenience comes more use.

The Red HDRx mode takes that principle one step further and extends it to shooting video. Of course, with motion, consecutive frames of video won't match exactly, and so a new requirement is a software algorithm to blend the two frames. An unexpected benefit of this frame blending, according to early testers, is that motion in digital video now looks more film-like. If that's the case, and the HDR can extend the dynamic range of digital video 1 or more stops, that's a significant breakthrough.

The increased flexibility is great, it allows usable photographs in situations that were formerly kryptonite for digital cameras. I traded in my Nikon D3 body for a D3s for its increased light sensitivity. At my sister's wedding recently I put the D3s through its paces. It doesn't have an HDR mode, but it has am improved sensor that can see into the dark without introducing eye-bleeding digital noise. Though my sister held her wedding in a dark vintage furniture store with lots of hard lighting, I never used my flash once, and the results were astonishing.

Of course, as with most tools, higher dynamic range is just a tool, and not a universal positive. I ended up going into Lightroom for most of the photos and taking all that the camera saw in the shadows and removing a lot of it, crushing the blacks and reintroducing the high contrast that a higher dynamic range photo lacks. The irony is that just because you can see everything doesn't mean you should. High contrast often heightens emotional response to a photo, and that, more than resolution or dynamic range or any number of other factors, is what matters.

Nikon 85mm AF-S f1.4

Ryan Brenizer reviews the new AF-S Nikon 85mm F/1.4G, which replaces the legendary 85mm f/1.4 AF-D, which is maybe my favorite Nikon lens ever. With the latter, I just open it up wide, walk around, and I always seem to find an interesting photo in the viewfinder. The 85mm length just feels like my preferred focal length for so many situations.

The new lens looks like a more than worthy replacement, though at $1,699, I can't justify it now. If I had some more free time for travel and photography, it would be at the top of my list.

This new 85mm lens, along with the recently released AF-S 24mm f/1.4G, AF-S 50mm f/1.4G, and the newly announced AF-S 35mm f1.4G, Nikon finally has a modern, updated, world-class lineup of primes at all the focal ranges I use the most.

Real photographers shoot prime.

Nikon glass was what first swayed me to Nikon over Canon, but for a couple years I was not an exception among Nikon people for wondering why the lens lineup wasn't being updated more quickly. Thankfully those days are past, and the only area where I have some Canon envy is on digital video, though in that space I'd just rather shoot with a dedicated video camera.

A new photography

A beautiful, curated set of photos from Google Street View, as well as an assessment of its artistic sensibility. Google Street View deserves an exhibit at MOMA, the Google Street View camera more analysis from photography blogs and review sites.

[linking to an article that is several months old feels embarrassing for a blog, it's like receiving the "Microsoft will donate $1 for every copy of this e-mail that is passed on" from your parents, but I'll do it when it's good.]

On the topic of photography, it's long been said that an artist's tools affect the art created by it. What has been the impact of the last decade of photography technology on that field? Looking at some of the major technology changes.

  • Digital photography, with its use of Photoshop and computers for post-processing - HDR? Photographic forensic analysis? Perhaps the greatest impact was on the idea of a photograph, now mutable, ephemeral, but in its ghostliness, infinitely more mobile. And it will only increase as cameras allow us to upload photos directly to Facebook or Flickr, or to send them directly from the camera into e-mail and out to the world.

  • Digital SLRs - in a way, digital SLRs introduced a new generation to the advantages of the SLR as a camera form factor over the digital point-and-shoot. Back in the heyday of film, far fewer amateur photographers saw the need to upgrade to an SLR. Ironically, it was the ubiquity of the digital point-and-shoot that may have dragged digital SLR sales up. The poor quality of digital point-and-shoot photos (small sensors and slow lenses not allowing for shallow-depth-of-fields, long lag times between button presses and photographs, poor color rendition, among other problems) coupled with a huge upsurge in the desire to shoot and share meant a huge new consumer base interested in how to take better-looking photos. Whether right or wrong, for most people that meant upgrading to an SLR. As with all movements, it's both good and bad. Many more people took an interest in the possibilities opened up by an SLR. I've had more people ask me about what model of SLR to get than ever asked me about my film camera. But for most, the interest is shallow, with few actually caring to learn the fundamentals of photography that enable them to capture the full potential of the SLR. If you still shoot 100% of the time in Program mode on your SLR, you're like the hack golfer who spends $400 on the latest golf driver instead of taking golf lessons.

  • Digital point-and-shoots - see above under digital SLRs. Overflashed portraits is one obvious outcome of the explosion in digital compacts. If I never get another link to a gallery of one hundred portraits taken by a photographer holding a camera out and pointing it back at themselves and the person they have their arm around, I'll be happy, though I have long thought that some photography museum should mount an exhibition of just such a set of photos, its aesthetic is so widespread now. We've always had portable cameras, disposable cameras, but pair them with websites that allow for instant uploading and sharing and we're now inundated by a photographic tsunami from amateurs who have yet to learn that curation is part of the professional photographer's craft.

  • The shitty iPhone camera - you can lump all mobile phone cameras into this category, though I pick on the iPhone for its prominence as the predominant "smartphone" in mindshare. Make no mistake, I love my iPhone, it is still a miracle to me how much better it was than all phones to come before it, but the camera is undeniably lousy. Its primary virtue is its integration into a device I have with me all the time. I've learned to embrace its terrible quality, though, and in that way it's the digital successor to earlier generations of low-quality cameras with quirks, like the Lomo or Holga. In fact, more often than not, I use one of the iPhone apps (ToyCamera, Hipstamatic, e.g.) that simulates those old cameras to give my iPhone photos a random look that masks the cameras deficiencies by embracing them. That in itself can be a mannerism, but the photos are generally more interesting.

As for what's on the horizon, I predict that in time, with storage space cheap and video sensor resolution growing every day, we'll just all shoot video and extract the stills we want. It removes the burden to capture the decisive moment, as Cartier-Bresson termed it, and that's something most amateur photographers struggle with. We already have magazine covers like the Megan Fox Esquire cover which were shot this way.

Lonely no more

Jack Kerouac's favorite photo from Robert Frank's seminal photography collection The Americans was the one of the "lonely elevator girl". He noted as much in his introduction for the book, asking "That little ole lonely elevator girl looking up sighing in an elevator full of blurred demons, what's her name and address?"

Well, years later, through a twist of fate, she has been found.

So now, 54 years after Frank snapped a shot that would leave a great American poet yearning, I can finally bring it all full circle and tweet:

@kerouac: name is Sharon, Pacific Heights, and no longer lonely. Adios, King.

(via Design Observer)

Low light digital cameras

Ryan Brenizer and David Pogue highlight new compact cameras meant to perform better in low light situations. These manufacturers have done this by moving down in megapixels rather than up for the first time. This is a good sign. For far too long digital camera manufacturers have continued to release new models that increase megapixels when what most photographers needed was not more "resolution" but more "effective resolution".

The Panasonic LX3 earned a following last year among serious photographers as one of the first compacts focused not on increased megapixels but improved low light performance. I bought one and still use it as my carry-around, though it is not quite as slim as the ultra-compacts many people favor these days.

Of the new cameras announced, the Canon S90 sounds most attractive. It has some great features:

- an f2 lens at the wide end like the LX3, great for those really dim environments, which seem to be most of the ones I'm in when I find myself reaching for a carry around camera.

- a sizeable 3" diagonal LCD screen in back.

- two programmable control rings. I'm old school this way but I hate having to press buttons on compact cameras to select functions, I far far prefer physical controls that can be switched quickly. I switch ISO and aperture constantly on my cameras, even my LX3, and on the LX3 that requires using a little joystick.

- thin profile, small enough that I'd consider it pocketable.

It's smaller than the LX3 in body size, and if I didn't own an LX3 and an iPhone I might buy one of these. I might still get one (it pays to be in my family, you inherit lots of good trickle-down electronics as I succumb to gadget lust or early adopter syndrome).

Nikon 24-70mm f2.8

Ryan Brenizer lauds the Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 zoom lens. I agree as it has become my go-to everyday lens on my SLR.

It's not light, in fact it's a bit of a beast, but then again when I bring out my SLR I'm usually not optimizing around weight but around picture quality. If I want a light carry-around camera I either use my phone or my Panasonic LX3.

The Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED AF-S Nikkor Zoom Lens is not cheap at about $1,800 each right now, but most beginning photographers make the mistake of spending too much on the camera body and too little on lenses. Two reasons this makes little sense:

  • The lens, much more than any of the modern SLR bodies you're likely to buy from Canon or Nikon, is responsible for image quality. SLR bodies from Nikon and Canon have reached a point where you really can't go wrong. But there are still shots you just can't get without the right lens. Now, at the margins, and for specialized uses, for example if you're a professional sports photographer, the SLR body makes a difference. But even there, the most important piece of equipment they own are their fast, top-grade lenses.

  • Great lenses, or "good glass" as photographers refer to them, retain or increase in market value, camera bodies start losing resale value the moment they hit the market. Whereas Nikon and Canon will replace an SLR every year or two, roughly, the great lenses in their lines are often around for many years. Some lenses have never been replaced with a suitable equivalent and become highly coveted collectors items selling for thousands of dollars on eBay (for example, try to find a Nikon 58mm f1.2 on eBay, and if you do, it's likely selling for $3K).


The new tv show Lie to Me is based on the real-life research of Dr. Paul Ekman into facial behaviors, or how muscles of the face reveal underlying psychology through microexpressions that are nearly unconscious or involuntary.

Ekman's system is called the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), and its companion is the Facial Action Coding System Affect Interpretation Dictionary (FACSAID). I first heard of Ekman's work through a Malcolm Gladwell article in the New Yorker titled "The Naked Face".

You can purchase the training system for $260. Maybe it will pay for itself through your weekly poker game?


Chase Jarvis offers 5 tips for shooting better pictures with your iPhone. He also recommends two apps for the iPhone, CameraBag ($2.99) and Pano ($2.99), both of which I use and enjoy.

I put the prices there because I know some people don't like to pay for any apps, but if there's one thing I urge people to do this year it's to pay for things that provide value, even if they're things you can obtain illegally for free. Whether it's software or music or movies, with the Internet it's easier than ever to reward people directly for work you appreciate. When apps for the iPhone cost less than a Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwich, there's really no excuse. Do the right thing, fight the recession, reward people who do great work that improves your life.

Two other iPhone photography apps that I recommend: Photogene ($2.99) and QuadCamera ($1.99). The iPhone camera is not going to win any prizes for picture quality, but the use of these apps should improve your snaps noticeably. Your Facebook and Flickr friends thank you in advance.


Speaking of iPhone apps, I've reached the nine page, 144 app limit. I don't use all the apps all the time, so it's not a problem to delete a few, but the limit seems somewhat arbitrary, and at some point in the near future I can see having more than 144 apps that I'd use semi-regularly, or at least often enough that I wouldn't want to have to be deleting and installing apps all the time.

Paging through nine pages of apps doesn't exactly play to the iPhone's interface strengths (some ability to group apps or nest them in folder would be handy) but it's certainly not unusable.


Amazon's Universal wishlist feature allows you to add products from other websites. Not sure when this launched, but it's an idea I recall being bandied about at Amazon many years ago.


Metacritic compiles top 10 lists from movie critics across the land (they need to fix their HTML header as it still reads 2007 Film Critic Top Ten Lists in my browser tab). I'm still waiting for their year-end compilation graphic that assimilates all these top ten lists into a master best-of list. I'm not sure if they're producing it again this year, but I hope they do.

Three links

How Porsche made a killing in the financial markets by creating a short squeeze on VW stock. That is just crazy.


Why Obama's tax rebate may work to boost consumption where others have failed.

The key factor in these kinds of distinctions, Thaler’s work suggests, is whether people think of a windfall as wealth or as income. If they think of it as wealth, they’re more likely to save it, and if they think of it as income they’re more likely to spend it. That’s because many people tend to base their spending not on their long-term earning potential or on their assets but on what they think of as their current income, an amount best defined by what’s in their regular paycheck. When that number goes up, so does people’s spending. In Thaler’s words, “People tend to consume from income and leave perceived ‘wealth’ alone.

The Big Picture

You just knew The Big Picture would have some great shots of our next President.

Obama is the coolest cat wherever he goes. He never looks anything less than like some cinematic dream of a President. It's almost surreal that he is actually our next President.

That photo of McCain with his tongue out at the end of that last debate, all those pics of his eye-rolls and tongue juts, I don't recall a single photo of Obama like that. I half expect Obama came out of the womb not crying but giving fist bumps to his doctor and mother and pointing to nurses in the delivery room to thank them for their work.

That photographic contrast is just one of the many factors that fed into this landslide. One of the candidates looked like the guy you wanted to lead you out of the crisis, while the other looked like the hothead who would've gotten you into it.

It's not the tool, it's the craftsman

Alex Majoli is a Magnum photographer who has shot in China, the Congo, and Iraq, and he has won honors like U.S. National Press Photographers Association's Best of Photojournalism Magazine Photographer of the Year Award (boy do they need an acronym).

His tool of choice? A simple Olympus digital point and shoot.

Some of his photos and some elaboration on his techniques here.


Joannie and Mike were in Temecula this past weekend visiting the folks, so I went down to visit them all and check in on Connor who is now over a year old.

He's still a serious and cautious little guy, but we managed to get a few laughs out of him during the weekend. I learned that he enjoys walking up small hills and mounds. Up and down, up and down. And, for a minute or two, at least, he found the swing set amusing.

Connor enjoying the swing

By the way, adjustment brushes in Adobe Lightroom 2? Awesome. Worth the price of the upgrade. How long, I wonder, before they migrate to Photoshop?

HD video from DSLRs

The Nikon D90 and the Canon EOS 5D Mark II (Canon's SLR names are way too convoluted) both shoot HD video in addition to serving as DSLRs.

But one problem of shooting HD video with a CMOS is that since there is no real shutter like on a motion picture camera, each "frame" is captured by simply capturing lots of images per second with that CMOS. If you read it 24 times a second, you get 24 frames.

But if the CMOS doesn't refresh fast enough and the camera moves while the CMOS is refreshing, the bottom of the CMOS might be reading part of the image from a different time than the top of the CMOS, and that rolling shutter produces a bad motion wobble or skew (what Jim Jannard calls "jelly movement") as in this sample video footage from the D90.

Here are some sample unmodified Quicktime movie files from the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. Suffice it to say no serious filmmaker will be throwing away a camcorder after purchasing either of these DSLRs (unless that child you're filming doesn't move much; what, little kids run around?).

I'm sure they're fine still cameras, though. So few people make large prints anymore, so digital SLR resolution has been sufficient for their primary purposes: web galleries, 4x6 prints.