There’s much to be said about redis­cov­er­ing the art of tra­di­tional pho­tog­ra­phy, finds Kevin Hack­ett

The National - News - - ARTS & LIFESTYLE -

The Ap­ple iPhone, which has been with us for more than a decade, was not the first mo­bile com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­vice to fea­ture a cam­era. That par­tic­u­lar ac­co­lade be­longs to Sharp’s J-SH04, a mo­bile phone launched in late 2001 that fea­tured a prim­i­tive, 110,000pixel dig­i­tal cam­era and a small screen above its key­pad. This dis­played the user’s shots with a pic­ture qual­ity that, to­day, would have millennials cry­ing with laugh­ter.

When the BBC’s tech­nol­ogy re­porter, Jon Wurtzel, wrote about it at the time and asked read­ers what they might pos­si­bly use such a de­vice for, the re­sponses ranged from “I’m not sure what I would use this for if I had one, but I’m sure it would be use­ful”, to “great for spy­ing. The cam­era could be held against a key­hole, and the im­ages im­me­di­ately sent to any in­ter­ested par­ties”. A reader called Liz wrote that there were “in­fi­nite uses for the teenager, not en­tirely sure what the rest of us would do with one, though”. Wasn’t the pre-selfie era quaint?

These days the im­age qual­ity avail­able from what used to sim­ply be known as a mo­bile tele­phone is as much a sell­ing point as its abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate. Bill­boards the size of houses fea­ture pho­to­graphs taken with iPhones, and countless blog­gers and vlog­gers find they’re more than good enough to use for high­def­i­ni­tion video work that’s to be viewed on a mon­i­tor or tablet. In fact, when was the last time you used an ac­tual cam­era to take a pho­to­graph?

Per­fect photo op

For me, it was a month ago. When plan­ning to take my 2-year-old son to the Emi­rates Park Zoo in Abu Dhabi, it dawned on me that I wouldn’t be able to use my iPhone to take any pho­tos be­cause the im­age sta­biliser had stopped work­ing; the re­sul­tant shots were so blurred they could in­duce nau­sea. There was only one thing for it: I needed to find my old Nikon DSLR [Dig­i­tal Sin­gle Lens Re­flex], charge its bat­tery and pre­pare for a day with that big hunk of black pre­his­toric photo tech swing­ing from my neck.

It had been a long time since I’d used it – even when I went to Aus­tralia four years ago for a month-long hol­i­day, it re­mained in my suit­case for the du­ra­tion, so good are the re­sults we can all get nowa­days us­ing our phones. Sim­ple-touse im­age-edit­ing apps have been a boon, too. In the rare in­stance that my iPhone’s au­to­matic set­tings get it wrong, I can ad­just ex­po­sure lev­els, con­trast, sat­u­ra­tion, what­ever I want. And if the im­age still isn’t sat­is­fac­tory, I can just make it black and white, with a bit of at­mo­spheric grain added for good mea­sure. At the zoo, though, as my son Bene­dict fed some grass to a mag­nif­i­cent gi­raffe, I was able to cap­ture the magic in a way no phone right now could hope to.

Trans­fer­ring some of the im­ages I’d taken with my Nikon to my so­cial-me­dia pages, the com­ments from friends and col­leagues were uni­ver­sally ap­prov­ing. And that was down to a num­ber of fac­tors: depth of field, fo­cus and the sheer amount of im­age data that my cam­era can process with its sen­sor, cap­tured through a lens made from the high­est qual­ity op­tics.

I’d re­dis­cov­ered the joys of tak­ing pho­to­graphs with an ac­tual cam­era that per­ma­nently record life’s most pre­cious moments and re­solved to make more use of this bril­liant piece of equip­ment. One day, no doubt, a phone will be able to match this ex­cep­tional qual­ity, but un­til such a time comes there won’t be a vi­able sub­sti­tute for an ac­tual cam­era.

Ex­pert opin­ion

This is a mes­sage be­ing shouted out loud by Dubai-based Tom Richard­son, a pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher and film­maker, who is try­ing to get peo­ple in­ter­ested in tra­di­tional pho­tog­ra­phy again. “It’s fan­tas­tic that you can grab a Dh1,000 phone and in­stantly take point-and-shoot pho­tos,” he ad­mits, “but with this there has been a de­cline in the true art of stills pho­tog­ra­phy work. As great as it is to use a phone for pho­tos, you don’t have the abil­ity – un­less you down­load third-party apps – to ac­cess the full po­ten­tial of its lens and sen­sor unit. And even then you face mas­sive lim­i­ta­tions.”

He points out that the ma­jor­ity of phone cam­eras have a fixed fo­cus length of about 24mm. “They rely on dig­i­tal zoom [as op­posed to op­ti­cal], which leads to loss of qual­ity in the fi­nal im­age,” he adds. “And the sen­sor is so small, by ne­ces­sity, that it’s never great in the way it pro­cesses light and data.”

Frus­trated with this dumb­ing-down of what he con­sid­ers a craft that’s be­ing lost to dig­i­tal con­ve­nience, Richard­son has de­cided to of­fer one-to-one train­ing to help oth­ers dis­cover their po­ten­tial be­hind the lens. “With a DSLR cam­era,” he says, “you have the op­tion to change lens, get a bet­ter and sharper im­age from a full frame or crop sen­sor, and have a fi­nal prod­uct that is work­able on a lap­top or even a phone’s

im­age-edit­ing soft­ware. It’s key for peo­ple to learn to use proper cam­eras so they have the abil­ity to get more cre­ative. There is only so much you can do with a smart­phone cam­era, but just hav­ing a ba­sic cam­era body and a cou­ple of in­ex­pen­sive lenses means you can re­ally un­leash your cre­ativ­ity if you have the eye for it.”

Build­ing a frame­work

In other words, be­ing able to com­pose and frame a pho­to­graph ef­fec­tively is key to im­pact­ful pho­tog­ra­phy – to be able to see, in your mind’s eye, what the im­age will look like ei­ther as a print, as an ad­ver­tise­ment or on a com­puter screen. And it’s not some­thing you can learn in a sem­i­nar. Much like the way you could learn the phys­i­cal mo­tor skills to be a sculp­tor, painter or other artist, yet fail to pro­duce work of any note, your nat­u­ral flair will be what makes a pho­to­graph truly mem­o­rable. And some­times peo­ple find they have that com­pletely by mis­take.

Con­sider the case of Max Earey, an­other pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher, who trav­els all over the planet on be­half of some of the world’s lead­ing lux­ury car and sports brands, and makes an ex­ceed­ingly good liv­ing from what started out as do­ing a favour for a friend. Two decades ago, he was an out­door pursuits in­struc­tor, and his friend, who needed some pho­to­graphs taken while surfing for his spon­sors, asked him (as he was able to surf him­self) to “just take a few snaps”. He didn’t know one end of a cam­era from an­other, but duly agreed. The re­sults were so good he de­cided he could make money from this new­found skill.

“I didn’t go to univer­sity, I didn’t serve an ap­pren­tice­ship,” Earey says. “I just learnt what worked through trial and er­ror. And this was in the days be­fore dig­i­tal cam­eras, a time when we shot with 35mm film, so any er­rors could prove costly – it was worth pay­ing close at­ten­tion to what you were do­ing – whereas now you are able to in­stantly check to see if your pho­to­graph is sharp and that the light lev­els are right. But the real art lies in fram­ing a shot prop­erly, and that’s some­thing you never stop learn­ing.”

Earey is rarely seen with­out his cam­era gear, which he has spent enor­mous sums of money on, but it’s more than a job for him – like many pho­tog­ra­phers he just lives for cap­tur­ing the mo­ment. He’s also more than happy to take snaps with his smart­phone, but they’re re­ally just mem­ory jog­gers and, for any­thing else, he’ll reach for the real deal.

“To be able to earn good money do­ing what’s also my hobby re­ally is the best,” he smiles. “I’ve been to amaz­ing places, seen un­for­get­table sights and met fas­ci­nat­ing peo­ple, all in the course of my work.” Work, he re­it­er­ates, that he could never do with a smart­phone cam­era.

Richard­son adds that an­other thing dy­ing out is peo­ple hav­ing their im­ages turned into prints, and that it’s an­other area where a smart­phone cam­era’s lim­i­ta­tions are ob­vi­ous. “If you print a smart­phone im­age and com­pare it with one taken us­ing a DSLR, you’ll no­tice a mas­sive drop in qual­ity and sharp­ness, even with a small-sized print,” he notes.

For both of these men, there’s some­thing in­cred­i­bly spe­cial about pre­serv­ing moments in time and keep­ing alive the art of pho­tog­ra­phy. “Over­all,” con­cludes Richard­son, “I be­lieve that with­out proper cam­eras, we can­not re­ally cap­ture the true emo­tions of sub­jects, real light – the things that we take pho­to­graphs for in the first place. The true mem­ory.”

Kevin Hack­ett; Max Earey

A DSLR cam­era can be man­u­ally set to ob­tain dra­matic shots of liv­ing things and mov­ing ob­jects, as well as bril­liant night­time pho­tog­ra­phy

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