Do I really prefer using a smartphone to a mirrorless camera? and the strange resurgence of the old school film look applied to digital.

Images above shot with Nokia Lumia 1020 Smartphone, Leica Q (Typ 116), Samsung K Zoom Smartphone and Leica / Panasonic D-LUX (Typ 109) Not necessarily in that order.

First Off - A lot of posts have appeared in a very short period of time. For two reasons. Firstly, a fibre optic superfast broadband box has appeared at the end of my road and is about to go live, meaning that I will be attempting to make a dent in the huge backlog of images and videos that I've shot and need uploading and secondly THE HEATWAVE IS COMING! From Tuesday onwards the part of the UK in which I live is set for Mediterranean temperatures and with the opportunities to shoot travel images here when the country and the people look like Provence has moved North (every UK stock photographers dream!), means I shall be out shooting all the time. So I'm taking the opportunity of today's cold dull weather to get most of my posts finished and published.

Back to the headline - Do I really prefer using a smartphone to a mirrorless camera? Well the answer to that is in many photographic situations, yes I do. Why?

  • Relative anonymity and the ability to work unnoticed.
  • The nature of a smartphone means I can work more freely with it.
  • Smartphone images are this years 'big thing' in the Stock Photography world.
  • Nice and simple to work with. Point and shoot.
  • Light and easy to carry. I have gone out with four of them on a couple of occasions.
  • The chance for a different look.

The images at the top of the page were shot with a combination of smartphones and mirrorless cameras. Nokia Lumia 1020 Smartphone, Leica Q (Typ 116), Samsung K Zoom Smartphone and Leica / Panasonic D-LUX (Typ 109) and each offered me something different. As ever I walked a fair distance and took the opportunity to leave the heavier cameras with my wife Ann who took the opportunity to do a bit of sunbathing at the stately home we were visiting and I wandered off 'into the unknown' with a couple of phones. 

It does actually amaze me that I do this, because I used to be very 'snobby' about smartphone photography. Admittedly the quality has improved dramatically over the last couple of years, but many people still seem surprised that I should sacrifice some image quality (and that is still the case) for convenience and something that is currently fashionable. But then current top of the range smartphones aren't in fact that different, in terms of the files they produce, to the early digital cameras I used around 13-15 years ago or in fact to the on screen appearance of a scanned 35mm transparency. And I think that's part of the appeal. 

In an era of very clean digital output, for me there is no anomaly in the fact that smartphones and the editing programmes designed for them have all kinds of old film simulations in them. The Instagram filters and programmes like Fotor and Snapseed offer all kinds of 'distressed' photo options and grainy black and white and even faux sepia toning are with us once again. It is fascinating to see this and this notion that it's an attempt to try to 'humanise' digital capture with a bit (or a lot) of film style 'grunge' as a reaction to the ultra smooth, ultra sharp, airbrushed output from a lot of commercial and advertising photography, make sense to me. Sure, in the early days, it was a way of making the pretty awful output from mobile phones look less awful, by giving them some kind of 'arty' filtered sheen, but now all of this has become part of our photographic 'vocabulary' again. Now this may not last. However I think it will. However please don't attribute too much credibility to my opinion. As someone who confidently predicted in the mid-eighties that rap was a passing fad, I'm not to be relied on. I remember shortly afterwards that Quincy Jones said the exact opposite. Proving conclusively once again the difference between my appreciation of the music business and that esteemed musician, composer, arranger and producer. (And one of my great heroes incidentally) While 'The Message' by Grandmaster Flash is still my favourite ever rap record (1983) and I haven't liked much since, I have to admit that I was wrong.

However, returning from that interesting (well it was to me) but irrelevant diversion, my hunch (for what that's worth!) is that from now on, all things are possible photographically. I don't think I'm alone in seeking for something a little less perfect with more 'character' in my images. Now I'm no advocate for Lomo's, Holga's, Diana's and Lensbaby's. I still think all that crap is landfill. The idea of making a dreadful camera that doesn't work properly in order to occasionally accidently create something than can be (erroneously) described as artistic still makes my blood boil. And of course smartphone cameras aren't like that at all. They are ultra efficient, ultraaccurate in terms of focusing, colour and exposure and within their restrictive parameters, i.e. small sensor + small lens, the top end camera phones, or communication cameras (I still love that) are actually pretty good at turning out very decent files in good light. And I'm certainly selling lots of pictures taken with them. 

I would even go so far as to suggest that this is creating a new kind of photography and a new kind of photographer. I would point out very quickly that I'm not part of that or one of those. I'm using smartphones and 'retro editing' to give my pretty conventional images a slightly different twist. But people like Yvan Rodic are the new Cartier-Bressons and Vivian Maiers for me. And it's not that retro inspired (and not in a good way) banal rubbish that so many 'recreational photographers' think of as street photography. You know what I mean -  those intrusive, disrespectful shots of desperate people with no home and no future living on the streets (usually asleep so they can't object) and interminable shots of advertising hoardings with huge faces seemingly looking down on passers by. These are fresher, more modern shots, where the subjects used to social media engage with the photographer in a much more 'in your face' way. No sneaking around here. And this is all courtesy of the smartphone camera. 

This is having an impact on what I do. And while I freely admit that walking up to people in the street and asking to take their photograph just isn't me, I'm definitely getting more bold, more adventurous and yes more creative in my approach. And yes there are many mirrorless cameras that let me do that. After all Leicas's got their reputation for their portability and for their time, speed and quality of results. But all mirrorless cameras still look like cameras and work like cameras. The smartphone camera for me, is a social interactive tool whereas my contention is that even the least conventional camera like mirrorless systems are still observational recording tools. With one of those I am to a certain extent still outside of what's going on and with a smartphone camera I'm feel I'm part of it. 

Now will you notice this in the pictures I post? Probably not, but for me it's just enough of a change to refresh my output and take me in some different directions. Plus I'm still learning to use them well. Last summer I happened upon a folk festival in a local town and I was stunned how at ease people seemed to be with me photographing them with my phone.

I wrote about it in this post - and the picture of the Morris Men posing is still one of my favourite photographic moments. They saw I was taking photographs, they all approached me, posed, I took the picture, showed them the result, they cheered and danced off. Great. All very friendly and a seemingly 'normal' experience. 

Now I don't know whether it's because people somehow get the impression that people photographing on a phone seems spontaneous and unplanned because we all carry them and that somehow means it's, by it's nature, non threatening, or because with a phone you're not hiding behind a viewfinder or whether it's something else. But I definitely feel less 'distanced' from what I photograph with a phone camera. I'm certainly far less self conscious than with a DSLR or DSLR lookalike.

So, to sum up, I do find this combination of spontaneous picture taking and editing to try and create an old school film look, very appealing. And I'm sure this is one of the reasons I'm moving towards using Leica's and phones only. Because one of the charms of Leica M's and the Q and the T is that they are different looking cameras. And yes that rangefinder look is I think a lot less intimidating and / or threatening in a lot of situations. Much is made of Leica's being 'show-off' cameras. But showing off to who exactly? The overwhelming majority of people have no idea what a Leica is, what it's history is and certainly don't know how much it costs. In fact that's one of the reasons they became so popular with photo journalists.

So yes, I do prefer using a smartphone to a mirrorless camera in many situations. And as I've outlined this is still an ongoing discovery process. I know pretty much why I like doing it, but I'm still working this appeal out to a certain extent. However one thing I do know is that all my favourite images over the past year have been taken with a phone camera. And that's neither an accident or a co-incidence.