Why I prefer creating photographs with my smartphones - Gearhead versus Photographer

For the last year I've had these dilemmas. I have a lot of cameras and lenses sitting on my shelf. Many of them the latest models including DSLR's, mirrorless and fixed lens compacts. And despite the attractions of my Nikons, Sony's, m4/3's et al, I still want to leave them all at home and go out and shoot with my smartphones / camera phones / communication cameras (love that last one, it's what Panasonic call the CM1) and I haven't really known exactly why.

I've been shooting for and selling images on stock picture library websites for many years now. last year I passed the $1,000,000 total sales mark and even selling via microstock, known for it's lower fees, earlier this year I passed $100,000 in commission via my best selling library. Now this didn't happen overnight and took years to happen and of course an awful lot of editing, captioning, keywording and uploading. (All the fun stuff!!) And yet despite all my experience in knowing what sells and what doesn't I spend much of my time editing smartphone / camera phone / communication camera images in Snapseed, Fotor or some other app. And while this kind of image is starting to sell more, it would be more profitable to edit as I always have done with the emphasis on technically good quality. And I haven't really understood fully why I enjoy that more either.

I've had lots of theories for the above, it's more fun, less to carry, means I'm inconspicuous, I'm responding to current fashions in stock photography etc. etc., but none of this has satisfactorily explained to me, why I have this overwhelming urge to go out and shoot with my Blackberry, Nokia Lumia 1020, Panasonic CM1 and now my recently arrived Samsung K-Zoom. But then in a moment of unusual blinding clarity, I realised exactly what's going on. It was one of those moments when I understood the simplicity of it all and for some reason I finally allowed myself to think about what I really want to do, why I want to do it and what I should do about it. So here it is. My fundamental photographic philosophy about the gear I use, why I use what I do and how and why I create the images I do.

The situation is that with my job and this blog there are two distinct things going on. The first is that I love creating images and I love creating them, for better or worse, in a somewhat experimental way. Years of training myself to provide what the market wants hasn't made this go away. Much of my early published work (in photographic magazines) was of images created and 'altered' using a slide copier and a lot of filters. Much of my huge stock of medium format and 35mm film has all sorts of filtering applied. Grads, Polarisers, warming filters etc. At least half of it has been push processed as well. (Under expose by one stop and have the film processed accordingly. This pushes up the contrast and the colour saturation) I also always used the most saturated and contrasty films I could. So my natural instinct is to produce images that are, (hopefully) attention grabbing, punchy and with rich saturated colour. And these days with the options at my disposal I can indulge myself in that as much as I want.

The second thing that is going on is more complex, but once I realised it explains everything. I love cameras and lenses. Not as tools, not as means to an end but just as objects. And yes I've bought a whole lot of them because they look good and perhaps more importantly I think they make me look good. And yes that IS what's happening. Because I'm not alone in this. The Photographic internet, for the most part, isn't about photography or creating images, it's about gear ownership, gear comparison, brand identification, specs., MTF charts, DxO results etc. Ultimately it's about all of us looking for a pat on the head because WE bought the right gear. I've talked to Heather and Mathieu over at Mirrorlessons about this and we all said that by far the most popular posts we create are comparison posts. This camera 'versus' that camera, this lens 'versus' that lens. My most recent example of this, a comparison between the Olympus OM-D E-M5 II + 12-40mm f/2.8 lens and Fuji X-T1 + 16-55mm f/2.8 got a crazy number of page hits and generated more income via my google ads in a couple of days than I usually get in a month. 

Now I might try to argue (and usually do) that I'm doing this because I'm doing some kind of professional evaluation and testing. And yes there is that element in it, but mostly I do it because it's fun and I enjoy it. I finally admitted as much in my previous article - http://www.soundimageplus.com/soundimageplus/2015/6/4/leica-18-56mm-and-nikon-18-35mm-compared-on-a-leica-t-typ-701

Now there isn't actually anything wrong with this. And in fact it happens all over the internet with all sorts of different things. Cars, clothes, furniture, you name it. We like what we like and style, aesthetics and the way something looks (and yes the brand) is important to us. And that's the nature of design, without which the world and what we use in it would be a much duller place. And of course this 'gearhead' element of my personality chimes with the 'gearhead' mentality of many of my readers. Because, whether we like to admit it or not, this is what we are interested in. And again, there's nothing wrong with that. An interest in how cameras and lenses perform when compared to each other isn't something to be ashamed of. There's nothing wrong with pixel-peeping or 'measurebating' either. In the scheme of things these are pretty harmless activities and interests and those of us who are interested in such things are helping to keep the worlds economy ticking over anyway. So that's one part of what I do. And in the past I've written many a post about it.

The tricky part for me to understand was why smartphone photography appeals to me so much. Particularly since I have nowhere near the same feelings for them as objects. In fact they are rather dull things. A large screen surrounded by some plastic casing. Sure iPhones and Blackberrys have a rather nice design ethic, but compared to a chrome Leica M, it's no contest. But my revelation is that this is exactly the point why I love using them so much. Because I find them so aesthetically dull and functional, because they don't have any of the 'magic' of a beautifully designed camera, because they have these huge screens that I hold up in front of my face, I can then indulge in the real photographic passion I have in my life, creating pictures as opposed to owning cameras. And all my appreciation and admiration of the gear I'm using, my preoccupation with what the beautiful artefact I have in my hands looks like and how it works and what it does, disappears. Because, apart from anything else, I'm holding the picture I'm creating up in front of me. And no, it isn't the same as using a viewfinder or the small screens most 'proper' cameras have. This is different. And yes I used to criticise it, but once I started using my Nokia Lumia 1020, and seeing the pictures I created with it, I suddenly realised how different it was. And it's no accident that pretty much all my favourite images over the last year have been created with that camera / smartphone. I'm seeing the world differently via that screen, in fact I'm seeing a collection of images passing me by on it all the time and it allows me to decide which of those I want to capture.

Because ultimately what we do as photographers is attempt to record the workings of the world and the people in it, but in terms of the zillions of great images our planet is creating every second of every day, we are only ever going to be able to capture a microscopically small percentage of them. So we have to make a choice and for me, using a smartphone seems to make that choice easier and more meaningful. So I have this crazy situation that using a device that holds no aesthetic pleasure for me helps me create better images. But then maybe that's not so crazy after all. Because, the reason that I want to go out with my smartphones / camera phones / communication cameras is obviously because the burning ambition that I have to see and create new images is more important than any pleasure I get from walking around with a cool / fashionable / status confirming / expensive / stylish / retro / aesthetic camera and set of lenses. And this does of course explain my love of the Leica T (Typ 701) for which in terms of performance and specs. I have better options on my shelf, is so attractive to me and my favourite camera. Because it combines perfectly my love of beautifully designed aesthetic gear with the minimalist functionality and big screen view of the world that my smartphones give me. Obvious really, not sure why I didn't spot it earlier. 

Now as mentioned above I've just got a Samsung K zoom smartphone. the one with the zoom lens. Not the greatest performer in terms of image quality, but boy do I love using it. Again it's got a superb screen, bright and sharp. And once I've ignored all the options and menu functions and set it up as auto everything the happier I am. Because then I'm concentrating on the pictures I'm taking. I couldn't care less about the aesthetics of the thing or all the endless ridiculous and time wasting apps it's got, I use it as a simple effective picture taking device. And for me (which may well sound very surprising) this is the 'purest' form of photography that I currently engage in. I love the fact that smartphones take all the 'fiddling' out of photography. I'm pretty good around a camera and I know how to do most things, but that's not what I'm interested in. I just want to see the image, compose and capture it. Nothing else really matters to the photographer part of me. The gearhead part might have other ideas, but then I can indulge that wherever and whenever.

Those regular readers with a good memory may well remember that I've written several times about the numerous occasions that when my smartphone comes out, the 'proper' camera I've using doesn't get a look in. And of course this is explained by the above. Usually when I'm out, I indulge my camera owning passion for a while, but then something clicks in, out comes the smartphone and 'Time to get creative' becomes my overiding thought. Now this is obviously not the same for everyone, but this seems to be how I function as a photographer. Again, nothing wrong with it. I'm not recommending it, but then I'm not apologising for it either. It is the way I work, though work seems such a poor way to describe such an enjoyable activity. 

So will this impact this blog? Well not really, because I'll carry on doing what I've always done, buying, using, analysing, assessing the cameras and lenses that appeal to me as a gear owning enthusiast and detailing the creativity and enjoyment i get from using my communication cameras. (I do really like that description!) As I've written earlier, as soon as smartphone appears in a title, down go my page hits, but I'm going to be publishing those articles in a different section anyway. Though, they will be flagged up in the normal way on my website, blog site and via my social media accounts. 

Regular readers may have guessed most of this already and I did know it all myself really. But I've always found it useful to think about what what I'm doing and why I do it. Otherwise just working on auto pilot all the time isn't helpful if I want to avoid getting stale and simply repeating myself over and over again. Clarification of working methods and an understanding the achievements being sought can be difficult to look at objectively, so these instances of seeing what's in front in me, that for whatever reason I often choose to avoid, is a useful exercise. It's always easier to retreat into habit, as creatively stifling as that may be. So gearhead versus photographer is probably an accurate way to sum up what goes on with me and my relationship with my gear and it's likely to continue like that for the foreseeable future. Because moments of clarity and common sense like this are (thankfully) very rare!!

(N.B. As ever all of the above is a personal view and there is no intention to influence other people and the choices that they make.)