iPhone · tography: All Souls Procession

Each year in early November the Tucson community gathers to memorialize loved ones who have passed away in an event called the All Souls Procession. This is a cross-cultural event.  It blends the Mexican Dia de los Meutos (Day of the Dead) holiday with a larger artistic expression that encompasses both the sadness and the fond remembrance that accompanies the death of a friend or family member.  It culminates on Sunday evening with a march by participants to a symbolic pyre where written thoughts, prayers, and memories are burned in a shared celebration of how the lives of others have enriched our own.

This couple is somewhat typical of the skull-like face painting present on many participants at the All Souls Procession. If you squint your eyes you can really see it. For this image, I asked this pair to move to a shady spot since the softer light would allow the details of their face painting to show up better.

I am photographically drawn to this event by the sugar skull (calavera) iconography that is common to the Dia de los Muertos tradition.  In particular, it’s the face painting that imitates the decorative sugar skulls that makes photography at this festival special. Many participants create elaborate skull-like face paintings that are then enhanced with additional articles of clothing, headdresses, and various peripherals that set the mood for their personal involvement in the procession.  For a couple of hours before the parade starts, people are gathering on the street.  It’s a nice time to mingle with the growing crowd and look for pictures.

I think this lady perfectly captures the spirit of the day. Her face is painted like a decorative sugar skull, she’s wearing a flowery headdress, she has a skull tattoo on her shoulder, and she’s carrying the picture of the person she has come to remember.

While I’ve taken my camera to this event in previous years, I decided just to use the iPhone this year.  Even though it’s just an old first-gen iPhone SE, I like the screen for composing images.  I also like the light weight (4 ounces) for maneuverability and freedom, and the ability to shoot raw images for developing the resulting mages in Camera Raw and Photoshop. Linear profiles and luminosity masks work fine with DNG images from the iPhone.  I was a little concerned that the fixed 29-mm equivalent lens would be too short for people close-ups, but this turned out to not be an issue.

These painted ladies embrace the artistic side of this event. The sugar skull iconography has been taken to another level by the makeup artist, who, I think, is the woman on the right. Many painted faces contain color elements, but I often prefer a black and white presentation as it better emphasizes the monochrome, haunting nature of a skull. However, colors like this are more festive than haunting and deserve to be brought through to the final image.

I’m not much of a people photographer, but it seemed like people at this event were extremely open to being photographed. I guess we’re all used to having our pictures taken with smartphones nowadays, though usually not by strangers.  Since they were mostly unrecognizable in their face paint, the subjects were able to maintain a high degree of anonymity when an unfamiliar person asked to photograph them.  Even more, though, I think many people who had decorated themselves for the event wanted to be photographed.  It was a moment to be a celebrity, a chance to be noticed in a way that highlighted their own artistic expression.

This woman is carrying what I think is referred to as an offrenda, which is normally an altar containing pictures and items meant to commemorate the person who has died and to welcome their spirit into the home. This one was portable, and it created a useful frame for the subject’s face.

The nice thing about iPhone·tography is that the camera and camera app (I was mostly using the Lightroom Mobile camera app) does all the work.  It’s simple point-and-shoot photography. The camera found the faces, focused on them and set the exposure while I held the camera at arm’s length and attempted to engage the subject in conversation or direct their placement in the frame.  I did use the camera’s flash and it seemed to help add a little extra light to the faces while also creating a small catch light in the subject’s eyes.   I told the subjects I needed to move in close, and no one seemed to mind.  I was an arm’s length behind the camera, so it’s less of an intrusion into their personal space.  It also felt better from my perspective.  I liked having the extra distance while still being able to get some nice close ups of these faces. 

Backgrounds can problematic in these street portraits, and it’s a reason to fill the frame as much as possible with the subject’s face. Obtrusive backgrounds are also a reason for switching to black and white. Then it becomes a matter of just darkening distracting background elements tonally instead of having to manage their colors as well. This image is a good one for seeing the catch light from the camera’s flash in the subject’s eyes.

Another benefit of iPhone images is the ability to easily share the results with the subjects.  The larger phone screen is definitely better than almost any camera LED display for doing this.  While I think it’s courteous to show the images to the subject, I was a little surprised at how many then requested a copy.  Being able to instantly share the results with the subject creates an interesting new dimension.  It’s something that maybe only happens when photographing people with a smartphone. 

This is another example of where I felt the colors in the face painting deserved to be brought through to the finished image. The person was position with a slightly less chaotic background where the colors would still be manageable and didn’t compete with the face painting. The flash helped preserve light on the face which made processing easier. This image uses the sketch actions in the TK8 plugin to produce the final results.

While there were plenty of regular cameras at this event with long lenses, flash, and reflectors, I have no regrets about only taking and using my single-lens iPhone. It was easy to engage with the subjects while taking pictures and the images turned out better than expected. It was also an interesting challenge to compose with a shorter focal length lens, but in the end I think it might have created a better connection with the subject both photographically and personally. Not surprisingly, a street festival like this can be a great place for photography, and the iPhone can be a fun way to explore the possibilities.

iPhone · tography: 20 reasons to try it

Special thanks to Bob Hills and Dave Kelly who contributed images for this article. Dave’s Joy of Editing YouTube channel provides instruction on using image-processing software including the TK8 plugin.

As discussed in the last article, I’ve been experimenting with my iPhone camera and am surprised at the image quality. The comments in that post indicated that many people are further along incorporating their smartphones into their photography than I am. Even though I’m still a novice, I’ve had more fun with iPhone photography during the last three months than anything else in the last decade. The iPhone is a new toy, yes, but it’s also a new tool. It does things my DSLR can’t, and it works so well that it can’t help but spark new creative excitement.

What follows is a list of things that have impressed me about using my iPhone for “serious” photography. It’s based on my own, limited experience and from the thoughts gleaned from the comments in the previous post. Basically, I feel I have made a mistake ignoring smartphones cameras until now. As Inés from Barcelona commented, “We restrict ourselves by not giving a second chance to obvious things.” I’m certainly guilty of that and hope the list below encourages others, who have not already done so, to give smartphone photography a chance. If you have additional thoughts on why you like to use your smartphone for photography, please leave a comment. I’ll update this list with new items.

  • Extremely lightweight equipment. My first-gen iPhone SE weighs 112 grams (less than 4 ounces) according to my kitchen scales, and it fits in my pocket when not in use.  My camera bag and contents (an APS-C camera and three lenses) weighs 5-1/4 pounds. Guess which one I prefer to carry.
  • You always have your camera with you. Once you start thinking about your iPhone as a “real” camera, you quickly realize that if you see a picture, you can take it. Consequently, you’re more alert for picture possibilities and start finding them everywhere. The whole world is a photograph. You just need to come up with a composition. You can still plan your photo vacations and special outings, but there will be more picture opportunities in between.
  • Menus. What menus? DSLR settings menus are something I definitely DO NOT MISS with the iPhone! Even setting up completely manual shooting on my mirrorless DSLR took a couple of days. The English instruction manual is 50 pages long, and only tells you the names of the buttons and menu items. To actually figure out what each does, you need to go online and wade through the 354-page PDF. Really? Yes, REALLY! I still am not confident that I have the optimal settings for the way I shoot, and it’s hard to even contemplate trying something new and having to find and choose alternate settings. My first camera was a manual Nikon FM2 and I’ve longed for that level of simplicity in a camera since getting my first DSLR. The iPhone comes pretty close.
  • Smaller files, quicker processing. My iPhone has a 12-megapixel sensor. We’ve gotten so used to waiting for Photoshop to finish processing some steps that we think it’s normal. However, smaller files always process faster than big files, and sometimes the difference is quite noticeable. Now that I’m working with smaller files, I’m definitely liking them. I know, sensor megapixel counts are higher on some smartphones and heading higher on the iPhone as well. I’m more than happy to have just 12-megapixels on my current iPhone and am not all that excited to move higher.
  • More fluid and creative processing. This is a corollary to having smaller files. When things process faster, you’re likely to try more and different adjustments. This in turn enhances creativity as you try out different “what if” scenarios. Instead of waiting on the computer to finish, it’s waiting for you to come up with your next adjustment. Processing iPhone images adds a new sense of “flow” to your workflow.
  • No processing limits. Responsive processing doesn’t mean much if there are other workflow limitations. This was certainly a concern for me when I started working with iPhone images, and, fortunately, I’ve not encountered any. Topaz, TK8, Lightroom/Camera Raw, luminosity masks, Nik, linear profiles . . . they all work fine. I can easily get RAW files using the Lightroom Camera app. I can make a linear profile for any iPhone once I have the Lightroom camera’s DNG. I can do my normal adjustments in Camera Raw, and everything works fine in Photoshop. In fact, I’m finding that on some iPhone images respond so well to processing that I can cutback in other areas. For example, Topaz Sharpen AI does an incredible job. It’s one of my last processing steps and it brings out an amazing amount of detail. So much that I can decrease the amount of web-sharpening and print-sharpening that I apply and still have exceptional output. It seems that these auxiliary programs really hit their mark with iPhone images. NOTE: If you use Lightroom Camera on the iPhone and Bridge/Camera Raw as your RAW converter, the Adobe Lightroom Downloader is one option for moving images from the cloud (where Lightroom Camera stores them) to your computer. If you use Lightroom as your RAW converter, you should be able to sync the cloud files directly to your Lightroom catalog.
  • Image quality is way better than expected. It’s hard to imagine such a tiny camera being able to produce high-quality prints to at least 12 x 16 inches, but that’s the iPhone reality. There are still plenty of situations where a DSLR will out-perform the iPhone, but there are also plenty of situations where it would be hard to tell the difference.
  • No sensor dust. This is bigger than you might think. Removing sensor dust is one of the more-tedious, least-creative aspects of image processing. It seems the iPhone cameras are well sealed and even the clearest sky is dust-free.
  • Chromatic aberration. What chromatic aberration?. That’s right, chromatic aberration (CA) is almost nonexistent. For this article, I wanted to see if I could create some. An image of twigs backlit by the sun was needed to find any. Still, the center of the image and the corners were both surprisingly free of it. Checking “Remove chromatic aberration” in Camera Raw easily removed what little there was from the iPhone DNGs I used for evaluation. I’m thinking the fixed focal length lens might contribute to the lack of CA. Regardless, the iPhone certainly has less CA than most zoom lenses I’ve used, and CA is definitely NOT a limiting factor for iPhone photos.
  • Accurate auto-focus.  Wonderful depth-of-field.  Since starting to use my iPhone camera, I’ve made very little use of its manual focus feature (even though it’s as easy as tapping on the screen).  Instead, I’ve been relying on auto-focus and, not only am I nailing the focus on almost all my images, but the depth-of-field is great too.  Near and far elements are both appropriately and surprisingly sharp.  Initially I thought this was due to the lens’ short 4.2-mm focal length.  However, I’ve been informed by a reader that this probably isn’t the case.   Perceptually, though, the near-to-far sharpness is nothing short of fantastic.  A judge in a recent photo contest at our camera club mentioned this on both my iPhone entries.  No focus-blending was involved and both entries were hand-held.  Even though I don’t have a good explanation for why this occurs, I absolutely love it.  Not having to futz with focusing or focus-blending makes photography all the more fun.   In practical terms, what this all means is that focusing the iPhone camera is super easy because you can just use auto-focus, and, with the excellent depth-of-field, it’s hard to miss the focus. Yes, there are situations where you’ll want to be more precise and maybe even lock the focus, but for many pictures, it’s not a concern. Just click the shutter and the image is in focus, and the composition will consistently have excellent sharpness for both near and far elements in the scene.
  • Manually setting focus and exposure (if you choose to do so) is also super simple. Just touch the screen. No dials, no buttons, no joystick, no focus ring, no settings to choose, no menus. With the iPhone camera app itself, it’s possible to set both focus and exposure by tapping the on-screen image. To adjust exposure, slide your finger up or down. To lock both exposure and focus, long-press. There are several camera apps that have slightly different methods to set exposure, but the touch screen is always easier to use than a DSLR and also easier to learn.
  • Composition happens at a totally different level. I only have a 4-inch screen on my iPhone SE, but it still feels 10 times bigger than the low-resolution LCD on my APS-C camera. That might be related to the fact that the camera and lens weighs 6 times what the iPhone weighs and needs two hands to operate. Composing using just one arm and trying lots of different angles makes the process more dynamic and experimental. High, low, tilted, looking up, looking down, and upside down can all be tested in about the time it takes to raise a DSLR camera to your eye. In addition, the iPhone screen is completely WYSIWYG. It’s like you’re holding a small print as you compose the picture. I’m still adapting to this but am finding it easier to see potential images and also to try images I wouldn’t have attempted previously simply due the bulk of a regular camera. I’m also starting to think there is some value in viewing the composition a little way away from your body. While I’m used to composing through a viewfinder, composing at arm’s-length might be better.
  • Compose in monochrome (with a twist). Like DSLR cameras, the iPhone offers a monochrome “filter” that can be activated for taking black and white images. I find it a useful aid for composing in monochrome, though I still take the image in color and do the conversion in either Camera Raw or Photoshop to keep all the sensor data intact. The neat thing about the phone camera, however, is that I can keep the iPhone Camera app’s monochrome filter turned on for compositional purposes and then quickly change to the Lightroom Camera app to expose in color. So, it’s like having two different cameras in the same device. One set to compose in monochrome and the other set to compose and capture in color.
  • Some zooming is possible. The iPhone doesn’t have optical-zoom, and its digital-zoom crops pixels from the final image. I accidentally developed a picture where I had zoomed in slightly to get the composition I wanted. I had forgotten about this until I went to print the image and saw its size was only 5.5-megapixels instead of the normal 12-megapixels. I printed it anyway and found the results look good. The individual bricks on the side of the skyscraper were still well-resolved. It appears that 1) cropping out half the pixels can still produce a decent 12 x 16-inch print, and 2) maybe I can print my 12-megapixel images even bigger. NOTE: With the Lightroom Camera app, the cropped version is initially displayed in Camera Raw, but bringing up the Crop tool provides access to all pixels captured by the sensor, so it’s possible to re-frame/re-crop the image using an uncropped version.
  • Street photography goes unnoticed. I don’t do much of this (yet), but lifting a smartphone to take an image has a different impact on pedestrians (essentially none) compared to pointing a camera at them. Plus, if you want to be really secretive, you could use the iPhone volume buttons as the shutter release and shoot from waist-high.
  • In-camera apps. The iPhone camera is just a device that can be accessed with a variety of different apps. On its own, it only takes jpeg images. And even though these are quite good, I prefer developing the image starting with a RAW file. Well, no problem. I installed the Adobe Lightroom app, and it uses my iPhone camera to create DNG images, and so now I have access to RAW sensor data that work great in Camera Raw. I’ve not explored the huge variety of apps that work with the iPhone camera, but they can certainly “extend” the camera’s capabilities beyond its original “jpeg” functionality. Additionally, once you take a picture with the iPhone, there’s another set of apps that allows you to develop it directly on the iPhone. The Adobe Lightroom app has this capability. However, I still prefer to work with my images on my desktop computer where I have a calibrated monitor, software, and peripherals that I’m comfortable using. Developing an image on the phone by tapping and sliding my finger across a small screen probably isn’t a road I’ll follow. The point, though, is that the iPhone is not just a camera. It’s also an ecosystem of software that can help you take better pictures and be more creative.
  • Surprising stability. I mentioned this in the previous article. The optical image stabilization works great, even in low light. Shooting without a tripod is liberating, and the iPhone lets you do that. Newer iPhone models have more advanced “sensor shift” image stabilization in some of the cameras, but I’m already very happy with the stabilization of my old iPhone SE. It provides crisp, in-focus images, which is just amazing when you consider how it’s held in front of the body and sometimes at odd angles.
  • You now have a second camera in case you need it. Even when you have your DSLR along and it’s working fine, the iPhone comes in handy for making quick shots for future reference, for testing different compositions, or when you have some downtime when the light isn’t so good. And developing and printing some of these images provides a potential segue into appreciating what the iPhone can do.
  • There are YouTube videos (of course). Emil Pakarklis hosts the iPhone Photography School channel and it has lots of great tips for taking beautiful images with your iPhone.
  • You’re unlikely to run out of options to explore. Examples include in-camera HDR, panoramas, and live-image motion blur. iPhone lens attachments are available as well as a wireless remote release. And there are different styles, like portraits and iPhone macro-photography. In other words, for the foreseeable future, I’m not going to run out of things to do with my iPhone camera. I’m not into taking selfies or food pictures for Instagram, and it’s comforting to know the iPhone has so much more to offer.

All the above basically add up to smartphone cameras being a fantastic creativity generator for photographers.  The sheer joy of being able to make excellent images with a camera this light and compact has to be exciting for anyone who enjoys taking and processing photos. As mentioned in the previous article, the turning point for me was seeing a surprisingly good print from an iPhone photo that was captured under less-than-ideal conditions. This changed my mindset regarding this device. I’m now frequently taking the iPhone along as my only camera and coming back with plenty of good pictures. I also photograph things I would have previously overlooked and experiment more with composition.

Summary: The main thing, I think, is to simply accept how good smartphone images can be. Expectations then change accordingly, and this tiny camera can find its proper place in your photographic toolkit. If you treat it like a “real” camera, you won’t be disappointed.