Some random thoughts and insights about (not just smartphone) photography

In this post you won't see any smartphone comparison. Due to unfortunate circumstances I had to stay away from my laptop as much as possible and editing/cropping pictures is still not advisable. So that has given me more time to read and think about smartphone photography and photography in general. In this post I'll share some of my thoughts and insights, illustrated with a few old and recent shots.

For the past years, as you probably know, I've been trying to find the very best smartphone camera. Based on the obvious fact that everybody carries a smartphone these days, and on the idea that you should always carry a camera wherever you go, the concept was to make sure you´ll be using the device with the best possible built-in camera available.

All this time, I've been focusing on detail more than anything else I guess: cropping my way into a picture so see which device gave the sharpest result, the most detail. No wonder this is how I approached the matter, since the Nokia 808 PureView and its insane 41.5MP sensor was my point of departure.

Pixel binning took care of practically noise-free shots on 5MP/8MP in "PureView mode", whereas "full resolution" provided me with breath-taking detail. After three years I think I "proved" that no other smartphone has been able to be able to outperform the power of the giant sensor of the 808 PureView (or Nokia Lumia 1020), combined with great optics and very smart software.

Is detail that important though? I wonder sometimes.

The importance of sharpness
An acquaintance of mine is a professional photo journalist. He works with the Sony RX1 full-frame compact camera as his main device. He wrote me once that a perfectly sharp picture was actually the least of his worries. He was more interested in the moment he captured, the atmosphere of the scene, the importance of it, emotion, composition - and then sharpness. 

It made me realize there's so much more to think about than just mere sharpness and detail - or technical stuff like minimum ISO, maximum shutter speed, zoom capacity, dynamic range - you name it. There are so much more fundamental choices I never seem to have cared about it's almost frightning.

Let me confess: I knew zip about photography when all of a sudden I woke up with the crazy idea to start a blog about PureView technology. I was already a "mobile photographer", but after the announcement during the Mobile World Congress in 2012, I was simply fascinated by the Nokia 808 PureView. I figured I'd learn what I'd need to know along the way. And over the years I more or less did. It's been a fascinating journey through the basics of photography.

But it had nothing to do with "esthetics" or "philosophy" or "choice of subject". I don't want to be too highbrow all of a sudden: what I wrote about smartphone cameras served its purpose. But I just don't think I ever had any basic thought about photography itself.

Of course I thought about composition of the scenes I captured. Comparisons always have taken me a lot of time since I want people to have a look at scenes that are more or less interesting enough to look at anyway. I worried about stuff like diagonals, perspective, foreground, precious bokeh - the works.

But although I've been using the Nokia 808 PureView for years, I never really cared much about the fact it is so incredibly easy to capture black and white shots with it. Only after recently buying yet another 808 PureView, it suddenly strikes me how absolutely amazing it performs in this kind of photography. 

It's only after reading and learning about the esthetics behind it all, I'm slowly starting to discover what photography is all about anyway. Or could be. I'm starting to wonder about what it all means to me.

Trying other cameras
After being more or less fed up with finding a better device than the 808 (yes, I do realize I still owe you a comparison with the Lumia 950, sorry it´s taking me this long), I started checking out other cameras. I do a lot (too much) of second hand buying and selling, losing some money along the way I'm afraid, but learning a lot at the same time. 

First, I tried several Samsung system cameras, moving up from the small NX1000 to the NX300, NX500 and finally ending with the large NX1, for which I got the best lenses Samsung ever produced. Too bad it appears that Samsung is leaving the market at the moment even professionals are seriously impressed. The quality of my work has suddenly made a quantum leap after working with smartphones for years.

But I can't always carry all the NX gear, so looking for even better quality and more possibilities I know even the best smartphone can offer, I started looking for the "perfect" compact camera. I think the Sony RX100 (I) was the first high quality compact I used, but it wasn't "connected" so didn't count as "smartcam" (I'm still trying to run this place after all).

Quite a few other devices followed. Next was a too short period with the Ricoh RG with a large APS-C sensor which I adored but for its connectivity (no WiFi and I'm too used to micro-USB by now). Sold that as well, looking for better alternatives with wireless connection to quickly send shots to my smartphone or tablet (yes, I do use that a lot).

At the moment I'm quite happy with my second hand Fujifilm X30 - with a sensor that's smaller than even the one on the 808, but it has other advantages, like an EVF, OIS, better optics, zoom capacity etc. I'm currently testing the Fujifilm X70 (see  product page), with an APS-C sensor (using Fujifilm's X-Trans CMOS II technology) - I hope to be sharing more about that little camera here soon.

But what for?
During this endeavour to find the very best gear to suit my needs, I simply forgot one basic question. What do I want to capture anyway? What are my needs to begin with? 

Landscapes, including colorful boats washed ashore on Greek beaches? Canals, city scenes, flowers, architecture, dark restaurants in Amsterdam or so many other cities? I've done a lot of stuff like that, if only to compare the way different smartphones capture them. Does that make me a landscape or city photographer? 

With the Nokia 808 PureView and Lumia 1020 I've been capturing some beautiful portraits from colleagues for instance, some even still use the result as their Facebook profile picture. But it's the portraits I captured with the Samsung NX1 and its huge 85mm F1.4 lens that people really appeared to admire. So - am I a  portrait photographer maybe? 

One afternoon I took a new zoomlens to Amsterdam, to finally overcome my fear to shoot complete strangers - and I immensly enjoyed the results (which I sent to just about everyone involved afterwards). Did I suddenly discover I'm a street photographer? 

The answer is I guess I'm still looking for what my prefered "kind" of photography is, what really matters to me and which type of camera would suit me best. It's weird though, to realize a thing like that when you captured over at least 100.000 shots.

You need guts to shoot people
Unless they love to be in front of a camera or simply get paid for it, you need guts to shoot people. I've been very happy with some of the portraits I captured in the streets of Amsterdam testing my 50-150mm zoomlens on many tourists (you won't find a city in the Netherlands with so many different nationalities).

But I do have to overcome this silly fear of capturing strangers - afraid I might get them upset. Also, some think it's totally unethical to share photos of them without their consent. Guess I'm still not comfortable with the whole idea because of that as well.

Of course there's more to street photography than just people. It's also about capturing that special moment or scene you simply feel is worth capturing. A scene where people do play a part but are not the main reason for your shot. Unfortunately I can't give you an example of my own here, but I'd love to link to this outstanding story about street photographer Joel Meyerowitz (a story I found through Elliot Paul Stern's blog by the way, worth a visit as well since he links to often very inspiring content).

There are a few things I especially admire in mr. Meyerowitz' advises, like the first you'll find in the post I linked to: experiment with different formats. It's exactly what I'm doing I guess, in the hope that one specific format will suit me best. Working with the fixed lens of the Fujifilm X70 already proves to be somewhat of a challenge, not being able to zoom in (but more than enough room to crop with a 16.3MP sensor and great optics).

Another thing I find extremely interesting is the choice between color versus black and white in street photography. I notice just about all street photographers work in black and white which definitely give their shots a more artistic look. But do you really have to?

I find there can be valid reasons to shoot in color as well - even making it more of a challenge. It's a comfort someone like mr. Meyerowitz stresses it can be a great idea to do street photography in color. I find that comforting since I got the impression that this kind of photography would only be appreciated without it - sometimes seems like most street photographers are betting on one horse only.
Nokia Lumia 1020, Barcelona

On editing shots
I'm fully aware that with help of sophisticated or even quite simple software you can get the most out of what your sensor actually captured, and even way more than it did. I have nothing against that in itself, but there is a thin line somewhere - maybe not even that thin.

I've seen too many shots turned into some kind of "magic realism" thanks to software. You only have to look at the pictures being shared by Das Image for instance, to realize it has become an artform in itself. It might look awesome, true magic at times - but it shouldn't be confused with photography in my opinion. It starts with photography and the result is turned into something else. Sometimes art, too often kitsch to my taste. 

Maybe it's because I started out with the "PureView" concept I really like my shots to be as pure - as in straight from the cam - as possible. Of course, I'll happily add some contrast or brightness now and again if it will improve the result, but I just can't bring myself to change reality. 

That's about the one thing I've become very sure of regarding my photography: I want it to be "pure". I know it's cool to be fooling around with HDR or some funny applications at times, but for my own shots I definitely know I'm not going to spend hours behind a computer to get way more out of my picture than I ever saw with my own eyes. Capturing reality is hard enough as it is.

Back to reality
Being a photographer used to be a profession. You had to be trained in not just making pictures but developing the negatives as well. Only a few people could actually live from doing so, for many others it was a hobby or passion - but even when everyone could have their results printed, it wasn't something simply everyone did. 

Thanks to the smartphone and its always improving camera and thanks to the internet and social media, the amount of people capturing and sharing pictures has exploded with the force of a nuclear blast. Worldwide, people are sharing millions of shots per second. Does that mean photography as a profession has disappeared? 

Hell no. It's an interesting contrast though, from "a few" or even "many" professional photographers and aspiring amateurs - to "almost everyone on the planet". The world is flooded by shots that in comparison practically no-one really cares about. They just won't reach anyone else but those with whom they were shared - and they were never meant to go any further anyway. All together, they will prove to be an incredibly valuable contribution to human history, I have no doubt about that.

But gazillions of shots won't make it to any frontpage of any website or newspaper. They won't be seen on TV, won't be remembered as something meaningful. Photographers go further. That's what sets them apart: sharp or unsharp, they freeze moments and scenes meaningful to others. That's why I'm not fond of however artfully edited shots: they may look fantastic for a second, but don't inevitably burn themselves into our memories. Real shots do. That's why being a photographer hasn't devaluated. It still is as much a profession as it has always been.

I still don't know where I'm heading personally... Portraits? Street photography? Landscapes? Flowers? Architecture? Does one have to specialize to excel anyway? Wherever my photography will take me, I finally came to realize why I need my shots to be true. Real. Pure. Be it in full color or black and white. Capture that special scene or moment. Make it count.

Fire away
This is not to say however, I'll be waiting for the "perfect" moment. You can look for a fantastic scene and take all the time you need to capture it, but you can't wait for the exact perfect moment to capture. For instance, the shot above was one of a few dozen shots and this was the one I really liked. If one in a few dozen shots is good enough, I'm happy.

It's one of the things I recognized from mr. Meyerowitz lessons I linked to earlier in this post. Don't be afraid to miss the moment - if you hesitate you'll probably gonna miss it anyway. So just fire away and evaluate later. It's not like you don't have enough storage on your device these days. 

Last but not least: never ever leave your camera at home. Whether it's a smartphone with a great camera in it, a compact, system or DSLR. Missing the possibility to capture something truly epic because of not being able to grab any of them would definitely ruin my day.

So now I wonder where you stand. What does photography mean to you? Do you want to achieve something more than just shots to share with friends and family? Did you find some subject to specialize in, like portraits or landscapes? Do you use different devices like me? What's your view on editing the results you get from your camera? How far will you go? 

What do you think of the importance of sharpness and detail? How do you feel about street photography in color - and about publishing shots from complete strangers without their permission, like I did above with the contemplative young woman? So many questions...

Photo credits
Last thing: I really dislike watermarks in photos, so I refrain from adding them. The first two shots in this post came from my Nokia 808 PureView (the limited 41MP edition owned by former Nokia employee Kristina Björknäs who was in the team developing the 808 PureView).

I added the unsharp black and white shot of the cameras later - came from my Fujifilm X30. The old boat on Crete was shot with the Nokia Lumia 1020. I captured the young woman in Amsterdam from quite a distance with the Samsung NX1 (50-150mm zoomlens). The street scene below it was captured during an evening in Barcelona with the Lumia 1020.

The girl laughing about what she sees in her iPhone was captured in Amsterdam, again with the Samsung NX1 (50-150mm zoomlens). Also in Amsterdam I shot the seagulls, but with the Samsung NX500 (85mm F/1.4 lens).

I'll be looking forward to your reactions below. Meanwhile: happy shooting!