While clearing space on my laptop, I came across some photos from 2011. Different city, different camera, different time. I’ve probably posted a few of them already on one or more now-defunct blogs, but I thought it might be nice to put a few of them up here.
I often wonder whether at any point older digital photographs will look “old” to us in a charming way, the way that old film photographs or Polaroids look to us now. It seems unlikely, because the imperfections of older digital photographs, like grainy digital noise in the shadows, never looked all that appealing to me. I have no feeling of nostalgia or sense of history when I look at an old digital photo. It doesn’t look old-timey in the way that an 1800s sepia tone family portrait might, or a Polaroid snapshot with its trademark white border.
Still, there might be something to be said for old digital photos, at least in terms of how an older camera’s constraints might shape both the raw material of the captured image and the end product of any editing.
While cleaning my office this afternoon, I came across my Canon S90, a higher end pocket camera that debuted in 2010. After a bit of thought, I placed it into the “donate” bin. In the past few years, my Ricoh GR2 and my iPhone 7 have taken its place as cameras for street photography and those circumstances when a large DSLR simply isn’t practical (i.e. most of the time). Meanwhile, the S90 has just gathered dust.
By coincidence, the next folder in my photo backlog included S90 shots taken in New York City back in 2015. As I edited them, I found that despite the GR2 and iPhone 7 likely being better cameras, there was still something to these that I enjoyed.
Editing them took me back in time a bit, as I remembered how I’d tend to edit low-lit photographs or nighttime street scenes taken with this camera. If I tried to brighten the whole image, the parts of the image that were darkest would quickly show a lot of unappealing looking digital grain. To hide that, I pulled down the far left end of the curve, crunching those shadows down to near-black. Then, I stuck a point at the center of the curve and pulled the mid-values back up.
This usually resulted in high contrast and saturated colors, in amounts that I would have likely backed off from if I were using a different camera.
This isn’t a broadly recognized nostalgia generating effect like sepia tones or Polaroids, but it is something that, to me, is specific to this particular camera, and it brings back memories. I will use this to justify my pack rat tendencies, and will likely hold on to this old camera for a few more years at least.
Apple recently released an API allowing third party apps to edit "raw" iPhone camera images. In short (and I'm sure at some level I'm butchering this summary), raw editing gives you a lot more room to edit an image's color and exposure. To my eye, the benefits of this are most evident in highlights and shadows. Parts of an image that appear to be blown out in white can be pulled back to show details, and parts of an image that appear to be blackened shadows can be pulled up to show what's there.
I saw that Adobe Lightroom for mobile was highly recommended for trying this out, so I downloaded it earlier this week and took it for a spin. It'll prompt you to sign up for a membership, but you actually don't need to in order to be able to shoot and edit with it.
These shots are mostly from around the neighborhood where I work. I tried to keep an eye out for high contrast scenes that could most benefit from raw editing.
A nice bonus from this experiment was trying out Lightroom for mobile. I had never used it before, but found the interface very easy to use. I think it's going to be my photo editor of choice for times when I want to get a little deeper than what Instagram will let me do.
One thought that occurred to me was whether or not raw editing provided an advantage over the iPhone's built-in HDR feature when it comes to dealing with high contrast scenes. I didn't side-by-side this, so it's tough to know, but the answer is probably "it depends". iPhone Life's piece on HDR notes that HDR is not the best tool for capturing shots with lots of motion, since it's knitting together multiple exposures. So in something like the above, where there are people going back and forth, the exposures could overlap poorly and there might be some blur or strange artifacts in the final image.
Parts of the clouds still blow out here, and the vignette I added certainly crunches down the shadows along the edges. But as always on the phone, it's a balance between how much editing work I want to do, and how much time I want to spend on my phone doing it. There's still an "ok, that's good enough" point, and this was it for me with this photo.
There's some blurriness here, as the phone's probably taking a longer exposure and I could've done a better job bracing it against the balcony rail.
Overall, I found raw/Lightroom a useful tool, though not one that I'll use every for every iPhone photo. In a lot of scenarios, the built-in Camera app is going to be good enough, and that's faster for me to start up than opening Lightroom and then going to the camera part of the app. I also don't want to get into the habit of building up a large backlog of unedited raw files in the app, as I have enough of that going on in my non-iPhone photo world.
But for times when I'm taking a shot that I know I'm going to want to post, and I want the best version available for editing, then I'll most likely be using this to do it.
By coincidence, I finished editing photos from New York Comic Con 2014 shortly after I got home from New York Comic Con 2016.
For more photos, you can jump into the relative future and see my shots from Comic Con 2015 here (for a while, I tried alternating between old photos and new photos while working through my editing backlog).
Every now and then, Timehop will show me a photo I took on my phone five or six years ago. Sometimes I'll be able to remember what in the scene made me take it. I imagine my past self swiping through Instagram filters, finding one that had that "something" and feeling pretty happy with the end result. But looking down at the photo now on a retina display phone, the limitations of the old hardware are evident. There's muddled looking contrast and unsightly digital grain, only slightly disguised by the kitschy filter.
I probably would have a hard time telling the difference between a photo taken on an iPhone 6S and a photo taken on an iPhone 7 (not counting the 7+'s fancy Portrait setting). But these cameras do get incrementally better every year, and per my Timehop example, those improvements are even more evident when skipping generations. So for me, the 5s to the 7 is a big jump.
It would be difficult for me to pinpoint just how much better the 7 is than the 5s short of doing shot by shot comparisons, which would likely drive me bananas. So instead I figured I would instead actively shoot and post on the 7 over the course of a week and see how I felt at the end of it.
For this post, I tried to focus on subjects that would typically catch my attention on the street, as well as a few that might be good for showcasing the new camera (such as the flowers and produce below). As an experiment, I edited in the Photos app rather than Instagram. I'm not in love with the Photos app's editing interface. I like the attempt at simplicity with the master Light and Color sliders, but I found myself almost always digging into the subsliders anyway, which makes for a lot of expanding and collapsing of menus. Things would also often get cumbersome after I cropped an image: I would crop it, and then the image would automatically expand under the top and bottom control bars to the edges of the display. So I'd have to tap the image again so that the bars would disappear and I could see the whole thing. Still, every now and then it's good to shake loose of old habits, so I like to think it pushed me to be a little more purposeful in my edits instead of following my rote Instagram editing routines.
Overall, I'm very happy with how these came out. As has always been the case with phones in recent years, in good conditions, the camera on your phone will do a great job. In more challenging conditions, like nighttime on the street or high contrast environments, things get trickier. But even then I still think they came out well. Rarely did I take a shot that I felt was unusable because of the quality of the image (i.e. it's not you, phone; it's me).
Two other neat things, apparently iOS 10 now allows you to shoot in RAW on third party apps. The f/1.8 aperture is also a nice improvement. I could imagine using a third party app to shoot in aperture priority and attempt to squeeze some nicely bokehed shots out of it. But digging into these features does run counter to the sense of simplicity that I've enjoyed while shooting on my phone this week. I like that I can point my phone at something, take the photo, and feel alright about it, and move on. The fact that it's a phone lowers my expectations on what I ought to be trying to control.
I don't think the iPhone 7 quite beats my GR II, but sooner or later I imagine an iPhone will (just as how the iPhone 7 is likely now at parity, if not better than, my old S90). And of course, the biggest advantage that it has over my GR II or my DSLR is that it is always in my pocket. As photographer Chase Jarvis has said, "the best camera is the one you have with you".
But also, it doesn't hurt when that camera also happens to be really good.