Thursday, September 6, 2012

Tip of the Day: Exposing Your Weaknesses with an iPhone4

Operation iPhone4 in full swing

In some martial arts forms, the practitioner improves his reflexes and heightens his senses by blindfolding himself in combat training. By temporarily removing his ability to see, the practitioner is forced to rely on his other senses and shore up vital weaknesses. This serves to decrease his dependency on his eyesight while ensuring that he is more responsive when he regains his vision.

And if they want to get fancy, they can also tie an arm (or both arms) behind their backs. This forces the issue of balance and overuse of the hands in combat. This also tremendously improves his chance of getting hit in the face.

Just like in combat training many photographers have grown overly dependent on their state-of-the-art digital camera. Auto white balance, auto metering, auto focus, autofocus motion tracking, 11FPS, 12 stops of dynamic range, fast write speeds, 35 megapixels, blah blah blah.

More always seemed like it was better. Until you realize you're the photographic equivalent of paraplegic riding an electric wheelchair.

Instead of trying to compensate for our lack of skills with more technology, as photographers shouldn't we ensure that we (and not the cameras) are the ones making the images? And prove that can do without the advanced gadgetry that our cameras afford us today?

With that said, what if you were forced to shoot with your iPhone4. No, not the 4S with the much better camera. Just the iPhone4. Yeah, the one with the green blob phenomenon.

And by "forced" I mean you drive 40 miles out to Malibu on a cloudy day only to realize while you're in the port-o-potty that you've forgotten your camera at the model's apartment.

What would you do? Drive 40 miles back to get your camera? Reschedule the shoot altogether? Or do you pull out your iPhone, man up and knock out one of the most impressive iPhone photoshoots control the world has ever seen?

Let me warn you first that if you're going to do this, please tell your model beforehand. Otherwise you'll face an even greater challenge than you originally anticipated. Namely that your model no longer trusts you. She thinks you're a doof. An amateur. She might even call you stupid to your face. And now you're supposed to tell her what to wear and maintain control over this shoot. Not a good starting point.

But given our time constraints, I wasn't going to leave Malibu without getting something. And admittedly I'd only used the iPhone4 once for 5 minutes during a test. That was 2 years ago. And 2 years ago I was already painfully aware of the dynamic range limitations that would pose potentially the greatest challenge today.

On top of that and you have horrible exposure controls, no shutter speed controls, no aperture controls, no ISO controls. What you can do is point your finger at what you're trying to focus and expose for and hope that the iPhone guesses correctly. Then wait patiently as the file writes.

The write speeds also made for long delays in between shots. Which made me much more selective about getting shots. Overall I took less than 265 shots with the iPhone over 5 basic wardrobe changes and 5 locations. This would be the fewest frames per look I've ever shot.

Well at least it wasn't an iPhone3G[S].

But shooting with the iPhone4 forced the following issues for me:

1) Being extremely selective about what I exposed for. You get maybe 8 stops of dynamic range. So choose wisely. And mind you that the shadow details are dirtier than the Hudson River after a sewage spill. This also forced me to be very selective about lighting, lighting patterns, and background exposure. I could lose 1/2 the model's head to the sky with a tilt of the face. But these are things that I've very adamant about grilling into my workshop students especially when we do location workshops.

2) Shooting slowly and purposefully while retaining the model's flow. No shutter sounds affirming that the model is moving well so she has no idea if things are going well. And every file is a multiple second penalty (I was using an app called Camera+). The slow FPS requires that you have great timing and ability to predict when she strikes a pose. Oh, and did mention the camera's shutter delay? :)

3) Knowing your app/camera. It helps that have used this app for over a year now and I know how it responds when trying to rattle off 20 frames in a row trying to capture our (then) 1-month old baby smiling for the first time. Fortunately this wasn't my first experience with the app. I knew how to lock exposure on a spot. The native app sucks for that because that it only allows a single shot exposure lock. On the other hand, the native app saves much faster.

4) Knowing how to manage your model and a crisis situation. When shit hits the fan and your model is starting to doubt your abilities, you have to know how to manage that situation. You have to say the right things to put her at ease. You need to show her that things will be alright. What I strongly suggest is that you shoot a few frames and then let her see. Put her at ease ASAP. Explain to her the actual difference between your iPhone and your DSLR. And no, don't talk about frame rates and dynamic range. Explain to her what her perceived difference will be; that she might have to move slower, that there might be some delays, that the prints won't be as big. Otherwise, for all intents and purposes I told her "A camera is a camera". I also suggest smiling a lot, staying calm, and not trying to compensate with lots of chit-chat. As a disclaimer, I personally like the pressures of being under the gun. But this only comes with plenty of experiences with shooting models.

5) Battery life. It didn't help that I started the shoot with 20% battery remaining. I put the phone in "Airplane Mode" immediately and hope that the battery lasts long enough for the shoot.

6) No weatherproofing. One of the scarier things about shooting at Malibu when the swell is hitting hard. And the water is coming over the top of your head. I've never been that wet at Malibu.

When everything is said and done you have to ask yourself the following questions. Am I happy with what I'm getting? Can I live with not knowing the fundamentals of photography? Is this just a hobby? Am I just a weekend warrior?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions then you shouldn't change a thing. Just keep buying the latest and greatest and hope they invent an auto-[fill in the blank with your weakness]. Otherwise, invest some time and energy into improving your photography. Grab a shitty camera and expose your weaknesses so you can find out what you really need to address.

A great place to get soaked if you are so inclined...


  1. Very good Charles. Thanks for sharing this and your insights gained from it. Being an "old" film guy learning the ins and outs of the digital world I can really identify with what you have written. Congratulations on getting some great shots, it really shows your talent, and the models patience. :)

  2. Nice save, man. Thank goodness for modern tech. If this were even ten years ago you would have been toast ;)

  3. If it were even 2 years ago, it would have been a fail!

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