Confessions of a camera snob: DPR reviewer explores mobile photography

I fell in love with photography in the days of film, graduating from using a first generation APS point-and-shoot (remember those?) to 35mm SLRs, medium format bodies and eventually a 4×5 field camera. The progression was logical enough, as at each stage I became more and more enamored with larger film sizes. Bigger was better, allowing for greater fidelity and detail in my prints that, with the advent of digital inkjet printing, would commonly measure 40 x 50 inches.

Indeed, by the time digital SLRs became affordable, I considered shooting with the 8MP Canon EOS 20D to be “slumming” – a steep sacrifice in image quality made for the sake of convenience. Technology has progressed rapidly since then, of course. But as a photographer, image resolution, dynamic range and noise performance are still primary concerns for me.

Of the many features I’ve longed for in a camera over the years, a lower-resolution sensor with smaller, less-sensitive photosites was never on my list. In fact, ever since its announcement last year, the camera currently sitting atop my wish list has been the 36MP Nikon D800E.  

From disdain to grudging acceptance

So when we launched Connect last October and I was assigned to write the HTC One X review, I had a lot of baggage to check at the door in order to assess the smartphone’s camera capabilities from the perspective of a fair, impartial reviewer. Narrow dynamic range, limited exposure controls, a fixed wide angle lens, poor high ISO performance and of course image quality shortcomings when viewed at 100%, were limitations I was just going to have to accept.

To my surprise, however, I rather enjoyed my time shooting primarily with a smartphone. Sure, it lacked in features and performance compared to even the most budget-friendly enthusiast camera. And checking for highlight clipping whenever the sun was high quickly became a post-capture ritual. But I much preferred using the One X over the point-and-shoot I sometimes brought along as a comparison camera while shooting image samples for the review.

Aside from the lack of an optical zoom, the image quality of the One X was on par with the point-and-shoot, and even surpassed it once I tweaked the One X’s default settings. One decided advantage in using the smartphone was not having to struggle with the impossibly small (for my hands) buttons found on a point-and-shoot.  And there was simply no denying the pleasure of reviewing images on a gorgeous 4.7-inch high-resolution screen.

Sufficiently intrigued, after the review was completed I decided to replace my own aging smartphone with an iPhone 5. The decision to go with an Apple rather than Android device was based on the nearly overwhelming number of camera apps available for iOS. As the front end for the camera’s operation, the choice of camera app is a significant one. It greatly influences the experience of making photographs and many apps can differ in image quality as well. I knew early on that I’d be unhappy with either the Apple or Android stock camera app and wanted as many alternatives as possible.

The app is everything

Right away, the apps that intrigued me most were the ones that allowed you to shoot in formats other than the iPhone’s native 4:3 ratio. Shooting with a smartphone is unlike using my standalone camera in many obvious ways. And I decided to embrace, rather than try to minimize, this difference. When I picked up my iPhone I didn’t want to try and mimic much of anything about my DSLR. I was after a completely different experience. And It didn’t take long before I settled on shooting in square format. This format has a long-standing appeal for me, as it harkens back to the days of shooting with my trusty Bronica SQAi 6×6 format camera. I had always loved composing in a square format yet hadn’t done so on a consistent basis in probably a decade.

So I made the decision that all photos taken with my iPhone (outside of family snapshots) were going to be  were going to be shot in a 1:1 ratio. The iPhone would become my new wide angle, square format camera. And after being turned on to the KitCam camera app by colleague Kelcey Smith, who covered it in a Quick Review last year, this feature-rich app with a 1:1 shooting option soon replaced the other App Store purchases I had been trying out.

This decision to shoot in square format immediately changed my outlook on the iPhone as a photographic tool. Yes, I added another limitation on a device that already has its share of them. But this limitation was a creative one. One that challenged me to alter the way I see the world around me. And isn’t that what attracted most of us to photography in the first place?

With the iPhone I also wanted to shoot a lot of black and white, something I’ve enjoyed doing ever since I first picked up a camera. Hipstamatic is a popular square format shooting app with particularly useful options for black and white photographers. The app offers literally dozens of “film” and “lens” combinations that emulate, with varying degrees of success, emulsions and darkroom processes of old. You could spend months exploring all the different options, but I quickly settled on the ones you see below, for much of my black and white work.

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