No, Not Everyone Can Take Great Photographs With Their Phone

A fellow photographer quoted to me the theory that since now everyone can take pictures any time they want, that it is harder for professional photographers to sell their work. Of course I’ve heard this one any number of times, and of course it always offends me slightly and makes no sense to me at all.

It is surely true that now everyone carries around a camera with them (in the form of a phone) and can take photographs any time they want. It may also be true that since this is the case and since photographs now appear everywhere, all of the time, people are coming to value fine photographs less than they once did.

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More likely yet, I think people are becoming so accustomed to viewing photographs (and doing everything else) in the virtual world of their phone screens, that they may be less interested in printed photographs to hang on their walls. Or they may only be interested in their own photographs, printed by some anonymous service, on the walls of their home.

But access to a ubiquitous camera does not make people into photographers. It does not mean they can or will take good photographs. In fact, a phone is a fully automatic camera with absolutely no way for the user to control anything other than maybe where the image is in focus. No control over depth of field, no control over focal length or framing unless the subject happens to be close.

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They also typically have no access to or knowledge of any meaningful form of editing their photographs beyond applying an Instagram filter. This means they have no control over exposure, contrast, color, sharpness or value structure, which is essentially everything that’s required to make a powerful and refined photograph.

Now don’t get me wrong, camera phones can take good pictures. They can even take wonderful pictures—in the hands of a good photographer. Most people don’t realize that their phones process their images extensively in order to create attractive looking images. And they do make attractive images, but the photographer has no say in how the images are processed.

A good photographer either has extraordinary instincts, or a lot of training of one sort or another, that allows them to see a photograph waiting to be taken. They may have studied years of art and/or photography history, so they know what great photographs look like. They know what has been done in the art of photography and they can choose to emulate great work, or take new directions based on their knowledge.

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They use their instinct or training or experience to compose the photograph ideally. They decide on the depth of field they want to use, they get the right part of the photograph in focus, and they control the exposure of the photograph to get the optimum image. And once they capture the photograph, they labor over it in photo editing software to precisely control exposure, contrast, sharpness, color, and many other factors.

In my experience, when I see something I think will make a good photograph, I immediately imagine what it will look like when it is completed. What the camera takes and what I make of the image through editing are two completely different things. The raw photograph from the camera, unlike the pre-processed images from a phone, is a dull thing that may well be poorly exposed, lack contrast and color and just generally be totally uninspiring.

I can edit such a photograph into what I imagined in a few minutes usually. I’ll spend more time before I actually print the photograph, but I make a dozen or more adjustments before I consider the photograph to be presentable.

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Now, before you cry out that my photographs are fake or “Photoshopped,” you should understand that photographers have always done this kind of work. It used to be done in a darkroom with an enlarger and chemicals and film and paper. Now it’s done on a computer, but it’s much the same thing. We have more control and more flexible tools, but we do the same thing now as Ansel Adams did in his day.

The last thing I’ll mention is that an image of a photograph on a phone or tablet or computer is nothing like a printed photograph. The detail and resolution of a good print is extraordinary. Even I am shocked at how much more powerful a print is than a screen image. Large prints, when appropriate, can create an experience of being in the place where the photograph was taken. It’s another level of experience from a quick glance at your screen while you scroll through Instagram or Facebook.

There is also the texture and color and gloss of the paper used. I sometimes print on a beautiful watercolor paper made by a company that is five hundred years old. Sometimes I print on a subtly textured, semi-glossy paper for maximum contrast and detail. These things have a big impact on the experience of viewing a photograph.

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If you don’t see beautifully printed photographs in your day to day life, it’s worth seeking them out in a local gallery or museum. And, I might add, it’s worth purchasing some for your own walls at home.

It may be that in the future, we care little about physical objects like printed photographs. I certainly hope not, as our experiences will be impoverished for the loss. Fine things in life have never been easy to create. They are no less so now than they ever were. Easy access to a camera does not make easy access to good photographs. They are completely different things.

I’ve spent my entire adult life building my knowledge and experience of art, first as a painter and more lately as a photographer. I spent years in art school studying drawing and painting and printmaking and art history. I did photography all my life to document things for painting. When I finally started photographing as an art form, it took me more than a year of photographing before I took a single photograph that was worthwhile. And my work has gotten stronger every year for more than a decade now.

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So this is my plea for you to appreciate the difference between casual snapshots and fine photographs; the difference between an image on your phone and a good print of a good photograph. It’s not a simple thing to make a good photograph. I take probably a hundred okay photographs for every one that I consider to be good. And I spend untold hours walking, and looking and shooting in every imaginable weather, at every time of day, in all kinds of remote locations in order to find the images that I hope will speak to people.

So, please get out and see some real prints of good photographs. Maybe even consider buying some. Then you can live with the beautiful product of all of that effort and discernment. Your life will be the richer for it.

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