Not Taken By A Phone

I like to sell a photo now and then, mainly through a POD. This has gotten harder in recent years.

Back in the day, if you wanted an image for your wall, you bought a print of a photograph by a photographer. Today everyone and his dog is a photographer, and there are massive carbon-spewing cloud storage server farms in Greenland overflowing with images of everything in the world. And now here comes the iPhone 11. Some say the market for “photography” is disappearing.

It hasn’t yet, at least not totally. The bar has been raised, but maybe not in the ways everyone thinks. To get hung on a wall, a photo has to do more than tickle the eye; it has to impress. I think many people still want photos that look like they were shot by a photographer with a real camera and not a phone. So what does that entail? What contributes to the impression that this is a real photo?

It isn’t “sharpness in the corners”, “noise in the shadows” or “accurate color'”. Those things are nice but online, you’re basically selling a thumbnail, backed by a preview image less than 1K across, rendered in sRGB on an uncalibrated display.

A real photo looks intentional. It looks like a photographer thought about it, used some equipment, and did some work on it. The subject has to have interest; but after that, there’s a sense of composition, viewpoint, how it fits the frame. Landscapes and cities should feel ‘anchored’, like you stood there with Ansel Adams’ big wooden tripod (and as a side note I think this means more than just getting it level; it also involves thinking about which element in the photo will be the true vertical).

A real photo might look like it required a real lens. This is the biggest advantage cameras have over phones: lenses of different focal lengths and with adjustable apertures. So wide angle, fish eye, telephoto and macro shots all say “real camera”.

A real photo is sharp and clear. Yes, a phone can create a sharp image, but that’s not the whole story.

Perceived sharpness has a fractal quality, i.e. the photo appears sharp at at every scale and at any rendered size. We tweak sharpening at 100% but at normally viewed sizes and distances that’s not even visible, and “sharpness” is really about contrast and edges at larger scales – what some image processing applications call “clarity”. This kind of sharpness can be enhanced in post processing.

When someone says a photo is clear they might really mean it’s free of visual clutter. Any details that aren’t adding to an image are subtracting from it. I’m ruthless about cloning out power lines, logos, people in big white t-shirts, trash on the ground, and anything else I don’t like. Removing power lines cleanly is easier with a high-quality image. Here’s the before-and-after of a photo with a lot of wires:

Another aspect of “clarity” is absence of large-scale contrast that distracts from the subject, i.e. substantial bright or dark regions that detract from the image. Maybe the light was harsh, the bright spots aren’t where the interest is, or the shadows are swallowing too much. And people just seem to like prints that are fairly bright overall.

I’ll work the curves to reduce contrast where I don’t want it, and use the HDR sliders to pull in the ends – in other words, dynamic range compression for a more evenly balanced histogram than the sensor delivered. And a smoother histogram can make an image feel more detailed. This sort of “HDR Lite” can give a photo a post-card-like quality that says “photographer”.

These are just my ideas, based on my tastes, for producing photos that at least get people to ask “what kind of camera do you use?” and not “is that the new iPhone?”. You may very well disagree, and if so, by all means flame me with a comment. I can take it.

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