By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE EARLIEST PROPONENTS OF THE IDEA OF MAKING CELLPHONE CAMERAS the “go to” devices for everyone were also big fans of the motto, “the best camera is the one you have with you”, a sentiment that, for me, has always had a big honking asterisk connected to it. Yes, I guess having a limited camera is better than having no camera when an opportunity arises, if you believe that a compromised version of your vision is better than having made no attempt at all. Certainly, in an emergency, you can use a butter knife as some kind of screwdriver. However, that begs the question: why don’t you have a screwdriver?
A better version of this maxim might be something like, “the best camera is the one that does the best job for you”, coupled with the corollary “and you should always have it with you”. I’m much more aligned with the idea of going through the process of deciding what camera is perfect for your needs and always, always, having it alongside. How can any other option be as correct?
Of course, this means examining your own habits, biases, and talents, and matching them to the particular machine that mostly translates those things into good pictures. Sounds ridiculously obvious, and yet you still meet many people who excuse a failed image by saying “I didn’t have my good/real camera with me”, and so maybe the idea of properly pairing yourself with the right gear isn’t that on-the-nose, with everyone, everywhere.
This is really basic stuff, reducible to a simple checklist. Is the camera easy to carry, or is it a burden to lug around? People love their cameras, but not if they think of them as luggage. Are the ergonomics right, that is, are the buttons and functions that you use the most easy to get to? How about set-up time? From the moment you take it off your shoulder to when you frame up your shot, how many arbitrary get-ready steps are in the way before your camera’s ready to rock? Does it have the optical ability to approximate what you see in your mind? Is the camera sufficient unto itself, which is to say, can it take pictures that you like without the purchase or assembly of additional gimcracks and toys? Do you understand all its functions, or do you just use the same settings and features over and over? And, if so, is that because you’re successful doing things that way, or because you are, to some extent, afraid of your camera?
To twist the “best camera is the one you have with you” thinking around, you can’t (often) take your best picture with “whatever’s at hand”. Or, more precisely, you can’t make pictures you love with a camera you hate. If you are not on intimate terms with your gear, then get a no-fault divorce from it and marry something that (apologies to Jerry McGuire) “completes” you. You gotta make them little boxes yours. Really yours. “Best available” will always be second best.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST FREEING THINGS about digital photography, especially in the celphone era, has been the artificial synthesis, through aftermarket apps, of processes that used to require lengthy and intricate manipulation. Much has been written about various apps’ ability to render the look of a bygone film stock, an antique lens, or a retro effect with just a click or swipe. The resulting savings in time (and technical trial and error) is obvious in its benefit, as more people shoot more kinds of images in which the shooter’s vision can be realized faster, perhaps even more precisely, than in the days of analog darkrooms.
Okay, now that the sound of traditionalists’ heads exploding subsides, on to the next heresy:
The creation of the so-called Orton technique by Michael Orton in the 1980’s was a great refinement in effects photography. The idea was simple: take two images of a subject that are identical in every spec except focus, then blend them in processing to create a composite that retains rich detail (from the sharp image) and a gauzy, fairy-tale glow (from the softer one). The result, nicknamed the “slide sandwich”, was easy to achieve, even for darkroom under-achievers. The most exacting part was using a tripod to guarantee the stability of the source images. Looked nice, felt nice.
Early on in digital, editing suites like Photomatix, designed to create HDR chiefly, also featured an option called Exposure Fusion, which allowed you to upload the source images, then tweak sliders for the best blend of sharp/no sharp. And finally, here come the soft-focus phone apps like Adobe Photoshop Express, Cool Face Beauty, Camera Keys, and yes, Soft Focus, allowing you to take just one normally focused shot and add degrees of softness to it.
Caveat emptor footnote: not all these apps (and there are many more not cited here) allow you to begin at a “zero effect” start point, that is, from no softening to some softening. They start soft and get softer. Also, most allow basic tweaks like brightening and saturation, but that’s about it. If you want to add contrast or something sexier, you may have to head back to the PC.
The important thing about softening apps are: (1) they save time and trouble in the taking of the source image, of which you only need one (which can be handheld now), and (2) they don’t so much as soften the master image as layer a gauzy glow over top of it.You either like this or you don’t, so, as Smokey says, you better shop around. Gee-whiz factor aside, the old rule for gimmicks still applies: tools are only tools if you like and use them