Nature photography through a phone

Apologies for my silence of late. I have found myself otherwise preoccupied, and although I have been grappling with a sluggish lack of motivation autumn is here, by far my favourite of the seasons, so I foresee a healthy amount activity in the coming few months.

Just under two weeks ago I was given a few days notice to get back out into the field, having sat behind my desk for the good part of two months, to assist a local cameraman. We were on a recce (reconnaissance) to assess the various filming locations when near to sunset, the most beautiful vista displayed itself, and I found myself taking photos on my iphone, cursing its the lack of dynamic range and its inability to deal with strong sunlight from the setting sun. I had left my real camera back at the inn, and was completely unprepared.

Sunset over a field Sunset over a farm field

However, it got me thinking about the merits of mobile phone photography versus using a real camera.

I get the impression that nature photography has always been considered less of a skill than more commercial forms of photography, possibly because many people think all it requires is being at the right place at the right time. Surely anyone can do this? A friend of mine told me once she was selling her husband’s framed photos at a stall at a very reasonable price. A lady walked past and inquired about where a particular shot had been taken. After a few a brief chat the lady simply said “I’ll just get my husband to take a similar photo,” and left.

Technology gets cheaper and more accessible by the day and everyone with a few extra pounds can get themselves a decent camera with a big lens (I overheard a lady in Yellowstone with camera gear three times the price of mine asking her tour guide why her images came out blurry). And yes, they may at some point be at the right place at the right time. On some expensive cruise to some rare location most of us can’t afford. And they will enter it in one of the dozens of nature photography competitions and it might win some money because it was a unique image. But the real question is was it skill or was it luck?

A large difference between nature photography and other forms of photography is lack of manipulation. In any given situation you can’t tell the natural light what to do, can’t tell the animal what to do, can’t tell the background what to do (though some minor modifications are possible). To me, this is exactly what makes the real pros, such as Vincent Munier or Frans Lanting stand out, regardless – they have consistently mastered the art of reacting to the unpredictability of their subject while at the same time using their environment to create images that require additional skill, creativity and fieldcraft beyond what every Tom, Dick or Harry would have otherwise done given the exact same situation.

Rain cloud against the light

So where does that leave the camera phone? Well, it’s small, cheap and decent quality. You always carry it with you. And you may get lucky. I would like to consider it a tool, a get-out-of-jail card with limitations and trade offs. But it would never be my first, or second, choice – it’s no replacement for the real deal, and certainly not a replacement for skill. In my humble opinion.

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