eXtensions - Sunday 5 August 2018


Wim Wenders iPhone Photography Frustrations: Have Faith, Trust the Device and its Users

By Graham K. Rogers

Camera use

Although Wim Wenders has an impressive resume for movie and photography output, his frustrations with the iPhone camera and its apparent lack of print output earlier this week may be misplaced. I argue against his frustrations with the device.

Earlier this week I found some comments online from Wim Wenders who was decrying the state of photography as it is nowadays, especially concerning the universality of the smartphone. As well as being a renowned film director, Wenders has some pretty impressive still photography output to his credit. His main thesis is that the smartphone has caused a downturn in photography (skills, output, life-time), making it more dead than ever. He does have a number of points, though I disagree with most.

The comments were in a BBC video connected with an exhibition of Wim Wenders Polaroid photographs and I was able to read (and see the video) a report on PetaPixel (Michael Zhang). I also take the view that more people are taking pictures these days, but do not accept that they (we) are not looking at them.

Part depends on the intent of the user. And while this may initially be a teen's desire to snap food shots, funny little dogs and selfies, this is perhaps a blossoming of a potential artist. The ease of using the medium has brought about a snap-happy generation, yet some of these are also buying cameras like the Polaroid system that allow them to print out their shots and hand them to friends at the time of an event.

Siam walkway
Apple World Gallery - Bangkok Displays 2016

Apart from the small prints that some teens favour, there is a certain amount of truth to the claim that people don't make prints. I mentioned last week that Apple had displayed images from its Apple World Gallery in 2016 in Bangkok and many other city centers around the world. I also recently printed out some images I took, specifically because I had not printed a photograph for a while, and I was pleased with the results. I gave most of the print output to students and colleagues whose photographs I had taken.

Image taken on iPhone X

The medium for input as well as newer capabilities that the Internet has allowed have influenced output media. Instead of dusty home albums that might only be dragged out at Christmas time, much of what is produced these days appears (for good or bad) on social networking sites, such as Instagram or Twitter where they can be viewed by a far wider audience. I use Instagram a lot, not only to put a selection of my photographs online, but to be inspired by the output of others. There are a lot that are really good, in a wide range of styles that I find inspiring; there are also a lot that are less good, but we can learn from these too.

Printastic New devices have seen a tempest of apps (for good and bad). Many photo apps are concerned with input and editing photographs on the device, but some apps focus on output media. Two that spring to mind are Snaptee and Printastic. The former allows an iPhone image to be used for a teeshirt which is sent to the customer when printed (not silk screen). Printastic is one of several apps that produces books from users' photographs.

I have had several teeshirts made by Snaptee and several books from Printastic have been delivered to my mother and other members of my family in the UK, with the entire transaction, including payments completed on the iPhone. We may not print our photographs these days, because we just do not need to.

Perhaps because of the wide availability of such output options, Apple has recently ended its book printing service from Photos. This was only available in a small selection of countries (certainly not here) and users have discovered alternatives.

iPhone X iPhone X iPhone X

I took most exception to the interpretation (by Michael Zhang) that "Wenders doesn't think very highly of the smartphone's place in the world of "serious" photography, and he doesn't even think that most picture-taking done on smartphones should even be called 'photography'". We have heard this argument before.

When I was a kid I had tiny plastic cameras and a Box Brownie: nowhere near the quality of the Leica and Hasselblad cameras available then (and now, still) but my output as a pre-teen was no less valid, even if the subject quality left a lot to be desired.

The move to digital cameras was a godsend for me as I could reduce costs: no more wasted film, just deleted bytes. The evolution of the smartphone camera has been every bit as important as the arrival of the Box Brownie (and the cartridge cameras of the 1970s) bringing photography - and despite Wim Wenders' doubts, I do call it that - to a wider and younger range of people.

Yet, this democratization and ease of use has had many people rethinking what photography is. This may be part of the video appeal from Wenders: trying to understand the direction, which is so wide that he wants a new name for the phenomenon. My use of the iPhone camera has led me to seek out scores of apps, especially those with unique features, and those that produce RAW output. Several of these RAW-capable apps have been developed by those with a keen interest in (and knowledge of) photography. These led me also back to film photography and the purchase of a medium format camera.

While my DSLR use decreased as I used iPhones more, apart from special events, a new camera has regenerated my enthusiasm there. I notice too that many young people are now walking round with Mirrorless and DSLR cameras, so presumably their interests have evolved.

I am currently examining the possibility of a Leica or other 35mm device (Olympus OM1, Nikon FM) to expand my use of film. I notice that here too, many more people have become interested in film as a medium and this extends to younger people as well. A few months ago in a Bangkok mall, I watched a teen buy a Leica M6 after some face to face negotiations and understood that the world of photography was still safe. I speculate that his first investigations were by way of the smartphone.

While I am certainly not (not yet) able to produce the high quality images that my Nikon D850 can produce, the iPhone can produce far better photographs than my earliest digital cameras could. The lenses are also far superior to those plastic ones in my tiny cameras of the 1960s.

Siam Paragaon
Image taken on iPhone X Using RAW

As a note, Wim Wenders is a contributor (with 22 photographs) to Sedition where we are able to buy and invest in limited editions of digital images: still and video. Most of the 25 items I purchased have increased in price. One example I bought 5 years ago for $18 is now valued at $148 should I ever sell it. The purchaser has full rights of the image, which comes with a certificate of authenticity, including display on digital devices (TV, iPad, iPhone), but not to print out the images. We have moved on from wax tablets, through vellum and paper, with digital media now the most common way in which we view images and other input.

What comes through, more in the video than the text is Wenders frustration at the universality of the smartphone as a camera. I take an entirely opposite view and see this as the cultural starting point. Photography is not dead; it has evolved. If it did not we would still be using glass plates and only a handful of people would be taking pictures.

Have faith: despite the millions of images being produced daily, some of those younger users seek to produce better output: first with the smartphone and then by investigating other forms of output.

Salaya Office
Printed iPhone output on my office wall

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. After 3 years writing a column in the Life supplement, he is now no longer associated with the Bangkok Post. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)



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