Photos and words by: Andrew Cummings
With developments in mobile technology and social media, there has been a rather fatalistic turn in some circles, and many are even predicting ‘the death of the photograph’ – or at least of photography as we know it. The increased portability of mobile phone cameras causes us to become snap-happy, lazy, overly reliant on the hope that one of those shots will turn out okay. The rise in the number of images in circulation results in more competition, with photographers choosing either to resort to tired old tropes to catch the viewer’s eye or to abandon photography as a viable means of earning a living altogether. The list goes on.
Plenty of people, photographers or otherwise, would acknowledge these possible consequences but add that there is also the potential for positive change thanks to mobile technology. There’s the idea that the proliferation of images fuelled by mobile phone cameras will encourage photographers to come up with new strategies and experiments, as was the case with painting in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when photography began to become more accessible. Another point is that people outside of the profession, by taking their own photos, can offer new and valuable representations of themselves and the events they participate in, alternative to the outsider’s eye of the photojournalist.
Say what you want about whether mobile photography enriches or damages the practices of more traditional photographers – there’s no denying that mobile photographers are adding weight to the oft-cited credo that, in photography, equipment doesn’t matter as much as skill. The proof can be found online: just take a look on any Instagram or Tumblr feed, where, nestled amongst selfies, smug holiday shots, memes and motivational text, you’ll probably find at least one photo that pulls you in, momentarily forcing your finger from your scroller, to admire it. Social media, now a fixture of any conversation about mobile phones and photography, has become a testament to the fact that impressive images can be made without shelling out thousands of dollars on DSLRs and lenses.
The old rules of photography are still there to be followed, bent, or broken. Lots of talented phone photographers, for example, use the rule of thirds, mentally dividing their images into three-by-three grids and arranging visual information accordingly, placing subjects where the lines meet or ensuring different layers of the landscape lie along the lines. Others use roads and rivers to guide the eye through the image, or frame the scene with buildings and valleys. Light remains important, but, as photographer and popular Instagram user John S. Kim advises, the size of the mobile lens only allows it to take in a small amount of light, so it’s worth downloading applications to edit your exposure. Much of this sounds like photography for dummies, but it helps – and in a society where millions of images are created and circulated every day, we are increasingly visually literate, and our eyes are trained to be able to recognise, use and manipulate these rules without even knowing that we’re doing it.
Undoubtedly, the rise of Instagram has had an effect on mobile photography; some would have it that its influence is seeping into photography more generally. When taking photos on a mobile phone, more and more photographers are working instinctively with the one-by-one frame permitted on Instagram. This means that visual information is usually organised to best fit this frame size. Repeated patterns work well, especially when one element stands out above the rest. Equally, though, simple compositions are proliferating; ‘less is more’, says John. Think not only of the images you’ve seen of hands (seemingly the photographer’s) holding out flowers or ice-cream or fruit, which are simple in terms of form, but also the limpid pictures of cityscapes and landscapes characteristic of Gwangju-based Ken Lim (@seoulstateofmind) and several other users who tend towards a simplified colour palette. Instagram and other photo-sharing platforms have also affected mobile photography in another way: by inspiring would-be image-makers with a feed stuffed with eye-catching photos and a supportive community of fans and other photographers, in turn convincing them to join that community. This was the case for John, who ‘wasn’t that into [photography]’ before joining Instagram, but who was then ‘encouraged . . . to take better pictures and pursue photography in general more’.
Mobile phone photography encourages us that we don’t need expensive equipment to take great photographs ourselves. The popularity of photo-sharing media has also helped a particular way of image making to flourish. Support for this inevitable development, though, should come with a caveat: as pleasing to the eye as the Insta-aesthetic might be, let it not be the only way we know how to read and make images.
To view more of Andrew’s mobile photographs you can follow him on Instagram.