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Accepting a smartphone's role in present-day photography ....

My long-held personal feelings towards viewing photos on a mobile and the use of smartphones generally for photography have changed somewhat over the past few weeks, simply because I decided to pull my head out the sand to take a better, and more open-minded, look at the way the devices are being used.


Although I’ve always tried to move with the times where technology is concerned, I’d be the first to admit that if something doesn’t appeal or interest me I don’t take much notice. This is particularly true when it relates to photography as I tend to focus my attention on equipment  or processes that aid capture or subsequent editing of nature and wildlife images, because that’s the area of photography that I enjoy. That doesn’t mean that I completely ignore other developments, such as the new mirrorless camera systems that now seem to be the rage, it’s just that I don’t dig too deep into the detail if I don’t need to. Personally I find that you can get too easily distracted with new products and alternative techniques and concepts when browsing the internet, so I try to limit what I look at, which is fine as long as you don’t start missing tricks.


And, to be honest, that’s essentially what has happened with smartphone development, which is why I’ve failed to appreciate that most people are more than happy to use their phones for both taking and viewing photos.   


Since writing my previous piece about having to make the website ‘mobile-friendly’, I’ve been giving the situation a fair bit of thought. In fact that article has been the catalyst for my shift towards accepting the way mobiles are currently being used, and recognising that however much I may rant about the situation it isn’t going to change. 


Smartphones are here to stay and they will only get smarter and more capable when it comes to taking photos. Of course they will never replace ‘proper’ cameras used by ‘proper’ photographers for capturing sports or wildlife, or dare I say landscapes - although I’m sure some would disagree with that - but they will continue to extend their share of the prosumer camera market. I’m sure that the likes of Nikon, Canon and Sony particularly are very mindful of this and will be concentrating their future efforts on lightweight mirrorless systems, and higher end compacts and bridge cameras, rather than the more basic point-and-shoot models. I just hope, that at the same time, they continue to value the niche specialist areas of photography - which is their heritage - for a few more years at least. Perhaps, one day, we’ll have a viable alternative to our professional-level, multi-functional DSLR cameras and long glass but, when that time comes, it won't have anything to do with smartphones.  


The overlap between smartphones and cameras, and the effect that smartphones are currently having on the camera market as a whole is an entirely separate subject, so let me get back to the title of this post which is more to do with the smartphone’s role in present-day photography and how I’ve come to terms with the situation.



As I noted earlier, it all started with the need to optimise the website for mobile use and the resultant time and energy that is having to go into the process. I won’t try to explain why it’s been so involved as that could be the subject of another article, but suffice to say that when you’re investing so much time dealing with something that you initially had no interest in doing (see previous article) you ask yourself why you’re doing it? The easy answer would be to blame Google as all this stems from their SEO requirements of being ‘mobile friendly’ but, in truth, the real reason I’ve persevered is that I’m now starting to understand why it is necessary. 

Firstly, I looked at my Google analytics statistics and discovered - somewhat to my horror - that mobile viewing of the website was averaging around 30%. I fully appreciate that the ‘desktop v mobile’ statistics for the different periods will fluctuate quite a bit as the analysis is looking at relatively low viewing figures, but I can’t ignore the simple fact that people are using a mobile to view the site regardless of the actual percentage. Whether I like it or not, that’s what’s happening. 

And to highlight the need for making the site ‘mobile friendly’, I noticed that the average session duration over the past 28 day period that I looked at had been 06:50 minutes for those that viewed it on a desktop computer compared with only 01:52 minutes for anybody who’d taken a cursory look on their mobile.


Instagram and Lr Mobile

Accepting the situation regarding the website was one side of the coin, so I thought that I better explore the other side by making some effort to embrace the mobile experience for photography other than my occasional use of the Flickr app. If I could engage in some on-line social interaction that I could enjoy then fine, but I wasn’t going to waste time with something I couldn’t relate to. The problem - if that’s the right word - is that I have absolutely no interest in Facebook and have all but given up on Twitter. They just don’t work for me, so the only other possibility that I could see was Instagram. I started by having a look because some friends were posting images from Africa and I wanted to share their adventure. But, I then decided to investigate some of the people they follow and was surprised to find that many of the wildlife photographers that I admire, such as Paul Nicklen and David Yarrow for example, are regularly posting. And in addition to the people I’d like to follow there are various organisations, travel companies and safari lodges. Naively I didn’t appreciate that you could follow businesses as well as individuals, or particular areas of interest come to that via hashtags. It looked good, so I’ve started posting myself and, have to say, that I’m already feeling comfortable with the process and, although my Instagram viewing experience is as much from my laptop as my phone, I can relate to the way it’s being used. 


Signing up to Instagram also led me to download the Lightroom Mobile app as it’s the most convenient and direct way of putting a developed image from Lightroom Desktop (Classic) onto Instagram. I know that it can be done on the computer either via a plug-in or through a browser user agent, but if I’m going to use Instagram I might as well attempt to use it as intended. I’m glad I did because I didn’t appreciate the benefits of having a designated collection on my desktop automatically syncing with an album on my phone, and the same connection being applied the other way round so that images, or indeed videos, that are taken on my phone and put into Lr Mobile are synced to Lr Classic.

Personal usage

I do own an iPhone and have actually had one for a number of years, but I’ve never used it for meaningful photography. Of course I’ve used it to take photos, but most of the time they’ve been a record shot of something rather than a photo that’s going to be kept. Similarly with video, where my main usage was when I was working. I’ve rarely used it when we’ve been away as I’m not one of those people that always has their mobile readily to hand. 


I got thinking about this when I was looking back at some notes after our last trip to Kenya, as I was starting to put together a packing list for our next trip in a couple of weeks’ time where we have a strict 15kg total internal flight weight limit. On the previous trip we were slightly overweight and were lucky that we didn’t have a problem. The vast bulk of the 15kg allowance is taken up with photographic equipment and, as such, that’s the only area where weight can be saved. But of course, and as anybody that goes on safari knows, it’s very difficult, because you want two camera bodies and two lenses as a minimum. That’s what I took last time, plus a lightweight 20mm wide-angle. If the wide-angle had been more readily available, rather than being in the camera bag, it may have been used. But it wasn’t, and it didn’t - not even for one photo. I often kick myself that I don’t take more panoramic scenery shots when we’re away, but the reasons are always the same. So for this next trip I’m going to make sure that I keep the iPhone charged and with me when we’re out and that I use it. I’d also like to think that it may get used to capture a few video moments, which is another thing I fail to do time and time again!

Any use for a compact?

My final wake up call was a bit of an odd one, which came about from a big clear out of the loft a couple of weeks ago, when I brought down a number of cameras - all working and most in their original boxes, but all old and superseded. There were seven in total, including a very dated Canon camcorder, two old film cameras, two underwater cameras and two Fuji compacts. To my surprise I managed to offload the camcorder without too much trouble. Similarly with the film cameras that I was going to bin, which were purchased by a collector. The two underwater cameras were also sold at a reasonable price. But, the two compacts, which are both in excellent condition, just sit there with no interest at all, even though we’re almost giving them away. And the reason for this, despite the fact that their specs are dated, is simply that they’re becoming redundant and pointless for anyone who owns a smartphone. Obviously there’s a big difference between a higher end compact and a more basic point-and-shoot model, and of course there are still strong arguments that a dedicated decent compact camera will outperform a smartphone’s camera, but the overlap - that I mentioned earlier - is closing rapidly.

Smartphone usage for the masses

Interestingly, I read from a detailed survey published at the beginning of the year, that around 95% of people living in the UK (aged 18+) possessed a mobile phone of which 76% were smartphones. Coincidently the UK’s smartphone percentage was the same as the median from the findings across all the ‘advanced economies’ included in the survey, which ranged from an incredible 95% in South Korea down to 59% in Greece. It dropped to 45% across the ‘emerging economies’ in the survey due primarily to income levels and the availability of the internet. Apart from the survey clearly showing how mobile technology has changed people’s lives across the world it highlighted, not surprisingly, that it was the younger generation (18-35) that were truly embracing the new technology available and, consequently, were by far the largest smartphone users. And, of course, it was the older generation who either didn’t own a mobile at all or, if they did, were less likely to want it to be more than a phone. Another interesting fact that I saw is that in Kenya - one of the ‘emerging economies’ in the survey - virtually half of the mobiles being used by some 86% or so of the population, which in itself seemed a high figure, were smartphones. This rang true - no pun intended - as I’ve never seen a safari guide without one!


Clearly smartphones are not only here to stay as I noted earlier, but will soon completely dominate the mobile phone market. The vast majority of the people who use their smartphone camera are ‘photo-takers’ who don’t need to worry about such things as image resolution, processing software and computer specifications if they can snap a photo and, with just a few button presses, have it posted to some cloud-based social networking site for their friends and contacts to view.

Does it matter what it's called?

Personally I think the generic term smartphone is now outdated and should be changed to something more suitable. Mobile phones may be smart, but their main selling features today seem to centre around display size and quality, processing power, included features and functions and now, more than ever before, their camera capabilities - or even cameras in the plural. The original purpose and function of a mobile for making phone calls is almost lost when you look at the way new models are being marketed.          


Maybe the likes of Apple, Samsung, Huawei and all the other manufacturers of these so-called smartphones should come to terms with this - as I’ve had to do - and stop referring to them as phones. Although, in fairness, it is only Apple that actually uses the word phone in the name, and with the iPhone being part of the wider i(intelligent)Device product range - including iPad and iMac - I can’t see that changing anytime soon.


But regardless of whether it’s an iPhone, a Galaxy or any one of the other Android devices that now include smart technology, I accept that it does have a role to play in present-day photography, and the extent of that role is purely down to personal preference.

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