Like many of Steve Jobs’ drones, I upgraded to an iPhone 4 when my phone contract ran out last year. I really like my phone, and I bought a cheap android tablet too, so I don’t feel too uncool about staying in Apple’s walled garden. In one sense Apple’s new iPhone camera is a big improvement. It’s a decent point and shoot camera. It’s great having something in your pocket that lets you take snapshots like this:
In some ways though, I miss the old iPhone 3 camera, which – even for its generation – was quite subpar. As someone who appreciates the aesthetics and limitations of non-standard cameras, I’m a little sad to see t he old iPhone optics go. But not too sad.
Apple not only upgraded the camera hardware with the iPhone 4, but they tweaked the software so that the user can enable HDR mode. This is an interesting move, and I suspect this could have been an effort to boost the apparent quality of the camera further.
HDR, or high dynamic range imaging, is a process that combines multiple images in such a way that the range of luminance in the photograph is more dynamic. Imagine standing in a dim room and photographing a bright scene outside. You can choose to expose so that the window scene is well-lit and the interior in the shadows. Alternatively you could choose to expose for the interior, in which case the view through the window would be overexposed. By combining multiple images, HDR techniques can expand or compress the range of luminance in a shot, so that both interior and exterior are visible and well exposed, while the exterior remains brighter.
Applied naturalistically, this is actually more like seeing than regular photography, as our eyes autmatically adjust for the brightness of whatever element of our surroundings we focus our attention on. If it is used in a heavy-handed manner, the extreme variation of light and dark effectivelly decouples from the chromatic information in the photography, and the result is like a photograph printed on embossed or metallic paper. I’m sure you’ve all seen this.
Apple have got the setttings about right. About half the time I prefer the regular shot, about half the time the HDR.
Things can get interesting when you deliberately challenge the HDR. For example, this shot was taken from a moving car. The HDR process requires multiple images, which the iPhone takes in quick succession. Look carefully at this shot and you can see it has combined two images:
This isn’t what Apple intended, but I like the result.
Another way of challenging the iPhone’s HDR process is to shoot into the light. Here’s a side-by-side of the regular and HDR version of a street shot taken against the sunset.
When the iPhone’s HDR processes are stretched beyond normal bounds, you can achieve interesting results. Consider the following shot. It was derived from the HDR version of the above, straightened and turned to monochrome in Photoshop:
By taking the coolour away, and focusing on luminance, we can really see the areas where the HDR process has resulted in an non-naturalistic, almost impressionistic effect. Although I didn’t expect this result, I was thrilled with the watercolour-effect in the shadowy regions, and the enhanced featheriness of the grass.
I thought it might be nice to emphasise this, and decided to water down the colour information while retaining luminance.
I had the original and the desaturated version open in Photoshop. Using the eyedropper, I sampled the original’s colours at several points, and used the paintbrush tool to paint a simplified colour layer over the monochrome:
Finally, by choosing “multiply” as the blend mode for this layer, and turning the opacity down to about 37 percent, I achieved the result shown at the beginning of this post. To me, it is somewhere between an old hand-tinted photo and a watercolour. It’s also (as usual) a bit rough – with a bit more care, you can do better!
Readers, what do you think of this sort of treatment? Any other creative approaches to iPhone photography you’d like to share? Commment and link away!