One of the big things that inspires me in photography, life, and technology is the ability to “democratize”, to add “access”, and to make things “affordable” to the masses.
For a little bit of personal background; I grew up “lower-working class” (my mom was more or less a single mom, working 3-part time jobs, and could barely afford rent every month). I lived in anxiety as a kid (I remember being 11 years old, and my mom telling me that we might be homeless next month because my dad gambled away the rent money).
I grew up pretty scrappy — knowing how to make do with what I had. I didn’t have much money at all as a kid (I would sometimes take my lunch money, go hungry for lunch, and use my lunch money to eventually buy sneakers or clothes).
However my savior was technology (specifically my computer). My computer empowered me. Once I got the internet (AOL 3.0, with a dial-up 38.8k modem) I was able to play free games, download (illegally) early versions of Photoshop and Visual Basic, I self-taught myself web design, programming, had access to tons of “free” information online, and the ability to connect with people half-way around the world.
I always had an artistic bent as a kid, but never was (that good) at drawing or painting. I wanted an artistic and creative outlet — and I was lucky enough that photography found me.
When I was 18 years old, my mom bought me a little Canon SD 600 digital point-and-shoot camera as a graduation present for high school. I was amazed by the technology. I loved how I could create “instantaneous art” — and see the results immediately on the back of my LCD screen. I remember old field trips as a kid, when I had to use disposable film cameras, and couldn’t get “instantaneous feedback.”
Digital photography liberated me. I was able to explore the world, and creatively capture the beauty I saw in front of me. With my little digital camera (and laptop I got for college), the only limit I had was my creativity.
Sub-$300 devices for the masses
Flash-forward to 2016. We now live in an insanely amazing world where we can buy essentially mega-computers (smartphones) that fit in our front pockets, that have infinitely more computing power than supercomputers a decade ago, which costs below $300 (most Android phones). We have laptops (Chromebooks) which also can be bought for $200, which gives us access to the internet, free online tools, and instantaneous connection across the globe. As long as we have a free wifi connection (any coffee shop, or nowadays public places), and a power outlet (same) the only limitation we have is our creativity and minds. **We can no longer blame technology for not being “good enough”; we are our own self-imposed limitations**.
Apple just released the new iPhone “SE” (special edition) which is a 4’’ iPhone (smaller than the iPhone 6s and certainly the 6s plus) which has the camera of the iPhone 6s and the same hardware and horsepower as the iPhone 6s — all for a starting price of $399 (for the 16gb model).
My God — I think we have finally arrived. Now I truly believe that (at least for most of the masses) we have access to all the digital tools we need as photographers.
First of all, I believe the iPhone 6s camera (now the iPhone SE camera) is more than sufficient for 99% of us photographers. 99% of us upload our photos to Instagram and social networks; where we see the images through a 4–6’’ screen. Unfortunately for most photographers printing photos is dead. So unless you plan on printing your photos super-big; a 12-megapixel camera is more than enough for you.
Secondly, you no longer “need” a laptop, desktop, or a ‘proper’ computing device. Your smartphone can do (almost anything) that your laptop/desktop can do. Especially for us photographers — we can use free tools like VSCO to edit/post-process our images.
Thirdly, our smartphones are also publishing devices. In the past, photographers *had to* print their images if they wanted their images to “exist” in the real world. Nowadays we can upload our photos immediately to social media networks; directly-message them to our friends, or view on our devices for our own enjoyment.
I find it hilarious that it is often the younger generation (myself included) who romanticize the past of film, print media, and analog technology. All the older people I talk to don’t understand our romanticism — for example, my mom has made countless photo albums of me in the past, and shot quite a bit of film. Now she loves her smartphone and the ability to take digital photos and share them with others. And now that smartphones are ubiquitous in society; anyone (who is alive right now) can enjoy these images we create.
What more do you really need?
At $399 (iPhone SE) you have access to the top-of-the-line smartphone camera, computing device, and workstation. You can take photos, edit and process them, and publish them instantaneously.
Think about what we needed in the past (even with digital technology): we needed to buy a $1,000+ digital SLR, buy a $1,000+ laptop, and have access to an internet connection at home ($50+ a month).
Much earlier in history, we needed film, chemicals, and technical know-how to make images. The barrier to entry was a lot higher.
Now photography is truly democratized for the masses. And as technology jolts forward — smartphones (and cameras) will just keep getting cheaper, technology will be faster and more powerful, and access will become ubiquitous to everyone around the world.
Honestly, my dream (I will probably head in this direction in the future) is to only use a smartphone for my photography. I hate being encumbered by expensive, heavy, and difficult-to-use cameras. I like being light (both mentally and physically). Currently my main camera is the digital Ricoh GR II; which cost me $550, and has an APS-C sensor in it. However I still am reliant on my 13’’ Macbook Pro which cost me $2,000 to process my photos (strange asymmetry, huh?).
If I started photography all over again today, I would probably just shoot with an iPhone or any other smartphone.
Take photos with whatever device is most convenient for you
I know a lot of photographers who *prefer* to shoot on their smartphones instead of their “real” digital cameras. But the problem is that they feel like they are not “real” photographers (if they use their mobile device). Why?
I feel the problem is tech blogs, photography gear review sites, and the entire camera industry. We are indoctrinated into thinking that “bokeh” is desirable in our photos. We are suckered into thinking we “need” full-frame. We think that somehow sharpness and image-quality results in a more emotional, aesthetically-pleasing, and personally-meaningful image.
But photography isn’t about making tack-sharp images that can be blown-up to cover a billboard. Photography is about making personally-meaningful images that resonate with our hearts and souls. Photography is about documenting personal moments which make life worth living. Photography is about connecting with strangers, creating art, and appreciating the beauty of the mundane, ordinary, everyday world.
Not all technology is peaches and roses
Of course I am also a skeptic and critic of society. I hate it when I spend more time and attention staring at my smartphone than the eyes of Cindy. I hate it when I am no longer able to walk down the street without audio-stimulation in my ears. I hate it when I can no longer focus and do “deep work” because I am constantly thinking about how many “likes” I got on Instagram, or the deep guilt I feel from having hundreds of unanswered emails.
I am also a skeptic of social media — any photo you upload isn’t yours anymore. And over-reliance on “followers” and “likes” only leads to misery. I always though the day I got a 100+ likes/favorites on an image I would be happy. But nowadays even though I get 1,000+ likes on an image — I am not satisfied (I am envious of other photographers who get 10,000+ likes on their images).
I guess what I want to say ultimately is that technology is amazing; and to be grateful for our access to our tools.
Steve Jobs once called the “personal computer” as “bicycles for the mind.”
I also feel that cameras are like having an extra appendage in our bodies. Cameras are like “paintbrushes for the eye” — the chance for us to weave visual tapestries of different colors, hues, tones, and textures into an image that will last longer than we do.
I still shoot film; because I love the slower and meditative approach. Nowadays I also spend less time on social media, because I am prone to envy (of other photographers more successful than me), and also because it is generally distracting. The less time I spend on social media, the more I critique my own images. Now before I upload an image rather than thinking, “Will others like my image?” I consider the (much more) important question: “Do I like this image?”
Focus on yourself
To continue your journey and path in photography and life, focus on making your photos more personal. After all, the most important person to impress is yourself.
Thursday, March 24, 2016 @ “Konditori” coffee shop in the lower-east side of NYC (with 2 doppio-shots of espresso). Cindy just left to the airport this morning, miss her already. Meditating on life, technology, and gratitude — excited to spend more time with my close friends here, and to also fly back home safely to Berkeley to re-unite with the love of my life.