You can completely lose control of what you are doing when you take a photo with a mobile phone. Sure, there are all those presets which make you think you are in control: portrait mode, night photo, food photo, aspect ratio, quality, HDR. So many settings, so little control. Every setting instructs your resident AI to switch on some effect. That’s why it’s such a mass-market rage: you can get seriously good results with no effort at all. And that’s why serious photographers have still not taken to it. How to do you get the instrument to render your vision?
So here was one little experiment I did. I noticed that it computed the exposure (that’s a loaded word, see my previous field notes on exposure) through centered weighted averaging. The camera estimated the amount of illumination in the scene by taking an average over the frame with more weight given to the center. I took a photo first of the artfully aged wooden table in the dimly lit bar, with only my reading glasses and its case. The camera declared that it had used f/2.8 and an effective exposure of 1/17 second. Then, when my wine was delivered, I plonked it in the center of the same frame and took another photo. Now the AI decided to use a bigger lens from the cluster of lenses that phones are now studded with. It reported an aperture of f/1.7 with the same exposure as before. Notice how the light on the table changed?
I can’t carry red wine with me on every photo shoot (sigh!), but I can point the center of the field at different places in the frame to influence the quality of light. With 65 megapixels to play with, I can often sacrifice part of the frame to get the light that I want in the rest of the frame. A kludge, to be sure, but if you want a modicum of control in a mass-market device that gives you none, this is a workable hack.
Phone photography changes our expectation of the interaction of camera hardware and image so dramatically that it is worth rethinking what photography means. I intend to explore this a bit in this series.