Friday, February 24, 2017

Gatehouse in the Snow

What you see here is the 1855 brownstone gatehouse at Philadelphia's Mount Moriah Cemetery. I've photographed it many times over the years, under many environmental conditions. The photo above is one of my favorites, one that I made in the winter of 2015-16. Its is one of the last images I made of the historic structure in its crumbling, original condition. It was shored up with braces and scaffolding a few months after I took the photograph, as you can see below. A wonderful sight, from the perspective of historical preservation, but less picturesque, as I'm sure you'll agree.

Taking a Photograph
I purposely used the words "taking a photograph" in the paragraph above. The phrase, which many people use, feeds the misconception that the snowfall photo was there for anyone, with any level of photographic ability, with any camera, to simply "take." Nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, I had to care enough about my subject to want to make the image. I serve on the all-volunteer Board of Directors of The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. whose express purpose is saving this formerly abandoned, Victorian-era cemetery, from ruin. Documenting our progress in an artistic yet journalistic fashion is important to me.

A Bit about Photography
One of the reasons I wrote my book, Digital Photography for the Impatient, was to help the novice digital point-and-shooter get the most out of that expensive digital camera they just purchased. Invariably, novice photographers are dissatisfied with the results they get from today's digital point-and-shoots (which includes camera phones). Why is that?

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Well, regardless of what the advertisements would lead you to believe, most cameras are not smart enough to compensate for the user's lack of photographic knowledge. Except outdoors in the bright sun - then ALL cameras work just fine! Even the five-dollar throwaway cameras. That's because the photographic process depends on light, and lots of it. So in a nutshell, if you want to make successful photographs under all conditions (birthday parties, portrait settings, group photos, pets, concerts, to name a few), you need to know a bit about basic photographic principles. For this reason I dedicate a few chapters of my book to such things as available light photography, depth of field, composition, shutter speed, etc.

It  would be wonderful if your camera would just automatically make the photograph you see in your mind, but cameras don't do that. They still require human input, most obviously in terms of composition. I could own the most expensive camera in the world, but it alone could never have made the snowfall image of the old gatehouse. I had to make the conscious decision to drive out to Mount Moriah Cemetery WHILE it was snowing for the express purpose of capturing the image I had in my mind's eye. Cameras are simply tools, a means to a creative end. Some are more fun to use than others, some are more expensive.While I own a myriad of cameras, ranging from toy film cameras to full-frame digital SLRs, I did in fact choose to use a cell phone camera for the gatehouse image.Why?

Some cameras happen to be more convenient than others, like the one in my iPhone. I always have it with me, right? It's always there just in case. By virtue of its size, I can carry it through the snow, hold an umbrella over my head, and very easily make the photograph I want. I can't hold my expensive DSLR with one hand in a snowstorm to make such a photograph - its too big and heavy. I also don't want to risk dropping it. The other interesting thing about smartphone photography for me, is that it has lured me into the realm of social media-shared color photography. Prior to digital photography, I created mainly black and white film images, mainly of cemetery statuary (see my book, Stone Angels). Digital photography got me interested more in color imagery, and the iPhone got me interested in sharing these images with a wider social audience (e.g. Instagram, Facebook, Flickr, etc.).

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So as much as I love the snowfall image of the gatehouse, there are severe drawbacks to smartphone cameras. I could go on forever about what they are, but suffice it to say that the image quality is not very good. Forget that megapixel count - the smaller the image sensor, the smaller the individual pixels; therefore, the less information they can store. Smartphone camera images cannot compete with the image quality of a full-frame DSLR.'s 645 Pro app
You can tinker with your smartphone camera to make it behave better, to allow greater flexibility and creativity, by installing an app such as's 645 Pro. I used this in my iPhone to make the snowfall image. Another option to improve your smartphone photos is with after-capture photo-editing software, either in-camera or externally, afterwards, on a computer.

The Future?
An intriguing product is about to appear on the market that may give us the best of ALL worlds - The Light company's soon-to-be-released multi-lens L16 camera. While I have not used this camera, it has some features that are well worth exploring. For one, it is about the same size as a smartphone, captures video, and is web-enabled.

The Light company's L16 camera

The compact camera, due out in 2017, uses multiple lenses to capture various focus points in the image scene (see the Light company's website for more detail). It boasts a 28-150mm optical zoom equivalent (optical zooms being superior to digital zooms, which smartphone cameras use). PetaPixel says the L16 "packs 16 separate cameras across its surface that simultaneously expose photos at different focal lengths. The resulting images are combined into high-resolution, 52-megapixel photos." The multiple lenses of the camera supposedly allow you to adjust depth of field after capture, a very cool feature. This solves one of the great problems with digital cameras, especially smartphone cameras: due to their design, they cannot provide the shallow depth of field we like in our macro, sports, and portrait photographs.

Now, you should realize by now that high resolution does not a good photo make. You can have a poorly composed, exposed, or focused image with very high resolution. Objective sources will of course analyze, quantify, and publish their results relating to the L16's image capture capabilities after the camera is released.

I personally, would love to put this new technology through its paces. Listing at $1699, it is no amateur's camera. If in fact it provides the same image quality as a DSLR, in addition to all the other advertised features, the price is a bargain. For more information, please see the Light company's website and this Digital Photography Review article (check this site for a review in the future).

Related websites:
Ed Snyder's
Ed Snyder's