Tell the Story

People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don’t have a middle or an end any more. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.
–Steven Spielberg

The shortest piece of advice I have for you about telling a visual story is “Show me, don’t tell me”

In other words, make sure the pictures SHOWS the story you want to get across. If you have to explain something, the picture is not successful as a story teller.

This pictures tells a story of a mom and her daughter on a cable car in San Francisco. We know it’s cool because of the jackets. We know it’s sunny because of the sunglasses. And we know they are happy from the smiles. What  else can you tell from this picture’s story? Do I need to explain anything of importance to you, the viewer? I don’t think so, all the elements are there to SHOW the story I want to get across.

IMG 9102

It is a truth that in the age of Instagram and rest, we have collectively forgotten how to tell a visual story. Most people think that angles, plumped lips and a filter tell a story. Not so much, you get a “meh” picture that people promptly forget when they move on to the next “meh” picture. The overly filtered image is just that, a poor overly filter image that doesn’t tell any story.

To have a picture worth remembering, it has to tell the story in that one frame. A beginning, a middle and an ending. You ask how in the world can you do that with a single image?   Look at the image below. We have a young girl with headphones on and some kind of book or journal in her hands and a pretty happy smile. Whats the story?  Is it a gift?  Is she listening to music? Is she sketching ?  You can fill in all kinds of blanks for this story and who’s to say its right or wrong? Does this image successfully tell a story? I think so though it is a story you can use your imagination with to a degree and that’s not a bad thing. Letting people have their own interpretation is a good thing.

7F448DDA CC1D 439C A58F 3EAEB6152B98

Sometimes we use a single image or sometimes we use a series of images to tell a full story vs just a point in time. Or maybe the story is complex and we want to make sure to tell it all. Or we want to set up a backstory to a key image. The cropping we use on the image or the shape can impact the story. Putting text or a graphic over the image can also help tell the story or be the story. Humans are visual so anything visual can be used to help tell it.

This image is all about the food 🙂 The story being shown talks about Oranges, sweet, tart and crepes which makes us think of a “fancy” treat. Often times we would include a few more shots about the place we are eating the treat at and we would call it a “review” which is just another way to say we are telling you a story about a fantastic dessert we had and where to find it. This is a classic case of shooting the picture to be a “certain look”. You know you are telling a food story so you want good light and you want to make the food look as appealing as possible. This will present the story of the food in the best manner. Do not forget about composition!!  Strong images tell better stories than a weak image. Use lines, angles and shapes to help anchor and set the context of the story.

IMG 0009

This pictures tells a very different story of it being dark, dank, cold and not well lit. This type of story will set a mood or emotion to make you wonder someone was out on a wet day in the darkness like this. People tend to have very strong reactions to dark and poorly lit situations so to see something like will get a strong reaction.  Strong colors can do the same thing but invoking a very strong emotional reaction in the viewer.

IMG 0003

Here is a more “documentary” type of picture. The story is much clearer for the viewer than some of the others.  We have a young woman who is obviously learning to work with electronics and is pretty proud about something she just did. These types of pictures worth so much after the fact when you view them later on. The complete story is there from who it is to what she is doing. All the stuff around her sets the context of the story. It’s not just about her, it’s about what she is doing and when.

IMG 9293

And sometimes the story is just a simple shot to show where you are and what you saw. When telling your story in pictures, think about the emotional impact you want to get across to your audience and which audience. If the image is for social media, it will be different than if it’s for the family.  Sometimes if you want, try to plan ahead a bit of what kind of pictures you want. Are you going to use a series of pictures or just one. Will you use different media like images and text combined? Do you want to document something or just get snapshots? There is nothing wrong with snapshots, we all have them and often times, they are some of our most precious pictures. But, if you get into the habit of thinking before you shoot and think about the story, you will get much better images each time you shoot.

IMG 8306

Have Smartphone, will Travel !!

No more does a travel photographer need to carry pounds and pounds of gear. Not all the time at least. There is a time and place for the DLSR and a choice lens but for most of us, it’s snapshot time, not NatGeo.  The newest generation of smartphones are amazingly good with travel photography. From street to candid to museums and more.

The image below was taken in Yosemite and shows El Capitan in the late winter light. The lake is really a large pound that forms when the snow melts and before it is absorbed by the ground around April.  We were driving back to our cabin when I saw the light in the rear view mirror and made a sudden stop. The family is used to this from me and I was able to get several shots before the light was gone for the day.

El Capitan shot with iPhone 5S

Here is the same shot but with the EXIF data showing I shot this with my iPhone and what settings were used and where I was based on the GPS. This image is a classic case of knowing how to override the “brain” in the camera to get what I wanted out of it. The image left it the camera’s own decision was way too light and the rock face would be blown out because the camera was trying to average the entire scene. Since most of it is in shadow, it kept trying to expose for the shadows which is not what I wanted.  The trick was to manually dial back the exposure to where the rock was exposed correctly. Remember, unlike film, when you blow the highlights, the digital value is 255 and there is nothing there anymore for detail. Just pure white. So you cannot afford to blow out the highlights unless you intentional want/need that.

IPhone EXIF data for El Capitan picture

I was in a museum at a Star Wars exibit and the guy next to me was chased out because he had a “professional” camera.. ie.. a DLSR while I had “just” a cellphone camera. I was left alone and I bet my shots rivaled the ejected photographer’s own images.  But since all I had was a “cellphone” and everybody knows they suck for photography, I was left alone. The smartphone is the best “secret weapon” for travel photography once you learn how to really use it effectively.

Star Wars Movie Prop – iPhone 5S

The default wide angle of most smartphones lenses makes for great landscapes. I was walking back to my car from a pitstop and saw this skyline. And since I carry my phone with me all the time, I had a camera handy.  How many people would have walked into a rest stop bathroom with a DSLR over their shoulder?  And this colorful sky was only there for about 2 minutes. Not nearly long enough to get back the car, get out the DSLR, get a lens on it and then run back to the treeline.

San Diego rest stop sunset

Now, is this smartphone photograph as good as a DSLR or mirrorless? It depends.. don’t you love definitive answers?  This shmaybe answer comes from a few limits in current smartphones such as low light noise and high ISO noise. The lack of optical zoom on most smartphones is a real PIA for anyone used to swapping out a lens for longer reach.  In this case, none of those reasons really apply so I think I could match a DSLR shot for shot in this case. And I could get it significantly faster!  There is also the 80/20 rule.. for 80% of the time, X is fine and in this case, for 80-90% of the time, the Smartphone camera is just fine.

The smartphone is also less intimidating to the subject than a cellphone.  Most street artists do not like a big ol’ DSLR in their face or being used around them. They feel that someone is taking “professional” images of them and/or their art without compensation.  But, pull out a smartphone, now you look like 95% of the population and everybody knows those pictures suck 🙂 So most of the time, I do not get any pushback for using my smartphone camera.

Chalk art artist at Disneyland

With travel photography, you want to show off where you were, how you got there, what happened while there and returning home. At least for most people, that is what they want.  They want to tell the story of their trip.  Get that action shot can really sell the story when you share it.  The image below has the story of where ( Disneyland), what ( getting wet) and how ( from the ride’s splash).  You do not need to explain anything to the audiance.

Action shot with iPhone 5S and Moment 60mm lens

For the travel blogger or author, things are different. You need to SELL the trip to the audiance. You want to make them desire to go where you were.  So along with wide angles and story shots, details can really sell the entire story. Looking at the burger, dont you just want to reach in and grab it ?

Burger from Burger Parlor in Orange, CA

For any travel photographer, getting environment photographs are key. These can set the tone of the story. You can share a lot of details about where you are in a single image.  The image below has the architecture of San Francisco, the hills, tourists with selfie sticks, skyline, bridges and of course, the zigzag sign of a famous street in the city.

Downtown San Francisco from a cable car

You can get some cool travel shots even while getting to the destination or coming home. Most airlines will frown on you with the big DSLR up against the window in the airplane, but the smartphone is so unobtrusive that up to now, I have never been asked to stop and put it away. This has not been the case with my DSLR. I got this photograph of the snow-covered Rockies leaving Colorado on my way home. The trick is not to put the phone right on the glass. Hold it just off the glass or use your hand to isolate the smartphone from the vibrations in the window.

Rocky Mountains at 35,000 feet using iPhone 5S through a window

One of the best ways to really sell your travel photography is to use color. Use contrasting colors, use lighting, neon, paint or whatever you find. The photograph below shows that the iPhone can take excellent pictures at night and coupled with some basic understanding of photography like using slow shutters to your advantage can result in really good photographs. In this case, I manually adjust the ISO to 100 and used 1/6 of a second shutter using 3rd party application called “Manual Cam” . The low ISO makes for a high-quality image and for nice blacks while the slooow shutter lets the water fuzz nicely.

Disney’s Water Color Show iPhone 7 Manual Cam  app

I’ll be covering travel photography in much more detail in later posts. This is just an overview and not a definitive guide.

When people ask me what equipment I use – I tell them my eyes

This is the second time I’ve tried to start the Smartphonegeek website. The first time, my poor site languished and was ignored by me for things like soccer games, traveling, restoring vintage audio gear and not least of all, work.

So in rebooting this site, I have also made the choice to shut down my Michael Sweeney Media photography site because trying to make a living with photography today is in my opinion, just about impossible and I don’t need the website now.  I think we have come in a complete circle with the advent of Smartphone photography.  The photographer today has quite a bit in common with our ancestors with cameras. They were folks that had day jobs or patrons that funded this “hobby” of photography in their spare or not so spare time. Now, with smartphones decimating the professional market, we are back to working day jobs to fund our photography passion.  In truth, it is very hard to make a good living, put money in savings, raise kids and be middle class as a professional photographer.  At some point, the fun leaves and it becomes a job.  A secondary pressure on pros is we used to make good money from prints and picture albums. Now with everything online, that revenue stream has become severely limited. Even with weddings which were the bread and butter of a good many photographers has suffered a contraction in money earned vs the number of photographers. Between Craigs list low prices and the lack of print sales of any kind, it has become a challenge to make a living. Notice, I say a living and not beer money.

In my case, this has been a slow realization that started some years ago when I got laid off from my job and I went to go “pro”. But within a year I saw the handwriting on the wall after writing a book on iPhone photography and really experienced just how good these smartphones are in trained hands or even not so capable hands.  I went back to my day job which pays the bills, puts food on the table and so on while I use all my “real camera” full frame stuff for personal projects and getting awesome sports shots of my kids and the odd job.

Before and After Editing iPhone 7 image

What has taken the place of shooting with 20lbs of camera and lenses, is my iPhone.  I take it everywhere and I’ve spent a lot of time really learning how to push the limits of the iPhone and I still think I have a ways to go. The newest software is truly amazing with what it can do now. Apple and other vendors have finally gotten the message that glass counts too and are starting to innovate with lens design and using multiple lenses to get better results.

Now we have battery cases that work, real glass lenses designed to augment the smartphone built-in lens, awesome software for BOTH the camera AND post-processing, better screens and more.

Propaganda Russian Style from iPhone

This really came home to a few weeks ago when I took a trip with the family to San Francisco and did not bring my DLSR. Not one body, not any of it. I shot the entire trip on my iPhone with my Moment lens set and battery pack.  That is the future of photography.  The DSLR manufacturers have finally thrown in the towel and admitted as much publically.

So I will happily create art with my smartphone on one hand and mourn the loss of the skills that a real camera makes you use. But in all truth, it’s not the gear that makes the artist, it’s the person and how they translate their vision with the gear they have. I still have my “real” camera and I still shoot film for a few different reasons so in the end, I think it will all work out.

Sara and Jeanne on a Cable Car in San Francisco. Moment 58mm Lens