Apps for Film Photographers: Useful or Not?


Over the last few weeks I looked at different pieces of software and hardware that work with mobile devices (i.e. smartphones and tablets) to make the lives of film photographers easier.

Today, I want to do a little recap and also ask the question: To app or not to app?

Smartphones have been around for quite a while but since the iPhone appeared on the stage mobile developers have produced a staggering number of mobile software application to cater for almost every possible need. From useful, to fun, to questionable to downright silly – there is an app for everything. In fact, most of the time there plenty of apps for a particular task. Just check how many calendars and to-do list apps are out there!

But how does using mobile devices together with film photography change the photography process – for better or worse…

First, let’s do a little recap of what is available. There is no way, I can cover all the apps and hardware add-ons that are relevant. When I started this series I wanted to do one article about a few iPhone apps. It turned out that the more I looked at these the more others I found. What the series covered so far:

Part 1 looked at Light Meters, apps for the mixing your chemicals and timing your development, and ways to help you maintain old cameras.

Part 2 was all about incident light meters and how hardware makers are creating add-ons for mobile device, plus the lo-tec alternatives.

Part 3 was all about how to keep track of the films you are currently using (as most of us having more than one camera in use at any given time) and to record the camera settings and meta data of your photos.

Part 4 looked at the topic of reciprocity failure in long exposures for film and what apps can help you to compensate your exposure times accordingly.

Part 5 has a closer look at ways to bridge the digital/analogue gap, via scanning and printing apps and hardware additions for your mobile devices. Because let’s face it – even though you might be shooting film you are also a digital person otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this! (Unless a friend gave you a leather-bound printout of this blog in which case I’d recommend medication.)

Part 6 finally looks at what the film makers out there are doing in terms of apps. Turns out that there is not much but Kodak at least gets an honorary mention, and newcomer Impossible probably has the nicest design.

So, now the only question that remains is: To App or Not to App?

Recently, Japan Camera Hunter wrote a blog called Why your phone is not your friend. He finished by saying:

Don’t become a slave to your device, make it work for you.

Although more aimed at mobile phone use in general and in particular about using phones as cameras that blog post touched a nerve, because for some time now I have become interested in how our digitally enhanced (is it always enhanced or rather “overcharged”?) environment changes our perception, but also our concepts of attention and of being in the here-and-now. I am not going to get into a rant about the dangers of the always-online-society and how everything used to be so much better in the “good old times”.

Nevertheless, I think it is worthwhile to sometimes stop and think about what we gain and what we might lose through a new technology (I, for one, am convinced that sat-navs whilst being useful are making some people more stupid geographically challenged)

It is often quoted that the charm of analogue photography is that it slows you down. It makes you think about what you’re doing so much more because you cannot see the results immediately, you cannot predict the outcome as easily or tweak it later as you can with digital photography.

Whilst this is a disadvantage at first glance it also meant that proper old-school photographers with low-tech equipment learned how to do many the things that tools are not doing for us in their heads. In the old days they would guess exposures and pre-visualise how an image might come out. It was something you’d learn slowly over a long time of trial and, probably, many errors.

Looking back that now has a romantic ring to it, of proper and pure craftmanship and skill mastery. However, Photography has been trying to improve and simplify the picture-taking process with tricks and tools for as long as it exists. Post-processing trickery in the darkroom to “tweak” (or fake) and image existed a hundred years before Photoshop came along. Light meters, albeit much simpler in design, have been around for decades. Many of the pros of the past have used every thinkable tool at their disposal to control as much of the photographic process as possible. Others relied on their camera and their skill alone. And many, I reckon, did both, depending on the situation.

Is integrating mobile devices in your analogue photographic workflow different? Well, it potentially is, because devices such as light meters used to be pretty much single-task devices. A light meter would meter light. Period. It would not allow you to read the latest comment on your photo blog. This is the potential for distraction, for not being in the here-and-now that JCH in the above quoted blog post is talking about. (In fact, if you are interested in User Experience you should have a look at the slides of Giles Coborne’s fantastic 2011 talk about distraction in design.)

On the other hand, the enhancements available for mobile devices in the form of apps or additional hardware have the potential to level the field by making tools available for film photographers who otherwise would not have been able or willing to afford it. They can also open up opportunities that would have been unthinkable 10 or 20 years ago. And isn’t it a good thing when some parts of the process become easier so that you can concentrate on the important bit – making a good photo?

Yes, and maybe no. Jack White of the White Stripes supposedly makes a point of having a purposely awkward guitare/amp set-up, claiming that by making playing more difficult it actually helps him to produce better music.

I am not sure whether Jack White is just being overly artsy or pretentious, or whether he also knows a bit about embedded cognition and extended mind theory. Whatever may be the case he might be on to something. There is some evidence that our thinking does not all happen in our heads. Our bodies are more than just containers for our brains, and our bodies are very much in the world. In fact, our thinking does not only shape our environments and the tools we use, but the tools we use and the environment we are in can also shape our thinking. (Check out Andy Clark’s original and very accessible article about Extended Mind hypothesis and here is a great and engaging video of a talk about what this could mean for user experience and interaction design – highly recommended!)

Am I saying you should ditch your smartphone? No, not necessarily. But you might want to leave it in your bag sometimes. Being aware that different techniques and different tools shape not only how you do something but also what you do gives you a choice. By being aware of it you can play with it, choose to use or not to use them. Just don’t make it an automatic reflex one way or the other because either way you would limit yourself and your creative expression.

Thank you for bearing with me on this little series. Is it over now? Well, quite. I am, however, running a little experiment with myself, using some of the presented mobile tools and their analogue equivalents in parallel trying to find out what works best for me and how some of the tools are holding up in long-term use.

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