I found a new photo challenge last year, an ongoing project that keeps me entertained whenever I am a passenger on any type of transport. It all began when I saw Lorna Sim’s stunning exhibition, Trucking, at PhotoAccess last year. Lorna’s powerful images of trucks on the highway were captured from the passenger seat of a moving car, yet they are all sharp, clear and beautifully composed. (See the PhotoAccess website, here for the exhibition catalogue.)
How did she do it? I had to try for myself, just to see how such strong compositions could be captured from a moving car. The next time a friend gave me a lift out of town I took out my SLR and tried for myself. I dialled up the ISO, set a fast shutter speed and clicked away happily, seeing what I could capture. It was a lot of fun and I did succeed in catching a truck, eventually. I also tried my hand at trees, clouds, power lines, the winding line of the road ahead, anything that caught my eye. The real challenge was the timing – seeing something interesting ahead and being ready to press the shutter just before the framing was perfect. Wait until everything is right and it’s gone before the camera can catch it.
In some ways this is like dance or sport photography: you need to anticipate the moment that’s about to happen and time the capture accordingly. But because the photographer, not the subject, is moving, the relationships are a bit different. Things near the roadside go by much faster than anything in the distance, while other vehicles seem to be travelling relatively slowly. This is a complex equation that takes practice, but it’s fun seeing what you can capture. It’s also a wonderful exercise in composition, timing and general eye/camera coordination, which paid handsome dividends when I started trying this with my iPhone.
Enter the iPhone
At first I assumed that a digital SLR is best for this type of photography. The failure rate is too high to make film a realistic option – imagine having to re-load the camera every 37 frames! – while digital compacts have too much shutter lag to be useful here. I still prefer the DSLR for photographing from the car, perhaps because that’s where it all started for me, but right now the iPhone is my tool of choice when I find myself on a bus, a train or a vaporetto.
As with all my iPhone photography, the fact that it isn’t a ‘serious’ camera encourages free experimentation. No one expects technical perfection from a phone. Shutter lag? Sure. So what? Let’s see what happens. Besides, a phone camera is easier to manage on public transport, where a big DSLR would get in the way. It’s also nicely unobtrusive – people assume the person using it is only after happy snaps at most.
So, on the bus, on the train – first on a day trip to Sydney, then in Italy, where I added vaporettos to my list – out came the iPhone 4 and my favourite Hipstamatic app. Yes, there is a shutter lag issue. But this camera and app combination is surprisingly versatile: exposure and focus both deliver surprisingly good results under moderately difficult conditions. Low light shots are noisy but atmospheric (like a fast, grainy film) and blur isn’t necessarily bad. Technical perfection, no. Intriguing, interesting images, definitely, so long as you don’t mind lots of trial and error to get that handful of keepers.
True, I got plenty of soft images and less than ideal compositions when I tried this out in Italy. But I also added a nice extra dimension to my iPhone in Italy series and several of my favourite images from that trip could have been taken no other way. These include Venice and Beach Huts near Portofino, which featured in the July 2011 Different Strokes.
Sometimes it’s even sharp…
All that practice really paid off when I took a train from Ballarat to Melbourne on a very gloomy Monday morning. The weather was so unpropitious I nearly took out my book, but watching the power lines and pylons going past the window was too much for me. The open countryside meant I could see them in the distance and try to time my captures for the best composition. I got several strong images from that trip, but this one really stands out – I couldn’t believe my luck when it came up on my iPhone’s screen.
True, I did some post processing – the gloomy conditions gave a dark blue cast that didn’t print well, while the dark, dappled sky distracted from the geometry of those Meccano-like structures. So I lightened the sky a little, added some mid-tone contrast, did a mono conversion and applied some sepia toning (another learning experience for me – more on that another time). But no cropping was needed – this composition is what I captured.
So, whatever camera you are using, never assume that the image won’t work just because the conditions are wrong. Just give it a go and see what happens!
Andrée Lawrey | November 2011