Turn Your iPhone Images Into Art

Pop culture sometimes has a funny way of hitting the nail on the head. After recent events leading to the dramatic change of political power in Egypt, no one can deny that the cell phone saves lives and exerts major influence on history. It’s an updated version of the saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

Whether for revolution, friending, or art, iPhone photography has reached the big time. A movie shot entirely on cell phone by Mark Amerika is being exhibited in traditional art museums. The University of Denver celebrated the acquisition of significant works from the Warhol estate with a Warholian style iPhone workshop led by photographic department head Roddy MacInnes.

Me in front of MacInnes’ phone, before and after students manipulated the images in Photoshop and using Warhol style iPhone apps.

For me, iPhone photography has been something of a rebirth, a joyous reason to stop mourning at the grave of Polaroid transfers, emulsions, and the manipulated SX70. Chase Jarvis showed me the path to religious conversion with the iPhone. Before reading his blog and book, Before, I just didn’t get it; cell phone rather than Canon 5D Mark II? In half an hour, Jarvis turned me into an iPhone fanatic.

One of my first cell phone pictures. The original capture is first, then a version I processed using the Best Camera app and enhanced with onOne Photo Frame software in Photoshop.

Once I discarded the idea that a camera phone was a toy for Facebook photos best forgotten, I was fascinated by the layers upon layers of what you can do with an image. I’ve searched out phone apps that do the bidding of the artist. And I have a system. The app and the image must mesh, and that’s where the art comes in. You’ve got to tell a story, even if it’s abstract. Your camera limitations are a daunting framework at first, but inside the restrictions you have some extraordinary possibilities that unfold after the fact. You can try this, try that, go back, add layers… On some pieces I’ve spent several hours of postproduction.

The best way to make the technology your own is to experiment. But to help you find your way, this article includes hints for subject matter and camera handling, app recommendations, a workflow for post-app processing, and printing suggestions.

Choosing Subjects
Subjects that play well within camera phone constraints have many parallels with Polaroid artwork. Often the most striking subjects are photographed close up, simple and graphic. Industrial junk makes excellent color field abstracts, once manipulated with apps. Try to click the shutter before the camera has time to grab sharp focus.

Door lights on an SUV made a high-noise, “color field” image, with no apologies to the 1950s genre of abstract painting by the same name

Graffiti is a great subject.

I turned an original capture of a neighbor’s gate into an historic-looking art piece by adding several layers in the FX Photo Studio app.

Of course, iPhones are good for much more than still lifes and designs. Architecture and events can surprise you, even scenes you think would be too detailed to show well. For example, I used the iPhone to chronicle an REM concert, and the phone succeeded despite the challenging conditions.

My cell phone captured surprising detail in this REM concert shot, considering the dark night, stage lights, and LED projection panels.

iPhone Handling
Lighting is key, and contrast is not your friend. Look for fairly even illumination for best color and least noise, and plan to add contrast as desired later with an app.

Holding the camera phone with both hands, or one of the specially designed mini steady cams, helps to ensure you don’t wiggle during the exposure. The significant shutter delay can be a killer, both to capture action before your subject moves and to avoid camera motion blur.

However, blur can be good, too. Click the image below to see an animated short I made from images captured at a Bat Mitzvah. The light was low, but the phone di surprisingly well. The fuzzy images accurately reflected the whirl of a 13-year old teen event.

Point of View
Be brave with angles. Since you can’t change lenses to change meaning, tell the story by looking or moving up, down, over, and under. Much-prized shallow depth of field, or bokeh, is easy to get by moving in close and tipping the phone at an angle to the subject, rather than flat on.

Sometimes motion is good. Try photographing out the side window of a moving car. The shutter is so slow that objects will bend unnaturally to artistic effect.

This “macro” of a tarot card has shallow depth of field. I processed it using the Hipstamatic app.

The same image re-opened in Best Camera app looks like it’s on fire.

I re-opened the image in TiltShift for more mystery.

Singles or Concept Series
Except in the hands of the likes of David Hockney, Polaroid art was mainly individual, standalone images. Cell-phone photography again sets a similar course, and we have yet to see many significant groupings of images to tell power stories. Uncharted territory, but a potential for growth. After accidentally photographing my feet and a colorful scarf I was wearing, I was fascinated by the motion blur and implied action as well as the abstract feel. Sensing a series coming on, I racked up more than three-dozen frames and a number of strange looks from passersby.

“Best Foot Forward” is one of several composite variations of my feet, every photographer’s favorite accidental subject.

Capture and Apps
I’m split 50-50 between immediate manipulation and working on images later. I do prefer to save the initial as-shot image for comparison to make further alterations. The mantra is that postproduction is just as creative as pressing the shutter–maybe more so in this medium.

Know your apps. Most of them are too limited in scope and functionality to be worth much. I’ve only found a few crucial ones to use again and again. Be aggressive in trial and error of multiple layers, even layering one app over another. I rarely discard until viewing in Photoshop. When you think you have a real winner, save to the highest resolution the app and your camera allow, assuming you’re going to print later.

Best Camera: By far the most transparent functionality, which allows easy previewing and adding and subtracting effects, even though there are limited manipulations and variables. Costs $2.99.

FX Photo Studio: Smorgasbord of effects, maybe too many, but when they’re good they’re really great. I like the sliders for variable effect. Costs $1.99.

CameraBag: Well chosen, small selection of effects, lots of black and white. Costs $1.99.

Plastic Bullet Camera: Great place to start, limitless supply of hands-off surprises simulating plastic toy cameras. On the downside, there are no user controls and you must take annoying trip to iPhone settings to change resolution of saved images. Costs $1.99.

Hipstamatic: Kitschy toy; you’ve got to click around to find the settings, and then get hit up to buy more. But it’s very useful. Costs $1.99.

Also of note:
* TiltShift,
* Photo fx,
* Pano,
* Color Splash,
* Camera Flash – New, and
* Old Photo PRO.

Have I missed your favorite apps? Click the Comments button below the end of the article to share your picks.

Into the Computer
Unless your images are headed only to Facebook and the like, you’ll want to secure your archive on a hard drive and explore further manipulation and enhancements.

Adobe Lightroom is a real artistic bonus and timesaver. Just plug in the phone and Lightroom recognizes the iPhone library instantly. Name your files something useful, add your copyright and keywords, choose a color space and archive location. And then go to town.

I’ll tweak anything and everything, though at this point it’s almost always small refinements rather than major alteration. Some of the most useful controls are clarity, vibrance, fill light, crop, noise reduction, and selective color adjustments.

Don’t stop at eye-popping, super-saturated colors. Black-and-white conversions, this one needing a little help in Photoshop, can make stunning retro-looking art. Edward Weston would be proud.

Once I save files in Lightroom and open them in Photoshop, I may merge elements of several images, create grids or composites, and enlarge to the desired print output size. I’ve had great success with Fred Miranda’s inexpensive utility Stair Interpolation Pro. My standard resolution is 360 dpi.

Go to page 2 for tips on adding frames and other edge treatments, and for printing suggestions.

Posted on: March 7, 2011

4 Comments on Turn Your iPhone Images Into Art

  1. pushingvision

    March 7, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    Another reason for the resurgence and, dare I say it, renaissance of the “instant” photo is the online communities out there bringing photo livers together. Instagram’s my personal favorite, but others like PicPlz and DailyBooth are out there too. These are bringing together professionals and amateurs, and are filled with comments, suggestions, challenges and competitions. Lively discussions and inspiration from seeing others work make these places an amazing place to be involved in.

  2. I have an ipod Touch and would love to use some of these cool apps. Any idea if it is possible to import images from my digital camera into the touch and use these apps? (and if so, how?)

  3. Thanks for the heads up on these great apps. There are so many uses for my iphone!

  4. I’ve been enjoying “100 Cameras in 1” from Stuck in Customs. Lots of great effects and filter to layer and very easy to get the hang of. Great fun!

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