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iPad Photography: Should We Take It Seriously?

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech

(Flickr)

In the course of bragging about its forthcoming iPad Air 2, Apple announced that the device would have a better built-in camera, with improved image sensors, superior focusing, and the ability to capture 8-megapixel images. Later, it granted two app developers precious seconds of stage time at the widely covered hype event — and both spoke on behalf of tools for making better pictures or videos with an iPad.

This seemed to inspire derision. Many of the tech cognoscenti sneer at the idea of using an iPad as a camera. Just look at some of the tweets The Verge collected, branding iPad photography “MADNESS” and “shameful.” Viral website BuzzFeed chimed in with “21 Reasons You Should Never Take Pictures With An iPad.”

In fairness, anyone who’s had his experience at a museum or at his kid’s soccer game interrupted by somebody butting into his line of vision with a “camera” the size of an Etch A Sketch knows that, as a tool to document the world, the iPad can be “disruptive” in the worst sense of the word.

But still, contrary to what you may conclude from the howls of detractors, there are, in fact, plenty of iPad photography enthusiasts. As I write this, Flickr tells me that 6,254 images taken with the current iPad Air were uploaded to the photo service yesterday alone; there’s also an active iPad Photography group on the site. (Flickr is owned by Yahoo.)

I can’t quite picture myself using my trusty iPad as a camera. But I’m an open-minded guy, and I don’t reflexively hate the idea of iPad photography.

So, following the announcement, I checked in with some actual iPad photographers and let them explain the upsides of using a tablet to make images. In short, I decided to set aside what it looks like to take pictures with an iPad — and focus on what iPad photographers see in the device.

And, sorry to say it, haters, but I’ve ended up way more positive about iPad picture making than I used to be.

A portable studio
I started with Jeff Carlson, who literally wrote the book on this subject: The iPad for Photographers recently went into its third edition.

“I’ll admit,” he told me via email, “that the idea of using an iPad as a camera initially felt weird to me.” In fact, the first version of Carlson’s book treated the iPad as a sort of supplemental tool for people shooting with something else — using the device to store, sort, and edit photos on the go. After all, the original device had no camera, and the iPad 2’s was pretty crude.

Carlson even used to joke about the iPad-as-camera in public talks — until he started meeting people who loved taking pictures even with the iPad 2. Then he started adding material about shooting with an iPad to newer editions of his book.

Nowadays, Carlson explains, one of the things that makes the iPad attractive to some photographers is that it combines a credible image-making tool with a variety of powerful image-editing tools in a single object: an appealing alternative to shooting with one device and transferring the results to another.

Case in point: Michael Coyne. Trained as a painter, he drifted toward photography as digital tools emerged that allowed him “to achieve in photography many of the things I had been aiming to do in painting, i.e. create rich and dense images through the full range of tonal values.” This started long before the iPad existed — so he spent some years lugging a laptop to photo locations.

But when the tablet emerged, it proved “tremendously liberating,” he explains, “in that it functioned as a portable studio.”

Michael Coyne photo taken with iPad

Courtesy of Michael Coyne. Follow him on Instagram or Flickr.

Michael Coyne photo taken with iPad

Courtesy of Michael Coyne. Follow him on Instagram or Flickr.

Now he figures he does about 80 percent of his image making on the iPad. It has, he says, “allowed me to explore the conceptual synthesis of painting and photography much more quickly than would have been possible without it. With innumerable apps for every creative task imaginable, gratification is pretty immediate!”

The big picture
But let’s not ignore what is right in front of us: The iPad’s size, in the context of cameras (especially the phone-camera) is what makes it so preposterous and irritating to detractors.

As it turns out, that’s also part of what makes it attractive to proponents.

Sylvia Armstrong took up with an iPad 2 back in 2011, leaving behind her iPhone and SLR-style cameras. After cataract surgery, she’d had trouble judging her images on tiny screens. “The bigger format of the iPad seemed ideal,” she tells me via email. “And it is.”

Sylvia Armstrong photo taken with iPad

Courtesy of Sylvia Armstrong.

Sylvia Armstrong photo taken with iPad

Courtesy of Sylvia Armstrong.

(Interestingly, she’s switched over to an Android tablet for other activities but has stuck with her iPad for picture making: “The variety of iOS apps and the ease of saving work has been a terrific boon for my creativity. I can try endless combinations until I have just the image I want.”)

I suspect that in time, the iPad’s offering of what amounts to an enormous viewfinder could be its most profound contribution to the evolution of picture making. But for now that plus-sized viewfinder is also a direct result of the awkward size of iPads as cameras — which is precisely what ticks off bystanders. The iPad picture takers I contacted all acknowledge this issue but insist that they are discreet, or use the device only in more private, closer-to-home scenarios.

Of course, they’ve all heard the stories. “A friend was in Germany and mentioned laughingly that in one city they were waiting for the musical clock to strike the hour, because that meant mechanical figures would emerge,” George F. Draskóy, another iPad-documentation enthusiast, tells me. “As soon as the clock started to strike, hundreds of iPads were lifted to take movies.”

Moving pictures
That’s exactly the kind of scenario that iPad-as-camera haters complain about. But it also hints at another appeal of the device — it’s actually more than a camera.

Draskóy, as it happens, is a good example of how this works. He “fell in love” with the device “immediately,” he recalls, as it was easy to carry around for still-photography projects. Then he started playing with its video capabilities, and it opened a whole new creative avenue. Now he uses a Canon G15 to make movies, he says, “but it was the iPad that made me interested to start making them.”

In a way, that line of thought is in the spirit of how Apple made its name: positioning the personal computer as an expressive tool, whose real meaning was about what it helped users make. That idea was harder to apply to the iPod and has been only ambiguously connected to the iPhone and iPad, which are more associated with communication or consumption than with creation.

Perhaps the subtle signal Apple meant to send in its promotion of the new iPad is that it isn’t just a thing for watching Netflix and reading ebooks. It can be a useful tool for creativity, too.

(Flickr)

After hearing from these iPad photographers about how they use the tool, and browsing images made with the current iPad Air, I actually think the argument has merit. Silly as it makes you look, the iPad really is becoming a sophisticated addition to the photo tools at our disposal. These people may actually be on the cutting edge, helping to create a whole new genre shaped by a radically different viewfinder and an unprecedented suite of built-in composition tools.

And besides, are iPad wielders that much more annoying than smartphone selfie snappers, with no greater photographic ambition that adding a “Lo Fi” filter?

In other words, maybe those people butting into your line of vision at Junior’s soccer match or at the Met aren’t just rude and clueless tourists. Maybe they are budding artists, too.

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. RSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.