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John Curley's iPhoneography


San Francisco photographer John Curley has been experimenting with the 50 photo apps he has amassed on his iPhone4. For Talking Pictures, John shares some of the results of his experiments, and explains his process.

iphonepix01john curleyThis is a beach scene near my home in Pacifica. There were many people enjoying the late afternoon sun on an unusually warm early spring day. The initial exposures were made with the iPhone's camera in HDR mode (which gives the images a wide dynamic range). In Photoshop Express, I cropped three images for the portions that I thought were the most interesting. Then I combined them with the BlendCam app. I then imported the blended image into the Camera+ app, where I applied a sepia toning with the Analog Chromogenic setting. I also used Camera+ to apply the picture frame.

So tell me how you got started shooting with the iPhone...

Initially, I didn't get the iPhone to take pictures, not until the iPhone 4, which has a marvelous camera, a 5 megapixel file. Not that long ago to get a 5 megapixel camera, it would have cost thousands of dollars. I remember back at the Chron [San Francisco Chronicle], when the photo department got digital SLRs, they were so much more expensive.

iphonepix06This photo was taken outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as a friend walked past the installation of streetlights outside the museum. I used the Slow Shutter app to capture a photo with blurred motion, and then I imported the image to the PictureShow app, where I applied a Mirror filter. I then adjusted the color tones, using the app's Green Plastic filter. I then imported the manipulated photo into Photoshop Express, where I did more tweaking of brightness and contrast levels.

What apps do you have and how do you figure out what apps you want to use?

It’s astonishing the developing kits out there now. I’ve got 50 on my phone, of that number I use 7 or 8 consistently. I started out with Hipstamatic, Camerabag and PhotoGene, lately I’ve been using Plastic Bullet, Filterstorm, and Cameramatic. Some apps are better than others at a particular look. I might crop in the Photoshop app, then open it in pictureshow, apply a yellow gel, save it, then open again in Cameramatic and adjust curves. It's all about, does this app give me the look that I'm trying to get? 

iphonepix05I took this picture as the sun was setting in Badwater, the lowest elevation in North America (282 feet below sea level). I captured the image using the regular iPhone4 camera because I knew the strong backlight would produce a silhouette effect, which was what I wanted. I then imported the picture to the Plastic Bullet app, which applied random vignetting and color shifts. It's one of my favorite apps, because each time the image is processed, a unique, non-reproducible photo is generated.

Are these apps expensive?

They're so accessable, so the level of experimentation is astonishing. On average, I paid 99 cents for each app. The most I paid was $5.99.

How long does it take you to arrive at a finished image?

It depends, but generally I'd say from the beginning to the final image, it might take 20 minutes. Each individual filter takes a few seconds.

What is it about this look that appeals to you?

So many people have digital cameras these days, and straight photos from a digital camera have a sameness in the way they look. They're just technically perfect photos. And as you go through the process of using 2 or 3 different [iPhone] apps, it's difficult to reproduce the manipulation exactly. I think that's one of the appeals of this process.

Tell me about the photos you took during the Giants' Opening Day. What kind of access did you have?

Well, I'm a season ticket holder, and I also shoot for the Giants, I shoot in the luxury suits for the Giants, I'm on salary there. I have a Giants credential. But there's nothing in these pictures that I wouldn't have been able to do with just a season ticket and a club pass. I'm just a regular joe, I didn't really benefit from having a Giants credential.


This photo was taken on Opening Day of the Giants season. As I was walking up Third Street on my way to AT&T Park, there were many ticket sellers looking to make a deal. The image was captured using the Genius app and the Big Button feature, which turns the entire LCD screen of the phone into a shutter; this helps me take photos without having to use the relatively tiny shutter button on the phone. This is important when you are trying to be unobtrusive and taking pictures of people who may or may not want to have their picture taken. I then imported the image into the PictureShow app, where I used the Noir filter to convert the image to black and white. I also used PictureShow to apply a vignette, and to apply the noise and scratches.

iphonepix08This photo also was taken on Opening Day, on the walkway of the Promenade level. The players were being introduced to the fans, and television monitors hanging from the rafters gave a close-up view of the action on the field. I used the HDR Pro app to capture the high dynamic range image, because a normal exposure either would have made the field too bright or the stands and television monitor too dark. I imported the HDR image into the Filterstorm app, where I further adjusted brightness and contrast levels using the app's gradient masks.


This photo was taken on the Suite Level at AT&T Park, where extensive team memorabilia is displayed in glass cases. It is a relatively straightforward image. I took the picture with the iPhone's camera in HDR mode, and then I imported it into the PhotoWizard app, where I applied the sepia tone and the bordered frame. I did final adjustments to tone and brightness in Photoshop Express.

iphonepix03This photo was taken on Sunday of Opening Weekend at the Giants park, as a man and two boys were walking across the Lefty O'Doul bridge. Again I was using the Big Button feature of the Genius app so that I could shoot quickly and unobtrusively. (Also, I don't always "frame" the pictures in the LCD; I often shoot them on the fly.) I then imported the image into the Filterstorm app, where I applied the sepia toning and the vignette. I also adjusted brightness and contrast levels using the app's gradient masks.

Photojournalists have been using the iPhone more frequently in recent years, and it's been the source of some controversy. The New York Times' Damon Winter just won an award at Pictures of the Year International with a portfolio of iPhone images. What's your take, do you think iPhone photography is another "nail in the coffin" for photojournalism?

I think that to say that this is the "nail in the coffin" of photography is completely ridiculous, the same rules that go into making a good photo apply to the iPhone as well. Light, color, composition and moment. It's not the tool, it's the vision, you can give a hundred people iPhones and some of them [the photos] will be good, a lot of them will be crap. I'm really agnostic about what camera platform you use. I think that the saying, the best camera you have is the one you have with you, is right on.

To see more of John's iPhone work, check out his Flickr photostream.


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