Friday, October 16, 2015

High End Smartphone Photography with the LG G4

Apologies for the sudden and abrupt dry spell. It seems I am only ever able to maintain a steady pace of publishing for a few weeks at a time at best, inevitably followed by a months-long dry spell in which the focus to sit down and produce written content is elusive.

The last couple months have seen a series of fun outings strictly designed as Photography for Me endeavors. Finally agreeing with the assessment of my peers regarding a breakneck, burnout-conducive pace of Photography for Work, I've made it a point to reserve at least one weekend of every month for myself, and on those Me Weekends plans are usually set in motion to venture out with friends to some location a couple hours out and photograph something not at all local, typically out in the mountains of Virginia or Pennsylvania (because who am I kidding, my aesthetic is rooted in the Appalachians). This weekend, in fact, we're planning on spending a couple days up in Philadelphia, which is of course not Mountain Country but, for me, a place chock full of happy memories.

It should prove to be a great venue to apply focus on my current photographic tool fascinations with higher end smartphone cameras. The mobile phone based focus of modern photography culture isn't a vaguery to my musings on this blog in the past, but most recently I was forced to upgrade my cell phone due to a hardware failure and opted to go for the handset with the most compelling camera. Based on the numbers and ratings by various sites heavily focused on the directly quantifiable, you'd probably take that to mean the Samsung Galaxy S6 or iPhone 6S, but after handling several units at the store, from the ergonomics and intuitive control scheme perspective the LG G4 easily delivers what I find to be the most complete and well considered option, and with a camera well on par with the more quantifiable "winners" of the contest I find little to criticize.

I remember the days of flip phones with hardly even passable VGA cameras, so digging into the feature set of the G4's native camera software may finally be the thing that has me considering the smartphone as a reasonable and completely viable photographic tool. Manual settings (except for aperture, which is fixed at f/1.8 as a compromise of tiny lens design), up to 30 second exposures, really remarkable optical stabilization which works in tandem with the gyro sensor to assist in leveling images (which also begs for mention of a built-in level gauge), it seems very clear to me that this unit was designed by a photography enthusiast. The JPG engine renders clean 16 megapixel images which could easily stand the test of mid-size printing, but if that's not enough the native camera software even allows for the capture of .DNG RAW files, one of which is processed and shown as the banner image for this very blog.

JPG night shot of the Key Bridge in Baltimore, MD. Shot at ISO 50, 30" shutter speed as its affixed f/1.8 aperture. Barring pixel-level blue caused by tripod motion instigated by heavy winds that night, the quality of the image is great, with lots of latitude in the available .DNG to correct for the hard highlight blowout of the street lamps on the bridge and beyond.

And the RAW quality is great for what it is. Noisy even at native ISO 50, but plenty sharp, and with a surprising amount of latitude in shadows and highlights for manipulation. In practice, the biggest issue I've had with using the phone as a dedicated camera has been for long exposures on a tripod in which stability is hard to attain given the light weight of the phone. I've tried countering the issue with various weights hooked onto the center post of the tripod, but even the slightest breeze seems enough to trigger shot-blurring shake. But seriously, read that again - Shooting long exposures with a cell phone on a tripod in RAW, and my biggest complaint is that it doesn't weigh enough? If you're looking for an indicator of the esteem to which I hold the G4's camera and interface, there you go.

Realizing the potential of the phone's camera, I quickly went on the hunt for the most optimal tripod mount for my uses. Many people recommended the ShoulderPod line which does look like the best bang-for-the-buck option, but knowing my uses and having a MeFoto brand tripod at my disposal already, I went with MeFoto's SideKick360+ mount which both allows for use on other tripods but, more importantly, fits natively into the arca swiss plate vice employed by their tripod heads. A pricier option, yes, but well built and, personally, speed and convenience are abstracts for which I am willing to pay extra when it suits my workflow.

It seems extremely silly and maybe even overkill to mount one's smartphone to a tripod for the purpose of photography, but in practice it opens up a weird new world of possibilities by virtue of the fact that, the camera in question being the phone you have in your pocket, it is small, lightweight, easy to carry, and unassuming. Additionally, the ease and straightforward nature of any smartphone photography workflow makes it, frankly, enjoyable, with gorgeous and instant results that can compete very well with more cumbersome traditional workflows on dedicated cameras. At the very worst, it is the fun of Polaroid/Instax photography, but with more flexibility.

My latest fixation with the joy of a smartphone workflow has been in the production of time lapse shorts. I found myself experimenting with time lapse photography late in 2013 and through the duration of 2014 before I decided it wasn't going anywhere and sold off the kit I was using to produce it. I'd seen many time lapse shorts on Instagram and it had me curious to see what software was available for more power-user oriented time lapse capture, which quickly led me to LapseIt Pro. A cheap app at just $2, it features incredibly in-depth interval controls, options for locking white balance and exposure, a (currently beta) module which allows for manual camera settings as opposed to automatic adjustments, and most importantly a solid rendering engine able to export clips set to various frame rates in classic file formats like .MP4 but also new, smart compression formats like .H264. Producing time lapse was a fun and calming act of meditation to me while I practiced it before, and since rediscovering it in such a simplified form, it's returned to my daily routine as an artistic sort of mental collection.

On the whole, delving into the maturation of smartphone photography has been the kind of back-to-basics pursuit I've been desperately needing to nurture creativity otherwise suffocated by the constraints of business practice (which is not to denigrate Photography as Business, more to demarcate the difference between the two). Cruising around running time lapse with my phone while simultaneously shooting stills with the PEN E-P3 has been ideal, however the E-P3 is soon to be retired given recent troubles which can be attributed to age and abuse of the camera. Still have some charge left on the battery, but once it's out, it's out. The next gear acquisition will inevitably be a replacement "fun time" camera, which has been something on my mind for some time now but most recently I believe my muse would be best soothed by some akin to the GM1 or GM5 paired with the lovely new Lumix 42.5mm f/1.7 (I have the 45mm f/1.8 from Olympus already, but the significantly improved close focus distance of the Lumix makes it extremely attractive given how I often try to use the 45mm).

A few more LG G4 time lapse captures are below for your enjoyment. Perhaps in time I will come to learn smartphone video editing software and manage to produce something with all these assorted clips. In the meantime I am happy to simply produce them!

EDIT 10/19/2015: Apologies, but it did not dawn on me until some time after making this post live that the embedded time lapse videos were not consistently loading. I still can't seem to determine the reason for this, but in place of the video embeds I've made links directly to the .MP4 files available via direct links which should work just fine.