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New York’s Flatiron building
Image by Ed Yourdon
This was a tough photo to take, because it was "backlit" by the strong sun in the background (which happened to be situated just behind the building in the moments before 1 PM), and the resulting strong contrast between the bright sky and the dark building.
Indeed, I had no intention of photographing the building at all, though I’m certainly aware of its existence and was vaguely aware that I was in the neighborhood. But I was focused instead on watching everything around me as I trudged along the streets on the 89th day of my ongoing "Everyblock" photo-walking project (details of which you can see here on Flickr) on the day before Christmas. I had reached the corner of 24th and Fifth Avenue, knowing that Madison Square Park was just east of me, and thus marked the end of the trek I had laid out for myself that day; and I was turning north to march up to 25th Street before heading west over 8th Avenue….
But I noticed a bunch of people — mostly tourists, some with iPads as their "camera," but also some "serious" photographers with big fancy cameras on sturdy tripods — standing in a little pedestrian triangle formed by the confluence of Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and 24th Street — all facing southward, and all diligently snapping away at … well, yes, that familiar old building.
If you’re interested, you can read more details on the Wikipedia page for the Flatiron Building, but here are the salient details: when it was first constructed in 1902, it was one of the taller buildings in NYC, and it was one of only two skyscrapers north of 14th Street. The name "Flatiron" derives from the building’s resemblance to a cast-iron clothes iron — a device which the younger generation believes to have disappeared along with buggy whips and rotary phones.
The famous futurist, H.G. Wells, wrote in a 1906 book called The Future in America: A Search After Realities (which, dear Flickr visitor, I’m sure you have read and memorized as part of your classical education), "I found myself agape, admiring a sky-scraper the prow of the Flatiron Building, to be particular, ploughing up through the traffic of Broadway and Fifth Avenue in the afternoon light."
I could go on, but you get the point … and the point, for me on this quiet day-before-Christmas, was indeed the afternoon light. It was almost blinding in its intensity, and I couldn’t really understand why so many of the people in that little triangular pedestrian pocket were so determined to photograph the building … but then I saw that they were tracking the path of the sun, and knew that in a few more moments, the sun would be located behind the building, thus making it possible to take some photographs…
I still wasn’t sure it was worth the effort, so I didn’t bother using the handy little pocket-sized Sony RX-100-MarkII that I had been carrying for my photo walking tour, let alone dragging out the much-larger Sony RX-10 DSLR from the depths of my backpack. Instead, I just pointed my little iPhone at the building and pushed the shutter/power button vigorously to get a couple dozen images.
Most of the photos were completely worthless, and even the one that the iPhone judged to be the "best" was barely salvageable …. but I tweaked it and massaged it with my Aperture-3 photo-editing program, ramped the overall exposure up 1.5 EV’s, sharply decreased the shadows surrounding the building, and greatly reduced the glare of the background light… so now at least you know what you’re looking at.
Indeed, now I’m tempted to go back and take some "serious" photos of the building … but it’s already been done, on a far grander scale than anything I could achieve, by such masters as Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz, you might be interested to know, remarked that it "appeared to be moving toward [him] like the bow of a monster ocean steamer — a picture of a new America still in the making."
But perhaps you can do a better job than me; indeed, perhaps you can find something to capture in a photograph that even Steichen and Stieglitz missed. Take your time — the building hopefully still be here a hundred years from now, when you will be almost as old as I am …
Note: I chose this as my "photo of the day" for the final day of 2013. Here’s to 2014!
Whether you’re an amateur or professional photographer, it’s hard to walk around with a modern smartphone in your pocket, and not be tempted to use the built-in camera from time-to-time. Veteran photographers typically sneer at such behavior, and most will tell you that they can instantly recognize an iPhone photo, which they mentally reject as being unworthy of any serious attention.
After using many earlier models of smartphones over the past several years, I was inclined to agree; after all, I always (well, almost always) had a “real” camera in my pocket (or backpack or camera-bag), and it was always capable of taking a much better photographic image than the mediocre, grainy images shot with a camera-phone.
But still … there were a few occasions when I desperately wanted to capture some photo-worthy event taking place right in front of me, and inevitably it turned out to be the times when I did not have the “real” camera with me. Or I did have it, but it was buried somewhere in a bag, and I knew that the “event” would have disappeared by the time I found the “real" camera and turned it on. By contrast, the smart-phone was always in my pocket (along with my keys and my wallet, it’s one of the three things I consciously grab every time I walk out the door). And I often found that I could turn it on, point it at the photographic scene, and take the picture much faster than I could do the same thing with a “traditional” camera.
Meanwhile, smartphone cameras have gotten substantially better in the past few years, from a mechanical/hardware perspective; and the software “intelligence” controlling the camera has become amazingly sophisticated. It’s still not on the same level as a “professional” DSLR camera, but for a large majority of the “average” photographic situations we’re likely to encounter in the unplanned moments of our lives, it’s more and more likely to be “good enough.” The old adage of “the best camera is the one you have with you” is more and more relevant these days. For me, 90% of the success in taking a good photo is simply being in the right place at the right time, being aware that the “photo opportunity” is there, and having a camera — any camera — to take advantage of that opportunity. Only 10% of the time does it matter which camera I’m using, or what technical features I’ve managed to use.
And now, with the recent advent of the iPhone5s, there is one more improvement — which, as far as I can tell, simply does not exist in any of the “professional” cameras. You can take an unlimited number of “burst-mode” shots with the new iPhone, simply by keeping your finger on the shutter button; instead of being limited to just six (as a few of the DSLR cameras currently offer), you can take 10, 20, or even a hundred shots. And then — almost magically — the iPhone will show you which one or two of the large burst of photos was optimally sharp and clear. With a couple of clicks, you can then delete everything else, and retain only the very best one or two from the entire burst.
With that in mind, I’ve begun using my iPhone5s for more and more “everyday” photo situations out on the street. Since I’m typically photographing ordinary, mundane events, even the one or two “optimal” shots that the camera-phone retains might not be worth showing anyone else … so there is still a lot of pruning and editing to be done, and I’m lucky if 10% of those “optimal” shots are good enough to justify uploading to Flickr and sharing with the rest of the world. Still, it’s an enormous benefit to know that my editing work can begin with photos that are more-or-less “technically” adequate, and that I don’t have to waste even a second reviewing dozens of technically-mediocre shots that are fuzzy, or blurred.
Oh, yeah, one other minor benefit of the iPhone5s (and presumably most other current brands of smartphone): it automatically geotags every photo and video, without any special effort on the photographer’s part. Only one of my other big, fat cameras (the Sony Alpha SLT A65) has that feature, and I’ve noticed that almost none of the “new” mirrorless cameras have got a built-in GPS thingy that will perform the geotagging…
I’ve had my iPhone5s for a couple of months now, but I’ve only been using the “burst-mode” photography feature aggressively for the past couple of weeks. As a result, the initial batch of photos that I’m uploading are all taken in the greater-NYC area. But as time goes on, and as my normal travel routine takes me to other parts of the world, I hope to add more and more “everyday” scenes in cities that I might not have the opportunity to photograph in a “serious” way.
New York 2011
Image by Bibi