Natural bedfellows? The symbiotic relationship of Mobile and Film photography

You may have heard: photographic film is a viable business again. Like a river fed by many smaller tributaries, there are a variety of reasons why film is lately resurgent. I would like to suggest that Mobile photography – that is, photography with mobile phones – has and will continue to play a significant role in the revival and evolution of film photography.

Acting as a gateway, mobile photography can offer a taste of film’s tonal dynamics and color palette. Enjoying these visual characteristics through simulation on a mobile device may be the most practical entry point for the uninitiated. While it is tempting to view Mobile as a supplanter (seeking to take film’s mantle by way of imitation), I would argue that Mobile is actually one of the agents of film’s revival.

As an introduction to the filmic aesthetic, Mobile certainly offers many compelling possibilities. What native camera app doesn’t offer filters and other image manipulation options? However, in a post DSLR era, there are more fundamental reasons why Film and Mobile make for excellent bedfellows. The nature of Mobile photography itself invites a contrast. Whereas the digital imaging revolution sought to be a similar-but-better alternative to film, Mobile photography isn’t trying to be an alternative to anything. It’s a simple answer to a demand in the market. This is a key differentiator and a notable reason why Film and Mobile can cohabitate and even complement one another.

A new paradigm

If it sounds like I am implying that Digital photography is a different animal than Mobile, I am. Mobile Photography is quietly easing the market toward a new paradigm: Computational Imaging.

DiffuserCam code snippet. Source: Laura Waller, Computational Imaging Lab, University of California, Berkeley
DiffuserCam code snippet.

Source: Laura Waller, Computational Imaging Lab, University of California, Berkeley

A computational image is one that is reconstructed from an incomplete description of a scene. These descriptions can be one or more images, volumetric point clouds, voxel maps, meshes, or a combination thereof. The CPU, GPU, and TPU are becoming more important with every passing hardware generation. We are witnessing a sea change in the world of digital imaging: the CMOS sensor itself is presently becoming one of the least important parts of the image acquisition pipeline.

With massive compute resources available, Mobile Phones can reconstruct images in radically diverse ways:

  • Depth map augmentation
  • Scene-adaptive tone mapping
  • Advance chroma re-palletisation
  • Spatial filtering
  • Neural Network Style transfer
  • Dynamic histogram equalization

While they obviously share a common ancestor, Computational Imaging on Mobile has diverged so drastically from traditional Digital photography that speciation has taken place. In short, they are now different animals.

Different life-cycles

Digital Photography represents only a single stage of a photo’s lifecycle. Mobile Photography on the other hand, encapsulates creation, calibration, proliferation and consumption in one device.

In the past, photo acquisition, correction, and distribution were accomplished by different interdependent mechanisms. By way of example: just fifteen years ago, most photographers would capture a photo with a dedicated camera, import the file into a desktop computer for correction, and then print the file at home (or in a lab). A variation of this flow was the scala naturae for film as well. However, with Mobile, the links in that chain have been irreversibly fused. The consumer-facing benefit is time; the delay between acquisition and distribution has narrowed from days to seconds.

Mobile is killing digital

In a strange twist, Computational Imaging (typified in the form of Mobile photography) is killing the traditional Digital camera the same way Digital killed film.

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Infographic: Digital Camera Sales Dropped 84% Since 2010
Infographic: Digital Camera Sales Dropped 84% Since 2010

It is no coincidence that the rise of Mobile photography inversely plots of the collapse of DSLRs and mid-range compacts. According to CIPA data, sales of interchangeable-lens digital camera bodies peaked in 2010. This happens to be the same year the epochal iPhone 4 debuted with a then segment-leading camera equipped with a 5-megapixel backside-illuminated sensor. From 2010 on, global smartphone sales would grow as dramatically as the DSLR and consumer camera market would collapse.

Mobile Photography, while still markedly inferior in terms of absolute image quality, is more output-oriented – making Digital’s “less work than film” ethos seem like an archaism. And for the technology enthusiast, Mobile offers another appeal: It is evolving faster than traditional Digital Camera bodies.

In November, surprising rumors of Olympus’ exit from the camera industry highlighted a sobering reality: it is hard to compete with a perfectly adequate camera that most consumers carry with them. While the company wasted little time denying an exit, there is no question that the recipe for a good digital camera (bigger sensor, higher ISO ceiling, more card slots) needs to be challenged. Olympus recognizes this and I hope they find a path forward.

But how far are camera makers willing to follow the iconoclastic trends emerging in the Mobile industry? It’s hard to say for sure. Will Sony or Panasonic ever release a dedicated mirrorless camera with a high-resolution ToF sensor? Probably not. But this technology will eventually become ubiquitous on Mobile phones and subsequently redefine what taking a photo even means.

Given the current pace of development, it is not unreasonable to postulate that mobile-class cameras will eventually exceed interchangeable lens cameras in many or all domains.

Different, not better

Consider that Film is directly antithetical to Mobile in the same refreshing way that Vinyl is to an audio streaming service. One format is not better than the other. They are different.

Unlikely as it sounds, this stark disparity favorably positions both in the public imagination.

  • Film is highly tactile — Mobile is a software-driven experience
  • Film requires patience — Mobile requires little or no waiting for output
  • Film locks the user into a specific look — Mobile gives the user access to almost any aesthetic (albeit with some *reasonable compromises).

*These compromises include lower resolution (than a dedicated camera), moderate dynamic range, limited bit-depth, simulated depth-of-field effects, et cetera.

This contrast of experience between Film and Mobile accentuates the benefits of both: it bypasses the “better than” debate that “Film versus Digital” sometimes invites. If I can render the illustration this way, I would describe Film and Digital as countries that share a contested border. Film and Mobile, on the other hand, are trading partners that occupy different hemispheres.

The symbiosis of mobile and celluloid

Film and Mobile have long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. While this is an anecdotal observation, almost every film photographer I know uses an app as a fast and ready light meter or a photo journal.

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Most contemporary photographers publish through social media distribution channels that are largely produced and consumed on Mobile devices. It is not uncommon for photographers to curate and edit film (yes, it’s okay to edit film) on mobile-class devices like phones or tablets. Many consume educational material and articles about film culture (like those available on EMULSIVE) almost exclusively on mobile devices.

There are even a few examples where Mobile and Film intersect directly.

In 2013 Lomography attempted to sell a film scanning attachment for mobile phones. While it did not resonate with consumers at the time, a recent alternative sold by Kodak appears to be gaining traction. For those looking for an accessory-free scanning solution, the FilmLab app makes high quality “stacked” scans possible on mobile — for those with steady hands and ample free time.

Now on its third iteration, the Fujifilm Instax Share printer, which allows Mobile shooters to print their photos on Instax film, has proven to be a moderate success. Not to be left out, Polaroid has entered this market with a somewhat cruder, but charming alternative: the Polaroid Lab.

Mobile is catalyzing a revived interest in film

Mobile Photography is stimulating interest in the film aesthetic by simulating it.

Over the past 5 years, a new app category has exploded onto the market that simulates entry-level photography from the late 1980s through the early aughts. Apps like Huji, Gudak, Calla and others seek to recreate the output and shooting experience of these inexpensive plastic cameras.

Chromatic aberration, excessive grain, diffraction, muted palettes, color-cast shadows, light leaks (everything that photographers of that era ironically regarded as defects) are on full display here. While I want to be careful in assuming correlation, is it a coincidence that Film is now inducting younger shooters than Digital?

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The revival of instant photography owes much to the Mobile revolution. Instagram in particular, introduced hundreds of millions to a somewhat exaggerated form of the Polaroid aesthetic. Given the age demographics of most Instagram users, it is likely that most of them never had an opportunity to use instant film when it was a relevant commodity. But these filters had a transformative effect. Interest was generated on a colossal scale and the entire instant film category subsequently recovered — so dramatically that Polaroid itself was famously exhumed and reanimated thanks to a forward-looking acquisition in 2017. The story is even better for Fujifilm. Instax, not their digital camera division, is easily the brightest fiscal jewel in their crown.

Other apps like VSCO and Firstlight offer a suite of film simulations that are introducing a new generation of Mobile-native shooters to structural grain and sumptuous color palettes. As a Mobile camera app maker myself, I can attest that I bear no ill will toward film aficionados. I am one.

At Filmic, our motivation is not to divert interest from Kodak, Efke, ILFORD and others; it is to highlight a path thereto. If by using Filmic Firstlight, an individual falls in love with the film simulations enshrined within, a bridge will have been built between Mobile and Celluloid — and I hope that they cross it.

~ Chris

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