iphoneography

Good ➡️ Better: Food Photos by Simon Abrams

I recently had dinner with my wife and friends at a great restaurant in DUMBO, and like basically, everyone these days, I wanted to document the delicious food I was eating. For posterity, or whatever.

That night, I happened to have my fancy Fuji X100S with me, but as is often the case, it was just more convenient to use my iPhone. Here's a picture of my entree:

 Smoked Long Island duck with daikon radish, lavender, roasted apricot and duck jus

Smoked Long Island duck with daikon radish, lavender, roasted apricot and duck jus

It was the duck and it was delicious. You might even actually believe me, just from seeing that photo, but... let's just be clear, here: food photography is an art, and requires tons of skill and preparation, and at minimum, proper, balanced lighting to make it look good. It's really, absurdly easy to go from appetizing to nauseating when taking pictures of food, particularly with a mobile device, in dim restaurant lighting, which is one reason I rarely post my food shots on social media in the first place. Be realistic with your expectations, y'all.

That said, here are some steps you can take to set yourself up for success:

  • First things first: give your lens a wipe with the corner of your t-shirt before shooting. That's an easy win - your image will be much clearer if there's not a schmear of crap on the glass (that's photographer-speak for "lens").
  • Also, know your equipment. I'm shooting with an iPhone, and no disrespect to Tim and Jony, but iPhones (and most mobile devices) are happiest in bright sunlight, not the carefully curated ambience of a restaurant. Because of that, in low light situations, make sure to hold your phone as still as possible to avoid camera shake before tapping that shutter button.
  • Speaking of avoiding blur, make sure your subject is in focus. Soft edges on food = a pile of gross mush. On iPhone, tap to focus and expose a region of your scene; tap and hold to lock in those settings so you can recompose the shot if necessary. You can slide up or down on the screen to brighten or darken your image.
  • Lastly, composition is crucial. Frame your photo at an interesting angle, being sure to keep the clutter out of the frame, and create some depth.

Okay, now that I have my photo, as seen above, there are some basic tweaks to be made in my editing app of choice. If you have an iPhone, you can start with the built-in editing features in the Photos app (bonus: the edits you make will be synced with iCloud, so you can call continue to edit in Photos app on the desktop or other iOS devices).

 Tap here to edit! 

Tap here to edit! 

One of the first things to do is boost the exposure of the image. Almost any image can benefit from a little pop of exposure and/or contrast. Be judicious, though.

The Photos app tries to automatically help you out by offering a "Light" slider that, in many cases will figure out the right combination of exposure, brightness, shadow  and highlight tweaks to make your image look good. Just by moving that slider to the right, I'm already in a better place than where I started.

IMG_2673.PNG

I could stop here, but there's still room for improvement. By tapping the list icon on the right, I can edit individual properties of the image, and have more fine-grained control. Awesome. 

IMG_2674.PNG

Indoor lights — usually incandescent — can make everything yellow, which isn't great for food photos. A quick tweak to the white-balance, or color cast, under the Color slider,  should help.

IMG_2675.PNG

So here we are, just using the built-in tools that come with iOS:

FullSizeRender.jpg

Again, miles better than where we started. Now, because I'm a fancy photographer-dude, I sometimes like to go beyond the default tools in iOS, and use one of the myriad editing apps that are available in the App Store. One of my favorites is Lightroom Mobile, because of its advanced editing tools and desktop-syncing features (the app is free on iOS/Android, but a Creative Cloud subscription is required for syncing and some of the editing tools). Snapseed, free on iOS and Android from Google, is also a fine choice.

 Lightroom Mobile's interface

Lightroom Mobile's interface

Here's where I ended up, after correcting the white-balance, performing a Curves adjustment and cropping out some of the distracting highlights on the bottom of the plate: 

I also messed around with the hue and saturation of some of the individual colors. Another thing to remember is that, much like a skilled chef cooking a meal would never use every spice in their cabinet, we must resist the temptation to be heavy-handed and use every slider available when editing our photos. Less is very often more.

Anyway, still not quite ready for Bon Appétit, and there's certainly areas that could be improved, but I think it's way more share-worthy than before. And before you ask, yes, I did snap a quick shot of my caramelized banana dessert:

So there you have it: while you probably still won't get hired as a food photographer based solely on tweaks like the ones I've made here, these simple steps you can take to get your food pictures from Good ➡️  Better.

Moment by Simon Abrams

I got a nice little surprise when I got home today - the new Moment Wide lens and Photo Case that I backed on Kickstarter arrived in the mail today, rather than on Saturday, as i was expecting.

 Moment Photo Case, Moment Wide Lens (V2) and Moment Tele (V1 with adapter) 

Moment Photo Case, Moment Wide Lens (V2) and Moment Tele (V1 with adapter) 

IMG_2406.JPG

I've only just gotten this kit, so I don't have much of to say in terms of performance yet. I do like the new case - it's slim, and textured on the back, which gives it a bit of grippiness. Once the lens is attached, though, the added weight tweaks the balance of the phone a little, and could make it a somewhat spill-prone. The case does have a spot to attach a wrist or neck strap—several styles of which are available for purchase on Moment's online store—which is something I might consider getting. 

 The V1 Tele lens with the adapter

The V1 Tele lens with the adapter

One other thing: my first-gen Tele lens never fit well on the Moment case I got for my iPhone 6. It always seemed like it was on the verge of falling off, since it never locked into place, but rather kept spinning, as though the bayonet mount was stripped. Luckily, the new adapter that came with my Kickstarter reward (also available at the Moment store, for $5), was easy to attach and provides a nice, firm connection to the case. 

 

 Shot with Moment Wide, V2 on iPhone 7

Shot with Moment Wide, V2 on iPhone 7

I'm looking forward to spending some time with these two lenses, and will definitely post again with updates once I've had a chance to do that. 

The Big VSCO Cam™ 2 Review by Simon Abrams

Last summer, I wrote a review of the first release of Visual Supply Company's fantastic VSCO Cam app, so I thought I'd follow up with a review of the newly released - and newly free (with-in-app-purchases) VSCO Cam™ app.

Apologies in advance for the length of this review - I know I got a little wordy here. The fact is, every time I was about to wrap this up, I thought of something else to say, which should be an indication of the depth of this seemingly simple app. And in case you hadn't figured it out by now, I'm a huge fan. There are still some interface quirks, but in many ways, the app is a substantial improvement over the original, and for the first time, something other than Camera+ has taken the number one spot in my iPhone's dock.

The camera view in VSCO Cam, with the square guide and split focus and exposure reticules.

Shooting

Shooting is pretty standard in VSCO Cam. Like the original app, it's designed for shooting images in succession, and editing them after the fact, as opposed to apps like Instagram, which force you to shoot, then edit and share before being able to shoot again.

New in this version of the app are advanced shooting modes. Tapping anywhere on the screen with two fingers splits the focus reticule into distinct focus and exposure locks, as is possible in apps like Camera+. Double-tap on the screen to re-unite the two reticules.

The shutter is triggered by tapping anywhere within the grey area surrounding the camera icon (other than the thumbnail of the most recent image, which opens up the app's photo library). If that's not a big enough target, there's also a button in the camera settings that toggles "big button" mode, allowing you to tap anywhere on entire screen to trigger the shutter.

There are a few other nice additions to the camera settings: on-screen guides that divide the screen into the either the standard rule-of-thirds grid, or into a square composition, which is nice for previewing how your image is going to look on Instagram.

There's also a low-light setting, which, when enabled, allows the app to take advantage of the iPhone 5's high ISO mode, and a button to enable the use of the LED flash. Finally, there's a white balance lock that lets you lock in the white balance of your subject, then recompose and shoot.

I noticed an intermittent bug when shooting where the photo sometimes gets auto-rotated to landscape mode. I couldn't reliably reproduce that bug, but it seems like it may have been occurring if the iPhone was tilted forward beyond a certain angle. Hopefully, this is something that gets fixed in an update.

Editing

The presets in VSCO Cam are what set it apart from the multitude of other camera apps out there. This makes sense, because the careful emulation of classic film looks is literally Visual Supply Company's bread and butter, in the form of their flagship VSCO Film presets for Aperture and Lightroom.

The new version of the mobile app sports a very nice, diverse selection of free presets that many users could be perfectly happy with. Those seeking a greater variety of looks, however, can tap over to the new store, where a wealth of additional preset bundles, which are available via in-app purchase, for the very reasonable sum of .99¢ per bundle. The store is nicely presented, too - each bundle has a very useful descriptions of the of the types of images they're best suited to, as well as sample images which illustrate the look of each preset. This is a huge improvement over the trial-and-error approach of the previous incarnation of the app.

There are currently a total of 48 presets; they can be filtered by category, such as "black & white", "portrait" or "vivid"; or alternatively, they can be sorted by "popular" and "recent", making them easier to browse through and pick from.

To get to edit mode, tap the edit icon - it's the one with the little paintbrush and wrench on (or double-tap a photo's thumbnail). This brings up the preset menu (don't forget to swipe from the right to see additional presets, which could be easy to miss). Each preset's button now shows a tiny preview of what the effect will look like on your photo.

Slide up from the bottom of the screen, or tap the little arrow below the presets, to reveal additional editing options. Tapping on the wrench icon brings up the Toolkit, which allows you to do things like color-correct, crop, sharpen, tint, add a vignette, and adjust shadows and highlights; while tapping on the paintbrush icon brings you back to the presets. Tapping the third icon repeatedly steps backwards through the edits that have been made to the photo in the current edit session (that is, before you hit the Done button), and the last button is the "bring me back to the original photo" button, aka the nuclear option.

One of my issues with the original app was that it took forever to export full-resolution images to the camera roll. Well, there's good and bad news on that front. The good news, I'm happy to say, is that there have been exponential performance improvements in this version of the app - saving to the camera roll is blazing fast, as is sharing to the various social sites like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Weibo (another great feature: you can choose which of these services show up in the Sharing menu via an option in the app's preferences). The bad news is that I experienced several nasty crashes requiring a hard reset of my iPhone when epxporting more than a handful of photos at a time - another issue which will hopefully be addressed soon.

Using the App

Using the app is a lot of fun. As I was taking notes for this review on the subway, I actually spotted a fellow passenger using the app, and when I asked him about his impressions, he said he was obsessed - he just couldn't stop playing with it. And a woman on the train who overheard us gushing about it later tapped me and asked me for the name of the app and downloaded it on the spot as soon as the train emerged from the tunnel and cellular service returned.

In addition to the beautiful presets at the heart of VSCO Cam, the numerous other details, like the ability to rearrange your presets, or to set your preferred licensing options for your photos (all rights reserved, or creative commons) are a testament to the thought the developers put into this offering. Then there are the filtering options for your Library - tap to display only edited or flagged images. (It would have been nice to have a "not edited" or an "exported" option as well.) Finally, there's the Discover section, which is full of videos, articles, and tutorials for inspiration.

The app's only (minor) drawback might be its interface. It looks really nice, and you can tell that a lot of thought went into the visual design of the user interface elements. However, those pretty icons take a little getting used to, since they don't look like the standard camera app icons we're all familiar with. And though the mini previews that accompany each preset button are definitely appreciated, the color-coding within each bundle of presets seem a tiny bit arbitrary, and doesn't give any indication of what you might want to use those presets for. Also, from editing mode, it takes at least three taps to get back to camera mode - it would be nice to have a faster way to get shooting again.

It also took a little while for me to remember that the X icons are used for returning to previous menus, rather than for deleting images. Then again, when an image is selected in the Library, a trashcan icon (that does delete the selected image or images) appears right where the camera icon used to be. That could be seen as poor interface design (or I could just slow down a little when using the app).

Again, I consider these drawbacks to be fairly minor, after a week of using the app, I've already pretty much gotten over them.

 VSCO Grid

VSCO Grid

VSCO Grid

One of the biggest and most ambitious new features added to VSCO Cam is no less than a publishing platform. That's right - the good people at Visual Supply Company had the gumption to develop a "minimalist publishing platform", as they describe it, and toss it in along with the new version of their app. They state pretty clearly that they're not trying to be a new Instagram (in fact they actively encourage sharing to that platform). Instead, VSCO Grid is a stripped-down venue for curating, publishing and discovering beautiful photography. It's not available to everyone right away (in fact, I'm still compulsively checking my email for my activation notice), since they're still working on ensuring that the platform will scale properly with heavy usage.

Conclusion

My minor gripes aside, there's a whole lot to like about this app. It's available for iOS only, and there's currently a huge launch sale on all of the 48 of the available presets for $5.99 (which is around 70% off of the price you'd pay if you bought each bundle separately). Additionally, if you were a user of the original VSCO Cam app, and you ran the last available update of that app, you got a nice little gift of the original presets for use in the new version of the app.

Get it now; highly recommended.

Northern Spy Food Co. by Simon Abrams

northern-food-spy-portrait

My wife and I made a visit to the always awesome Highline Park yesterday, where I made this portrait of the young sandwich artist (artisan?) who hooked up our excellent grilled cheese sandwiches at the Northern Spy Food Co.’s Highline outpost. Like many other photographers, it’s an ongoing goal of mine to shoot more portraits of strangers, so this was a small step in that direction for me. Sadly, I neglected to get my subject’s name — definitely a rookie move on my part.

Incidentally, the sandwiches were slowly crafted and went well with the gazpacho we shared. Gazpacho is one of those things that’s never my first choice, but when I do have it, I enjoy it immensely. We finished our meal off with a tasty treat from L’Arte del Gelato across the way. Delicioso!

One last note: I made my diptych above with Tych Panel, which was recently updated for compatibility with Photoshp CS6. For the unfamiliar, Tych Panel is a fantastic extension for Photoshop that allows you to easily create n-tychs from a group of photographs. I highly recommend it.

VSCO CAM: App Review by Simon Abrams

VSCO CAM

A friend of mine hipped me to an amazing set of plugins for Lightroom, Photoshop and Aperture called VSCO Film. The point of these plugins is to very carefully and precisely emulate the look of classic film in your high-end photography, and I think they do so really well.

Visual Supply Company, the folks who make VSCO Film have just released their first iOS app, VSCO CAM, which aims to bring the same high-quality film photography emulation to your iPhone. I know that the market for apps that make your iPhone photos look like they were shot in 1974 is pretty saturated, but VSCO CAM is different - in general, the effects just seem to feel more timeless and less heavy-handed than what a lot of other apps produce.

The app itself is very minimal. It works sort of the same way Camera+ does, in that you can shoot continuously, and your photos get saved in a “lightbox” holding area until you’re ready to process and/or save them to your Camera Roll, or share them to a handful of external services, including the usual suspects like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Once you’re ready to edit, there are ten preset filters to choose from - three black and white, and seven color filters. (It took me a couple of days to realize that there were, in fact, ten filters, because there’s no indication that you can swipe to the right and find the five additional filters that aren’t visible on the initial editing screen.) Once you’ve chosen a filter, you can stop right there and save or share your photo, or you can refine the photo further by clicking on the little wrench and screwdriver icon to adjust various settings, including contrast, grain, saturation, temperature, and one that’s unique to VSCO CAM: fade. (Again, swipe to the right from the settings screen to find additional items you can adjust.)

Saving images took a really, really long time.

My one complaint with the app is how long it takes to save your processed images. On my way to work, I selected about 14 images that I had edited the night before,  and chose to save them to my iPhone 4’s Camera Roll at full resolution. I started the operation right as I was getting into the subway station near my house in Brooklyn and it wasn’t done until I was almost all the way over the Manhattan Bridge - that’s a solid 20 minutes at least, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Brooklyn. The progress bar that appears when you’re saving more than one image is not very responsive, so I almost force-quit the app a few times, thinking that it had crashed.

Overall, the experience of using the app is clean and minimal. With judicious application of the presets and settings, the photos that VSCO CAM produces really do capture that classic film feeling. The slow output ws the only thing that marred the experience for me - hopefully this is something the developers can optimize in an update to the app.