Nothing to Write Home About

I’m not a photographer, but somehow I find myself carrying at least two cameras at any given time: an iPhone camera and either a point & shoot or, more recently, a digital SLR. The latter two are intentional tools—I carry them with the intention of recording something (or hoping something photoworthy will happen). But the iPhone camera is unintentional—its presence is purely circumstantial.

But more and more, I find myself reaching for the iPhone instead of a proper camera. It’s not that the iPhone camera is smaller, more impressive, or even more fun to use. Upon a quick examination of my photos, it seems that it’s not about the camera at all—the contents of my photos themselves are changing.

An unscientific look at just under 12 weeks of my photos revealed the following:

Breakdown of photo contents
Number of photos of people: 46
Number of photos of animals: 93
Number of photos of environments: 112
Number of photos of documents, labels, and signs: 36

I’m taking more photos than ever before, and a large majority are of text. Not people, scenes, animals, or architecture, but standard, inanimate, black-and-white text. And 94% of my text-based photos are taken with the iPhone.

Percentage taken with cameraphone
Number of photos of people: 46 (0% taken with cameraphone)
Number of photos of animals: 93 (17% taken with cameraphone)
Number of photos of environments: 112 (32% taken with cameraphone)
Number of photos of documents, labels, signs: 36 (94% taken with cameraphone)

What seems to be happening is that the iPhone is not taking the place of my other cameras, but instead taking the place of writing. I’m choosing to photograph things where I once wrote them down.

Once, things were so simple.

A gazillion years ago, the average person only needed to make a decision about whether or not to document something. With the advent of consumer-level photography and then digital photography, the choice became between writing and photographs. But the ubiquity of cameraphones has further splintered the once-simple choice.

Appropriate fidelity becomes the decision point, not whether or not to document.

Each camera has become a different type of documentation tool. The digital SLR is used for art: it’s the camera I use intentionally. The photos themselves, therefore, tend to be of people and places—framed shots. The point & shoot is much the same—but for situations where quality is not important. The cameraphone, though, has become a documentation tool (albeit a recognized camera in its own right). It’s only purpose is to photograph signs, labels, URLs, and other text-based items to record for further investigation.

Perhaps the user experience of the iPhone has made this difference more perceptible. Or perhaps I’m just too busy multi-tasking to write things down. But I suspect something else is happening. At a time where penmanship classes are disappearing, and people see their handwriting is deteriorating, the cameraphone has stepped in to fill the void. And it’s clear, when it comes to documentation over art, the quality of the photo just doesn’t matter.