There's the occasional hue and cry raised about how technology is ruining us: how we relate, how we think, how we live. I'd like to pull back a little and suggest that if we can use technology as a tool without losing sight of what we're aiming for—true community, thoughtful dialogue, a life characterized by holiness and love—technology can help us with these aims. And out of all of the technology available to us, there’s one in particular I’d like to reframe, as it’s small but ubiquitous: cell phone photography.
I've owned a decent DSLR  camera long before I got my iPhone. The DSLR is a great piece of photographic technology, but I would only pull it out once in a while to shoot around in an afternoon. As you can imagine, I don't have it at my hip all moments of my day for practical reasons. My iPhone, I do. Since I almost always have it with me, this meant that I do carry a camera around most of the time, and consequently, I took more pictures, as most everyone with iPhones do.
[A foggy night in Long Beach. Didn't have my DSLR for this one.]
This fact is quite often bemoaned. Cell phone photography is decried as unconcerned with aesthetics, as most people are intent on capturing or documenting personal experiences—moments with friends, special occasions, their lunch. This often results in images that are mostly uninteresting (or only interesting to those who are personally connected to the photo.)  That is, until Instagram came along. All of a sudden, quite bland photos became charming with a little effort. People started noticing the aesthetics of their photos. Instagram (and other similar photo editing apps) provided ready-made image editing that helped people be more deliberate about the visual mood of their photos. I wouldn’t go as far to say it was born here, but the category of visually delightful snapshot photos seemed to gather momentum. Taking a photo with a cell phone went from mere utility to consciousness of photography proper—from being an extension of (or replacement for) memory, to an act of considered visual articulation. Sure, applying a filter or moody blur may be setting the bar low, but it does, nonetheless, show that cell phone photographers began to at least pay attention to the aesthetics of the image.
What’s important in experiencing or practicing visual art at any level, novice or experienced, is seeing well. The ability to recognize the particularity of what we’re seeing is visual mindfulness. Then we can start asking why and how it is beautiful or ugly, or emotionally resonant, or evocative, or provocative, or unsettling, or comforting; we start to understand how it is affecting us, or those around us. And one of the main ways to practice visual mindfulness is to put things in a frame. In one sense, we already do this. We can’t take in everything all at once, so we focus on some things while ignoring others. By thinking about directing your visual focus through a frame, you can learn to see better. Visual experiences become anchored; they are articulated through selective framing.
Art starts by putting limits around something. With photography, the frame is literal: it's that 2D rectangular plane you hold in your hands. It provides you a way to focus on what you are seeing and how you are seeing it. When you photograph something, you isolate and focus. You are taking something that you experience with your full body, in three dimensions, with all your senses, and then translating that into a visual experience on a limited flat plane. It's easy to assume that photography (or other sorts of recording technology) can capture things "just as they are" since they offer a level of precise representation that takes much more time and skill if it's done by the human hand. This is false. No matter the technology, the representation is distorted by some sort of filter. The lens itself physically distorts the image  by just the very way it handles (refracts) light rays. More importantly, the choice by the photographer to frame this or that particular thing is already a translation, an act of framing. Every time you photograph something, you make visual choices. You translate your experience of the world into a selective and limited image, even if you aren't aware of it.
So here's my suggestion: Be more aware. Don’t be ashamed of taking photos with your cell phone, but do it seriously. Here are a few things that I’ve found helpful for taking cell phone pictures:
Be anti-social (just for a moment). Much of the focus on apps like Instagram and others like it is social sharing. Ignore that function for a moment (or permanently), and just focus on making the image. Deliberately eliminating the audience transfers the focus in your photo from “what do I want to show other people?” to “what is intriguing me?”
Create images for your own reflection. Think about what is attracting you to the particular thing you are focusing on. Hunt for it. Don’t be satisfied with just capturing what it is—see if you can capture how you see what it is. Work for it. When it seems like it’s not working, play with:
Composition: What are the major shapes that fill the frame, and how are they arranged? How do they interact with each other—do they create lines, do they repeat, do they imply a direction? Do their sizes contrast, or are they the same?
[This was more about the subtle gradient of whites to grays than stark contrasts.]
Light: Should it be lighter? Darker? Where is the light coming from? Are there strong areas of light and dark; strong or light contrast? How does that affect the overall mood?
[Teal and yellow, with brown playing a supportive role.]
Color: Are there many different colors? Can you limit the amount of colors in the frame to provide more focus? How are the colors working together? How do the colors affect the mood of the image?(Sometimes eliminating color altogether—going black and white—will help with the first two.)
[The Mayfair filter helped black out the silouhette of the tree.]
Filters: Since this is, in part, a defense of Instagram, here’s a way to thoughtfully approach filters and other photo editing tools: use it as a way to accentuate what most compelled you about the image in the first place. Is it the way the light is hitting that particular surface? Perhaps use a high-contrast filter to up the drama. Is it the strong color contrast of different objects? Don’t use a filter that turns it all murky, try one that brings out the color.
Sometimes, a phone camera is just not going to cut it. It is, after all, a pretty limited camera. It’s not going to take photo like an SLR, and it shouldn’t be your exclusive way to practice photography. What I am saying is that just as writing helps make you a better thinker, working things out in a visual medium will help you be a better see-er (and thinker too, for that matter).
So I would like to reconsider, and possibly redeem, the phone camera as a viable tool for intentional and thoughtful image-making. Those practicing photography most likely know this already, but I want people who have never considered themselves as photographers to think more like one. It’s likely that you are already armed with a camera in your phone, and not much skill is required to operate it. Just about anyone can do it, and it’s constantly available. With these factors, you have the opportunity to develop a habit of being visually mindful. It’s true that sometimes, when we whip out our cell phone to record a moment, we often distract ourselves from the actual, in-the-moment experience, or worse, ignore the people we're with. This is not intentional living; it is careless, and can be rude. However, being visually mindful is a facet of the thoughtful life. Being aware of the ways that our visual experience can impact us is good stewardship of our sense of sight. And technology that is readily available to us can help us: with it, learn to really see what’s around you. Use your camera phone to be more attuned to the aesthetics of your surroundings. Let’s embrace tools, but always keep in mind that tools are for something, and can help get you closer to things themselves.
[I love that mug.]
1DSLR - Digital Single Lens Reflex: those big cameras with the big lenses
2The images used in internet memes are probably a strange exception. A photo, usually poorly shot from a technical and aesthetic viewpoint, becomes immensely interesting to thousands, millions, of people. Funny, that.
3To see how the lends by itself distorts the image, see this interesting side-by-side comparison: http://gizmodo.com/5857279/this-is-how-lenses-beautify-or-uglify-your-pretty-face