No photographic experiment is a failure

Cutting the grass

While this is certainly not a great photograph, it is important in my development as a photographer. Because it was an experiment.

I had paused in my mowing, and the scene looked interesting. So I got my iPhone out of my pocket and opened the camera app. I’ve left it set on square format lately, so I went with it for this shot. I moved around the scene for several seconds looking for good framing. When I thought I’d found it I touched the shutter button.

It’s not everything I thought it could be. I hoped the uncut portion of the grass would stand out more. I hoped for a greater foreshortening effect on the mower’s handlebar. I wish I had turned the phone slightly so the top edge of the uncut grass was parallel to the frame’s top edge. And in the original image the mower body would have been better placed on a rule-of-thirds intersection. I cropped slightly to achieve it.

I’ve made a lot of photographs over the last ten years or so. Early on each photo I made was tinged with the fear of a bad frame.

Now I know I was overthinking each shot. Because when I got my first phone with a passable camera I soon realized I could take photos anytime, anywhere, essentially for free. Suddenly I didn’t have to worry anymore about a bad frame. And so I began photographing anything that seemed remotely interesting.

Snow-covered Caddy

This snow-covered Caddy was an early (2010!) experiment with my old Palm Pre’s camera. It’s not a truly great image, and it reveals some of that camera’s limitations. Yet I liked it. Still do. It encouraged me to keep experimenting.

By remaining devoted to such free experimentation I’ve been able to relax when the photography isn’t free, and when I really want it to count: when I drop film into one of my vintage cameras. There are two reasons.

First, through phone camera experimentation I’ve learned a lot of things that don’t work. So my success rate is higher.

And second, I’ve learned to relax. A bad image is no big deal, not really, even when I’m shooting something expensive like Impossible Project instant film and each photo costs me $3.

Every experiment moves me forward. I examine each photo as critically as I can. I try to emulate what I admire in others’ work. I try to take away something I’ll do differently next time.

How have you gotten better as a photographer?


People say that the best camera is the one you have with you, but I don’t go all the way in on that.

The camera I always have with me is my iPhone, first a 5 and now a 6s. Both have been fine for everyday snapshots — far better than any snapshot camera I owned even 10 years ago. I’ve even used them to take some pleasing artistic photos. But I muff one in 10 shots because they’re hard to hold steady. And the images go blotchy when I zoom in close. Also, their angle of view (about 60°) is too wide for the close work I like to do.

But before I go to work each morning I step into my garden to see what’s bloomed since yesterday. I pull my iPhone out of my pocket, snap a fresh bloom, and text it to Margaret for a quick morning smile.

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That’s what your phone’s camera is brilliant at: instantly sharing images of what you’re seeing and doing right now.

How useful! Margaret likes to grab selfies of us when we’re out and about to record the day’s memory. While we were in New York City earlier this year, I took several snaps with my iPhone to share on Facebook and to email to my mom in realtime. And when I come upon an old car parked, I pull out my phone and shoot the car from every angle so I can later write about the car for Curbside Classic.

I’ve read articles that wring their hands over how legions of photos on our phones will be lost because we don’t properly label and archive them. I’m not sure it matters for most of these of-the-moment photos. They’re much like these flowers: beautiful for the moment, but soon withered and fallen and swept away by the wind.


Beautiful for the moment, but soon withered and fallen and swept away by the wind


Sunrise over the Speedway

Sunrise over the Speedway station
iPhone 5

While waiting at a stoplight, I stuck my phone through my car’s sunroof to photograph this.


1932 Standard Station

1932 Standard station
iPhone 5

I’m planning our Spring Break vacation, so I’ve been thinking about past trips, like the one we took in 2013 along Route 66.



iPhone skies

I use my iPhone more than any other camera. I took 1,150 photos with it in 2014. It’s always ready to record things I’d like to remember.

One of my favorite things to remember is the sky. Or so it turns out: looking through my iPhone photos, I captured it over and over again. Many of my other cameras would capture the sky’s colors more sensitively and accurately, but I don’t carry them around in my front pocket at all times.

Sunrise brought wonderful color one winter morning. I photographed it from the parking lot at work.


My Thursday mornings usually involve driving to Fishers to drop off my sons, and a stop for coffee on the way to work. I’m not a coffee snob: McDonald’s drive-through works for me. Black, with light ice so not to scald my tongue.


My 40-mile Thursday-morning drives show me a lot of sky. My iPhone is always plugged into my car stereo to provide the driving soundrack, so it’s easy to take a quick through-the-windshield shot when I’m stopped, such as at this stoplight in Carmel.


Heading home one evening from Zionsville, I took this sunset photo through my open window while waiting at a light.


I forget where I took this photo, but the skies were sure purple that evening. The spots on the photo are schmutz or dings on the tiny iPhone lens.


I discovered one overcast morning that the Department of Public Works had installed our Michigan Road Historic Byway signs along the route here in Indianapolis. Here’s one of the signs at the Michigan Road intersection nearest my home. More about this on Monday, so stay tuned.


I stepped out of my front door one night to find this scene. The iPhone isn’t great in low light, but it did at least capture the image. If you click the photo to see at it at full resolution, you’ll see how mottled and blotchy it is.


The sky was pink and blue one evening as I left work in November. Our office faces I-465; cars whiz by all day.



Captured: Stained glass, Logansport City Hall

Stained glass, Logansport City Hall

I was in Logansport recently for a quarterly board meeting of the Historic Michigan Road Association. We met at City Hall, where we honored Michigan Road historian Juanita Hunter. Juanita, who is in her 90s now, spent her early retirement years traveling the road with her husband, taking photographs and documenting the road’s stories. Her work is on file at the Indiana Historical Society.

After Logansport mayor Ted Franklin proclaimed it Juanita Hunter Day in Logansport, we continued with our normal agenda and even had a little lunch together. I wish now I’d photographed Juanita as well as this beautiful stained glass that makes up much of the ceiling on the City Hall’s top floor.


See Logansport at twilight here.