How to Become an iPhone Photography Pro
Smartphone technology is enabling photographers to discover and illuminate hidden pieces of Pittsburgh. Here’s how they do it — and how you can start.
Photo by Ted Anthony
In Pittsburgh, it’s not hard to find things to look at. Dramatic things. Fascinating things. Impressive things. Hills with sheer drops and magnificent steps to ascend them. Tucked-away neighborhoods. People as varied and unique as the experiences that brought them here. A skyline that is the envy of any visitor who has driven through the Fort Pitt Tunnel at night and been smacked in the face by a shimmering city.
I’m a native who left for two decades and then returned. What do I see when I look at Pittsburgh? Pieces, tiny fragments — distinctive bits of the world that suggest the larger city and community but rarely reveal it in its diverse entirety.
Like the two lonely tombstones atop a hill overlooking Etna. Like the orphaned sign for Charles Ung’s Tea Garden in East Liberty, which has outlived the Chinese restaurant it touted by more than a decade. Like the dials and gauges from postwar stoves salvaged for reuse at Construction Junction in Point Breeze and the silhouette of the figure walking a tightrope at the entrance to the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland. All are captured on urban safari — through a tiny lens attached to, of all things, my phone.
Photo by Jennifer Baron
These are hidden secrets I would have missed had it not been for the iPhone I’ve carried in my left hip pocket since the week in 2007 when I became a Pittsburgher again.
In the days since the smartphone arrived in our lives, this much is clear: We have become a generation of visual interpreters, clutching our digital appendages and capturing pieces of our world — and, more recently, sharing them frantically and enthusiastically with anyone who will look. Millions upon millions do. On platforms such as Instagram, we are showing each other our lives like never before.
If you want to observe Pittsburgh as you’ve never seen it, join the movement. Notice the everyday in front of you and aim your phone camera. The shot doesn’t have to be great. Not right away. Just figure out your visual voice and keep snapping away.
Photo by Ted Anthony
You can also download Instagram for free, opening a world of imagery. Search for “#pittsburgh” or “#pgh.” Yes, you’ll see all kinds of random shots — a glut of people’s “selfies,” snapshots of Terrible Towels in various states of agitation, diners photographing their Smiley cookies at Eat’n Park.
Look closer. There is gold to be found.
Look at the feed of Instagram user @thestreetpharoah and his deliberately overexposed image of Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill, which turns the familiar into an exotic landscape. Check out @imjust’s funhouse image of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, which looks like a cross between a landmark in Oz and a vision from a very elaborate Dr. Seuss book. Or pause to contemplate @artteach18’s simple, stark photograph of the Cathedral of Learning as seen through a bare tree’s branches, forcing us to look at the familiar Pittsburgh differently
Photo by Ted Anthony
It is unsurprising, perhaps, that the city that gave us Andy Warhol, who turned fragments into a kind of art that no one had seen before, would be so friendly to a photographic discipline that helps us capture our community in different and unexpected pieces.
Try the Hipstamatic app, with “lenses” and “films” that make the Roberto Clemente Bridge look like something out of 1969, 1935 or even 1880. Download LoMob or Phototoaster, which can turn your snaps of Polish Hill into the best thing since Kodachrome slides. Try ShakeIt Photo, a straightforward app that turns your visions of western Pennsylvania into vibrant, square instant photos like those from the Polaroid cameras that captured many childhoods in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Shoot upward at the South Side Slopes. Ride the Gateway Clipper past Station Square and capture the U.S. Steel Tower against the clear blue sky. Or discover that Liberty Avenue manhole cover and that Cheswick smokestack in the late-afternoon light.
Photo by Val Angell
Pittsburghers with phone cameras are hungry amateurs and experimental professionals who trudge up hills, poke through brush and peek behind buildings — both shiny and old. We wade into mud and sometimes into river water. We use our gadgets as an extra eye, one that helps us notice stuff. We capture our surroundings — the fragments of our lives — with a little gadget broadly intended to help us talk to each other. We are, of course, communicating. We’re just not using words.
Those of us who photograph places with a telephone are casting around for something, I suppose, even if we don’t realize it. We are trying to figure out what our community is and what it means to call this place our own. We are capturing scattered fragments and fleeting moments that build upon one another. Together, we’re building a collage — a phone-wielding, screen-tapping, filter-applying collage as varied as the patchwork quilt that is Pittsburgh. Left to our own devices, we are mapping home.
How to take great phone photos
Borrowing from the great director, search for oblique angles. Get on the ground and turn your phone so the lens is as low as possible. Then get a panorama shot from a worm’s-eye view. Go to the peak of the highest hill in your neighborhood and aim downward. Shoot through a fence, through stained glass, through a rainy window.
The smartphone camera’s fixed lens — not quite wide-angle and certainly not a zoom, except in a digital sense — lends itself to breaking down a big scene into components. This can make for interesting interpretations of the world and great abstract shots. Try shooting parts of a car, house or tree for practice. Pieces of faces can also be intriguing. When it comes to Pittsburgh itself, try depicting detail on a building or the tops of trees peeking over slopes. A disembodied foot coming into the frame, an oddly shaped piece of a neon sign, a reflection in mirrored sunglasses — these all tell stories in fragments that would be different if you took in the whole image.
Adopt a child's view
Lower angles can help reframe perspective and create looming figures, which makes for powerful imagery.
Get up early or wait for the evening light
Colors are deepest and shadows most powerful when the sun is low in the sky. Some of the best photo opportunities are during those moments.
Photo by Clif Page
Look for contrasts
Pittsburgh has many glass buildings that reflect old stone structures opposite them. Try capturing those in one frame. Add punch to your images by photographing things that don’t quite belong together, such as bright purple flowers on a bar balcony at PNC Park with home plate and the diamond in the background.
iPhone photographer Clif Page says extreme close-ups force you to look at the world in unexpected ways. Don’t get too close — unless you’re looking for a blurry effect. Smartphone cameras start to blur if you’re less than a couple inches from your subject.
Use the sky as a frame
Find a viewpoint in which your subject is set against a clear blue sky.
Seek out the everyday
iPhone photographer Val Angell uses her phone camera to ensure she notices her surroundings. Everyday items hiding in plain sight can be your best subjects.
Download free photo apps and experiment until you find effects that fit your style. Then purchase a few paid apps that are even better. Some recommendations: Hipstamatic, Lo-Mob, PhotoToaster, PictureShow, TtV PS, Snapseed and Camera+. Photogene and Adobe Photoshop Touch are great all-around photo-editing apps. TiltShift offers blurring effects that simulate the depth of field available in more expensive cameras.
Where to take great phone photos
Hills and valleys
Etna, Millvale, Troy Hill, Polish Hill and the South Side Slopes — not to mention Mount Washington — are prime Pittsburgh locations for phone photography because they make it easy to capture the vertical, given differing altitudes.
Graveyards remain great fodder for photography, with the monument art and the many human stories they contain. Consider a “photo safari” to Lawrenceville’s iconic Allegheny Cemetery, which has lots of Pittsburgh history in one place. Or find an old cemetery.
Our city’s abundant outdoor staircases are perfect subjects unto themselves. Plus, photographing them offers a way to quickly change your point of view. Try shooting the same angle repeatedly as you ascend steps and see how the shots turn out.
“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”
Tightly packed houses on many Pittsburgh streets make for great visuals. Try walking down a side street in Bloomfield or McKees Rocks and focus on an object — a mailbox or a fire hydrant — while using clusters of homes as a background. Or, if you can find a bird’s-eye view of a neighborhood, photograph a street as if it were assembled from the miniature toy houses in the “Mister Rogers'” opening credits.
Photo by Jennifer Baron
City of Champions
After a Pirates, Penguins or Steelers victory, take up position outside the stadium and ask passersby if you may photograph them as part of a series of fan portraits. Get close and start snapping shots of their faces.
Pick a building — any building
Pittsburgh is replete with structures that are visually fascinating and open to the public. For example, it’s possible to spend an entire day photographing the Cathedral of Learning, inside and out.
Advertising signs — old neon ones in particular, such as motel or retro restaurant signs — offer an easy way to create visually arresting imagery. U.S. Routes 22 and 30 both include sections near Pittsburgh with aging signage. Be careful, though: Get out of your car in a safe place and don’t trespass.
Yes, it’s a cliché, but there are still original images to be gathered from atop Pittsburgh’s most famous vantage point. Consider it a challenge: Go up to Mount Washington with your smartphone and promise yourself you won’t come down until you find a completely new way of looking at your city.
Three accomplished local iPhoneographers share stories and tips. Each of these Pittsburghers had a strong relationship with photography before turning to the smartphone, and each is using the device now to explore new photographic frontiers.
Photo by Val Angell
iPhone Photographer Profile: Val Angell
@valangell on Instagram
One day in late 2011, shortly after getting her new iPhone 4, Val Angell of Squirrel Hill was downloading apps and happened upon Instagram. Now, the combination of her smartphone camera and the ability to share its images has changed two things in her life: the way she interacts with her family and the way she interacts with Pittsburgh.
Angell, 39, a West Virginia native and occasional contract photographer who moved to Pittsburgh 14 years ago, wanders the confines of her “very walkable neighborhood” and beyond on extended walks with her 4-year-old son Michael and their dog — and, often, her husband and stepchildren, too. She has watched her family’s commitment to noticing the everyday contours of their community grow because of a shared interest in smartphone images.
First, her husband Greg, a cyclist, started taking photos on his rides. One day, she suggested her stepdaughter Lucy, 10, start shooting things as well. “Half the things she had on my camera were things I never noticed,” Angell says. Lucy is constantly crouching or standing on tiptoes, seeking all sorts of oblique angles for snapshots. Angell’s stepson Walter, 7, wants to start shooting smartphone photos.
Even Michael is getting in on the action. At a parade, he asked her to sit on the sidewalk with him. Suddenly a new vantage point for her iPhone photography was born.
“It was fascinating,” she says. “I never considered things from his point of view. But the world’s super cool from 2 feet high.”
The family is currently engaged in a vast show-and-tell game, making all efforts to notice the world around them and live in the moment.
“I wanted to show the kids there’s something interesting to see everywhere,” Angell says. “You just have to connect them to things. It’s not enough to be where you are. You have to know where you are.”
When it comes to her photography, Angell uses the phone almost exclusively. A look at her Instagram feed suggests she tends to favor the architectural features of Pittsburgh — churches, bridges, rough-hewn neighborhoods, pieces of masonry that hint at larger truths about the community. These days, when she and her husband are out and about, they use Instagram to document their observations for each other, sharing what they see with themselves and the world.
“I didn’t think [the city] was beautiful when I first moved here,” she says. “But now I’m the biggest Pittsburgh lover. You can barely walk around in this city [without] seeing something cool.”
Photo by Jennifer Baron
iPhone Photographer Profile: Jennifer Baron
@freshpopcorn on Twitter
Jennifer Baron, 43, says she has always been drawn to telling stories through imagery. As a co-author of the Pittsburgh Signs Project, she made certain that images of western Pennsylvania’s vernacular and commercial architecture were preserved for posterity before they disappeared. Today, as she divides her time between music, crafting and writing, she uses Instagram to grab slivers of her community in real time and show them around — to absent friends, fellow Pittsburghers and the world.
Baron, whose background is in museum education, has always carried a camera with her and describes herself as “someone who’s documented on a fairly regular basis.” While living in New York in the 1990s, she did lots of Polaroid photography — influenced in part, she says, by Andy Warhol and such photographers as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. Among her projects: documenting the bands from all over the world whose members slept on her floor.
When it comes to capturing images, Baron uses her iPhone and little else.
“I love carrying the technology — something that’s inconspicuous, that you can instantly share,” says Baron. “I’m definitely addicted to it. And I like to think about why we are addicted to documenting and sharing. It goes back to cave paintings — it’s a form of communication.”
She is, by her own description, voracious. She photographs the nightly TV news as a form of media criticism and interpretation. A recent music video by her band, The Garment District, (done with Pittsburgh-based filmmaker Keith Tassick) contains more than 500 images taken with her iPhone.
When Baron talks about her photography, her passion for Pittsburgh is evident. She has spent years chronicling the region — in her music, in her museum work and in different iterations of photography. From her current home atop a hill in Dormont, she rhapsodizes about seeing “layers upon layers of fragmented views” — to her, all photographic fodder.
“I’m in love with the topography of Pittsburgh. It’s one of the strongest points,” she says. “I think the layers in Pittsburgh and the extreme contrasts here fit really well with the use of the smartphone and the applications.”
Beyond chronicling places, Baron says that the smartphone’s ubiquity helps reveal the decision-making process around photography even more than a conventional camera might. The phone, she says, is “a tool. There’s actually a lot of work that goes into it. What angles? What filters did you use? Did you choose to lie on the ground when you took the photo? We’re crafting and creating these views.”
Now, she says, more of us have the gadget, so more of us can create art. Because of that, talent that would’ve remained hidden has a platform. That’s not just good news for photography, either, she says; it’s good news for people who love looking at Pittsburgh in all its incarnations.
Photo by Clif Page
iPhone Photographer Profile: Clif Page
@clifpage on Instagram
Clif Page’s Instagram profile says, “Art is everywhere.” To look at his images, it’s clear that he is documenting Pittsburgh — his North Side neighborhood, particularly the Mexican War Streets — in a fashion both artistic and, as his profile suggests, delightfully inclusive.
Page, 57, an ad designer and one-time photographer and photo editor for newspapers, remembers this mantra from his days studying the art: “If you don’t have a camera, you don’t make a picture.” Thanks to the rise of smartphone photography, that admonishment no longer requires that decision each day.
As someone accustomed to top-notch equipment, Page sees the downside of what is effectively a high-functioning amateur device. That hasn’t dissuaded him from exploring the photographic capability of his phone, which he turned to last summer when he broke his wrist and couldn’t hold a full-sized camera for nearly eight weeks. “The phone became my creative outlet,” he says. In the past 18 months, he has shot nearly 20,000 images on his phone — some 1,500 of them uploaded to Instagram and shared worldwide.
He favors Camera+, a 99-cent app that gives photographers greater control of the iPhone’s camera than the native Apple app does. Unlike many iPhoneographers, Page generally shuns heavy filtering and often uses the “#nofilter” hashtag to announce that his images are unadorned.
Most days, Page wanders Allegheny Commons Park with his collie while holding his iPhone 4. He typically goes where the dog goes, shooting as he walks, “15 minutes here, 15 minutes there.” Sometimes he spends time getting the precise angle he’s seeking; other times, he’ll just see something of interest, extend his hand and hit the shutter. Some of his best shots, he says, came from that seemingly haphazard but often fruitful technique.
“I shoot a lot of stuff blindly. I’ll hold the phone down at my knee and then click away,” Page says. “The collie is always dragging me into situations worth photographing.”
Page’s involvement with Instagram started simply as a way to store visual notes. As time passed, though, he upped his game. And Pittsburgh offered myriad vantage points — bridges, river walks, Mount Washington, the West End Overlook.
“I look for what makes it different today. What makes today unique?” Page says. “There’s so much texture to this city.” But he makes certain to focus most on Pittsburgh’s most dynamic feature — its residents.
“I prefer keeping kind of a human scale to things,” he says. “The city is a place where people live, not a place where buildings reside.”
Hall of Fame
Consider this very abbreviated list of images and imagemakers when you're pondering photography and Pittsburgh.
The Pittsburgh-born artist worked across media and formats, but he loved Polaroids — particularly portraiture. Check out his work as an example of how the most workaday technologies can be harnessed into something artistic and memorable. The Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side (117 Sandusky St.) is an optimum starting point.
W. EUGENE SMITH
Between 1955 and 1958, Smith captured the waning of a Pittsburgh era in striking, moody black and white. The project, initially set for three weeks, lasted three years. Looking at the images today shows how the stereotypes of Pittsburgh — both glorious and irritating — were grounded in truth. Smith’s photographs, even those that favor structures over people, seem to overflow with action verbs. Bridges loom. Factory fires glow. Hills and mountains tower and dip. It is muscular, smoky Pittsburgh at its most dramatic, even as the era of smoky muscle was meeting the beginning of its end. Learn more in the book Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project ($29.95, Norton, 2003).
Every Pittsburgh baseball fan knows the two iconic photos of Bill Mazeroski’s home run that won the 1960 World Series for the Pirates — Marvin E. Newman’s frame of Maz swinging and a second image, moments later, of him crossing the Forbes Field home plate in exultation. Lesser-known but even more interesting is an image that Silk shot from the lofty top of the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland — looking down upon fans staring at Forbes Field far below. It’s an amazing image and an example of why unusual angles can make photos pop.
PITTSBURGH CITY PHOTOGRAPHERS
Not a single shooter but a group of them contributed to this collection — administered by the University of Pittsburgh — that depicts daily life in Pittsburgh between 1901 and 1960 in particular (the entire collection ranges from 1890 through 1994). Step into the Steel City’s photographic past by typing in basic search terms, such as “downtown,” “mill,” “Mount Washington” or “river.” One image I can’t stop looking at: a black-and-white shot of Schenley Park that features in the background a not-quite-completed Cathedral of Learning. (Sample the collection here.)