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Trains, Planes and Mobiles: Notes on Cellphone Photography

Just before I left the travel magazine where I worked in 2011, I tagged along on an ABS-CBN interview with renowned fashion photographer Jun de Leon, a very passionate–and very elusive–artist. I’m not sure if this ever saw print, but in this age of smartphones that can do practically anything, I think his thoughts are too precious not to share, so…

 

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I took a photo of this guy in Ta Prohm, one of Angkor’s temples. He was waiting for tourists to ask for a photograph with the tree made famous by Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider movie.

Cellphone Photography, according to Jun de Leon 

He has one rule in photography—there are no rules. And this is why Enrique “Jun” De Leon can move from being a photojournalist to a fashion photographer and now, an advocate of cellphone photography. His book ‘Tracing the Wind’ is the world’s first coffeetable book using purely cellphone photographs. Today he runs a Facebook page dedicated to mobile-age photography with more than 30,000 members from 40 countries.

In a rare interview, he sits down and talks about the evolution of his passion.

Why take on cellphone photography?

According to research, the no. 2 aspiration of Filipinos is to own a digital camera. That’s why I’m changing their mentality using the cellphone. My message is: it’s not the Fender, it’s the Hendrix.

How do you convince people to take it seriously?

I traveled four continents with my son using a 3.2 MP prototype Sony Ericsson K800i. We went to Hong Kong, San Francisco, Japan, Dubai, London—and we have a book, Tracing the Wind. I proved that you can produce good photos using cellphones. I also did Road to Naoshima (a more recent book) using cellphone photos. It (cellphone photography) is good training. I use it for dry-firing.

What phone do you use, personally?

When the (Sony) Satio came out, they sent me one. It’s 12 MP. I’ve also shot nudes with a Nokia. And I’m doing a project with Cherry Mobile for Bravehearts Foundation.

Do you see the difference when you shoot using different phones?

No. It’s always the content. When you write a good story, would I ask you where you typed it, typewriter or Microsoft? When you look at a photo, don’t ask: what camera did you use? Appreciate the picture.

Is photography easier with the new technology?

Yes. Anybody can be a photographer. But the next question is: should everyone be? How do you take a good picture? Up to now, I still sit with the masters. Photography requires continuous learning. It’s the hardest language to articulate. It’s like painting.

Can cellphones suffice for serious photography?

These photos (from Tracing the Wind) are just 3.2 MP and they have rich details, although of course these are not for fashion or advertising shoots. For travel, cellphones are okay.

Any tips for travel photographers?

Wake up early—that’s the golden rule of photography. I have coffee at 4 a.m. When you’re in a foreign or new place, it’s so good to just walk around with your cellphone, when there aren’t too many people yet. You’d be surprised by the photos you can take when you do that.

How can people improve their cellphone shots?

What I did with the Sony K800i is use a neutral density filter and the exposure tool. Know the basic principles of photography. Use your phone as a camera. Pretend you’re holding a camera and it can be done.

What places do you like, as a photographer?

The Philippines is way above the rest. There are so many beautiful things here—you’ll never run out. BantayanIsland, Caramoan—I even brought five photographers to document it— and Boracay. It’s still the best shoreline for me.

Tell us about your Facebook page.

Sometimes these guys are better than me. Their photos are really good, I’m shocked. And normally on the Internet, you see huge watermarks. I spoke against that on Facebook. It’s not the name that will make the picture; it’s the picture that will make a name. I’m ruthless in criticizing them. That’s how you learn.

Sunset at Angkor

Sunset at Angkor

MORE TIPS FOR TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHERS

  • Sit down, learn, and study the culture when you travel.
  • Observe the light. Don’t fire blank bullets.
  • You have to take your time. Focus. Sometimes you have to close your eyes in order to see.

A SELF-PORTRAIT

“I took up Fine Arts but I was a lousy painter. I discovered the camera, and I fell in love. It paid for my schooling. It pays for my children’s schooling. It gives them things I never had. I don’t think I’m an artist. I’m not my biggest fan. The truth is that I have no special talent. I just love photography more than food, period. I’m not attached. It doesn’t overwhelm me. But when you’re passionate about something, there should always be precision.”

JOIN the cellphone photographers’ community on www.facebook.com/cellphonephotography and share your photos. Jun de Leon himself critiques them.

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