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E&T writer documents lockdown life by smartphone and bike

Image credit: Nick Smith

Having set himself five ground rules, a long-serving contributor used his one trip out each day to capture images of life in his home town.

Swansea-based Nick Smith is a freelance writer and photographer whose name will be familiar to readers of E&T, which is among hundreds of magazines, books and newspapers where his work has appeared over the past three decades.

A fellow of both the Royal Geographical Society in London and the Explorers Club in New York, Nick’s adventures have taken him to more than a hundred countries, as well as the North Pole and Antarctica. With only one session of outdoor exercise allowed per day during the early stages of this year’s Covid-19 lockdown in Wales, he decided to use his daily bicycle ride to capture images of his home town, equipped only with a smartphone and free photo-editing software.

The result is ‘To the Lighthouse: Lockdown Swansea by Smartphone and Bike,’ a slim volume of photographs recording a prolonged period of spring sunshine along a coastline strangely devoid of people. It provides an upbeat view of a seaside town that was at the same time suffering from the economic effects of lockdown that no-one will ever forget.

During a period of just over two months, Nick cycled as far as the Mumbles Lighthouse more than 70 times, setting himself the challenge of taking just one photograph per day, while following five strict self-imposed rules.

1. The only camera allowed was an iPhone 11 smartphone.

2. The only editing allowed was via the free Snapseed phone app.

3. Daily expeditions to be by bicycle to Mumbles Lighthouse.

4. One composition only per cycling trip. Cycle must appear in shot.

5. Expeditions must conform to lockdown guidelines and legislation.

“I’m often asked why I shot the project on what might appear at first glance to be low-fi photographic technology, using only a smartphone and the photo editing app Snapseed,” says Nick. “The main reason for not using my top-of-the-range DSLRs with professional lenses was simply that they’re too heavy and big to comfortably carry around on a bike. But also, due to the severity of the lockdown here in Wales, there was the need not to draw attention to what I was doing - which ‘big’ cameras inevitably do - and there is a certain anonymity in just clicking away on a smartphone.”

Nick also wanted to make the point that the craft of photography doesn’t necessarily need apex technology to succeed. “A lot of what happens is a result of the experience and creativity of the person behind the machinery. In that respect a camera is a bit like a piano. Doesn’t matter how good the piano is if you can’t play it, while a good player will normally get a bad piano to punch above its weight.

“Having said that the onboard cameras on the iPhone 11 are pretty good in terms of file size and resolution, although I’d hesitate to shoot commercial work for E&T on a smartphone - in fact I wouldn’t do that because the small plastic lenses don’t even start to measure up to the spec of hand-ground glass ones manufactured in Switzerland. They are also incapable of producing anything like the sharpness, meaning that it’s difficult to successfully print smartphone images at reasonable quality larger than the size of a playing card despite the file size.”

Post-production was all done on an iPhone, using the Snapseed app. “That’s even more remarkable in that it’s free,” says Nick. “So it wasn’t just low-fi, but low-budget. It has a huge variety of presets that I occasionally used as a starting point for the editing, as well as some cleverly-designed and quite intuitive custom settings, which I used a lot.”

‘To the Lighthouse: Lockdown Swansea by Smartphone and Bike’ (Hazel Press, £10, ISBN 9780957110427) is available from cover-to-cover.co.uk.

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