Why mobile photography is completely broken

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I think there’s something fundamentally broken about how we work with mobile photographs today.

Take a look at how a large majority of people might deal with photographs on a smartphone. We capture pictures using the in-built camera app, automatically adding it to an infinite camera roll where every single photo we’ve ever taken on our phone resides. We’ll open each one up (one at a time) in our favourite filter app, play around to our heart’s content, then save them, each save adding a new, slightly different version of the photo to the infinite camera roll. We’ll then open up a collage app (because everyone loves collages these days) and make a three-panel collage of that time with friends at that place that everyone’s been keen to check out. We’ll then post that collage on Instagram, on Facebook, re-posting it on Twitter, sending it to friends via WhatsApp or Snapchat, or perhaps hanging onto it to send later. And we do this every day, for months on end. And there’ll come a time when, half a year later, we’ll want to show that one photo to another friend, and have to scroll through the mountain of blurry failed pictures, processed and unprocessed versions of photos, and perhaps a camera roll that’s been cluttered by the detritus of other apps in the meantime.

Working with photographs on mobile platforms right now is a painful experience

What’s frightening is that this is the scenario for the casual smartphone user. What if you were someone in charge of managing a fashion outlet’s social media presence? Or a travel photographer documenting your journey around a far away country? What if you’re a photojournalist, or a reporter given photojournalistic responsibilities after your publication’s photographers have been laid off? You’ll have to manage perhaps an order of magnitude more photographs, and work with more platforms and a wider audience – and most of the tools that we currently have to handle that volume of mobile photography are inefficient and clumsy at that scale.

In short, working with photographs on mobile platforms right now is a painful experience.

The underlying issue here is that the mobile photography experience – the journey from capturing images, to editing, processing1 and sharing them – is a highly fragmented one. Even the best apps out there are usually focused on one part of the mobile photography workflow: Snapseed is for photo processing, ProCamera is predominantly for photo capture, Instagram is predominantly for photo sharing. Some apps attempt to handle several parts of the workflow (for example, Instagram’s recent addition of more powerful image processing tools to its app, and VSCO Cam‘s image management and processing tools), but despite their best efforts, no one photo app handles enough of the workflow enough of the time to be used exclusively.

This would not be as huge an issue as it is, if photo apps on mobile platforms could talk to each other consistently. As it stands, though, there’s precious little integration between photo apps, on iOS at least. The extent of direct integration between photo apps is pretty much limited to sharing images straight to social media platforms (open in Instagram, send to Twitter, etc.), rather than being able to connect different photo apps to conduct a workflow (Android has it a little better with its in-built app communication system, but the inconsistency between how photo apps there can handle multiple images versus one image make that system frustrating to use at best). I’m optimistic about the announced app improvements in iOS 8, where Apple announced an improved app-to-app communication system, and demonstrated processing an image in VSCO Cam directly from the camera roll, but that relies on a) feature uptake by developers, and b) app makers deciding that it’s worth opening up their apps that way.

For the most part then, the camera roll serves the role of intermediary between photo apps today, where an artifact of each step in the mobile photography workflow is recorded. This is an incredibly poor experience: it introduces the clutter of intermediate versions of photos in the photo library I described earlier, making it harder for users to find the right version of a photograph to share or continue processing, as well as occupying another megabyte’s (or several) worth of storage space. Combined with the in-built photo gallery app present on most mobile platforms, typically limited in its ability to filter, categorise and search for photos, mobile photographers end up spending just as much time combing and managing the camera roll itself rather than the photographs they’d like to be working with.

What, then, is the consequence of such a fragmented mobile photography workflow? The end result is an inefficient process, wasting valuable storage space on the phone, losing image quality through compression for each additional step saving into the camera roll, and taking the photographer’s valuable time away from capturing experiences and crafting stories, meaning mobile photographers cannot engage with their audiences as effectively as they ought to be able to.

(As a side note, I’ve assumed so far in this article that mobile photographers are performing their workflow on a single device, which may not even be the case for certain amateurs or professionals. For them, photographs may be taken on a phone but edited on a tablet, or edited, processed and shared on a phone but taken on a DSLR or mirrorless camera. For them, the workflow may be even more capricious, especially when devices refuse to communicate with each other, instead relying on cloud services and expensive mobile data to share photographs from one device to another. This, in my mind, is no fault of app developers, but of the platform manufacturers themselves, like Apple and Google, who – particularly in Apple’s case – appear to consider sharing content locally between devices of different platforms somewhere on the spectrum from discouraged to practically verboten.)

I believe the right approach to solving the fragmented mobile photography workflow problem is to address it in a holistic way, by building tools designed for mobile photographers to handle capturing photographs quickly, to let them categorise and discover their best work easily, to let them process photographs to impart their style efficiently and consistently (such as through batch processing), and to allow them to share their photographs broadly2. It may be a lot more work than building a simple filter app, but by giving mobile photographers the right tools to efficiently capture, edit, process and share their work, building a mobile photography app or service that treats the workflow holistically removes the biggest barriers to photographers engaging a wider audience with higher quality work.

This post previously came from Coding the Image under “The Fragmented Mobile Photography Workflow”. Republished with permission.

Smartphone in concert photo via Shutterstock.


  1. I make the distinction between editing and processing in this article: editing as a process of selection, choosing the photographs one wants the world to see; and processing as a process of transformation, changing the photograph from the original to the end result we want the world to see. I believe editing (as distinct from processing) is currently handled incredibly poorly on mobile devices, even more so than processing, with limited tools to effectively categorise, filter and search through a library of mobile photographs, but detailing that is another whole article in itself.
  2. I don’t suggest this to promote the idea of building the “best” tools in a photographic silo. As a mobile photographer, my motivation is to have my tools work for me rather than against me, so that the widest possible audience can see my photographs, without me having to worry about buckets of compartmentalised, siloed users.

Join the Conversation

  • darylcheshire

    I have a friend who takes photos on a consumer camera which has every photo she has ever taken in spite of my advice. So it doesn’t have to be a smartphone.

    These are the same users who use a flash or flash LED outdoors and, really they don’t care.

  • The bigger problem, and you hinted around it, is that people don’t properly edit their collections. They keep everything. One of the biggest things that any professional photographer will tell you is to make sure you keep your images organised. That’s a relatively simple task on a desktop system. It’s not so simple on a mobile device. That said, the biggest thing people can, and should, do to help keep their pictures under control is DELETE. Delete the crud. And there’s definitely lots of crud.

    As far as the Android environment, I like how, on one hand, you commend that platform for better app-to-app integration then, with the other hand, slap it down as too difficult to figure out. Honestly, it takes an attention span of about 10 minutes and a smidgen of intelligence to sort it out. It’s not that hard. Really, it isn’t.

    There is, actually, a terrific app – that works on phones and tablets – in the Android space for both editing (as you define it) and processing (as you define it), although on the processing side it doesn’t have the funky, kitschy filters of Instagram et al. Photo Mate R2 (or the older version, Photo Mate Pro) is a terrific app for editing and processing. It’s a wee bit cumbersome on a phone screen but manageable.

    • Norman Ma

      I see people’s ballooning photo collections as a design issue; specifically, people shouldn’t need to be constantly editing their photo collections. If there’s crud, why is there crud? If it’s during capture, camera apps shouldn’t be saving the rejected images in the first place. If it’s during editing/processing, why are apps filling the library with junk? (This touches on how we should version images on a mobile device, which is quite a hard problem to solve in my opinion.) Photo libraries are a garbage in, garbage out story – the more we limit the garbage that goes into them, the better the experience is later on.

      Photo Mate R2 looks very interesting though, I’ll definitely try it out.

      • How does a particular app know what’s a reject and what isn’t? Why should mobile cameras be different from ‘real’ cameras in that regard? I wouldn’t, quite honestly, want some sort of AI programming to determine, for me, what is a reject and what isn’t.

        As far as versioning, I’m fine with a new image being created when processing is applied. In fact, that’s good image management protocol. Leave the original untouched and create new versions with any adjustments.

        This is a user problem, not a hardware problem. It’s the user who isn’t properly culling the herd. It’s the user who’s applying every IG filter under the sun and saving out new versions. That’s where the problem lies.

        It’s no different, really, from when most people were using compact cameras (let’s stick with the digital world, film is a whole other discussion). The default for downloading images from the camera is to have everything go into a single folder (at least on the Windows platform). So people would just dump everything into that single folder with no thought to any sort of organisational scheme and never be able to find anything. It was actually worse in that arena because they’d apply edits to their original JPEG and save over it. That does two things. First, it degrades quality. Second, it means their original is gone. They’d come back some time later and want to see the original again and it would be gone because they’d overwritten it. WRT the lack of organisation, I can’t tell you know many times someone has been very excited to show me a picture they took, they start looking for it in the Pictures folder and the excitement quickly (or not so quickly in some cases) fades because they can’t find it among all the other pictures titled _mg20xx_xx_xx.

        This is entirely a user problem.