If you happen to be in the Ft Lauderdale walking on the beach in the early morning, you have probably seen photographer Andy Royston. He’s been walking along that stretch for six years now. Using only his cell phone he has taken well over 25,000 photos to share on Twitter, Flicker and various other sites.
We caught up with him this week—though not on the beach. This is the first in a series of interviews with the award winning iphoneographer.
Last year, Andy was awarded the 2014 Mobile Photography Award in the Nature and Wildlife category. For a relatively new field, he has clearly excelled. As you browse the photos here, I’m sure you will agree.
Perhaps his background in design has given him his excellent eye for photography. Mr. Royston won a Broadcast Designers Award (BDA) Gold in 1996, and a Royal Television Society (RTS) Award in 1997.
To start off, I was curious how he got to that beach and committed so much time to mastering photograph with his cell phone. So today we learn about Mr. Royston’s background and how it all began.
Thank you so much for chatting with me Andy. Any time I look at your photographs I have a lot of questions. When I think that I have a similar camera, if not the latest version, it makes me realize how little I know about using the camera on the phone. Let’s start at the beginning though…
Will you tell us a little about your background Andy, and how you came to be in the states?
That’s quite a big question! I grew in in the South Yorkshire area of England in a rural coal mining community. It was a wonderful era to grow up, and thinking back I was very lucky to have such a close and encouraging family around me. It was a very out-of-the-way place, which gave me a love of the outdoors that’s still with me today. My family encouraged my love of arts and music and that ultimately became my escape route.
I studied graphics and advertising in the city of Manchester, and then moved south to work as a graphic designer in London, initially in the music and print worlds, then in television news. I spent a dozen years working on live national news and on current affairs documentaries for the BBC, before emigrating to the USA. I’d been offered a chance to take the role of Creative Director of a small Fort Lauderdale design company, and before I know it I’d swapped the pigeons of inner city London for a the parrots of Florida!
What keeps you busy besides your photography?
My photography is very much a personal passion – professionally I’ve always been a busy designer, taking on all kinds of projects and challenges. A designer’s life is all about being culturally astute and technically proficient, always being ahead of trends and techniques. Design is about making the most of communications and presenting information in a clear, positive way. Thankfully I’ve been very busy for four decades now. It’s a job I love immensely.
How did you get into photography?
Being a proficient photographer is part of a designer’s skill set (you are regularly called upon to photograph client projects) but I only really began to explore photography seriously when cellphone connectivity allowed me to share images online.
For the last decade I’ve worked for the Indycar driver Marco Andretti, and it was working for him at a race track, taking photographs and updating his website that really stretched my skills. It was at the St. Petersburg Grand Prix I started using the iPhone to take and upload photos directly from trackside. I wanted to get photographs out to his fans, who were using the then new social media outlets like Twitter and Tumblr to follow the race.
Taking images with a high resolution DSLR camera meant racing back to the media tent and uploading photographs using the track’s Wi-Fi (never reliable at the best of times), or to upload directly via the phone.
Later that year (2009) I was doing something similar for a NASCAR driver, and that time I used the iPhone much more extensively. I did realize, though, that I’d need a little practice in using these new social photography techniques, so I began my FtLauderdaleSun daily project partly to learn how to get the best out of the technology.
Am I correct that you only use your iPhone? Do/did you ever use another camera? Do you use one of the detachable lenses, like a macro lens? A tripod?
That is correct – I only use iPhone. I’ve worked my way through every generation of the device! I now have the very impressive iPhone6. In the past I’ve taken smaller digital cameras out there to supplement the work, but I soon found that the moisture and humidity would damage them within weeks. The cellphone companies have become so good at designing devices that can cope with the weather, and with improvements in picture quality too meant that I could concentrate on the iPhone exclusively.
Photography though isn’t as precious as it used to be. These days the differences between a Nikon D800, an Olympus OMD, a Samsung Galaxy S and an Apple iPhone6 are not so obvious on the web, which is where we all show our images now. We don’t buy prints, we share them online. The camera you have in your pocket beats one that needs a small car for transport and a small fortune to insure.
To answer the second part of your question, no I don’t use any peripherals, not even a waterproof case. Ironically just today I received one of my prizes from the MPA Awards, an iStabilizer smart flex tripod, which will really help with the panoramas I shoot.
How long have you been doing this now?
My FtLauderdaleSun project on Twitter was the start of it all, I guess, so that’s almost six years and over 25,000 shared photos!
If you had to choose one subject to photograph, what would be your favorite?
I do enjoy event photography (particularly music and auto racing) if I have a lot of professional access. Give me hills and mountains and I’ll have my boots on in seconds, but coastal photography is just so much more rewarding. I never get tired or bored with a busy coastline and the way that the weather interacts with the ocean. I’d love to tackle Melbourne’s Great Ocean Road, or the California Coastal Trail, but my native England has some fine coastal walks including Cornwall, Dorset, West Wales and North Yorkshire. As a kid I hiked right around the Scottish Isle of Arran – I’d love to do that again.
Why is it your favorite?
I think that ocean and coastline photography can be so dramatic and colorful. I’ve gotten past trying to shoot postcard quality photos and am beginning to aim for the kinds of visions that artists like JMW Turner, Claude-Joseph Vernet and Caspar David Friedrich saw. By walking the shore regularly it’s remarkable the dramas that unfold.
What is the most difficult part of photography using an iPhone?
The most difficult part of mobile photography is taking its capabilities seriously. So many people take images without taking a second to focus or compose. The rise of photo sharing platforms – particularly Instagram is really elevating our skills though. We have become so much less self-conscious about our photography, and we quickly learn the art of sharing our life stories visually.
If you meant ‘difficult’ as a technical question, the cellphone’s biggest limitation is it’s lack of focal range, but to get over that means getting up and moving about, which in turn makes better photographs. Cellphone companies are aiming to make things simple to own and simple to use. They’re making menus and apps easier and not harder. Each generation of phones take away the need to make unnecessary decisions. It’s getting easier all the time!
What is the most difficult shot you’ve taken?
My most difficult professional assignment turned out to be covering NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski at the Daytona 500. The sheer number of people in the pit and garage areas of Daytona’s infield makes snatching the informal shots I like to take very difficult. Brad’s the kind of guy who doesn’t hang around, so I had to anticipate his movements and get create vantage points. I needed shots of him without his helmet, and once in the car he’s out of sight, so catching a good shot demanded a lot of lateral thinking.
The most difficult individual shot was probably capturing El Galeón Andalucía’s arrival in Fort Lauderdale. El Galeón is a magnificent replica of a 16th century war trader and the only galleon class vessel sailing today. I spotted her distinctive silhouette off Lauderdale-by-the-sea at around 4.40pm and chased south for ten miles to the Port Everglades entrance to see how close I could get. Parking in the exclusive Harbour Isles neighborhood is difficult, so I was relieved to reach the rocks out at the mouth of the Stranahan River just a few minutes before the ship came gracefully alongside. I climbed to the far side of the rocks to get the camera as low down as possible. I got lucky!
Since you appear to photograph very near the water, what is the most dangerous or difficult circumstance you’ve faced for your art?
Having found myself cross-legged on a racetrack as a 700bhp Dallara Chevrolet Indy car raced directly towards me I guess anything else feels perfectly safe! At the shore there’s very little danger apart from the size of the waves. A dramatic place to photograph is beneath the various fishing piers along our coast, and there’s always the danger that a rogue wave might push you close to the pier’s foundation posts. Other than that the danger is mainly for the camera phone itself, making sure that it is protected at all times from wave splashes and rainstorms.
Do you find many sea animals there to photograph? A variety of birds too? Do they pose unique difficulties?
The ocean here in Fort Lauderdale is surprisingly wild, with all kinds of fish and marine life to look out for. The scuba diving here in Fort Lauderdale is excellent, with accessible reefs offshore with grouper, rays, sharks, snapper and moray eels. Onshore things are much more peaceful. Our most exciting visitors are the sea turtles, who have laid nests along our beaches for hundreds of years. They arrive under cover of night, and are long gone by morning. I was lucky enough to witness one momma Loggerhead laid her nest after sun up which was very special.
Looking over your many photos on Flicker and Twitter, I find favorites in each category, but I can’t stop looking at the shots where you catch the water in a wave. The shot is so remarkably clear, even while it is smashing ashore. How do you get those shots?
I love the waves too. I shoot them from very low angles mostly, working to get as much of the sky’s color through the breakers. Early in the morning the rushing waves have a blue tint, reflecting the sky so they can be very striking and colorful. In early mornings the sunlight shines through the wave, which helps to pick out detail and color.
Do you prefer a cloudy sky?
Oh yes – a forecast of ‘partly cloudy’ is best, and the windier the better. This means the sun is constantly darting in and out of the clouds creating all sorts of drama early on. Shooting from the shadows of clouds, rather than direct sunlight always makes for better photographs.
Can you tell me which clouds are your preference and how they are important in your photos?
Altocumulus, also known as a mackerel sky, can be so spectacular. Their ripples in the sky tend to be at the edges of weather fronts, and if the sun gets beneath them, lighting them up in reds and oranges, the result can be stunning to witness. For a photographer these moments are quite literally golden, but are also very fleeting. It pays to be familiar with your locations at such times so you can have your images ready composed.
Most of your photography seems to center on the beach. Do you have other spots that you especially like to photograph as well?
I do like the peace of the Everglades in wintertime – before the mosquitos come out to play. I also love visiting my family in England as they live in the wilds of Yorkshire and Shropshire. Marvelous walking country.
Level with us now Andy, if you will, have you damaged a phone or two getting too close to the water?
Surprisingly most of my accidents and incidents have happened away from the beach – the kitchen and bathroom are particular sources of trouble! Out and about the biggest things to worry about are rainstorms. I do like the rain, but technology hasn’t quite created a good rainproof cellphone yet. At the shore I’m always careful; I use a good case, and have learned to hold the phone in such a way that the vulnerable areas (charge port and mic output) are covered from splashes.
What tips do you have for those of us who would like to improve our iphoneography skills?
Be patient and don’t rush things. The key to a good cellphone photo is to let the exposure and focus settle. Tapping points of brightness helps focus and exposure.
Then take several images, not just the one. Be relaxed and have fun with your subject – make folks laugh and encourage goofing around. Friends and family are much more relaxed in the company of a cellphone than a ‘proper’ camera (when they are for more likely to put their pose on!).
Thanks Andy! I appreciate your time!
Would you like to know more of Andy’s fascination with iPhoneography? Here is a wonderful video filmed when he was instructing (and inspiring) some kids with his work.
Andy Royston has also published a collection of photos from his voyage on Galeon Andalucia.
You can learn more about and follow Andy Royston here:
Fine Art America (for prints)