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First Rule In iPhone Photography: Edit, Edit, Edit


Photographer David Hume Kennerly has been to his fair share of war zones. Kennerly won the Pulitzer Prize when he was just 25 years old for his work in Vietnam and Cambodia. He was also President Ford's official photographer, and he has a stack of awards and books to his name. It may come as a surprise, then, to find that Kennerly's latest book contains a year's worth of pictures taken on his iPhone. David Hume Kennerly joined us from our studios at NPR West.


MARTIN: So what in the world inspired you to put down your real camera and start working with a smart phone?

KENNERLY: In 2013, I wanted to pare down my photo arsenal, do a little single instrument, and I chose the iPhone. I made that choice because it's easy to use. It's always in my pocket. It also just has a fixed lens. And so shooting with that helps to sharpen my eye. I get closer and more observant of the little things around me. And even after 50 years of doing this, I think it made me a better photographer.

MARTIN: We are inundated with pictures these days. I probably don't have to tell you. I mean, everyone has some kind of smart phone or a lot of people have smart phones and are documenting all kinds of details in their lives. You've been a little critical of this. You wrote in the book that the power of pictures is being diluted by a tidal wave of visual mediocrity which is a pretty damning statement in a book that is about these kinds of pictures.

KENNERLY: Well, you know, I think part of it has to do with editing. I mean, people go out, and they just blast away. One bit of advice I give to people is what's the story you're trying to tell? Why are you taking this picture? And once you start thinking about that, I think it will make you a better photographer. Another thing I tell people is self-edit. If you take 10 pictures of your cat, pick the best one in your estimation.

MARTIN: Get rid of the other nine. A lesson I should listen to.

KENNERLY: Exactly. But it's not - you know, I again - maybe I was a little bit harsh there - but I want to help people see things in a different light. And in the way, it will make them better photographers, and it will be more satisfying.

MARTIN: OK. So help me. Teach me, David. How do I do this because, you know, the - if you use a smart phone with a camera, I mean, there are obvious limitations to that. How - what's the best advice you can give?

KENNERLY: Well, I think the hardest photographs to capture are the things we're looking at all the time. So I came up with this idea of the Kennerly photo fitness workout. And the idea behind that is to go out and - somewhere in your neighborhood, in your house, wherever you are - take five photos of things you've seen every day, but haven't really looked at or looked at every day and haven't seen is a better way to put it. And by doing that, whether it's an apple on the tree or cloud through the branches, whatever it is, it will start to sharpen your skills. And in a way it's like anything else, like practicing, like in golf. You practice, and you get better, except in my case. But this exercise will definitely help you see better, and then you're going to be happier with what you're doing.

MARTIN: So you're fan of apps and filters. This - you don't think that this is kind of a cheat?

KENNERLY: No. I think any way you want to express yourself visually is fine. I mean, there are no rules for that. I don't do it in postproduction. None of the photos you see there were run through some kind of process after the fact. Everything I was shooting, I knew the way that they were going to look. The other thing you will notice in the pictures is the content is strong in every single showcase. And you can't make up for that with an app.

MARTIN: You know, for me what happens a lot when I take pictures on my smart phone is, you know, I take a ton of pictures and mostly of my kids and every once in a while I'll see one when I'm flipping back through. And it's clearly a bad photo. I've screwed up. Someone's out of the frame. It's a little murky. It's - you know, you can't really tell what's going on. But then I think, wait, that kind of looks cool. Maybe that's arty. Does that ever happen to you? Do you actually take photos that you think in the moment that it's maybe a bad photo and then you look back and you think maybe not?

KENNERLY: No. Generally if I take a bad photo, it's a photo.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Well, then I'm probably deluding myself into thinking that it's cool.

KENNERLY: Well, no, no. But I don't think there is any such thing as a bad photo. A good photo is something that makes you happy. You are showing your children or whatever. Really, the ultimate idea of this book is to help you make those pictures more effective and memorable.

MARTIN: David, thank you so much. It was a real pleasure to talk with you.


MARTIN: The book is called "David Hume Kennerly On The iPhone: Secrets And Tips From A Pulitzer Prize-winning Photographer." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.