Eric Mencher is a professional photographer who shoots incredible documentary photos with his iPhone. From candid street photography to close-up portraits, he captures stunning iPhone photos of people that tell interesting and intriguing stories from around the world. In this interview you’ll learn more about Eric, and how he takes such amazing photos with his iPhone.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m a freelance documentary photographer based in Philadelphia in the United States, but I also live part of the year in Guatemala and Mexico.
I was a staff photojournalist at the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper for over twenty years, where I covered everything from World Series to wars.
I’ve always photographed a lot of projects on the arts. I left the newspaper about seven years ago to go freelance and work on my own photo projects.
Did you study photography at college?
I have a college degree in Political Science and I’m a self-taught photographer.
Although I think that the great photographers and artists like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, Caravaggio, Delacroix, James Joyce, and so many others have been my unofficial mentors.
What inspired you to start shooting with the iPhone?
About four years ago, a very good friend – Philadelphia advertising executive Elliott Curson (@curson on Instagram) – handed me an iPhone 4s when he upgraded to the iPhone 5.
He said he wanted to see what I could do with it. He challenged me. Thank you Elliott!
Except for a handful of freelance assignments, my Canon cameras have been shelved ever since, and the iPhone is now my camera of choice.
I love its simplicity, its size, and most important, the way I see with it. For me, it’s a poor man’s Leica.
You’re a documentary photographer, which is all about communicating stories through images. What tips do you have for beginner iPhone photographers who want to start telling more powerful stories in their photography?
There are so many ways to tell stories through pictures. Find your own way and don’t feel locked into a style. Look at what others have done (and still do) and build on those traditions.
A beginning, middle, and end presentation is valid, but so is a series of impressions. Consistency of vision is paramount.
There are three important things. First, work on stories that are visual by nature. There are many great stories to tell, but not all of them are visually powerful.
Second, photograph stories that are close to your heart, that you truly care about, that you want to shout out to the world about.
Your photographs will be more powerful and connect in more meaningful ways with viewers when you care about the subject and what your pictures say.
And third, pick subjects to which you have good access. Try working on a short term project (2-3 weeks or a few months) but also have a long term project going simultaneously.
Documentary and street photography often involves photographing strangers. How do you deal with this, and do you ever encounter problems when taking photos of people you don’t know?
The eternal question for street photographers! It’s always a struggle, always the supreme challenge.
One way is to stake out your turf. Find a place in which you feel comfortable photographing, with a good background, and wait for something to happen – for a person to walk into your frame.
You were there first, so it’s their choice, more or less, to walk into an area you’re already photographing.
But when you’re just strolling down the street looking for pictures, you have to anticipate, be ready, be quick. Moments are fleeting, and the quicker you are the less you’ll provoke your subject.
If I feel a negative vibe coming from a potential subject, I probably won’t take the picture. It’s not worth it to me.
Cultures are different, too. In the United States, anyone on public property is legally fair game. But morally? That’s another issue.
Here in Guatemala, many of the Maya are shy or don’t care to be photographed. I’m sympathetic to that. Sometimes I’ll ask first, but then you risk losing the moment.
It’s always a split-second decision… Do I shoot or not? It’s always a tough choice. I’ve passed up some very wonderful photo situations here because I didn’t want to make people uncomfortable.
But I’m a human being first, a photographer second. Most of the time, that is!
You also shoot weddings. Some wedding photographers are starting to shoot the entire day using just their iPhone. Do you ever use your phone for these occasions?
I now only do a maximum of three weddings a year, and for those I still use high-end Canon cameras. But I’d love to give the iPhone a try.
It would definitely be a worthwhile challenge, and with the right bride and groom (visually literate, willing to take a chance, happy for whatever they get, looking for something unique) I think it’s possible.
Sure, there might be some missed moments, but there would also be a great look – a totally contemporary and special feel that perhaps isn’t possible with standard DLSRs.
And I’d charge less than my normal wedding rates! So if anyone out there wants to give me a chance…
Most of your iPhone photos are black and white. What draws you to this style of photography?
It’s just an instinctive desire to choose black and white. I can’t really articulate why. Perhaps because black and white is more true to how I feel about what I’m seeing and photographing.
Plus, black and white is not how we see. So immediately the photo has an other-worldly quality. And that’s what I’m often after… Images that transport us, emotionally and otherwise.
But color is great, too. I usually do color when color is obvious, like when the subject of the picture is color, or when color contributes mightily to the mood, feeling and meaning of the photo.
Which camera apps do you use to take photos on the iPhone?
I use Hipstamatic quite a bit – usually with the same 4 or 5 lens and film combinations. I also like the iPhone’s native camera, particularly with the Noir black and white filter.
Sometimes I use Camera1 – a relatively new app – for a high quality black and white file (to be tampered with later).
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What are your favorite film and lens combos in Hipstamatic?
I like the Lowy lens with the following films: BlacKeys Super Grain, Blank Noir, Ina’s 1982 and Robusta.
I also like the AO BW film with both the Akira and John S lenses. It produces very moody images, but you have to be careful with it.
And I love the look of the Watts lens with the D-Type Plate film. It’s a bit of a cliche, but so evocative.
What are your favorite apps for post-processing?
I use Snapseed almost exclusively to edit and fine tune the image. I aim to get the image to where it’s true to the subject and true to want I hope to say and communicate with it.
Occasionally I’ll use an older app, Alt Photo, to get me close, quickly.
Do you use any iPhone photography accessories?
Can you briefly explain the story and editing process behind your three favorite iPhone photos?
All three of my chosen favorites are from Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.
I’d just stepped off a boat in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, and I saw a Mayan woman wearing traditional dress standing on the dock’s edge, staring into the water. I also saw that the lake was smooth and the trees were reflected.
I took one quick frame, in color, with an iPhone 4s. I inadvertently cropped off her head, but in retrospect, to have seen her face might have distracted the viewer from the mood.
The color in the original photo was muted and distracting, so I converted it to black and white in Snapseed. With the color removed, what I liked about it was how it looked timeless and calm as she stands on what looks like the water.
In addition to the black and white conversion, I also used Snapseed to do some minor tweaking to exposure (the equivalent of dodging and burning) and added a slight warmth.
One evening at dusk, I was having dinner with my wife, Kass. Next to the restaurant I saw three kids shimmy up the poles on the dock. I jumped up from the table, ran over to the dock, and took about 20 frames with my iPhone 6.
It reminded me of a contemporary Three Graces. The kids didn’t mind me taking pictures – they’re accustomed to seeing me on the dock photographing. The volcanoes in the distance form a near-perfect backdrop.
The photo was taken with Hipstamatic and I did very, very little in Snapseed to fine tune it. Upon my return to a plate of cold food, I apologized to Kass.
Kass and I got up before sunrise to cruise around the lake in a peddle boat. There’s a learning curve to navigating the thing, and I had an iPhone 6s in one hand and the other hand on the rudder.
A fisherman paddled by and I very inelegantly raised the iPhone to photograph him. It was the essence of a grab shot. My main concern was not to drop the phone into the lake!
I like the mist, the mystery, the lines and the mood. It was taken with Hipstamatic, and again, I did just a few things in Snapseed to add contrast and warmth.
Having worked with both professional-grade camera equipment and the iPhone, how do you see the future of digital photography?
The future of digital photography is very bright indeed… Until the next revolution.
I’m sold on digital. Although I love the magic of seeing a print come up in the developer, I don’t miss breathing those awful chemicals of the darkroom.
I’ve tried to take advantage of what digital is and what it can do, and not necessarily try to make it into what I did in the past with film.
You’re a member of the Hikari Creative community. Can you tell us a bit about this group of photographers and what brought you together?
So far so good. I’m not sure what’s next, but it’s been a tremendous experience coordinating various things between the four of us.
And we recently added a fifth member, Adriana Zehbrauskas (@adrianazehbrauskas) – an extraordinarily talented Brazilian photographer living in Mexico City.
We’re diverse in our backgrounds and our photographic styles, and it’s great!
Do you have any new photography projects lined up for this year?
In April, I’m going to teach a workshop on street photography in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, which will be a first for me.
Photographically, I’ll continue projects in the San Miguel area, Guatemala, and in Philadelphia.
But mainly I’ll just be shooting on the street every day, which is what I’ve done for over 30 years. And trying to make some money, too. That’s always helpful to a healthy photographically-based lifestyle.
What tips do you have for beginner iPhone photographers who want to start taking more creative photos with the iPhone?
First of all, find the apps (just as you would when buying a new camera) that fit your photographic sensibilities. Then take advantage of what those apps can do.
But apps are merely tools. Photography is about the heart, the eye, and the soul.
What do you want to photograph and how do you want to photograph it? What do you have to say, through photography, about the world?
Look at the work of the best photographers and those who you admire. Study art, go to museums, and look at books.
Read. Pay attention! Go to strange places. Walk (or drive) a different route. Be patient.
Whether you have an iPhone or a Canon 5D Mark III, the same principles apply. The camera becomes an intuitive extension of your enthusiasm and passion.
Which iPhone photographers do you admire the most?
There are so many wonderful photographers out there, many of whom I didn’t know of before Instagram.
Instagram has helped democratize photography. It’s taken photography out of the hands of the traditional gate-keepers – the curators, the gallery owners, the designers, those who have for years decided what’s worthwhile.
We are now the curators. And that’s a wonderful thing.
But to answer the question… There are far too many to name individually. From Australia to Asia to Europe to Africa to North and South America (and probably Antarctica, too!) I’m inspired every day by what I see on Instagram.
But for a special shout-out, my fellow members of Hikari Creative (@hikari.creative) are amazing. I absolutely love their work.
And Kass Mencher (@kmencher). Yes, she’s my wife, but her photography is phenomenal.
Where can we see your iPhone photography?
You can see my photos on Instagram @emencher
I’m also on Tumblr: ericmenchersnapshots.tumblr.com
And I have a website: ericmencher.com