Back to the Future Morocco with the iPhone Hipstamatic

by Russell C. Dohrmann

Russell C. Dohrmann

January 01, 2011 — As a long time photographer and digital imagemaker, recently I felt that I had become stuck—blocked in my artistic endeavors, taking similar images over and over until I was re-invigorated by the use of the Hipstamatic camera app. Images taken with this app on the iPhone are reminiscent of old time photographs, pictorial images from the masters of the early 20th century, as well as images taken with very low-tech cameras with plastic lenses. But why resort to low tech? The answer is the fun and mystery of seeing what is possible and in creating images that are truly unique—images that give a feeling of the art of pictorial photography.

I recently returned from an adventure to Morocco. It is a land of contrasts and colors unlike any I have experienced before. Intricate tile work adorns its buildings and is extensively used in the architectural features of floors, columns and walls. Painted intricate cedar carvings, festooned walls, doors and ceilings. These designs are a good fit for the high-contrast pictorial style of the Hipstamatic app.

 The colors of the desert, sandstone, limestone, granite and dark volcanic rock are more prevalent in certain areas of the country. Deserts give way to oases where enough water collects to sustain both plant and animal life. The warm colors of the landscape are enhanced by the Hipstamatic treatment.
I traveled to Morocco on a photography-oriented tour of eight people with a guide/interpreter.

These images were created in early October 2010. Of course, other times of the year might yield different subject matter, with flowers and fields of green to be seen in the early spring. The summers are very hot, with temperatures as high as 50 degrees Celsius in the desert, and it can be quite warm in the cities as well. So spring and fall seem ideal to explore the various areas of Morocco from the coast, to mountains and the desert.

 The Moroccan people are friendly and go out of their way to welcome tourists to their country. One man said to me, “Thank you for coming to Morocco. Travel here helps our economy.” Photographing in the medinas (ancient city centers) and souks (market stalls) with their narrow pathways crowded with people, horses, donkeys, bicycles and the ever-present motorbikes can be a real challenge for the photographer. A pocket camera can be a useful tool, and using the Hipstamatic app makes the experience all the more fun.

While in Morocco I was astounded at the variety of images that I could create using my iPhone. The Hipstamatic app comes with a standard set of films, lenses and flash units. If additional lenses and films are purchased, it seems the potential combinations of creative effects are endless. For each image the lens, film and type of flash (if desired) are selected.

 Looking at the screen of the iPhone you can see either the back of the camera with a viewfinder screen and the film that is loaded, a flash indicator and a button that is the shutter release—or the front of the camera. The shutter is very sensitive, and if the camera is not turned off it can be triggered accidentally. The viewfinder is small and does not always show the whole image being captured. The iPhone settings can be set to “classic” or “precision” framing. However, even under “precision,” the entire image is not shown on the small area of the screen that is the “viewfinder.”

Switching between the front and back of the camera is accomplished by pressing on the curved arrow at the bottom right of the screen. Experimentation and experience can give you more confidence in what your final image will look like, but not knowing exactly what you’ll see is definitely part of the attraction—much like waiting for a Polaroid image to come into view.

Imagemaking with the Hipstamatic is actually harder than using a conventional camera, and to see the result one has to wait for the image to be developed before you can decide whether or not another shot is a keeper. The images produced are imperfect, with shadowy edges, blotches of color, color shifts and fades and areas of brightness and shadow. They usually show at least a measure of film grain, adding to retro look reminiscent of some of the photography of the old masters.

Depending on the film chosen, the images may have a blue, yellow or reddish tint—or can be very desaturated. Even a color infrared film is available. The images are presented in square format in the style of the Kodak Instamatic or Polaroid. Three sizes of output may be selected: standard, medium and large. Large size is 1936 x 1936 pixels. The standard size is about 600 x 600 pixels and works well with Web and e-mail. Larger images certainly take more processing (development) time. It can be several seconds before the image is available for viewing; unlike the instant feedback one gets using a normal digital camera.

I plan to use many of the images on greeting cards on watercolor paper. Also tests with the largest size allows for acceptable prints of 16 x 16 inches. Another option is to use small sized images and place multiple images on a single sheet of print paper, which makes for an interesting presentation or collage of images on the same theme.

Most importantly, the convenience of using a lightweight tool that can fit in your pocket in such a bustling and populated country as Morocco is a big advantage. Both interiors and exteriors lend themselves to the saturated colors and funky presentation of the Hipstamatic app. The spontaneity in image capture afforded by this convenience can bring both great fun and creativity that would be welcome in any travel destination, or allow for new ways to see familiar locations. The Hipstamatic app is available at www.hipstamaticapp.com or from the App Store online.


Russell C Dohrmann is a freelance photographer represented by Chromozone Images in Amsterdam, iStock Photo and Photolibrary. He and his wife Gail were the photographers for Best Boulder Region Hiking Trails and the authors and photographers of Boulder’s Favorite Places. His photographic style is experimental, graphic and interpretive. More of his images can be seen at photoduo.smugmug.com.

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