Bill Holton

In 2013 Judy Dixon published Get the Picture: Viewing the World with the iPhone Camera. In her review of this book, AccessWorld author Deborah Kendrick said: "For Judy Dixon, what began as curiosity has clearly become a passion. She approached the picture-taking puzzle with both merriment and scientific accuracy, and then wanted to share what she had learned with the rest of us.”

Seven years down the road, iPhone cameras have transformed from useable substitutes for “real” high-resolution film-and-digital cameras to the multi-lens powerhouses that impress even the most persnickety photography gearheads. Apple’s early recognition that people with visual impairments want, even need, to use a camera prompted an equally early focus (pun intended) on camera accessibility. So it is both understandable and welcome that Dixon decided it was time to update all she has learned about accessible picture taking. The result is her latest National Braille Press offering: Capturing and Sharing the World: Taking Photos and Videos with an iPhone.

The Book’s Focus

In the previous paragraph I used the term “picture taking” instead of “photography” for a reason. When I think of “photography” I think of exposure, composition, filters, field of view. Indeed, Dixon's coverage of all of these artistic aspects takes up a majority of the book. But the book also covers the mechanics of blind-accessible picture taking, editing, and sharing—and without the mechanics, one can't hope to attempt the art.

In its most basic form, a camera is a simple device. You can make one with an empty light-proof box or other container. Simply poke a pinhole into the box with a strip of paper to block or allow light inside. The pinhole acts as a sort of rudimentary lens, allowing light through and projecting it onto the rear surface of the container. Of course you will also need some sort of film, light sensitive photo paper, or coated glass plate, which will react to the patterns of light and change color accordingly. Basically, that’s all there is to it, and generations of Intro to Photography students have begun by constructing and using a pinhole camera.

Needless to say, today’s iPhone cameras are just a tad bit more complex. They contain over 200 parts and software enhancements so dramatic, politicians have become cautious about indignantly waving pages of “proof” in front of press because a quick zoom may reveal what they’re actually showing is their grocery list.

Apertures, F-stops, live photos, panoramic shots, megapixels, HDR... modern-day photographic lingo can seem daunting, but Dixon begins with a useful glossary of these and other terms, describing each in simple language. She is well aware that her audience may never have been able to see an actual photograph with its various visual elements. She is also a VoiceOver user, so her descriptions of the camera controls, both hardware and software, are equally blind friendly.

A Blind Photographer’s Journey

Dixon decided long ago she was going to hone her photography skills. Toward that end she enlisted a photographer friend to evaluate her efforts with a critical eye, posting her work to a shared photo library. Dixon describes how to set up and use a similar shared gallery along with other ways to store and share your photos.

Sometimes the best way to teach is to demonstrate and explain, and this is how the author takes the reader through the process of deciding on a photo subject, evaluating the lighting, shadows, focus, composition, and other elements to be considered. She creates four photo scenarios, taking the reader step by step through the decision-making and physical process of photographing the cherry blossoms at her home in the Washington DC area; her guide dog, Potter, trotting across the back yard; a baking contest entry; and a hotel thermostat she wishes to have a friend help her with remotely

Dixon uses her iPhone’s burst mode to snap a photo of Potter. Photo burst is a special iPhone feature that shoots numerous shots one after the other, and then selects what it thinks is the best to display and save, but keeps the rest in case an even better shot is available. She then uses the iPhone’s scene preview feature, which attempts to recognize objects and does its best to describe faces and even their emotions: smiling, frowning, and the like. Writes Dixon: “When I start taking pictures of [Potter], he usually starts moving but if he doesn’t, I sweep the camera around a bit and hope it finds him.”

Burst mode allows a wide margin of error, and Dixon states it’s her favorite way to snap photos. It is also mine, and if you haven’t tried it yet, I strongly encourage you to do so. Unlike other instructional works where the author accomplishes each task with effortless grace, Dixon does not always get it right the first try. She is happy to share her mistakes because they are the very same mistakes other blind photographers will invariably make themselves. The thermostat display catches some glare. The pan needs to be cleared of crumbs. The cherry tree is too low in the frame because she held the phone tilted too far down, and isn’t actually in full bloom. Dixon’s coach is generous with his time and critical eye. For example, regarding her first photo of Potter, “It’s not a flattering picture of him, nor is it unflattering.” She shares his responses with the reader so we can learn and improve along with her, either by reshooting the photo or using the iPhone’s powerful editing and enhancement options.

Apps and Apertures

The iPhone includes a Camera app and a Photos app, the first for taking pictures and shooting video and the second for viewing and editing your work. Each has become increasingly VoiceOver accessible. From locating faces (“one person in top left, smiling") and describing scenes ("grass, trees”), to audible alerts to let you know you’re holding your phone level, to voice descriptions of filters and frame size and as many auto-enhancement features as possible, picture taking is as accessible as it has ever been.

Dixon works her way through the myriad controls and options, many of which change depending on whether you're shooting photos or videos, portrait or landscape. Dixon’s favorite editing tool would seem to be the auto enhance button. She does not mention, however, if this feature will detect and correct red-eye, the red glow that can appear in people's eyes when photographed straight on as the camera flash reflects off their retinae.

Dixon concludes her book with a discussion of several handy iPhone accessories. For me, the first, a tripod, is the most useful. Portable, desktop models are fairly inexpensive, usually under $20, and I keep one on my desk for Be My Eyes tech calls to Microsoft and Google. It’s so much easier typing with the phone in a tripod, and the image is a lot steadier for the support worker, as well.

I may not use many of these advanced editing and enhancements features, but at least now I know what’s there and what’s possible. For example, did you know that beginning with the iPhone 11, you can set the camera to automatically include more picture than what is shown within the viewfinder? Ever had someone tell you, “That’s an amazing picture, but you cut off the very top of your subject’s head.” On the latest iPhone, for 30 days after taking a shot you can bring in the extra image information and edit it into the printable or viewable photograph. Cool.

The Big Picture

Dixon has made a hobby out of improving her photography, and has a photo coach to help her evaluate and improve her work. You may not. You may also be asking yourself, besides knowing how to shoot a good enough picture to do OCR on a restaurant menu or box of instant rice, or texting a quick selfie from a try-on room to see what your sister thinks of these jeans, why would I even care about photos? Want to share pictures from a party? There are other guests who are doing a much better job than you could and they would be happy to share. And that fireworks show you attended? Other snap-happy attendees are sharing pics while the explosions are still ka-booming overhead.

But what about the afternoon when your wife and granddaughter were working together on a craft project and there was no one else around? Or the national convention outing to Disneyworld you’d like to share with family back home on Facebook or Instagram?

There are many reasons why you might want to read this book and improve your picture-taking skills. Perhaps the best reason is the one I suspect is behind Judy Dixon's pursuit of the hobby: Because it’s possible, and because she can.

Product Information

Book: Capturing and Sharing the World: Taking Photos and Videos with an iPhone, by Judy Dixon Available from: The National Braille Press in Braille, Daisy download, eBraille, Large Print, and MS Word formats Price: $18; add $2.50 to purchase one of the digital formats preloaded onto a USB drive.

This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.

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Bill Holton
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Book Reviews