Future Reflections        Winter 2013

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Photography for All

by Luis Pérez
From the Editor: Luis Pérez is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Special Education at the University of South Florida. His dissertation focuses upon the lived experiences of graduate students with visual disabilities. In 2009, Luis was selected as an Apple Distinguished Educator. He has served as the webmaster for his local chapter of the NFB in Hillsborough County, Florida, and created a public service announcement about white cane safety that can be viewed at <http://bit.ly/whitecanesafety>.

"To photograph is to put on the same line of sight the head, the eye, and the heart."
--Henri Cartier-Bresson

For me, this quote by the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who is considered by many to be the father of modern photojournalism, captures the essence of photography. I have a visual impairment due to an eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa (RP) that has left me with less than ten degrees of central vision. Nevertheless, my passion to capture the beauty and richness of the visual world has not diminished. I have found that learning about photography is relatively easy, given the host of online resources and communities available to someone starting out with this hobby. I can compensate for my vision loss through the accessibility features built into the smartphone I always carry around with me. This convergence of passion, knowledge, and accessible tools allowed me to pursue photography as a hobby after I learned that I was losing my sight.

Blind Photographers

"Florida Sunset," Photo by Luis PérezAround the time I was diagnosed with RP, digital photography was coming into its own. With a digital camera, I do not have to worry about the cost of developing the many photos I often take before I capture an image just right. With traditional photography, the cost of purchasing film would have made the hobby too expensive for me.

Digital photography solved the problem of cost, and the development of smartphones with powerful cameras solved the problem of actually being able to take pictures. With a smartphone, the act of photographing is reduced to its most essential elements--point the camera at a scene and snap! Not having to worry about all the dials and knobs is very freeing for me. I can focus my creative energy on actually capturing what I can see in front of me. As accessibility features are added to smartphones, photography has become even more accessible and enjoyable for me.

I am not the only person with a visual impairment who considers digital photography an important part of his or her life. On the Flickr photo-sharing site, more than three hundred blind photographers have come together to share their best shots and to provide advice and support for other blind people who want to get started with photography. The only rules for joining this community are a Flickr account and a willingness to introduce oneself and tell one's personal story. The group (which can be found at <www.flickr.com/groups/blind_photographers> captures the social component of photography. Yes, we take photos because we find something in the world that captures our attention aesthetically or emotionally. But the next major component of photography is the wish to share what we've captured with the important people in our lives. The blind photography group on Flickr provides a social space where blind photographers can share their photos, not only with each other, but with family members and friends.

The desire of blind people to take photos has also been documented in the academic literature. As part of a collaboration between researchers at Rochester and Washington Universities, an online survey about photography was sent to various organizations, mailing lists, and companies that serve the blind. Of the 118 respondents, 71 percent said they had used a camera recently. The top reason given for using a camera was to take photos of family, friends, trips, and events (62 percent of respondents). A majority (52 of 84 respondents) said they took photos as a hobby or experiment (Jayant, Ji, White, and Bigham). Only two of the respondents did not think they could use a camera at all. The survey results show a strong desire among blind and visually impaired people to take photographs, even in the absence of accessible cameras.

"Sunflower," Photo by Luis PérezDespite the fact that they lack accessibility features, on occasion I still use a traditional digital camera to take photos. I feel that the act of taking a photo as a political statement is as important to me as the photo itself. When I come to a scene and pull out my camera while holding my white cane, people are forced to question their preconceived ideas about what blind people can accomplish. However, these days I do most of my photography with my smartphone, using its many built-in accessibility features. The smartphone (in my case it is an iPhone) is also much smaller and easier to work with, which is important for me because I often have a cane in my other hand when I take photos.

In this article I will focus on the iPhone because it is the type of phone I use. However, other smartphones (such as those running Android or Windows) now also have powerful built-in cameras, and their accessibility is improving. The cameras on the iPad and the iPod Touch also have improved with recent releases of those products. They are now good options for mobile photography. Since they run the same iOS software as the iPhone, the features discussed in this article (including the built-in accessibility support) will apply to those devices as well.

Accessibility Features

My first smartphone was the original iPhone released back in 2007. Its only accessibility feature was the ability to pinch in to zoom for a better view while reading web pages. Not only has Apple improved the quality of the camera on the iPhone (it now has eight megapixels), but it has added a number of accessibility features that make the iPhone the most accessible camera for the blind I know. These features include:

Starting with iOS 5, the built-in Camera app is compatible with VoiceOver. It allows someone who is totally blind to take a photo with the iPhone or iPad. To take a photo with VoiceOver on your iPhone or iPad:

1. Launch the Camera app while VoiceOver is turned on. To do this, drag one finger around on the screen until VoiceOver announces that it has landed on the Camera app. Then double-tap anywhere on the screen with one finger to launch the app.

2. Use a similar technique to interact with the various controls within the Camera app:

Once you have selected the camera and set your options, move your finger near the middle of the screen. For photos of objects, VoiceOver will announce when the camera has autofocused. For photos of people, VoiceOver will use facial-recognition technology to announce the number of people in the frame and give their positions, as well as the size of the faces (i.e., "one face, large face, centered.") At that point, you can take a photo in three different ways:

I prefer the latter two techniques, as they make it easier for me to hold the phone steady in order to get a sharp photo. Double-tapping the screen can cause device shake, which results in blurry photos.

Other Possibilities

To work with the photo you just captured, move your finger to the lower right corner and double-tap to open the Photo Viewer. Once in the Photo Viewer, you can delete a photo by selecting it, moving your finger to the lower right corner to select Trash, and double-tapping with one finger. To share a photo, select it, choose the Action button at the bottom of the screen, and double-tap with one finger to hear the available options. The options include emailing the photo, sending it in a text message, and posting it to Twitter or Facebook. To take additional photos, move your finger to the lower left and choose Return to Camera.

A new option in iOS 6 is the ability to take a panoramic photo. To take this kind of image, select Panorama from the options of the Camera app (top center), snap the photo as you normally would, then move your phone around you from left to right or vice versa. As you move the phone, VoiceOver will help you keep it in a straight line by announcing when you need to raise or lower it. When you've captured the desired area of the panorama, release the shutter one more time and the image will be captured and saved to the Camera Roll.

In addition to the built-in Camera app, there is a wide selection of apps for capturing, editing, and sharing photos in Apple's App Store. However, the support for VoiceOver varies from app to app, depending on how well the developer has labeled the buttons and other controls. The Apple apps tend to have the best support of all. In addition to the Camera app, the built-in Photos app allows you to manage and share photos, and the iPhoto app ($4.99 in the App Store) allows you to edit them. Among the third party apps, I have found the popular Instagram app (free) to be one of the easiest to use. It provides a complete workflow for capturing, editing, and sharing photos within one app. Tommy Edison has posted a video on YouTube that shows how a blind person can use the Instagram app. This tutorial is available at <http://bit.ly/TommyEdisoninstagram>.

Along with the apps, numerous accessories make it easier to take photos if you have low vision. Among the ones I have found most helpful are the following (all can be purchased at amazon.com):

An alternative workflow for editing photos for people with low vision is to use a traditional digital camera to take the photo and then edit it on the larger screen of the iPad. This requires the purchase of an Apple iPad Camera Kit for connecting the camera to the iPad with a USB cable. The kit also includes a card reader for transferring photos directly from your camera's memory card. My choice of camera for this kind of workflow has been my Sony NEX-5N. The Sony NEX-5N is a mirrorless camera. It has the capabilities of a traditional digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera (such as the option for interchangeable lenses and fast image capture), but removing the mirror makes these cameras much smaller and lighter than other DSLR cameras. I can easily compose an image with one hand with this camera while holding my cane with the other. While I use the Sony NEX-5N, other companies such as Nikon and Olympus have similar mirrorless cameras in their camera lineups.

As with the iPhone, images are composed with a touchscreen on a mirrorless camera. My loss of peripheral vision, which makes it difficult for me to look through a viewfinder, encouraged me to move to a mirrorless camera in order to compose my photos as I had been doing with the iPhone. The only drawback with this type of camera is that, as with the iPhone, it can be difficult to see the screen in bright light. However, a number of shades and anti-glare covers for the touchscreen can be purchased to address this issue.

The future for blind photography is bright. The same support for accessibility available on Apple devices is being embraced by other companies such as Google and Microsoft. For example, devices running the latest version of Android include two features called TalkBack and Explore by Touch that are similar to the VoiceOver screen reader on Apple devices. An even newer development is the introduction of point-and-shoot cameras that have Wi-Fi connectivity and run a customized version of Android. It is my hope that camera companies will choose to keep the accessibility features of the smartphone software when they adopt it for the next generation of connected cameras. If they do, our ability to capture the beauty around us through photography will only be limited by our desire to learn and our passion for the hobby. I hope more blind people will join me on this journey of exploration and experimentation. I hope they will post their photos on Instagram for all of us to see. You can reach me at <http://instagram.com/lfp1211> Keep on snapping!


Jayant, C., Ji, H., White, S., and Bigham, J. (2011). Supporting blind photography. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Computers and Accessibility (ASSETS 2011). Dundee, Scotland.

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