In Conversation: Mike Kus Talks Instagram and The Rise of Smartphone Photography
Since watching Mike’s recent ‘top tips’ video in support of the Huawei Next Image competition recently, we decided it would be good to speak with him about his approach to photography and, in particular, his use of smartphones in his workflow. So we did.
Mike Kus has to be one of the most talented creatives we’ve come across in some time. Working primarily as a designer, Mike’s Instagram account, which is made up primarily from his photography, has amassed more than 780,0000 followers. No mean feat for anyone but when you take into account that photography is not his first discipline, it’s a seriously impressive audience.
PhotoBite Editor, Simon Skinner, called Mike and discussed all manner of topics relating to the Huawei comp, but plenty more besides. Read on for the conversation in full.
Simon Skinner: Hi Mike. Great to meet you and thanks for your time today. So let’s get our bearings, you’re based in West Sussex, right?
Mike Kus: Yes, I’m based in Chichester. Not too far west from Brighton.
SS: Yes, I know Chichester. It’s a lovely place. We have an office in Brighton. It’s an office that no one has seen for almost five months, but I live just the other side to the east of Brighton, so not too far from where you are.
MK: It’s great to be by the sea, isn’t it?
SS: It certainly is! So, as explained in our opening gambit, we’ve been introduced through our coverage of the Huawei Next Image competition that’s running at the moment. It’s a competition that we’re aware of and that’s been running for a few years, now. When did it first launch, do you know?
MK: I’ve not been involved form the start but I believe it started in 2017 and it’s grown exponentially since. 2017. This year Huawei has seen a staggering 882,000 entries globally, which is 300,000 more than in 2019.
SS: That’s incredible. And that’s a lot of images! This is likely driven, to some degree, by the great list of prizes and accolades that are being offered by Huawei through the competition. We’ve posted details of these in our previous piece in PhotoBite, so we’ll place a link in the text for when it’s all transcribed. In the meantime, perhaps you can tell us a little about your life as a photographer and designer. Which came first, do the two disciplines marry up in your commercial work?
MK: Sure, well I’m a designer first and foremost. That’s what my career started out as and over the years, things have morphed and I’ve worked as a graphic designer, which then morphed into digital web design. Through that, I found myself getting more into tech and started to use smartphones as a means to take photographs; mainly because they were so convenient. I used to take photographs as a kid, using old film cameras, but it kind of left me for several years; mainly due to the inconvenience of having to carry a heavy camera around. So, when smartphones became easily accessible, I found myself taking more photos again; purely as a hobby at first and Instagram facilitated that. The combination of the two enabled me to get back into taking pictures again. I love the way that Instagram allows you to instantly share your photographs, getting feedback and generally sharing a bit about your life and the places you go. Over the years, and having built a bit of a following on Instagram, that brought me back to photography more and ultimately led to me balancing my career to involve more photography alongside my design work. I ended up doing more work through Instagram, which in turn allowed me to build more professional protography projects. The two disciplines do cross over occasionally but mainly, they run in tandem. Both form a part of my daily life. I still take the majority of my photographs, at least from a hobbyist point of view, using a smartphone. Being given the opportunity to make this film for Huawei and the Next Image competition is kinda’ like the perfect fit for me.
SS: Instagram arrived creating the perfect storm for mobile photography. It literally provided a platform for people to instantly share great images, which is something that ‘regular’ digital cameras have struggled to do. At what point do you think the technology became robust enough to factor into your workflow in a realistic sense; was it the advent of Instagram?
MK: It was certainly around that time, yeah. The technologies are improving year on year and in leaps and bounds, but it was a combination of those things and certainly the birth of Instagram that allowed me to make my first tentative steps into professional photography. The advent of capable smartphones; camera phones, was certainly a part of that, too. In recent years, we’ve seen smartphones all but completely decimate the compact camera market and now, they’re becoming so advanced, they’re even eyeing up DSLRs and mirrorless cameras in terms of tech and imaging capability.
SS: In many ways, Huawei’s devices have been leading the way. Not least due to their partnership with Leica, that’s given birth to some incredible innovations.
MK: indeed. They’re packed with lots of clever tech, like artificial intelligence, which emulates effects that are found in powerful camera systems and expensive lenses. It’s getting more powerful and convincing every year.
SS: And also with video capability, too. Processing power, image quality, stabilisation; all of these features are becoming more and more advanced.
MK: That’s right. I got into Instagram the day that it arrived and wrote a blog post about it the week after, where I said something along the lines of Instagram being, “The biggest thing to happen to photography since the invention of the camera.” I feel that the combination of being able to easily take pictures and having a place to share them, completely and utterly levels the playing field. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are. It’s more about being creative and having a keen eye. A lot of people have found themselves having unexpected photography careers and that’s a really cool thing. You’ll see the video that I made for the Next Image Competiton, it was all shot using Huawei’s latest P40 and P40 Pro handsets. I had a couple of each so that I could shoot with one whilst demonstrating with the other.
SS: This is the ‘top tips’ film, right?
MK: Yes. The film had a number of functions. Firstly, of course, it was to tell people about the competition with the theme of positivity through creativity. It’s a theme that’s really important at this moment in time, with people having been in lockdown. Sharing creativity online has provided a really positive experience for a lot of people. I feel like it was really relevant, providing a creative outlet for so many, which really is the spirit of the whole competition. Secondly, and in essence, I was giving a smartphone photography class; going through each of the categories and explaining the kinds of images and techniques that people could capture, whilst running through the features of the devices and how they can be utilised to create stunning pictures.
SS: Beyond the video, what has your role been within the Next Image competition this year?
MK: The video has been my main role, I guess, but I’ve also been really proactive in spreading the message that photography isn’t necessarily something that ‘other people’ do. Going back to the level playing field message, it is open for anyone and this initiative from Huawei demonstrates that perfectly.
SS: The deadline for the competition is coming up pretty quickly, [31st July 2020]; once the process of judging has been completed and winners have been announced, what kind of exposure can the winners expect in terms of coverage, beyond the initial announcements prize money/gadgets etc? Are there any galleries or prints/books being produced?
MK: I don’t know in terms of physical prints or books, but Huawei is creating a global image gallery on social media to help inspire amateur photographers and to share the creative talent the UK has to offer. The structure of the competition is different, too. There’s not the usual first, second and third paces, but something like 50 or 60 levels, meaning a lot of people will be getting their work recognised.
SS: So, for my final and probably most cheesy question of the interview. If you were to give one tip to anybody, what would be that that major tip or the major piece of advice that you might give to anybody thinking about taking their photography more seriously?
MK: Really, I think it starts with having a passion for taking pictures and building up a collection of images. Whether that be on Instagram, which as discussed is a good place to grow a collection of images. Also to take advice that’s offered and try to be consistent in building your style, whilst embracing what that is or what it’s becoming. The most important thing is just to keep making work, keep pushing yourself into what you can achieve, and keep trying new things and just bring up a really strong body of work. If you keep doing something new like the chances are other people will like it too. That’s a stolen quote, but one that I like and believe to be true.
SS: Absolutely. Thanks for your time, Mike.
Watch Mike’s masterclass video for the Huawei Next Image Competition below and head to their dedicated website to enter your images before the 31st July 2020. You can also enter the competition by sharing your pictures, tagging @huaweimobileuk #HuaweiNextImageUK #CapturedOnHuawei.