A British institution.

The British Journal of Photography has been around since Fox Talbot was snapping on his wet plates, meaning over 150 years. While today if you want detailed, insightful gear reviews you go to (if, that is, you can stomach the endless brand flame wars and detritus passing for Comments), until digital came along the place to go was the BJP.

Under its former long standing editor Geoffrey Crawley (editor 1966-87), you got technical analysis at a high level, unsullied by commercial considerations. Maybe his landmark work remains his review of one of the most advanced (and complex and expensive) cameras from the end of the film era, the Zeiss Ikon Contarex Super. He also extensively reviewed pro grade equipment, frequently Nikon and Canon hardware, each eventually accorded a book of his reviews.

When I was a kid you would find me every Saturday morning at the Kensington Public Library poring over the latest edition of the BJP, back when it was a weekly. The BJP was always a very serious – and slim – offering and once a year they used to publish an annual book of the best avant garde photography, containing some 150 pages – the BJP Almanac of Photography, to give it the full Victorian-era name. I remaindered my many issues a while back. What was purportedly new and modern in 1970 was simply awful in 2000. Tired, derivative, excessive. But it seemed like fun at the time.

Now the paper magazine is monthly and I’m not even sure if you can get it in the US. However, BJP just released an iPad app which I have been trying for a couple of days now, with mixed results.

What follows is based on my use on the iPad1. As the iPad1 represents fully 45% of all iPads ever sold, it doesn’t cut it to excuse slowness because of the more modest A4 CPU in this model. It accounts for almost half of all readership, after all. Maybe it’s faster with the A5 in iPad2? I do not know as I do not own one.

The blinking model on the cover of the first issue. A needless gimmick.

The first issue is free if, that is, you can figure out how to download it, matters being made worse by the fact that a couple of the articles in it are also advertised as for sale. Stability is reasonable – I was kicked out a couple of times in a couple of hours of browsing, and returned to the last page viewed. Screen refresh rates are so-so – it takes a couple of seconds for the image to sharpen. Zinio started much like this and progressively improved. BJP has to do better if it is to succeed as an online publication. Blur-to-sharp delays look most unappealing. Navigation is sub-optimal. Sometimes a touch-and-drag is refused. You flick side-to-side to view photographs yet many pages require the iPad be turned to landscape to view the 5% of the image cut off in portrait mode. Everything should be in portrait fit – that’s how we read. Keep the landscape option, by all means, but make everything fit in the portrait orientation. Worse, when the content switches from photograph to text, the text has to be scrolled vertically rather than simply continuing to the next page. Consistency of finger motions between pages is a must for touch screen consumption.

One of the (many) index pages.

I have no idea what the eventual price will be but if I have a major issue with the iPad magazine it is that the editors seem to have forgotten the old dictum that ‘less is more’. The first issue resembles more of a core dump than edited content, running to some 182 unnumbered pages, and it’s simply too much. No working pro, who is after all the target audience here, will have the time to go through this sea of mediocrity in search of the occasional gem. Over half the pages contain photographs, which is good, but the content is shockingly mediocre. There are some two dozen photographers featured and most, names withheld, really should consider road construction or sewer cleaning as hobbies, where they would doubtless excel. A random search of online photoblogs will, for the most part, find better work. That one of the photographers interviewed seemingly prides himself on his ignorance of technique makes a statement about editorial policy in a pro magazine that I do not want to think about.

As for the gear reviews, they vary from poor to awful. with the one addressing the Sigma SD1 being one of the worst pieces of pseudo-technical clap trap I have ever read. It manages in one fell swoop to leave you confused, angry and dumber than when you started reading it. Quite an accomplishment.

Indexation is a mess. The main index at the front repeats every page of the many subsequent indexes buried in the body of the work. What is needed is a simple multiple choice main index – Features, Profiles, Technology – with a touch on any one of these jumping the reader to the relevant sub-index where the contents can be displayed without clutter or confusion. The sub-index, in turn, should have a ‘return to main index’ touch icon. As it is, the consolidated index page at the front is very hard to use, being one huge, scrolling mess. Simple always wins, especially within the space-constrained confines of an iPad’s display.

There are also a dozen or so gear advertisements – not enough, I fear, to sustain this effort – with many including videos to display features. The Hasselblad ads are especially well done.

It obviously took a lot of hard work to produce this massive tome, but hard work alone does not correlate with success. The publication needs the underlying code tightened and made to work faster and more responsively, indexation needs a major work over, the photography content needs drastic editing and a move to excellence and the gear reviews would best be dropped, being largely useless. These are done much better by any number of web sites and it’s hard to see how the BJP adds value here. Geofrrey Crawley must be spinning in his grave. You might as well read manufacturers’ press releases where the lies are more prolific, but the English far better.