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Augment your reality

22 February 2022

New Zealand Professional Photographer of the Year, Richard Wood, explores the way augmented reality technology is expanding what is possible in photography

Photos | Richard Wood

There is never a shortage of new apps and technologies popping up in the world of digital imagery; many disappear as quickly as they surface while others stick around as something more valuable than mere gimmick. Although it has been a slow road to household name status, augmented reality (AR) technology is gradually becoming the latter — an increasingly powerful option for photographic expression. 

Canon 5D Mark IV, 50mm, 1/200s, f/7.1, ISO 100

What is augmented reality?

As it says on the box, augmented reality is a way of adding to reality. Take a real-world environment and overlay additional digital elements — usually using a smartphone as the interface — to enhance the scene with additional information, new imagery, music, and sounds. That’s augmented reality.

A popular application of AR is the phone game, Pokémon GO. In that game, players move through the real world, their movements tracked via the phone’s map and GPS functions, searching for game characters they can interact with. Pointing the phone camera at the street in front of them, players will see a Pokémon character animated on top of their view of the street displayed on the phone screen, making it seem as if the Pokémon is right there on the street.

Loads of fun for the kids on lockdown walks, perhaps, but what does AR have to do with photography? Potentially, a lot. Perhaps one of the best-known uses of AR for photography is the Sun Seeker app, which allows you to point your phone camera at the sky to discover the strength and direction of the sunlight at any point in time.  

That’s a fairly functional example of AR at work, but there’s also ample creative potential within the technology, just waiting for the right trailblazing artists to show the way. Here in Aotearoa, we may just have found that pioneer in Richard Wood, who was this year named New Zealand Professional Photographer of the Year for the fourth time.

Canon 5D Mark IV, 50mm, 1/200s, f/10, ISO 100

AR and photography

There are a number of different ways in which AR is currently being implemented in photography, particularly when it comes to museums and art galleries, where it can be used to provide additional information about a work of art — just point your phone at the artwork and up pops explanatory text, audio narration, or video.

It was exhibitions such as these that first inspired Richard to look at incorporating AR into some of his imagery. 

“My thoughts were: what if I could make my photography come to life in the same way?” he explains.

Already noted for his richly evocative creative portraiture, the photographer cast his mind back to his Bachelor of Design days, when he learned some basic animation techniques and programmes alongside studying photography. When this year’s Iris Professional Photography Awards rolled around, Richard had a whole portfolio that could now spring to life, thanks to augmented reality.

Canon 5D Mark IV, 50mm, 1/200s, f/7.1, ISO 100

Viewers who have installed the Artivive app on their smartphone can point the phone camera at one of Richard’s AR-enhanced photos and the software will recognise what it is seeing and link it to attached content. In the case of Richard’s beautiful portraits, the app identifies the image and loads in subtle animations, movements, sound effects, and music.

It wasn’t the augmented reality that scored Richard the top nod at the awards; aside from one mixed media entry, the judges only saw still prints when they awarded him wins in both the Expressive and Portrait Open categories, before going on to take the grand prize. But it is undeniable that those who got to see Richard’s portraits come to life through their phone screens were in for something very special.

You are most welcome to see for yourself: if you have the Artivive app on your phone, just point the camera at the images on these very pages and see them come to life before your eyes.

Canon 5D Mark IV, 50mm, 1/200s, f/7.1, ISO 100

How it is done

Although it might seem to be from the future imagined by Back to the Future Part II, AR can actually be implemented relatively simply, depending on what you want to do with it.

Thanks to the pandemic, we are all now well familiar with QR codes; AR works in a very similar fashion. An image in the real world acts as a trigger to tell the app to load a specific bit of content. At its simplest, you could point a phone at an image in the world, the app will recognise it and replace the image with something else on screen. These kinds of things are very easy to set up, says Richard.

“The Artivive app can be so simple that you just drop in the photo that you want it to recognise and then drop in the photo you want it to turn to, or drop in the video you want it to turn into.”

When animation gets added to the mix, things understandably get a bit more involved. Richard says that photographers with a good handle on Photoshop, however, will already have a leg-up in the learning process, as many of the same techniques can be applied in Adobe’s motion graphics software, After Effects.

“Having all that Photoshop knowledge of different layer modes and that sort of thing helped me make it work,” he explains. “You’d want a basis of Photoshop knowledge to go in and start with Adobe After Effects.”

AR software gives users the ability to go as simple or complex as they want with AR content, from basic linked content through to three-dimensional interactive interfaces.Although Richard’s gorgeous AR works look like the result of countless hours at the computer, he says they don’t take as long as you might imagine.

“If it’s something very simple in AR, I can whip it up in a couple of hours. I’m not doing horrendously difficult things.”

Canon 5D Mark IV, 50mm, 1/160s, f/8, ISO 100

Future uses

Augmented reality is not the newest tech trend around, nor has it yet hit the critical mass of a truly ubiquitous daily technology, but, considering its creative and commercial potential, it’s something forward-thinking photographers would do well to take stock of.     

Richard is already seeing AR play an interesting role in his commercial work. A current campaign with Festival Opera has seen him shoot a number of character posters that have been plastered in public. Point your phone at these and the characters will blink to life, with a sample of the event’s music playing underneath. Richard also sees its potential as a selling point for some of his art pieces.

“Someone [might be] sitting there thinking, ‘I’d love this for the home’; if  they realise they can point their phone at it and it does something else, that’s a great sales push.”

The possibilities become truly exciting when Richard starts to describe what the future of this technology might look like. He imagines a 36-inch wedding portrait hanging on the wall that, when visitors point their phone at it, will play a couple’s wedding video; or business cards that, when under the smartphone lens, play a video introduction; a tiny advertisement on a page that opens up into an expansive digital display of info and imagery.

It’s when the photographer imagines personal applications that things get truly heart-warming. His prized possession is a portrait of him and his daughter, Emilie-Rose, shot by photographer superstar Sue Bryce.   

“It has been printed and preserved beautifully, so Emilie-Rose will have it when she’s older. But what if one day she can point her phone at it and, rather than it coming to life, it just has a letter to her read in my voice? I could be long gone from this planet, but, whenever she wants to, she can point her phone at that portrait and hear me talking to her.”

Augmented reality technology is a tool, just like a tripod, a roll of film, or a computer. It is there to be used by any creative with the nerve, and just how far it can take things creatively is really only limited by an artist’s imagination.

To see more of Richard Wood’s award-winning work, visit