Is an iPhone the only camera you need?

Ten years ago, I remember holding a cell phone and thinking how cool it would be if it also contained a camera.  In fact, I was using a Palm Pilot to organize myself, a CD Player for music, my Nokia, and a 1 Megapixel digital camera.  I usually carted this all around in a backpack.  I’m not Nostradamus (more like Nostra-dumb-as), but I frequently hypothesized that there would one day be a device that did all those things and could fit in your pocket.  It seemed ludicrous at the time, but everything was heading that way.

The first digital camera I had was a Hewlett Packard 1MP camera (an HP camera?!?!).  In hindsight, it was atrocious.  But I thought it was freakin’ awesome.  A camera that didn’t use film?  I was sold.  The pictures were pixelated and there really wasn’t any accessible editing software.  You pretty much just managed your jpg’s in a file folder on your computer.

Obviously, we’ve come a long way, baby.  The iPhone changed the game and has become my phone, music player, organizer, camera-in-a-pinch, etc. of choice.  I’ve had every generation of iPhone and I’m an Apple fan for life.  Over the years, photography shifted from something that was just a hobby to something that I obsessed over.  The last four years especially, I’ve studied hundreds of hours and taken tens of thousands of photos.  I’ve been blessed to be able to use some great gear, Canon 5DmkII’s and L lenses aplenty.

So, I can honestly say that I’ve seen what the finest gear can do in the hands of a pro photographer.  There are so many photographers that blow me out of the water with what they are doing with the very same camera, lenses, and lighting gear that I use.

That brings me back to the point of this post…is an iPhone the only camera you need?  I’ve been seeing a lot of top pro photographers that are moonlighting with iPhones as their primary camera for side projects.  The first time I saw this was in a video on the fantastic site, F-Stoppers.  They shot a video here, where they did a fashion shoot on just an iPhone.  Great video!

Then, famous lifestyle photographer, Chase Jarvis, released a great iPhone app called “Best Camera”.  “Best Camera” being a take on the famous photography line:  The best camera is the camera you have with you.

Today, I was on Twitter and I came across a few tweets from and about the awesome photographer and humanitarian, Jeremy Cowart, touting his new iPhone-only project.  Here’s an excerpt from Jeremy’s site describing it:

My 2011 New Years resolution was “more personal work”. Little did I know it would be with an iPhone. I went on a volunteer trip with Hope International during the 1-year anniversary of the Haiti earthquake. In between shoots for Hope, I randomly started shooting with my iPhone and quickly became interested in the possibilities. I found that the iPhone gave me better access to my surroundings. Sometimes a big DSLR can intimidate people or draw a scene so the idea was to document everything in a subtle, respectful way and the iPhone allowed for just that.

I looked at these photos and I was struck by the fantastic composition and Jeremy’s vivid imagination.  He’s just a great photographer, but the images are lacking in many key areas.   There is literally no control over your images with an iPhone, so you can’t control the depth of field, shutter speed, or ISO.  Also, the range of the sensor is drastically less than any of the Nikon or Canon DSLR’s.  This is why you see no detail in the childrens’ faces, due to the tone of their skin relative to the brighter spots in the camera.  Literally, the camera can’t process the contrast, so it drops out all the shadow detail. What we’re left with when taking pictures with our iPhones is having to add a cool Instagram-ish filter to make up for the severe limitations in the original image.

Admittedly, I had not read all of his explanatory paragraph above, and my curiosity was piqued as to why a top-notch photographer like Jeremy would fore-go the use of a great camera for an inferior weapon of choice, so I tweeted him.  Being that I’m a little fish in the twitter world, I figured the only way he would respond is if I threw out something somewhat witty and contrarian.  Here is our exchange…

khail says:
Tiger could beat me w/ just his putter, but I’d rather see him play w/ all his clubs. @jeremycowart, pls use an SLR, not an iPhone. #photog

jeremycowart says:
@khail it’s a great break for me. After all, SLRs really aren’t that interesting. And it’d be fun to see tiger play with a putter.

khail says:
@jeremycowart If you think an iPhone is fun to shoot with, I’ve got an old Nokia that’s itching to go on a trip to Haiti!

jeremycowart says:
@khail I’m game 🙂

khail says:
@jeremycowart Now THAT is a great project. You and a bunch of other top photogs draw from a bag of crappy cam phones. See what happens.

jeremycowart says:
@khail Oh, I’d be in heaven. I love that stuff. Anything that combines experimenting and photography, I’m in.

khail says:
@jeremycowart I bet you @JoeMcNallyPhoto and @joeyldotcom would do it. It’s their cup of tea to prove that simplicity is king. Good luck! 🙂

khail says:
@jeremycowart The CC Project (Crappiest Camera)

Jeremy is a class act. He could have been defensive or just ignored me, but he was gracious enough to respond and even joke around.  And I’m so glad that he understood that I was, first and foremost, complimenting him.  There are some real jewels in what he said.  He can have any camera he wants, but he has come to find $10,000 SLR/Lens combos uninteresting.  Why is that? Many photographers feel that if they can only get that next lens that they will suddenly become a Jeremy Cowart or Joe McNally.  These guys shoot ALL THE TIME.  So the first answer is…they just get plain old bored.  Day in and day out they’re having to create artistic, appealing images while running a business and satisfying their clients.  A great, professional photographer must be both incredibly artistic and incredibly pragmatic, simultaneously.

Cameras and gear are just tools to these guys.  Amateurs often look at gear and personify the gear as the photographer they aspire to be.  The most frequent question I get from amateurs is, “what kind of camera do you use?”  Usually, followed by, “Yeah, I’d like to get a camera like that so I could shoot images like yours.”  On the inside, I’m laughing thinking, “okay, and I suppose you’ll spend 1,000 hours reading books, taking classes and tutorials, and shoot 50,000 images by the next time I see your images?”

A guy like Cowart looks at his gear as a hammer, or a chisel, or a screwdriver, just tools.  He knows what image he needs to get and he selects a tool to get the shot he wants.  It is not accidental when he arrives at a masterpiece.  When a pro first starts in photography, he starts like the rest of us…on Auto mode, then it’s “well, what does this mode do?” And as he moves from lesson to lesson, his toolbox grows bigger and bigger.  Until he can arrive at a place where a client can pay him and he will predictably deliver a work of art.  He’s not crossing his fingers hoping that his camera will figure out what he wants.  He’s telling it what to do.

Using an iPhone for a camera is a bit like leaving behind the electric woodworking machinery and choosing a pocket knife to whittle a piece of art out of wood.  It’s a challenge, plain and simple. It’s like saying, “Am I good enough to make a compelling image using a camera that millions of people are walking around with in their pocket?”  And you know what, Jeremy’s Haiti iPhone images are as good and compelling as you can get out of an iPhone.  But last years’ Voices of Haiti photos were in the U.N., seen by President Obama and the worlds’ leaders because Jeremy brought out the big guns and produced true masterpieces.

I think that different audiences see Jeremy’s iPhone photos and have different responses. A lot of pros see them and think, “man, that sounds like fun.” It’s like a breath of fresh air, to just bring things back to basics.  Plus, it’s really nice to leave the hotel room and not have 10 pounds of camera gear with you everywhere you go.  Hobbyists see them and say, “yeah, maybe I need to just learn my gear a bit more.”  And beginners think, “yeah, I can do that”.

Here’s the advice I’d give the different groups:

Pros: Have fun.  Grab an iPhone and practice composition. Simplify and get your joy back.

Hobbyists: Master your gear and quit buying new stuff, until you have a strong handle on the stuff you’ve already bought.  Leave the iPhone in your pocket and get better and better at controlling your gear until you can accurately nail the shot you want, and quit vomiting up all your images onto Facebook thinking every one of them is ready to run in National Geographic.

Beginners: Beg, steal, and borrow to get a DSLR and learn photography.  Read about composition and practice, practice, practice.

So if there’s a point to this article, it’s this: In my humble opinion, you will not find a shortcut past Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule”, if you want to be truly great at photography.  It’s a joy, though, to learn. Learning is not a necessary evil.  In my eyes, it is the best part of the journey.  Watching yourself improve after adding another skill to your repertoire will give you great satisfaction.  There’s nothing like crafting an image in your mind and making it happen through preparation, planning, creativity, teamwork, and sheer willpower.

I’m not suggesting you don’t ever use your iPhone to snap photos, but if you’re serious about becoming a photographer and you’re an amateur, get a DSLR and keep that sucker hanging off your neck every dang time you walk out the door.  Then one day when you’re a pro and are worn out and looking for a challenge, break out your iPhone 10 and snap some shots.

UPDATE: Jeremy Cowart tweeted this blog post out to his followers, and Joe McNally and Zach Arias followed me on Twitter after reading it, so this was the highlight of my week. Thank you guys!

Tweets that mention Is an iPhone the only camera you need? » Kevin Hail Photography -- - January 21, 2011 - 5:04 am

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Danielle - January 21, 2011 - 5:35 am

I agree with most of this post. It is written well.. However is the DSLR really the big “aura” of photography that everyone aspires to these days? It’s fine but after shooting film and shooting A LOT of it I learned a lot about composition and exposing images the way I want. Anyway I agree with the cool challenge of iphones or other camera phones. They are fun and readily available, if you don’t already carry a point and shoot. Thanks for writing 8)

Amy - January 21, 2011 - 5:49 am

Excellent post! My iPhone has absolutely become my camera in a pinch (the best camera is the one that’s with you indeed!). It’s just not feasible for my 100 pound petite person to lug around (at least) 10 pounds of camera equipment everywhere I go unless it’s for a paid and/or well thought out personal project.

I dig your advice though – for those amateurs that really want to be serious, seriously ditch your P+S. In fact, ditch the DSLR and get back to basics with a film camera and a darkroom class.

When asked about getting started in the field, I tell people to get in the darkroom because they’ll not only have a better understanding of the medium and how a camera works, but a deeper appreciation of photography in general. Some get really stoked and do it. Some retort that it’s a waste of time and they aren’t interested in shooting film; that it’s a thing of the past. And that makes me want to cry every time.

Kevin - January 21, 2011 - 6:10 am

Is it the “D” in DSLR that’s bothering you? Cause I will gladly drop it and just say SLR! Haha. I am referring to control. SLR’s have them. If you want to use a film camera, that’s great. There is a purity that I deeply admire. I have found Photoshop to be adequate as my darkroom. I can get the results I want with much less cost and time. It just works for me and probably most people. But, again, I really admire film photographers that expose their own film. Thanks for commenting!

Kevin - January 21, 2011 - 6:15 am

Tell me about it. It’s a beating to carry around a bunch of gear. I was in Asia touring around and I missed a lot of great photo ops because I finally just hit the limit of what I was willing to carry. I think you have to know your limits. I don’t begrudge anybody for using a point and shoot or iPhone. At least their taking pictures. I just know that to gain mastery, you have to spend a good amount of time working on a camera with real aperture and shutter speed control. And that’s not even talking about lighting. That’s where you really get paid. Being able to control strobes.

Thank you for commenting. I enjoyed looking at your blog. You are really good!

Megan Rieff - January 21, 2011 - 7:20 pm

Wow Kevin,
This is one of the most honest photographer blog posts that I’ve read in a while. It was good to get some honest perspective on what other professionals are thinking about this. I’ve been contemplating Jeremy’s project for the past few days, and it was interesting to have another perspective. I suppose, however, that no matter what you think about the project it has gained him a lot of publicity– which with over 10,000 fans on Facebook he may not necessarily NEED it.

Kevin - January 21, 2011 - 8:03 pm

Megan, thank you. Jeremy is incredibly influential and for good reason. The guy is just a great person and an extremely talented photographer. I decided to dig in a bit rather than just say, “Great images, Jeremy”. Us photographers have to stick together! Our clients often beat us up pretty good, so it’s nice to have fellow photographers encouraging us. We so often don’t want to challenge each other. I really wasn’t trying to challenge him as much as I was trying to understand the point that he was trying to make, because I’ve seen so many other trying to make it, recently.

Really, I took away from Jeremy that he just likes to be challenged. That’s cool in my book. So many people, however, could mistake that for a deeper point about photography. The rise of Instagram, Hipstamatic, etc., has caused a lot of beginners to think that they can shortcut the hard work and be just as good as someone like Jeremy. That’s just bunk.

Thanks for the comment!

Stan Hornick - May 30, 2013 - 1:04 am

How ironic. I’m reading this and Canon is advertising why use this (smart phone) when you can use this Canon EOS. I’m still using my Contax with my Carl Zeiss & Tamron lenses.

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