Is the Cellphone the New Polaroid?

Is the Cellphone the New Polaroid?

PDN’s David Walker did a phone interview with Shawn Rocco, a staff photographer from the North Carolina News and Observer, to discuss his cellphone photography. Cellphones  outnumber standalone cameras by a huge margin, and we’ve already seen numerous examples of cellphone as the tool of choice for citizen journalism. But cellphone as the camera of choice for a professional hasn’t quite emerged as the paradigm of the day.

I didn’t get it at first. Why use a cellphone when could use a point-and-shoot with infinitely higher quality like a Canon G10 or a Nikon P6000? But Rocco contends that it basically takes technology out of the equation.

The fact that he goes back in and photoshops the image would seem to be antithetical to his position, since he’s trying to squeeze out quality that doesn’t really exist. But on the other hand, we all do it. So why shouldn’t a cellphone image be photoshopped?

The biggest point that his photography reinforces for me is that a camera of any type in the hands of a good photographer produces good images. He has learned to see through the cellphone and he has learned how to get around its technical limitations and quirks. And more recently on his blog, Cellular Obsucra, he’s started publishing larger images, and they look fantastic.


Photo by Shawn Rocco

Here’s one of the President back in March 08.


Photo by Shawn Rocco

Photo by Shawn Rocco


Photo by Shawn Rocco


Photo by Shawn Rocco

Send your D3X to me, and go shoot with your cellphone.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter. He co-hosts the "I Love Photography" podcast on iTunes.

There are 4 comments for this article
  1. James at 1:40 am

    The images look great. As to the title: Is the cellphone the new polaroid? I’d say no. Althought I guess it depends on what you see the polaroid as. I’ve never seen it simply as poor quality photo. I’ve seen it as: a) A fun instant print image with a cool shape/package/feel that looks better on the wall than a 4×6 print. And a cell phone ain’t replacing that. b) A good test shot for a medium format camera. And a cell phone ain’t replacing that. David Hobby at Strobist had a good post a while back on how the Canon G9 (now G10) was doing this just fine though: I do see how it is convenient. How you can upload quickly (if you don’t want to post-process). But it doesn’t have the charm of a polaroid print in my opinion. As cell phone cameras are only going to get better – essentially becoming the Canon G10, then our definitions of cameras/phones will be transgressed.

  2. shawnrocco at 1:32 am

    Allen, James – Thanks for the kind words and discussion. I’d like to respond to a few points. Though both are relatively instamatic and with both you’re kind of at the mercy to the technology… chemistry… temperature… how long you shake the developing print… I agree with Jim; I don’t think cellphones are the new Polaroid. I equate cells more to the Kodak Brownie of this generation; popularizing low-cost photography, the majority of which are simple snapshots, but affording more people the ability to document their world and therefore the opportunity to educate the rest of us about our world. I guess the point I was making by comparing the two was that there’s a certain feeling… texture… atmosphere… grit… to my cellular photos which is distinguishable (in my view) from my 35mm digital camera. Distinguishable along the lines that Polaroid was. You knew it when you saw it. And that’s how I came about connecting one to another. And grit (to a degree, there are limits) feels more real, has a warmth, than the ones and zeros of today’s megalopixel cameras. Sometimes those cameras deliver an image which seems too realistic. Too clean. Too perfect, almost to a fault. Now (as a photojournalist understanding, respecting and adhering to the ethics of the profession) those are not negatives, but I try not to subscribe to the notion that ever increasing megalopixelmania is necessarily a good thing. Just give me a camera that can best interpret my angle of view of the world and keep it simple, but with acceptable results. I love my G9. Never go anywhere without it. But the physics of the lens on this cellphone is also what compels me to use it over and over again. For whatever technical reason or aspect ratio explanation, the scene that is presented before me when i compose the shot feels more in line with my artistic vision of this world than with most of my other (35mm) equipment. (fwiw… my RZ and Linhof 4×5 used to do the same trick but they’ve been put into semi-retirement for various reasons). And James it’s funny you mentioned that strobist post. I used the G9 as a Polaroid test for actual Polaroids that I was shooting during a fun portrait session last year at the Southern Short Course. I had a limited supply and didn’t want to waste any on tests (David Hobby is in there towards the end). The irony… best, Shawn

  3. Tyler at 6:16 pm

    Yeah, in a way it replaces the Polaroid, or at least creates an equal of sorts. The cell phone is with us always and is there to take a quick real life snap anytime. It is not controlled by quality, perhaps freed by the lack of quality. If something isn’t ‘supposed’ to be good it doesn’t have something to live up to. That something that perhaps ruins lots of photography. Photography should be fun and simple. This is what the Polaroid was and that is what phoneotography is as well.

  4. Gabriel McIntosh at 10:47 am

    Cellphone photography is not the new Polaroid, and nor is it the new Brownie. It’s completely different. It’s unintended use of a direct communication device that recently communicates two ways with photography. Comparing camera phones to the Polaroid or Brownie is like comparing it to a Casio or a TI calculator, a function cell phones also replicate. People buy cellphones because they are cellphone not because they are cameras or calculators, though this may be a secondary or tertiary reason for purchasing a particular phone. Also, Polaroid was not ubiquitous like a cell phone. I know it’s tempting and sometime necessary to compare and relate contemporary happenings to the past. But this cell/camera/calculator phone thing is a new phenomenon that will create new art. Chack out my “cameraphone” book @

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