There was a time in the recent past when professional photographers were getting acquainted with a new piece of technology called the smartphone. Sure, cellphones have had cameras since 2002, but those low resolution, low quality images didn’t inspire the masses, nor convince the pros. It really wasn’t until the emergence of the iPhone’s app ecosystem that professional photographers started to consider the phone as a series photographic tool.
Around 2010, we started to see a number of high profile photo essays by photographers using smartphones – most notably in war. The New York Times’ Damon Winter used both a Canon EOS 5D Mark II along with an iPhone and the Hipstamatic app while embedded with the US Army in North Afghanistan. Those images won third place in the Pictures of the Year International contest.
Photojournalist and 2010 Knight Fellow Teru Kuwayama shot much of his “Basetrack” project in Afghanistan on an iPhone. (Kuwayama now serves on the Instagram Community Team)
In Spring 2012, baseball photographer Brad Mangin brought his iPhone 4s to spring training in Arizona to begin experimenting with the low profile device that stood in stark contrast to his normal Canon DSLR and 400mm telephoto lens. That foray turned into his on-going Instant Baseball project.
In 2012, Ben Lowy shot the Superstorm Sandy cover of TIME magazine with an iPhone. Director of Photography Kira Pollack assigned Lowy and four other photographers to cover the storm in real-time on their phones.
In 2013, National Geographic contributing photographer James Richardson traveling to the Scottish Highlands with the iPhone 5s to put it through the paces, and came away more than impressed with the image quality and size.
Sheep at the Stones of Stenness in Orkney, Scotland. One of the reasons I like rural places is the improbable nature of life. When I asked farmer Jimmy Tulloch how he got the rights to graze sheep at the ancient stone circle he said "Because I own them! They were on the farm when I bought it!" He owns the Stones of Stenness. They are looked after by Historic Scotland. I think his dog's name is Red. @natgeo @natgeocreative #scotland #orkney
And with the impending shipment of the iPhone 7, the following galleries have been circulating:
- Landon Nordeman’s “iPhone 7 at the US Open” on ESPN
- David Klutho’s “iPhone 7 Plus Photos from the Titans-Vikings Game” on Sports Illustrated
- Corey Arnold’s “We Tested the iPhone 7’s Camera in Zion National Park” on TIME
The advancements in quality on the iPhone 7 and similar phones (like the Samsung Galaxy 7, Huawei P9, Sony Xperia X, etc) are nothing short of remarkable. The resolution, dynamic range, and image processing features of these phones mean that the devices are more than sufficient for nearly any type of photography (maybe with the exception of low light).
And that’s sort of my point. Phones with a camera were once a novelty that moved quickly into the mainstream, and have now become a deciding factor for most consumers. The sensor quality of the current generation of smartphones is easily equivalent to DSLRs from two generations ago, which was more than adequate.
So am I surprised that great photographers got great photos on this device? No.
The iPhone is a camera, and a very good one. We no longer have to treat it as a party trick, and celebrate using it as if we’re shooting an Oscar afterparty with an Instax. While viewing the photos on a laptop, I’d be hard pressed to discern Nordeman’s US Open images from his DSLR photos – but that was true of the iPhone 6. The device is fantastic and thus the only difference between Nordeman and me with iPhone in hand is that he’s a significantly better photographer. No piece of gear is going to change that equation.
Of course, Apple will continue to play up the quality of the iPhone’s camera. As a 2014 Samsung presentation pointed out, the quality of camera was the third most important buying decision. But the incremental improvements in image quality are a bit passé at this point, as is the commissioning of dedicated galleries shot by professional photographers in mainstream media outlets.
The next real revolution will be the normalization of computation photography on smartphones in a way that I’m not expecting DSLR/Mirrorless manufacturers to employ in the short term. Like the ubiquitous filters that accompany apps like Instagram, the forthcoming revolution of computational photography will represent a real divergence from “classic” photography and its insistence on optically-driven effects. This will shake the foundation of photography that most professionals accept as a truism (and what is ethically acceptable for photojournalists).
I’ll continue to enjoy great photos by great photographers, but someone wake me up when the equation is inverted and your smartphone can shoot something your DSLR can’t.