Apple’s Uninspired “Shot on iPhone” Winners

Apple’s Uninspired “Shot on iPhone” Winners

After a controversial launch surrounding photographer compensation, Apple announced the winners of its 2019 “Shot on iPhone” contest to highlight the “best photos shot on iPhone around the world.”

Photo by Alex Jiang (@justphotons)

Individually, the images have strong visual elements and graphic composition. But as a set, the images have a visual sameness that left me dissatisfied. Like many popular images of the Instagram generation, the winning photos depict the world as a saturated landscape nearly devoid of people. The images are bold in the way that sugar is sweet. Our immediate, visceral response is to “like,” but the sweetness masks any subtlety, nuance or detail.

Reaction around the office was muted:

Man, people really love water is what I thought.”

“Looks like a gallery of random Unsplash images.”

Photo by Dina Alfasi (@dinalf)

Within the vast landscape of photo competitions, there’s no uniformity in the way that contests are judged. Ideally, the judges would physically reside in the same location for the final round of judging to consider a range of issues, including the mix of images. Although Apple didn’t release any information about the judging process, I suspect the geographical diversity of the jury meant that no in-person judging took place. More likely, an internal Apple employee whittled down the thousands of entries, and had the judges either pick a single image each, or select a set that would be averaged into the winners.

The result? A set of images that isn’t so much about “outstanding” photography, as it is about standalone photography that will read well on a billboard or in-store display (in fairness, this usage was the stated purpose of the contest). No seasoned photo editor would have ever come up with this selection to represent the best photos shot on the device.

Eight of the ten images are curiously in portrait orientation. Three of the images utilize reflections in water. The commercial use of the images also means that having identifiable faces is a no-go since non-professionals usually don’t collect model releases. What is the meaning of an image that superficially melds tropes (a well-placed reflection and a puddle shaped like a heart) in a non-coherent way?

Apple has huge marketing reach, and the choices it makes (from product design to UX to photo contests) influence how consumers see the world. In an ideal world, the winning photos would show a range of subjects with visually diverse point-of-views. But this is not the case. Instead of inspiration, we’re led to believe that the paragon of photography resides on point-of-sale display in an Apple Store.

Photo by Nikita Yarosh (@yarosh.nikita_)

Apple’s entire business is predicated on the success of the iPhone, and they will develop marketing campaigns to facilitate that goal. Sadly, inspiration left the building a long time ago. We can celebrate the amazing technology powering modern smartphones, but look elsewhere to understand the wonder of photography.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 14 comments for this article
  1. Colin at 3:13 pm

    The apt building and the tennis court are outstanding for their color and composition. The puddle is, as you say, cliched. The landscape is technically excellent but routine.

    • David at 11:44 pm

      Well, you may think the puddle is cliché, but it is really well done. I mean, it’s not like no one has ever reversed the orientation of a reflection in a body of water before, but this one really works. And it’s still a trick capturing decisive moments with a cellphone camera, so i’ll give them points for that. BTW, this is the rest of what they do with their iPhone so this photo isn’t a fluke.

  2. Les at 7:42 pm

    Its not so much that the images are uninspiring, while it is true. Its that it propagates the use of a certain tool that I find the most annoying. Obviously we know this is for marketing purposes. But my main issue is that it uses a myth (the camera matters) into another myth. Yeah you can shoot these images on an iPhone … but that doesn’t make them quality. Do you need quality in everyday? No. Do you need quality. Yes. Can a phone match the quality of a Leica lens. Never. Is Leica overpriced. Absolutely.

    Frankly, having been taken on a particular camera, is not what photography is about.

  3. Stephen Wolborsky at 9:27 pm


    Appreciate the point of view but my reaction to this article is it has an undertone of standalone camera snobbiness.

    I admit I am no aesthete, so I go with how I react to photos. I reacted positively to most of these.

    By background, I am an underwater photographer, it is my (and my wife’s) passion and we shoot with Nikon D800 series housed cameras, with multiple lenses, ports, strobes, etc. (I have a Photoshelter account).

    That said, I believe our kind of photography and equipment will ever more become a niche activity as the phones’ imaging capabilities get better and better, allowing the photographer more control of the resultant image. Think about it, your article could have been written 15 years ago as “Uninspired ‘Shot on Digital’ Images.” Because, after all, nothing beats the visceral impact of film, 36 prints at a time. Or not.

    Probably the intent of your article was to critique the images, not the vehicle by which they were captured, but my perception is what it is.

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 2:32 pm

      I don’t dispute that the camera is just a tool – and with the exception of more specialized forms of photography (e.g. astrophotography), modern smartphones do a great job.

      But Apple is the one pushing specificity to a device with “Shot on iPhone,” not me. And second, the ten photos don’t show the diversity of photography that’s being captured – even at a “vernacular” level – in society.

  4. Casper at 4:59 am

    They all look so ‘stock’ – of the Unsplash style and quality too. I wish for more of the creative puddle photos though, that’s actually nicely conceived.

  5. Kishore Jothady at 8:46 am

    Whatever a few may think, I feel all the images are well thought of, with vision towards pictorial photography. Tells us (a hard core DSLR user) how you can stretch to the limits the capabilities of an ‘apple’.

  6. Megan at 1:12 pm

    It’s easy to sit around and criticize. It’s much harder to go out and make work that gets appreciated and inspires someone else, whomever that may be. Art is subjective and should be left as that. Not everyone will like everything someone else makes. But I give the winners credit for trying to think creatively and for creating. And if someone finds their work worthy of praise, then more power to them.

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 3:48 pm

      Your comment suggests there’s no valid criticism of art, which I don’t buy. Additionally, my post is largely centered around criticism of Apple’s selection, not the work of the artists.

  7. erik schmitt at 3:03 pm

    I agree with this assessment completely. My Instagram feed is filled with some really outstanding photography from serious photographers who use iPhones as part of their shooting process. On any given week it contains images that are far more compelling than these. But I studied photography for years and used to print in a darkroom and gravitate towards a more traditional look. The images Apple chose are shot for Instagram (bold, graphic, instantly understood). To me, it’s more about the medium used for distribution (Instagram) than it is about the iPhone. We’re all being trained to shoot by a delivery platform.

  8. Joe McNally at 6:48 pm

    And, by and large, inanimate objects, nicely done, to be sure, graphically arrayed, but at the end of the day, observed, static elements. No problems with the imagery per se, but it does indicate a basic issue with the Iphone. Can you shoot real, surprising, emotional life? Can you shoot something that is moving with intent, or a certain measure of unpredictability? Can you adapt or anticipate moments? Can you change perspective? As everyone, I shoot pictures on my Iphone, but I tend to automatically lump them in the file drawer labeled, “less than serious.” Probably my failing, really, given any number of photogs out there doing interesting work with smart phones. But I do confess I still have a heartbeat associated with the infinite possibilities of a real camera.

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