The iPhone As A Camera



This morning, bright and early, I drove north to an audio production job in the Blue Ridge Mountains and was greeted not with a sunny cool morning on a mountain side but a landscape covered in a thick wet fog. On the way down to the stage I could not help but want to snap a couple of photos of the beautiful landscape in front of me but I didn’t have enough time to get out my 5D or Hasselblad so I quickly reached into my pocket while walking down the slippery grass hillside and pulled out my iphone for a couple of snapshots. The Second photo above, the reddish one, was the first shot that I framed using that big tree on the hill as a nice weight to hold the image together. Then, as I was walking down the hill, I noticed a couple of flowers just begging to be photographed so I kneeled down and sort of awkwardly stuck my phone down into the wet grass and did my best to tap the screen just below the flowers and snap before jogging on down the hill. These types of moments are what having a small simple method for shooting quick snapshots comes in pretty handy. Just moments that would otherwise go by forgotten.

One of the bigger reasons for upgrading to the new iPhone was to take advantage of its new camera which is more than capable of snapping off a nice photo here or there when using my other cameras is not as much of an option or when the image is just some simple random detail of everyday life that I may not have shot otherwise.

While I usually am not one of those photographers totally in love with this new “the best camera you have is the one you have with you” movement of cellphone photographers looking to make artistic statements with this approach, I find there is no good reason to be against it or anything of the sort. I suppose I am just aware that these images are not too useful to me outside of their snapshot appeal.

I “won” some sort of little contest a few months back when I entered a few photos in a iphone photography contest just for kicks and the runner up prize I got was a little book full of iPhone photos from one photographer and the whole statement was look how great these are and they were just taken with a cell phone! It was pretty uninspiring to flip through and it started me thinking about this approach and how it had been picking up so much traction lately.

Which brings me to the iPhone side of this breed of photography and the dozens of apps dedicated to post processing your otherwise pretty boring cell phone photo into something that is at least masquerading as a fancy photo, often ironically modeled after now iconic film style photographs. I think its pretty fascinating how far people have taken it after seeing many cell phone photographers run their images through two, three, or even up to something like five different apps to manipulate the poor image to a compressed nightmare of a jpg image and it seemed like people took it too far. I just couldn’t figure out the attraction in wrestling with a silly little photo like that. With this new iPhone I see a little glimpse into the future of casual on the go photos in that it is actually a fairly capable little camera capable of taking nice, sharp, decently sized images and more importantly its lower light images have less noise in them than a number of really fancy digital cameras I have used in the last few years.

So I usually am not one to over manipulate photos like this but in the case of these newer iphone snapshots I find it its pretty fun to mess around with them in these ways. I don’t mean to make it sound like I am against any of these things, I simply had trouble finding the worth in images like this and thats exactly where I was leading myself astray. Why do I need to find a deep worth in every photo I am responsible for taking. Part of why we all take photos is because its fun to do and these new casual tools can be seen as an entertaining way to capture moments in our lives like any other camera.

I do my best these days not to let myself get hung up so much on film vs. digital, or lomo toy cameras versus “real” film cameras such as a Leica or hasselblad, and in this case high end fully capable DSLR’s to cell phones. To each his or her own I figure, as long as we love what we are doing and have a respect for ourselves and each other in the process. (but please, don’t stop shooting film guys… we need to keep those photo plants in business! ;) )

In the read more link below I have included the original, direct-from-iPhone images before tossing them round the post apps on my phone, just so those interested can see a before and after of the images above.

Because I had a couple of slow moments at the job later in the day I did mess about in two different apps with these which is very rare for me to bother spending the time to do that. I used tilt shift-generator and camera+. I love tilt shift gen but camera+ is kind of too clunky for me to bother using too often. It takes the hipstamatic approach to being too flashy I feel and in turn loses some basic control functionality in place of attempts at being different although the one finger to focus and second finger to set where the light exposes is a killer feature that apple needs to put in their own camera app.

Anyways, feel free to comment with your thoughts on the whole iPhonography charade below.

UPDATE: I would defiantly read through the comments on this one if your interested in the topic and feel free to toss in your own opinion if you have one. This is the internet after all, surely you have an opinion and want to get it out into the world ;)




  1. Ben E. - August 15, 2010 at 3:58 am

    I totally get what you’re saying. I actually enjoy using my iPhone more than my Canon in some respects BECAUSE of the limitations it poses and the new thought processes they necessitate. Those limitations combined with the spontaneity of the photos I tend to take with it really make the final product special to me in a way a more complex, “better” camera aren’t.

  2. Jorge Quinteros - August 15, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    Your photographs came out beautiful. I think there’s a general feeling that cell phone photographs are rarely ever to be taken seriously and but that perception has slowly changing ever since the iPhone was introduced.

    People often use the excuse that you can’t take amazing photographs with a cell phone so they use the excuse of not even trying to find that perfect photo. Post-processing is acceptable as long as not overdone. The ones applied to this photographs worked out perfectly.

  3. Neil - August 15, 2010 at 11:57 pm

    The first photograph you processed I don’t like, you’d never get light like that unless you were on another planet or something. The second one is better but I kinda prefer the un-processed version of that. The sheer amount of photographs being taken now and shared all over the world is mind boggling and the iPhone is a very valid part of that IMHO. The content isn’t always great but it isn’t with a Leica or a Hasselblad either, it depends on the photographer, or just the element of being in the right place at the right time.

    I’ve seen that book, The Best Camera I think you’re referring to the Chase Jarvis book right? I kinda agree but just because the camera is of fairly decent quality in a cellphone doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to carry around, if there weren’t these apps which allow the photographer to manipulate the image the ‘Best Camera’ idea wouldn’t be half as hip as it is. Even if you shot with a Holga on 120 film in immense light and somehow managed to get the right exposure the results would be more subtle compared to the craziness you see with some of these apps. It’s the apps which validate the ‘always carry the camera around with you’ ideal I think, you could carry any small film camera around and take the same approach, but you wouldn’t have the ease of post processing or the instant feedback of digital. Look at the Olympus XA, that has scene modes where it alters the image to look like xprocessed Lomo shots, it shows how influential the genre is I guess.

    Whatever you shoot with you get great results anyway but personally I’m a fan of your 5D, Hassy and Bessa shots.

  4. Neil - August 15, 2010 at 11:59 pm

    Sorry I didn’t mean XA I mean’t EP1 etc.

  5. john - August 16, 2010 at 2:49 am

    Ben E,
    yeah I can see where your coming from with that. There is a certain spontaneous quality to shooting with a camera thats always there with you wherever you happen to be. Those in between moments that can end up being looked back at, even in a grainy little cell phone photo and bring back the life and memory of the random moment that wouldn’t have been captured otherwise.

    It certainly is an endless debate it seems but so was the use of digital photography in general as it crept into the photography market. Little did we know at the time that digital photography would completely change the photographer market forever with its easy to learn and get into mindset. Its fascinating to see how it all evolves really. A phone camera shot, to me, is not something I am ever very proud of nor are they something I feel I could take advantage of having around because of their limited printing capabilities and uses but in general, as a quick fun tool to snap a photo here and there you certainly cant beat it! Should be interesting to see how it evolves with time.

    I am right there wit you on all of the points you made above.The post processing has gotten crazy out of hand in many cases and photographs are becoming more and more of some bizarre new creative space altogether where the act of taking a photograph is becoming more of just a snapshot to base an entirely different image or feeling around. the act of taking a photograph in some cases is less and less about the art of photography and more about just getting that one tiny piece of the puzzle where post processing ends up being more a part of the image than the photo itself! heh.

    That said, it is certainly a gimmick through and through, all the post processing apps available on the iphone and its going to be interesting how long the trend can last with its high exposure in the public mind. To be honest, that first photo there that you dont care for I would admit that if I had seen it on some other site or on flickr I would have passed right over it haha. Its WAY over edited of course heh, all part of the game really. Funny thing, the app uses a whole bunch of off preset effects to add to images to alter their look and this one was called “antique” !! I would love to see some old photo come out of a shoebox that looks anything close to that! hehe…

  6. Lauren - August 16, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    I love these! I think so much of photography is emotion and feeling, that the quality doesn’t matter as much as what you feel from it. Of course, I love my post processing, so I may be biased, lol.

    I seem to find that I see some phenomenal clouds at the times when I don’t have my camera with me, and reach for my iphone just so I can capture them. I have a hard time seeing beautiful things without wanting to at least grab a snapshot! I’ve actually been thinking of doing something with these pics… thanks for the inspiration!

  7. cass - August 16, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    with a 3 year old, I would miss a lot of great photos if I didn’t have my iphone… are they professional quality? no… can I do with my iphone what I can do with my canon rebel? no…

    but it captures life at is rawest, most spontaneous, and sweetest moments… that’s something my canon can’t do sometimes… I was thankful and overjoyed with the camera on the 3gs, and even more so with the iphone 4… hipstamatic, tilt shift generator, camera bag, best camera, pano… I post process to either add character, or enhance color or mood… I don’t think that’s any different than why I would post process on photoshop…

  8. Joel Dra[[er - August 17, 2010 at 11:27 pm

    Those came out really well. This is the best I could come up with after playing with the originals in Aperture for a while.

  9. jason - August 19, 2010 at 5:05 am

    the first manipulated shot would make an awesome desktop

  10. john - August 19, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    Lauren and Cass, Yeah, I agree, there are just those times when your phone is just the most simple solution to capturing these sorts of moments. I have struggled at times trying to decide weather or not to bring my big 5d with me places and wile 9 times out of 10 its within 5 feet of me most of my life there are those moments that you just cant always get without that quick convenience. And Cass, yeah the post editing apps are a lot of fun its true and very much like taking a photo into photoshop for some editing later. Simplifies the process for these sorts of quick moments.

    Joel, hehe, nice! Yeah its interesting how much can be done just on the phone alone although its much more limiting than an app as powerful as Aperture.

    Ask, and you shall receive, if you check back here in the comments that is. Here is the full resolution file, not giant but its as big as it gets ;)

  11. jason - August 20, 2010 at 4:44 am

    thanks john, much appreciated mate

  12. Casey - August 26, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    In this day and age, the ends justify the means. As is quite evident by the originals above, they’re quite dull photos. Once sent through post, they become vibrant and exciting… they have depth and dimension, and evoke emotion. Purists will grumble at the simplicity or surrealism of it all, but like you said, the image itself is a small piece of the puzzle in the final, over-processed product.

    As a graphic designer whose been in the industry for a decade, I’m familiar with feelings of resentment on how automated and cookie-cutter the industry has become, but that’s just the way things go in any industry. The further we push away from the industrial revolution, the faster it progresses in an exponential fashion. It’s up to the older professionals to adapt. It’s in our best interest to embrace change.

    I LOVE snapping photos on-the-go with my iPhone and running them through tiltshift generators and color processors. The photos changes from flat cell phone pics into dynamic and deep bits of art. I simply can’t afford a good DSLR or all the lenses I’d want, so this is my only alternative. Furthermore, despite being an accomplished Photoshop guru, I often find myself sending full-res photographs to my iPhone to run them through pre-fab
    apps. I’m sure that makes some of you cringe, but it saves me a lot of time and energy, and those are huge commodities in this day and age.

    I agree that Hipstamatic and Camera+ are clunky and convoluted. I use 3 simple, clean apps for my iPhotos… CrossProcess, Tiltshift Generator and Plastic Bullet. Give them a try if you’re not into gimmicky, clunky apps.

    Thanks for the great work, John! I just recently found this site and give the content an A+++.

  13. john - August 29, 2010 at 12:10 am

    Casey, thanks so much for the constructive feedback, its great to know when others are on the same page. I love tiltshift gen and will definatly look into the other two you mentioned thanks!

  14. Sinthusha - March 14, 2011 at 12:57 am

    What beautiful works of art.
    HUGE fan of your photography!
    I actually have one of your photographs that you submitted to as my desktop wallpaper.
    Continue with the great work!

  15. Anon - September 18, 2011 at 5:30 pm
  16. 100910 « notepad - April 21, 2012 at 8:07 am

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