"Oh, this is going to be good," I chuckled to myself. Fstoppers co-founder Lee Morris had just posted an article and video called "The New iPhone Fashion Shoot: Bikinis, Foam Core, and Flashlights." I knew the response would be fast and passionate. I wasn't disappointed.
"But... It's a Phase One!"
I remember once, I saw a headshot posted on a popular image-sharing website and, as I did with every image at the time, I immediately glanced to the bottom right to read the EXIF information. "Wow, a Phase One!" It had been taken with a very high quality, very expensive medium format back. I then returned to admire the image. No, I tried to admire the image. This was taken with a five-figure camera! It had to be good, right? Nonetheless, I felt a nagging feeling of artificiality, as if I was contriving something to match some confirmation bias deep in my mind.
The truth was that the image was fine — not terrible, but far from spectacular. In an attempt to be high key, the photographer had blown way too many highlights on the model's face, destroying a lot of detail. Given the odd position of the lights, there was a bizarre shadow that made it look as if she had smudged makeup on her face. The backdrop wasn't completely blown out, leaving odd wrinkles of fabric faintly crossing the image. The posing and composition were stilted. The focus was slightly off. The retouching was heavy-handed. It wasn't terrible, but certainly, all the things you would expect to be top-notch to call an image "spectacular" just weren't at that level. It was trying to be a Peter Hurley, but falling short. And yet, before I even looked at the image, I was trying to find a way to justify marveling at it. Why? Because it was shot with expensive gear.
I know photographers who will show up to a commercial shoot with ten lights, only intending to use two or three of them, but will randomly fire the others to make the setup look more ornate and complex than it is because they've seen a prevailing attitude in their clients: more gear means more expense, means higher quality.
I know of many photographers who associate themselves with other photographers not by the work they've done or the genres they shoot in, but by the gear they own. This always struck me as a bit strange. Sure, it's fun to chat about gear, but is that really the point of all this? Do you identify yourself as a photographer by the gear you own? Is that how you want your photographic reputation to be perceived?
These Aren't Collectibles
We're not collecting baseball cards. The gear is the means, not the end. When I came across that headshot, I shouldn't have even looked at the EXIF information. I don't do that anymore. What does it matter? Beyond the intellectual curiosity that might arise if I see something in the image that ties back to the gear that brought it to fruition, why should I care? Sure, the gear is relevant. But why do we appropriate it so much relevancy? Why do we give it priority? When was the last time you went to the mechanic and asked them what brand of tools they were using? When was the last time you went out to eat and asked what knives the chef used? Did you know Jack White, Jimmy Page, Kurt Cobain, and David Bowie were all fond of some of the cheapest guitars ever made?
Here's the thing: you shouldn't care, but you do. Why do you think Lee wrote the post with the word "iPhone" in the title? After all, we all love to say "the gear doesn't matter as long as you make great images." But then, the reaction to such a title should be: "I don't care that you used an iPhone; show me the images." And yet, the fact that he used an iPhone is the main focus of all the discourse. Without speaking for Lee, I'm going to guess that was a big point he was attempting to make: by just mentioning the word "iPhone," he shifted your focus entirely. He challenged the belief that good images can only come from expensive equipment. And that makes us uncomfortable. After all, if we have to accept that equipment holds far less influence over the final quality of an image than we feel comfortable admitting, then we also have to accept that we hold far more influence over that than we initially cared to admit to.
And that scares the hell out of us. If someone is making great images with an iPhone, that puts all the more pressure on those of us with more advanced gear to put out stellar images. It takes away the scapegoat that is gear.
I love gear. If you've read any of my other articles, I'm sure you've noticed that I'll spend all day happily debating technical geek-ery with you. However, it's because I have a passion for the marvel of modern camera technologies. I don't believe gear is the point, though. What's the fun of a big-screen TV without something to watch?
Why Do You Care?
The truth is, we shouldn't care about Lee's article. We should see some great images and nothing more. If he mentions the iPhone constantly, we should ask why he's talking about the camera so much instead of the image. We should be pushing back by saying: "talk about the image." And yet, from what I've seen, 99 percent of the discourse has been about the iPhone.
- Some people have complained that he used an Apple product. I think this makes the point stronger. It's a ubiquitous product, meaning a lot of people can relate to the process by which he created the images.
- Some have said that it just can't be that a phone competed with a DSLR. And yet, this flies directly in the face of the images on the screen.
- Some have said that it's the retouching that makes the images. Sure, there was retouching, but why would that not be allowed? It's certainly allowed when one is using a DSLR. That being said, I urge you to examine the quality of the "before" images; retouching isn't a magic wand that can make a poor file great. You have to have a strong basis from which to edit.
- Some have said that a phone simply doesn't have the same capabilities. Of course it doesn't. That was never the point. The point was showing that the gap between the phone and the DSLR, particularly when some thought is given to basic lighting and composition, is much narrower than we feel comfortable admitting, because that shifts the responsibility even more so onto us, the image-makers.
It's On Us
Lee and Patrick have essentially kicked out a large crutch from our grasps. They illuminated the very stranglehold that crutch had on many of us not by virtue of what was shot and what was written, but by virtue of the response it garnered. They've shown us that we have even more control over the final outcome of the image than we initially thought and really, isn't that something that should make us rejoice? Why does it make us so uncomfortable? Why do we feel such a viscerally negative response?
After all, we just learned that we have more capability than ever.
Note: I'm under no obligation to Lee or Patrick to support this endeavor or side with any opinions they've put forth. In fact, neither of them will have even seen this article before it's released to the public.
No, thank you Jerry!
What lee did really proves that its the photographer who makes the image and not the camera. The 6S may scare a lot of people in the photo/video industry but honestly to me it gives me a lot of hope. Our skill and vision have become way more important now.
And on another not... From a tech development stand point, when low end gear gets better it forces the high end gear to get better as well, as well as consumer displays. This is just another step in the evolution of digital media. Months back I read an article on here that speculated that the future was going to be full frame as the low end and MF would become the standard and the high end would be some new tech we do not even know about yet. So this is really just one more step towards the future.
I agree with Martin and I have said it a million times in a very particular forum, but someone always whine about the gear; and let me make it clear, I love great gear. It is the photographer's skill to produce the image what's mostly important.
A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate to read "Capture the Moment, The pulitzer Prize Photographs" and most of this images are amazing, they captured the moment in the hands of skilled photographers.
A Phase One portrait fail without the Hurley Squinch !
Great gear always helps but will never make up for bad technique and a lack of good ideas.
It troubles me to see so many people capture important events such as weddings, graduations and birthdays with their phone in one hand. A great many pictures shot on black and white with a Kodak Brownie in the 50's are superior to many pictures captured with state of the art digital cameras and the latest cell phones.
Lee's feature demonstrates how slowing down, thinking about what you are doing, and cleverly using low cost accessories can make for quality images. His use of Photoshop retouching and removing objects complicates the discussion a bit.
Did Lee's "next door neighbor" model squinch ?
I squinched when i saw her ;)
It's all about having right tool for the job. Sometimes iPhone is the right tool.
Still need to know how to take a quality photograph no matter what. That doesn't come when you buy gear, fill out the warranty card, and certainly not from the genius bar.
Alex, 7 articles on your site about iPhone in less then 2 days seems to be a bit boring does not it? No one is uncomfortable from an iPhone which camera can take pictures, but I can see why reactions are like you mentioned they are because this is , wait a second is the word for this again boring or iPhone :). . . Try to put more H1 H2 titles with iPhone over your articles for couple more days and you might see on google analytics your subscriber rates go down quite rapidly... just my 50 cents to this iPhone keywording... I have used it 5 times in this comment so that should help you to get your required keyword count for great SEO but as you know if you overdo it google might punish you for keyword stuffing :) Just saying, and yes I like sarcasm!
To be fair, the iPhone is *the* most popular camera on earth (https://www.flickr.com/cameras), so it does rightfully get a lot of press and attention as said press is relevant to more people who take photos than any other gear-related discussion.
And of COURSE the iPhone is being talked a lot about right now. A brand new model came out less than a week ago and it has the biggest camera upgrade in 5 years. Don't like it? Don't read it. But whatever you do, don't act like it will be this way forever.
Hey Sean, to be honest I come to this site to read articles which do give me something valuable. In order to find out if article has a value for me I have to read it first. After I find out that there is nothing valuable in it, and it is just defending some other article which was not valuable for me either I express my thoughts about it how I saw it and felt about it! Simply this was marketing wise aimed write up and it is the way I see it. So your comment : " Don't like it? Don't read it. " does not make sense at all! In order to know about something someone has to read it first and then decide if it was useful or not. Am I right. So for me it was not. I have never said iPhone is not a good camera, it is a decent camera for its size and what it does But that is about it. It dose not make me uncomfortable that people use it and I am fine with it. I have my tiny Coolpix in my pocket anytime I am out with my kids and leave my DLSR at home to rest for work where I rely on them. The best explanation for this whole iPhone write ups had Jerry Friedman couple lines bellow: "Good thing you guys gave us an article to tell us how important that other article you did was..." because I see it almost like that. Nothing more nothing less. Peace and thanks again for advice not to read what I do not like, because without reading it I would not know if I liked it or not. Now I know I didn't, but that is fine because you and some other might actually like it :) It is called freedom to express an idea isn't it? Enjoy your day :)
The line was crossed years ago with the Lumia 1020 with it's over-sampling technology it was only let down by the underlying platform however there was a number of film makers and photographers that used the camera for the RAW output and produced amazing results despite all that.
Phones always had the potential to destroy the low-end, for the simple fact they are with your every moment of the day mirrorless, dSLRs will still rule the middle-high end along with medium format for one simple reason the simple fact you can change the lenses. Point in case the amount of stupid posts about how people failed to capture the recent blood moon and complained about their phone not being able to produce anything more than a pixel smudge.
Great article, Alex, and there is another point I'd like to add:
Some of the gear lust is owed to the mantra (or is it indoctrination?) of the industry.Like we can only wash our clothes properly with the newest detergent, need the latest dental floss unless our teeth start falling out, anything- you name it - can only work when new and freshly bought. Anything bought a year ago has stopped working. Or nearly so....
And if something isn't working the way you want it to, then you're using dated gear. (watch the ads, most are geared to this line of reasoning) We damn near cannot escape this logic, we hear it 10 times an hour.
Also web sites: many online sites, including this very one (!) does great and huge features on any gadget, gizmo or lens that hits the market.
So all around all you hear is "Gear Matters"
Then comes an article like the one discussed here that meekly states "No!". No fanfare, no hype.
It takes quite a stong mind to resist this dark side of the force, that is.
Actually we all should applaude to Lee, since he did prove just one thing in favor of us all:
An amateur will not kick you out of business, just because he bought that Hasselblad, while you "just" have your DSLR at hand.
That's because most Hasselblads in use today *are* just (enlarged) DSLRs.
Missed a crucial part of the equation:
A pretty girl will always make for a beautiful pic no matter what camera is used
A pretty girl does not a good picture make" Zack Arias
I've seen a lot of shitty pics of pretty girls.
I'm working on that one, duh! Guess what we're gonna film it with, guess!!!
Jerry how did you know that... We have a mole obviously releasing our secret plans... OR ARE YOU THE MOLE?!?! Who is Jerry Friedman really!?!
More photography, less cameras.