"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.