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These iPhone Photography Award-Winning Photos Show That Gear Isn't Everything

These iPhone Photography Award-Winning Photos Show That Gear Isn't Everything

The 2019 iPhone Photography Awards have been run and won. And the wonderful photos that took out the awards only serve to fuel the debate about gear, technique, and vision.

As the name of the competition suggests, all images must be taken with an Apple iPhone or iPad. And this year's finalists and winners have served up some glorious images in a range of categories including landscape, portrait, travel, abstract, and more. You can check out all the winners here, including every category if you scroll to the bottom of the page. What I found most interesting, aside from the images themselves in terms of thought, composition, and quality, was the instant reaction of my brain when I saw them. My first thought wasn't about the images in front of me; it was drawn to the never-ending debate about gear and your needs. For when the light is right and conditions are optimal, the quality of iPhone images these days is outstanding. Indeed, when my wife got her iPhone 8 after it was released, I was quite stunned at the crispness and clarity of her photos. I'm not joking when I say that some of them rivaled my DSLR shots, and it's only gotten better since the release of the iPhone X.

I teach a photography class here at university in Japan, and we only use smartphones because of costs and practicalities. So, I'm always interested in how far the technology will take us with smartphones and if we might ever reach a stage where DSLRs or MILCs are completely overrun by smartphone cameras, not just in terms of pure numbers, but also going as far as including those who make a living from photography. Looking at this year's award-winners only strengthens my belief that the gap is ever closing. What are your thoughts? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.

Iain Stanley's picture

Iain Stanley is an Associate Professor teaching photography and composition in Japan. Fstoppers is where he writes about photography, but he's also a 5x Top Writer on Medium, where he writes about his expat (mis)adventures in Japan and other things not related to photography. To view his writing, click the link above.

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What "true" way is that?

Film? A dedicated camera, whether digital or film? Why? The newest iPhones (and other phones) are more capable than many older point and shoots, within the limitations of the focal length of course. Were those old cameras not a "true way" of capturing life?

Seems to me the only true way of capturing life is with a camera at all - and for most people there's only one camera they always have with them.

Charcoal and a cave wall is the only TRULY artistic way to create an image. It is artistic creation as our ancestors intended. Everything else is a bastardization of that art form which has literally lasted tens of thousands of years.
No one can convince me otherwise because my opinion is the only one that matters. 😤

--"There's only one true way of capturing life in all it's splendor."

Let us know when you've found it.

Yes, a smartphone is a great tool for taking pics, but it also depends on what you want to do with that pic afterwards too.

Size matters in print, but how many people who currently use iphones are likely to print at 30 x 20 inches? If you’re going up to A4 or 12 x 8, the quality in print is still maintained (I use an Epson SureColor P800 and I have lots of smartphone photos stuck up on my walls at home that my wife or daughters have taken)

Is this to me? If so, I agree completely that gear is not everything. Hence the title

This discussion is getting tiresome, and is always flawed the way it is presented... "Gear Isn't Everything", "Does Gear Matter", "These Pros Say Gear Matters", "These Pros Say Gear Doesn't Matter"... sigh.

Gear is nothing without an artist behind the gear. We could (and often do) get into technical discussions of how large you can blow up an iPhone photo, and the depth of color from medium format, and all the crap that feeds into the discussions (read: arguments) that fill your favorite photo blog with content. But it is the brain behind the phone, DSLR, SLR, large format, medium format, film, instant, pin hole, wet plate, that makes the image. Great artists were making incredible content before digital came along, before cameras came along, and will do so with whatever they have access to, and we arguing about that gear. Just for one moment ignore what these images were taken with, and enjoy them. Then go to a local art show and enjoy whatever it is that they have created with their chosen medium.

Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, what about an absolute hack who has a 60mp sensor? As long as a shot was in focus that person could effectively crop the composition into any number of possibilities and end up with something decent. In scenarios like that, gear does matter.

I think gear doesn’t matter when it’s in the hands of someone skilled. Just like watching a great surfer ride an old single fin from the 1970s, you can see their talent and ability is there. For others, they would struggle immensely to ride that single fin with any skill at all.

Modern Golf clubs help hacks keep the ball on the fairway. Giant tennis raquets help amateurs have more fun. And modern cameras do the same (as long as the fundamentals are there, usually)

However, what competitions and awards like this show is that talented photographers/artists/painters etc can create something wonderful without the need for wizzbang everything.

To your first point, they would have to know to crop, and would have to see the smaller image within the larger context. That is a skill as well.

So you are revising the "infinite monkey theorem" to state that if you put them at a computer where the word processor auto corrects spelling mistakes and does grammer checks then they will be able to produce accurate content more quickly than on a manual typewriter. And I completely agree. The more sophisticated the tool the easier it is to get accurate exposure and focus and even give yourself leeway when you are off a little. But it can't help you with where to point your camera, that takes skill, or luck.

More sophisticated equipment can increase the likelihood of a good image when luck points your camera in the right direction. And as the general public is exposed to more content from more sources they learn more about that skill of where, how and when to point the camera. And with billions of photos taken every day, there are bound to be a few thousand that are incredible!

I do not agree that modern golf clubs will help me do anything but hit my shots into water and sand traps far more efficiently. If that were the goal of the game I'd be the #1 player in the world.

I agree that competitions like this show that equipment doesn't matter in the hands of the most skilled practitioners. They have a far higher "hit rate" than amateurs. But that doesn't mean amateurs don't occasionally get it right.

Still, "gear matters" / "gear doesn't matter"... sigh. Could we have just titled the article, "iPhone Photography Award - Winning Photos"...

Apple needs to release a ruggedtized iPhone and have a bunch of professionals shoot with it at the Olympics, and then have those pictures splattered across every major print and online publication.

That should piss a lot of people off...

Can't wait for all that glorious digital zoom and generated fake bokeh.

I’m not sure about the capabilities of current telephoto lenses for iphones, but newspaper photo quality (not composition) is not overly high anyway (at least the broadsheets I read).

Everybody missed my joke I guess LOL.

I was more replying to the one below you

Gear might not be everything, in fact it rarely ever is. With that said, imagine those winning shots taken with a DSLR or a pro mirrorless and postprocessed. They would look a zillion times better.

In the car world they say "there's no replacement for displacement". Sure you can squeeze out a lot of power out of a 4-banger, but imagine how much more you can squeeze out of a straight six or a v8. I believe same goes for photography. If you can take a great shot with a cellphone, imagine what you can achieve with a DSLR or a mirrorless once you learn how to use it?

True. However, if you looked at these images without knowing they were the winning entries, would you know they weren’t taken with a DSLR/MILC?

More likely yes than no. They lack the refinement you get from professionally processed photos. Overblown highlights, too much/little contrast, stuff like that.

I went and watched a bunch of “can you tell the difference” videos on YouTube and 9 times out of 10 I can spot a cellphone pic vs a DSLR one, even when they’re of the same subject and have similar color adjustments applied.

Don’t get me wrong, phone cameras are great for what they are and have come a long way, but they are still ways away of producing imagery that is indistinguishable from a DSLR/MILC.

If the day ever arrives when they are indistinguishable, I’ll have a lot of expensive paperweights at home to deal with!!

You and everyone else on this site lol

I get what you're saying. Holding the camera, getting your settings down, white balance, all that. But think about it. Would you still be doing that if your cell phone could produce the exact same image? Would you still lug around all your camera equipment just for the experience?

Ah, you're one of those. Carry on.

I love the nuances of lenses and the flexibility of filter systems and also enjoy learning about the intricacies of camera bodies. But why the vehement dislike for mirrorless? I don’t own a mirrorless but only coz I don’t see a massive need for switching, just yet. If I did, I’d have no compunction buying a mirrorless body....

Yes that’s a good point. There’s a lot of information to take in with mirrorless EVFs and the experience is certainly different. Sometimes less is certainly more. Thanks for the explanation.

With all of the equipment talk and gadget ball that goes on, I found this contest result to be refreshing. It's just photography.... plain and simple. It actually motivated me because I just had hernia surgery and I am restricted from lifting anything 10lbs and above for the next 6 weeks. I think that I will walk with my iPhone for awhile just to explore some new things....

Hope you get better soon!

Thank you!......

Who gives a crap? An image is an image. Use what you like. These kind of articles are silly clickbait.

Lots of people, actually. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be a camera industry

Actually no, Pat. I have an IQ south of 85 and can't even dress myself. That's why I spend time commenting on these posts.

The ippawards are actually quite a low standard in creativity in photography. See for yourself; the pictures are creatively and technically quite poor and are brought up by the subject matter.

Then again fstoppers... what did we expect?

Gear isn't everything, but gear matters. More to the point, there's a reason that some cameras do what they do. If I were contracted to shoot a tennis match, I wouldn't take a GFX50S unless all I was supposed to do was stills of the players.

In the same breath, if I was a studio shooter, I wouldn't do it with a 1DxII, not that it couldn't, but there's better alternatives for studio work.

If I only have my smartphone with me, I shoot with it, no problem, but I also think that gear can matter, for example, I like deep sky astrophotography, and without the adequate gear, it's impossible to do.
I think there is no absolute truth... but smartphones have made significant progress in the last few years and we can't ignore them.

I was expecting to be 'wowed' by the winners (even a small sensor can do well in good light where a wider DOF is the 'look') - the first 2 are decidedly 'meh'. The 3rd is a cooler image- but that is because of the scene in front of the camera- not the capture itself. Guess I'll stick to my DSLR for another year....