iPhone Magazine Covers, and Why it Doesn't Matter

iPhone Magazine Covers, and Why it Doesn't Matter

Every couple of months it seems like there is a new story about how a magazine cover was photographed with an iPhone. Magazines like Bon Appetit, Elle Australia, and Billboard have opted out of the realm of photographers using traditional, professional gear, and into the realm of gear used for taking snapshots and selfies. For each announcement, there are thousands of photographers grinding their teeth and shouting, "this is nothing but a publicity stunt!" But is it? Maybe it's time for the photography community to face the truth: it's not the gear that matters.

Time is joining the list of publications requesting cover shoots with an iPhone and, chances are, they won't be the last to jump on the bandwagon. While an element of shock certainly helps drive up interest for the magazine, is that really all there is behind the choice to forego standard professional gear? I suspect not. In fact, unless I miss my guess, most people wouldn't have known the difference without being told. So, rather than lose our collective minds in outrage, the question becomes why is gear choice an issue that riles so many photographers? 

Professionals who are used to distinguishing themselves by the cost of their gear may very well feel defensive and intimidated by having a small, and rather unassuming, camera phone become direct competition for high visibility commercial work usually reserved for the biggest lenses and the most expensive bodies. But the phrase, "it's not the gear, it's the photographer," is practically proverbial amongst photographers, so why is it a surprise that a good image can be taken by a good photographer on even a humble piece of equipment? Don't we all feel incredibly insulted when some well meaning viewer says, "your photos are so beautiful! You must have a great camera." We all want to be recognized as the creator of our images, so if it really is the mind and not the equipment, magazine covers photographed with an iPhone shouldn't be a shock. After all, isn't it the end result that really matters, anyway? And the end results aren't looking too shabby.

In a 2014 interview with American Photo, photographer Peggy Sirota, who has photographed high-profile magazine covers, high-profile advertisements, and high-profile people, admits that she doesn't even bother with the technical aspects of image making.

Sirota herself is up front: “If I were left on my own and there were no assistants in the world, I wouldn’t be able to shoot,” she says. “I don’t know how to plug the lights in or set up the camera, but I have always known exactly how I want something to look.” 

Peggy's true skill lies in her ability to make honest connections with people, to trust her creative vision, and foster a sense of collaboration on set, and that's what viewers respond to in her imagery, not in what gear was used to create it. Rather than try to compete based on stereotypes about how a professional photographer should be working and what gear they should be using, Sirota trusts herself and her vision. That choice has taken her career to the top.

Gear only matters insomuch as it's able to deliver what the job requires. An iPhone is more than capable of producing a photograph suitable for printing an 8.5 x 11 inches. If anything, this entry by camera phones into the world of commercial photography should be a boon to photographers; it signals that vision is what is really important, that the mind behind the gear is what matters, and not the glass. This means that gear should not hold you back, or make you scared of competing in the marketplace. What you have to say, and how you say it, is more important than what you say it with. 

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15 Comments

Kirk Darling's picture

Gear doesn't matter unless it does. As long as we all keep our vision within the limitations of an iPhone, then gear doesn't matter.

If there is any threat to professional photographers, it's that everyone else's vision is shrinking to nothing more than can be captured by an iPhone, as though everyone's taste in food demanded never demanded any more than a Happy Meal.

The problem is not that there are pro level projects shot on iPhone. The problem is in the perception that have some people in need of photography.

Some people believe that since they have a great iPhone they can take the pictures for their startup's next commercial campaign themselves. And they do exactly that, not bothering to ask any photographer at all to do it. Hence a market loss for photographers.

Other people believe they don't understand why they should account for expensive gear in the price they are given for a project .... since all you need (in their mind) is an iPhone. So that's sometimes a hustle to make them understand why and sometimes they just don't get it ... and shoot with their iPhone in the end.

Ok those are not necessarily clients you want to have, but your wallet would have appreciated anyway.

Other people believe that since photography is now so mainstream (due to smart phones) they can sell their photography services regardless of their know-how ... and are hurting the community (in the low-medium end only of course, where there are the most people).

The thing is having a good enough camera like an iPhone is not enough to succeed in photography, having a genuine originalcreative voice is also not, having a true business sense does not help alone either, neither negotiation skills, nor network, nor passion, etc ...

What you need is a good balanced amount of each of those and be relentless. And that's means a creative's life will only be harder and harder as time goes by.

You should only be concerned if the only thing you bring to a shoot is equipment. Otherwise, no need to panic. But I do agree, that if perception becomes that all you need is an iPhone and a dream to cover all of your media needs... then that's a problem. Hopefully that will solve itself after a few failed attempts. Alternatively, go back to your article about the automation of photography jobs, many will be lost, but the ones in need of the most creativity will not, at least anytime soon.

Mike Gillin's picture

Gear is always an interesting thing. can you get a great shot from a cell phone? Sure. Does it help if you understand lighting, composition, and working with a model, or subject? Absolutely. There have always been skilled photographers that haven't used the most expensive gear. Does it matter? Not really. What I think irks me with the "shot with an iPhone" tagline, is that it seems to imply that if you have an iPhone you will take amazing shots.

TImothy Tichy's picture

The issue photographers have with the "shot on an iPhone" b.s. that is plaguing the industry right now is that we know what non photographers don't; that these shots involve large crews of people from grip to retouchers working behind the scenes. The magazine brags about how the image was "shot on an iPhone" as if the phone is that good, without showing you the guy holding the giant scrim overhead, the other guy holding the giant reflector panel, or the third guy working the HMI head. Let's not forget the professional retoucher who has to massage that iPhone image into something that will meet the magazines standards for a cover.

Right now I think there are two major benefits to the magazines for advertising that the images were "shot on an iPhone". One, it generates buzz. Two, and this is more important, it removes from many peoples minds the thought of heavily retouched images. People aren't questioning how much retouching has been done to an image that was "shot on an iPhone".

Can someone explain this to me? How can Peggy Sirota be considered a photographer? If you can't or don't know how to set up a CAMERA, than what do you do? Just push the button?

Btw I agree with the article that it's not about the equipment for the most part, there are some situations that the equipment is what makes the image. But primarily it's the knowledge of the photographer and the knowledge of editing.

Oliver Saillard's picture

One could think that she slightly exaggerates her absence of technical know-how in order to market her "I've got the vision" thing.

Jason Friedman's picture

Unfortunately yes. Back in the day (late 80's) I assisted many famous photographers who earned $20,000 + per day and didn't know the difference between an f-stop and a bus stop. It was us, the assistants who set up the cameras, lighting, etc. It's all about the celebrity of the photographer, not his/her skill to demand such a high fee. It bothered me so much I actually left photography for over a decade after becoming so demoralized assisting over 120 professional photographers, some who were my idols at the time. It still goes on today. I have a friend who is at the peak of the retouching world and still, these photographers make insane day rates, even shooting TETHERED on medium format digital, their exposures are 2 to 3 stops over or under and they are considered "amazing photographers". What kind of idiot can't see on the screen right in front of their own eyes that their images are so poorly exposed? It's even worse today with digital, because there is no cost to failure. Before you'd have to submit the rolls of chromes or the contact sheets to the art directors. If your exposures/focus/white balance were all over the place, you'd look like a complete amateur. Now any idiot who can afford a digital camera can take thousands of images until they get a good one to publish in their portfolios. Heck I can assist Stevie Wonder and turn him into a photographic genius! I still believe that photography is a craft and it's a marriage of the technical and the creative, but no matter how much I bitch about their lack of knowledge, they are still great at what they do, marketing themselves and making millions despite knowing practically nothing about photography, which despite my utter disrespect for these "photographers" is the most important skill for making a living as a photographer. So who am I to judge?

Aaron Aubrey's picture

I hear ya man.. I assist a photographer who sends me the brief from the client.. I bring all my gear, set up the lighting, test the shots and get the files looking perfect in Capture One, and then put the camera on a tripod.. they make 20K and I make 400-700 per day.. and they literally don't know how to put a camera on or off a tripod, turn off self timer, or change AF modes.. On a recent job they were shooting a stop and a half underexposed, and I told them the photos were near black. They didn't want to change any settings or introduce strobe or fill, so I had to bump up the exposure in C1 so the Art Director could actually see what the hell was going on and feel confident about the job... When this photographer realized how bad their raw files were, they told the client that I fucked up the job and we would have to delive TIFF files instead of RAWs...This was a job for a major Canadian company, who only hired this photographer because of another job where I had done 95% of the work on... this industry seriously makes me hate my life sometimes...

Nicole York's picture

Give 4 photographers the same light setup, the same gear, and the same model and you'll still get different results in portraiture. So much of the end result of a portrait is the connection, or lack thereof, between the photographer and the model. The mood on set also plays a big part of that.
I'm sure Peggy slightly overexaggerates her lack of know-how, but her work was getting noticed before she had an army of assistants to handle the grunt work. It's the way people respond to being photographed by her that makes her work what it is.

Oliver Saillard's picture

Isn't it mostly an apple ad?

Samuel Flores Sanchez's picture

yeah, a bad one! :D

TImothy Tichy's picture

Aren't half of the articles on fStoppers Apples ads these days though??

Oliver Saillard's picture

Just to be clear, I wasn't talking about the fstoppers article, but about the magazine. It seems a great way to make the cover page an advertisement page without the readers noticing...

Samuel Flores Sanchez's picture

Totally agree with your final thoughts.

There are so many ways... you can take different, even contradictory approaches, and if you are creative always come up with some good work. But if you don't have vision probably the best gear in the world is going to do little for you.

Said that, some people are more craftsman inclined than artist and for that people a method and good honest work can work perfectly well. Some people with artistic vision can create fantastic shots on camera, but some craftsman can create fantastic images almost of any final selected shot from his shooting. D&B, Smoothing the transitions, color matching, correcting bad saturated areas.... there's a lot of science on that and the final image is nothing near you can do on camera. For this people, a photo from an iPhone is not the best idea, because they need the more amount of information possible for elasticity in the retouching. So here the money you spent on your camera and lenses becomes important.

And last but not least, that "Elle" cover has some hard shadows which I don't consider professional work. In my opinion that cover seems more like a cheap catalog than an "Elle" issue. The fact that they shot with an iPhone does not have to mean that they have to neglect the lighting.
Probably every professional photographer can shot a cover with an iPhone but they simply don't do it, normally. The fact that you can, does not mean that is the best option. And I imagine that less professional shooters, with less knowledge about the technical issues involving a shooting, can more easily think that shoot with an iPhone is a great idea

At least if you do it, do it right:
https://fstoppers.com/commercial/iphone-fashion-shoot-lee-morris-6173