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.