Photography in the age of the iPhoneOriginally published by: The New Yorker
NOTE / UPDATE: November, 2022: Oh, boy, this is hilarious / embarrassing to look back on. Obviously, in the end, I didn’t drop all cameras for an iPhone. But I did drop anything smaller than a full frame sensor when it comes to photography. A couple things worth noting about this essay:
- I was scared shitless “writing for the New Yorker” and so my original thesis, which was basically, “Smartphones are getting really good!” got pushed to “Smartphones will replace all cameras” and I wasn’t “brave” enough to push back against that. The germ of this essay was delight by iPhone photography, not a denunciation of non-networked cameras. I got battered online for this piece, and it was a good lesson in sticking by your guns, though I had failed the lesson miserably, abandoning my guns somewhere during the first editorial back and forth.
- Smartphones have dominated. Absolutely decimated the lower-end camera market in that: it simply doesn’t exist anymore. Shooting with micro-four-thirds made sense during a short market-gap period where full frame was too expensive, and smartphones weren’t very good. Today, it’s a format difficult to justify.
- For the past seven years, 99.999% of anything I’ve published online has been shot with a Leica — either a Q, M10, M11, or Q2. The quality of the files and detail is simply so beyond what any smartphone is capable of, the comparison is moot.
- Non-networked things have only grown in value these past ten years. Non-networked music, photography, drawing, etc. Film cameras are making a roaring comeback (though I don’t own one / have no desire to go back to film, a format I spent more than enough time with a long time ago). This is understandable because the “contracts” by which you engage a non-networked object are significantly more straightforward than the chaos of our networked universe.
Anyway, I’m leaving this essay up because it was a big fumble on my part, in a very public way, during a period where I was flailing and desperately looking for “external validation” from publishers / publications, and had little faith in my own abilities as a writer. It’s clunky and weird. And if I had just stuck to the original these: Smartphones cameras are getting super duper good and we should pay attention to them as true creative tools then, well, I would have been more correct, in a more inclusive way.
This past October, just before the leaves changed, I went on a six-day hike through the mountains of Wakayama in central Japan, tracing the path of an ancient imperial pilgrimage called the Kumano Kodo. I took along a powerful camera, believing, as I always have, that it would be an indispensable creative tool. But I returned with the unshakeable feeling that I’m largely done with cameras as I’ve known them. A realization that first shocked, then delighted me. The more I considered it the more I realized that many of us are, in fact, done with cameras, if we weren’t already.
My passion for cameras began when I was a teen-ager, but I took to them in earnest in 2000, when I arrived in Tokyo as a college student. Back then, the city was rife with used-camera shops overflowing with rows of dusty, greasy, and dented bodies and lenses. I spent several lazy weekday afternoons wandering through the stores, precociously bugging the grouchy owners about the benefits of one camera over another. Deep down, I wanted a classic Leica M3, which cost fifteen hundred dollars at the time, though a choice lens could easily double the price. Constrained by a student’s budget, I chose a used Nikon 8008 body, which the Times had named “the camera of the future” in 1988. I paired it with a cheap 50-mm. lens, then set off for a month hitchhiking the entire breadth of Japan, from Tokyo to Fukuoka, filling my backpack with delicately exposed rolls of film.
I shot exclusively with Fuji Velvia film, partly because of its famous lollipop-like color saturation and partly for the challenge of using I.S.O.-50 slide film. The lower the I.S.O. of a film, the less sensitive it is to light. This makes it more difficult to shoot with, but the images have a smooth, polished quality to them; while high-I.S.O. film needs only a trickle of light to produce a usable picture, the images look rough and grainy, like sandpaper. The experience of waiting for the slides to return from the developer was both petrifying and magical: Had any of the images that appeared in the camera’s viewfinder made it back intact? I was rewarded with hundreds of gorgeous, otherworldly images, and I pored over those slides for weeks.
Two years later, I used eBay to piece together a Hasselblad 500C, the classic medium-format camera. (It also has an impressive geek pedigree: Walter Schirra took one into space on the Mercury rocket, in 1962, igniting NASA ’s long-standing love affair with the company, which is based in Sweden.) Depending on the type of medium-format film, the images can be anywhere from two to six times as large as standard 35-mm. photos. While the cameras are larger and less portable, they capture an incredible amount of detail: if you were to take a picture of a man holding a penny from a few feet away with an iPhone, a 35-mm. Nikon, and a medium-format Hasselblad—with equivalent lenses—you would notice the penny in the iPhone shot, you’d clearly see it in the Nikon shot, and you could read the date in the Hasselblad shot.
Holding the 500C, I could hardly believe that I had spent so much money on a box. That’s all a camera is, really: a box with a hole. Film rests at the back of the box and the lens is at the front. The shutter sits between them, and by opening for longer or shorter durations it exposes the film to certain amounts of light. Most cameras have some kind of automation, elevating them beyond a dumb box. The Hasselblad doesn’t: it has no electric parts, no automatic focus, no light meter; it doesn’t even have an automatic film-winding mechanism. It holds only twelve photos per (expensive) roll of film. But it is beautifully machined, with solid, precisely interlocking pieces.
Because of its simplicity, shooting with a 500C is deliberate in ways that few other cameras can match: you line up your shot, take a deep breath, and then, when everything comes together—light, shadow, and subject—squeeze the release and mumble a short prayer as the cloth shutter opens and closes with a thick, satisfying thunk . It almost feels like the camera is munching on the photons of light passing through it. I loved looking at the world through its precisely ground glass, though now it sits idly on my desk, its obstinate, mechanical simplicity a lifeless monument to the designer Sixten Sason ’s hard-edged minimalism.
In late 2004, after graduating college, I scrounged together enough cash to buy my first real digital camera: the Nikon D70, which was almost identical to the 8008 except that, when the shutter opened, light hit an array of sensors rather than film. Even though that difference seemed small, the purchase made me nervous. I had developed hundreds, if not thousands, of rolls of black-and-white film in my badly ventilated, chemical-filled university apartment. Would I miss watching ghostly images appear from the silver halide salts, the sting of acetic acid on my hands and in my nostrils?
I stopped using film almost immediately. The benefits were too undeniable: results were immediately visible on the camera’s rear screen, and I could snap thousands of photos on a trip without worrying about fragile rolls of film, which were always an X-ray machine away from erasure. But the D70 was unromantic. It didn’t have the strangely alluring mechanical rawness of the 500C, while the shift to digital imaging disrupted the compartmentalized, meditative processes that had punctuated photography for the previous hundred and fifty years: shooting, developing, and printing. As anyone working in a creative field knows, the perspective gained by spending time away from work is invaluable. Before digital (and outside of Polaroids), photography was filled with such forced perspective. No matter how quickly you worked, it was common for hours—if not days, weeks, or longer —to pass between seeing the image through the viewfinder and reviewing it in the darkroom. Digital technology scrunches these slow, drawn-out processes together.
By late 2009, the five-year-old D70 felt about as fresh as the twenty-year-old 8008. It captured only 6.1 megapixels, less than a current smartphone, and the rear display was laughably small, the size of a postage stamp. On a whim, I picked up a brand-new Panasonic GF1, a so-called micro-four-thirds camera.
The GF1 and its oddly named technology heralded a subtly new type of device. Most professional 35-mm. cameras and their digital equivalents were single-lens reflex cameras. When you look into a typical S.L.R. viewfinder, you see a doubly reversed image, reflected once from a mirror in front of the film (or sensor) and twice more inside the viewfinder’s pentaprism. When you squeeze the button to take a picture, the mirror slaps upward—the loud clack that often echoes from professional-looking cameras—allowing the light to hit the film or sensor, capturing the image. The GF1 dispensed with both the mirror and the viewfinder, making it significantly smaller and lighter. When I went to Annapurna Base Camp, in central Nepal, the GF1 was so slight that I could keep it strung around my neck the entire trip, and the results were extraordinary . Not peering through the viewfinder to shoot provided a unique benefit: it altered the camera’s role in portrait photography. In an extensive field test from the trip, I wrote, “For better or worse, a camera without a viewfinder is less intimidating. You are no longer half-human half-camera … which is wonderful if you want candid, real photographs. Subjects focus on being human rather than being a subject.”
After two and a half years, the GF1 was replaced by the slightly improved Panasonic GX1, which I brought on the six-day Kumano Kodo hike in October. During the trip, I alternated between shooting with it and an iPhone 5. After importing the results into Lightroom, Adobe’s photo-development software, it was difficult to distinguish the GX1’s photos from the iPhone 5’s. (That’s not even the latest iPhone; Austin Mann’s superlative results make it clear that the iPhone 5S operates on an even higher level.) Of course, zooming in and poking around the photos revealed differences: the iPhone 5 doesn’t capture as much highlight detail as the GX1, or handle low light as well, or withstand intense editing, such as drastic changes in exposure. But it seems clear that in a couple of years, with an iPhone 6S in our pockets, it will be nearly impossible to justify taking a dedicated camera on trips like the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage.
One of the great joys of that walk was the ability to immediately share with family and friends the images as they were captured in the mountains: the golden, early-morning light as it filtered through the cedar forest; a sudden valley vista after a long, upward climb. Each time, I pulled out my iPhone, not the GX1, then shot, edited, and broadcasted the photo within minutes. As I’ve become a more network-focussed photographer, I’ve come to love using the smartphone as an editing surface; touch is perfect for photo manipulation. There’s a tactility that is lost when you edit with a mouse on a desktop computer. Perhaps touch feels natural because it’s a return to the chemical-filled days of manually poking and massaging liquid and paper to form an image I had seen in my head. Yet if the advent of digital photography compressed the core processes of the medium, smartphones further squish the full spectrum of photographic storytelling: capture, edit, collate, share, and respond. I saw more and shot more, and returned from the forest with a record of both the small details—light and texture and snippets of life—and the conversations that floated around them on my social networks.
In the same way that the transition from film to digital is now taken for granted, the shift from cameras to networked devices with lenses should be obvious. While we’ve long obsessed over the size of the film and image sensors, today we mainly view photos on networked screens—often tiny ones, regardless of how the image was captured—and networked photography provides access to forms of data that go beyond pixels. This information, like location, weather, or even radiation levels, can transform an otherwise innocuous photo of an empty field near Fukushima into an entirely different object. If you begin considering emerging self-metrics that measure, for example, your routes through cities, fitness level, social status, and state of mind (think Foursquare, Nike+, Facebook, and Twitter), you realize that there is a compelling universe of information waiting to be pinned to the back of each image. Once you start thinking of a photograph in those holistic terms, the data quality of stand-alone cameras, no matter how vast their bounty of pixels, seems strangely impoverished. They no longer capture the whole picture.
It’s clear now that the Nikon D70 and its ilk were a stopgap between that old Leica M3 that I coveted over a decade ago and the smartphones we photograph with today. Tracing the evolution from the Nikon 8008 to the Nikon D70 to the GX1, we see cameras transitioning into what they were bound to become: networked lenses. Susan Sontag once said, “While there appears to be nothing that photography can’t devour, whatever can’t be photographed becomes less important.” Today, it turns out, it’s whatever can’t be networked that becomes less important.