SHOOT! — iPhoneography, Why?

B. D. Colen
B. D. Colen

Suppose an editor proposed to a leading photojournalist that she abandon her trusted cameras and lenses and instead cover an important assignment, say a presidential convention or a significant moment in a military campaign, using an off-the-shelf point-and-shoot camera with a Coke-bottle bottom lens, and a sensor smaller than the nail on her pinkie. It’s possible that she might just accept the challenge, figuring that it might be fun to see what she could accomplish with pretty much nothing in the way of equipment, and the resulting photos would undoubtedly receive attention, in a “Holy cow! Will you look at this?!” kind of way. But the photos would be considered artifacts, a sort of photographic self-indulgent silliness and little more.

(This is the first of a series of articles called “SHOOT! About Photography, for Photographers.” SHOOT! is intended more to provoke discussion than to conclude it.)

So what is it with all the big name photographers shooting assignments with camera phones, and with camera output degraded with Instagram? It is hardly news that the best camera we own is the best camera with us when the possibilities of an image materialize. But give up those best cameras in favor of the modern equivalent of a 127 Brownie Box? Why? To prove that we, as professionals, produce worthwhile images using minimal equipment? Again, I would hope we can, and cannot conceive of any reason why we would feel the need to prove that.

50th Anniversary of the March on Washington | B.D. Colen
50th Anniversary of the March on Washington | B.D. Colen
Some may say, “Well, hundreds of millions of people around the globe are using these cameras every day, so why shouldn’t pros?” Well, in the first place, hundreds of millions of people around the globe have limited vocabularies and understanding of grammatical structure — should our leading novelists, poets and non-fiction writers start producing essays and books in which they tie 75% of their skills, experience and knowledge up in a box and just use what’s left? What a waste of time and talent that would be.

Yes, camera phones can be extremely useful tools under certain circumstances, especially when they happen to be the only tool at hand. As it turns out, the iPhone image I created at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is by far my favorite image of the day. After upresing it in Genuine Fractals, converting it to black and white using the VSCO Lightroom plugin, and making final adjustments in Photoshop, I just may have a large silver print made of it.

But I do not love it because I shot it with an iPhone; I love it because of the subject, because of the expressions and situation it captures, because of the framing, the composition and the light captured. I love it as a photograph, and the tool I used to capture it is irrelevant. Why did I use my cellphone? I grabbed it because it was raining. I keep it in a water and shock resistant case and I do not trust the combination of rain and my digital Fujifilms – as much as I love working with them and love their glass.

But let me put all this another way. The vast majority of people who have sold one or more of their children to be able to own a Leica have done so because one of their photographic heroes uses — or used — Leicas. They came to believe that only if they owned an M3, an M6, an M7 or now a digital M, with a magic Summicron, they, too, would produce images like those of Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Davidson, Eve Arnold, Elliot Erwitt or Nan Goldin — or any other photographer whose name was ever linked to that of Ernst Leitz.

So if any of those photographers still alive started using camera phones for assignments, would those people who have invested so much in acquiring those Leicas give up the Leicas and switch to camera phones? If they would, they’d prove themselves to be sycophants rather than photographers, and if they wouldn’t, well, case closed.

Camera phones are toys for the masses and emergency backups for serious photographers. To see them as anything else is to fail to understand what photography is really all about, and what role that equipment plays in its creation.

B. D. Colen has taught documentary photography at MIT for the past 13 years. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Boston Globe, The New England Journal of Medicine, Newsday and the Christian Science Monitor. A reporter and editor for 26 years, he shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1984. Colen’s photography may be seen at and his Tumblr page.

  • Passageways

    Well, I have to smile. While I find the article interesting up to a point, it begins with:

    “About Photography, for Photographers.” SHOOT! is intended more to provoke discussion than to conclude it”

    But the entire article seems to leave little room for discussion.

    It sounds more like a “case closed” summing up of a POV that is incontestable. A final “conclusion”.

  • To speak with Nietzsche, “Nichts ist wahr, alles ist erlaubt.” Nothing is true, everything is allowed.

    An opinion is an opinion is an opinion.

    Yours to accept, reject and/or argue against what the author opines.

    The author’s conclusion makes complete sense to me. Yet, what is more important:

    To understand what photography is really all about and what role that equipment plays in its creation.

    Or that the best camera we own is the best camera (whatever camera) with us when the possibilities of an image materialize?

    Not easy, and why should it be easy?

  • Bengt Nyman

    Nobody goes on assignment with an iPhone, unless your equipment got lost, stolen or stuck in customs.

    Nobody goes on assignment with a manual focus Leica, unless he shoots for the Antique Collectors Magazine.

    There are four kinds of irrational anxieties floating around among photogs:

    1. I have a complex about not owning FF and therefore I shall tell myself and everybody else that it is not needed.

    2. I have a complex about not owning a high resolution camera and therefore I shall tell myself and everybody else that it is not needed or even beneficial.

    3. I have a complex about not owning a Leica and therefore I shall tell myself and everybody else that a Leica is no big deal, other then the price of course.

    4. I have made a big investment in Leica and therefore I shall tell myself and everybody else that only Leica cameras and lenses take real pictures.

  • Passageways

    I guess I agree also, as I said, to an extent.

    What makes me smile is saying “SHOOT! is intended more to provoke discussion than to conclude it”

    And then writing a short article which leaves no room for discussion. I find it written from a pedestal and condescending.

  • Passageways

    I would risk sounding confrontational if I replied in length. So I won’t.

    I do though want to say “nobody goes on assignment with an iPhone” is simply not true. Several have done so.

    I think the importance of gear can be how someone perceives him or herself to be more or less capable with certain gear.

    Categorizing photographers as above is self-defining and categorizing oneself.

  • B. D. Colen

    Thanks for the response, Passageways. Allow me to make a couple of quick points, which I hope won’t seem condescending. First, publication in and of itself is a pedestal. Next, the mantra of the web seems to be ‘keep it short.’ Third, I really don’t have much more to say on this subject. And finally, it’s my personal opinion, and, quite obviously, some of the world’s leading photo journalists – and art photographers, disagree with me. I hope this and future contributions provoke discussion, and are as polite as your note. I may or may not respond, as I really am not looking to join a debate, only to provoke one – though I do like a good food fight on occasion as well as the next kid in the cafeteria line.:-)

  • Passageways

    Thanks also for your reply B. D. I understand conciseness is important these days so we tend to try to put it all into a small space. The results can sound arrogant beyond one’s intentions. I have had this happen to me.

    Actually I agree with most of what you say but would say it differently and leaving some room for different angles.

    One POV s some people might not have the money nor the inkling to sell their kids to buy a camera they want. So they shoot with what they can afford.

    If labels and models made no difference we would all be driving Ladas. Actually that might not be so bad. But that’s another story.

    To go on and delve into the interesting oddities and effects of gear on any individual’s output would make my own comment far too long.

    i believe today’s marketing strategy is to sell sell sell and most people, amateurs and pros buy into it.

    Be well

  • B. D. Colen

    Well, I said that I wouldn’t engage, but…with all do respect, you have missed the main point of the column. I said nothing about people for whom a cell phone camera is their only camera, I said nothing suggestion that one could not make interesting, valuable images with a cell phone camera – just as one can with any camera. ( The photo with this column was shot with an iPhone, and as I noted, it is my favorite of the day.) The column points out the craziness of established pros shooting assignments with cell phone cameras and celebrating it. And yes, Bengt Nyam, many pros have gone on assignment with iPhones, and there is pretty much nowhere that hasn’t run such photos.

  • Guest

    I was trying to expand the conversation…but never mind…

  • B. D. Colen

    Expand it how? To suggest that gear/financial constraints influence output? Absolutely true ; so do differences in talent.
    But I don’t see what that has to do with the original subject. The reality is that output has always been effected by equipment quality. One of the great Ironies is that all the classic masterpieces were created with equipment that is, in almost every respect, vastly inferior to that available today.

  • Jawad

    Photography has many aspects which most of the time are contradicting aspects. You can look at a photo and appreciate it in different ways. An attractive photo could be super sharp, shot with a high end expensive camera, lens, flashes… or it could be average in terms of technicalities, optical sharpness, yet very artistic, or, it could capture an interesting historical moment, or it could be just the photo of your child which only you and your family can appreciate. Every camera is capable of producing a good photo in anyone’s hand if the operator clicks enough…

  • djward71

    I beg to differ with Passageways that this piece leaves little room for discussion. Yes, it may be definite, opinionated, even curmudgeonly, but that’s what makes interesting writing. “In my humble opinion” qualifications are boring. Critical thinking
    always questions. The challenge is what makes productive debate. Don’t be intimidated by the strong voice, join the food fight. If the counter-argument is persuasive enough, the writer may change his mind. Or not. The discussion-killer happens when one side refuses to play by neither supporting their argument nor refining their opinion. Keep it coming, BD, and here’s hoping you’ll provoke a good, smart food fight.