How the iPhone changed my photography

I bought my first iPhone, the second-generation 3G, in 2008. I didn't buy it with photography in mind and in fact, as far as its camera was concerned, I took a serious downgrade. My previous phone, the Sony Ericsson K800i wasn't the best phone in the world, but it had a far better camera. The iPhone 3G, like the original iPhone, took dreadful pictures in comparison. Back in 2008 iPhone users had to put up with poor detail resolution, even worse low light performance and - of course - no flash.

Back then, I was confident that my iPhone wouldn't replace my trusty compact camera in my jacket pocket. I hoped it might replace my iPod (it eventually did) and transform the way I used email (it quickly did) but photography? No way. Not even the most hopeless Apple obsessive would claim that the original iPhone's camera was anything other than an embarassment - a shameful technological throwback on an otherwise thrillingly futuristic device. Like finding a cassette deck on the bridge of a starship.

Over-extended metaphors aside, as every photographer knows, the best camera you own is the one that you have with you. And the funny thing about phones is that (with the apparent exception of my mother) most people carry them around pretty much all the time. As such, despite the crappy camera on the first two iterations, the iPhone  - purely by virtue of being a popular device that a lot of people have in their pocket, purse or handbag - has been used to snap millions and millions of photographs. iPhones have been used to illustrate newspaper articles, magazine front covers and countless web galleries. Sometimes to make a point, but sometimes because it has simply been the only camera on the scene.

The camera in my first iPhone, the 3G,
was pretty poor, but because it was
always in my pocket, it soon became the
camera I reached for most often,
despite its limitations. 
The camera in my iPhone 4 is a
completely different beast, and much
more advanced. A useful 5MP
resolution, fine-tunable focus+AE and
effective HDR mode put it much closer
to a compact camera than previous
generations. 


Back in 2008 I would never even have considered using my iPhone 3G for anything approaching 'serious' work. After all, I was a serious photographer. wasn't I?

Well... on my good days yes, of sorts, but how many 'serious' photographers can honestly claim to have a correspondingly 'serious' camera in their bag at all times? My iPhone soon became the best camera I owned - the camera I always had on me. I never learned to love the 3G's 2MP output, but I did learn how to exploit the camera's few strengths (good metering, nice colors and acceptable detail in decent light) and to use its 'distinctive' characteristics creatively. For me though, what really transformed the iPhone into a serious photographic tool was not the hardware, which until the iPhone 4 was poor compared to most compact cameras, but the huge ecosystem of applications which sprung up around it. 

Both of these images were shot with the iPhone 4, and then manipulated using Nik's Snapseed application. I performed the adjustments using an iPad 2, but Snapseed has recently been updated for the iPhone as well - just one of the countless applications available to spur the iPhone photographer's imagination.

Apple's app store in iTunes was launched in 2008 at the same time as the iPhone 3GS, and within months it was host to countless photography-related apps. Some, inevitably, were utterly pointless. Some were simply useless, but a great many were fun, and a surprisingly large amount were very, very useful. In the years since the iTunes app store was launched, the impact of both the iPhone as hardware and the idea of 'apps' on consumer level digital imaging has been profound.

Sometimes the influence is obvious - the spookily iOS-like interface of Samsung's latest touchscreen compacts for example - and sometimes it is more subtle. I don't think it is too much of a stretch to pin the current 'retro photography boom' on the advent of the iPhone and app store. If it hadn't been for the popularity of the iPhone, would we have seen the same explosion of 'artistic' filter effects on compact and interchangeable lens cameras released in the past couple of years? Honestly I doubt it. 

With a range of carefully-chosen apps installed, my iPhone can create moody black and white images, atmospheric lomo-esque shots (like the one at the top of this article, which was processed using Plastic Bullet) and fake Polaroids. Of the thousands of photography apps available for the iPhone, Hipstamatic (see images below) is one of the most popular, and fun.

And fun is what it's all about. Because my iPhone is always with me, and because I have fun using it, I take far more photographs with it than I ever did on my previous camera-enabled phones. I'm a more spontaneous photographer with my iPhone, and less self-conscious. I'm more inclined to get creative with filters and post-processing, too, because I can do it quickly and all on one device. In short, the iPhone has made me more open-minded. I don't get out with my DSLR as much these days as I'd like to, but when I do, this new open-mindedness extends to my more 'serious' photography as well. I'm less liable to get hung up on the technical risks of attempting a certain shot, and more likely just to go for it, and see what happens. 

My iPhone has also proved invaluable for keeping in touch with friends and family back home in England, and I'm not just talking about phonecalls. Services like Instagram (above) allow me to share photographs I've taken on my various wanderings around America. Friends follow my Instagram stream, and I follow theirs. It's no substitute for a conversation, but it is nice, nonetheless, and helps narrow the 5,000-mile gap a little. 

At a major tradeshow last year I got talking to a fellow journalist who was using his iPhone 4 exclusively to illustrate his online coverage of the event. His reason? He likes the images it takes, the quality is fine for the web, and it's much less bulky than his normal DSLR. My initial reaction was that there was no way I could - or would - use my iPhone in the same way, but the conversation made me think. Why not?


Barnaby Britton is Reviews Editor of dpreview.com. You can see a selection of his after-hours work at www.photoinsensitive.com.