Chitwan National Park, Nepal. iPhone 8 Plus in HDR mode.
Photograph by Robert Rose

Robert Rose has operated the Brant Photographers portrait studio in Bellevue, WA for almost 35 years. He is an active member and past president of the Bellevue Rotary Club, a service organization and part of Rotary International. In 2006, he founded The Rose International Fund for Children (, a nonprofit aimed at helping children and young adults with disability in Nepal. Also, he's my dad.

The emotional and storytelling potential of a powerful image remains as strong as ever, regardless of the tools used.

At least once a year, dinner at my parents' is a bittersweet affair as dad prepares to embark on another six-week (or longer) trip to Nepal. During these trips, he'll lead tour groups whose members have raised funds for TRIFC, he'll check in on project sites and, most importantly, document the positive impact that TRIFC is having on some of Nepal's most vulnerable youth.

His documentary camera of choice these days? An iPhone 8 Plus.

This came up as we were chatting about DPReview's recent iPhone X review, and I couldn't help but be a bit bemused that my dad, a man who built much of his portrait business decades ago with a Hasselblad 500C, was using a phone for all of his documentary travel work.

But the more we talked about it, the more I became interested in - and began to appreciate - how the phone is really the perfect tool for the job he's trying to do these days.

The transition

iPhone 8 Plus in portrait mode. Photograph by Robert Rose

My dad started regularly traveling to India and Nepal in the late 1990s (I would make my first trip with him as a fourth-grader in 1999). In those early days, he was partnering with existing nonprofits and local Rotary clubs, and volunteered his time and expertise as a photographer to help them tell their stories.

Back then, he traveled with a 35mm film SLR (a Canon EOS 650, if you're curious), a zoom lens and a lead-lined bag stuffed with film. Sure, film was a pain what with worrying about x-ray machines and incredibly hot temperatures, but the results were far better than what was possible with digital at the time. This was especially important as he started displaying and selling prints to help fund projects.

Australian Camp, Pokhara, Nepal. iPhone 8 Plus.
Photograph by Robert Rose

Print sales helped raise a good amount of money for a while, but as digital photography took off, the monetary value of individual photographs came crashing down. No longer feeling as though the print exhibitions were worth the effort, dad started leaving the film at home - but he didn't stop taking photographs. He just started taking them for different reasons.

Today, between events, marketing, social media and other forms of outreach, TRIFC brings in the vast majority of its funding through individual donations. But to reach people, you still need to give them a reason to donate, and you need to tell them a compelling story, and the emotional and storytelling potential of a powerful image remains as strong as ever – regardless of the tools used.

The right tool for the job

Sima was born with blindness, and today, her education is sponsored through one of TRIFC's programs. iPhone 8 Plus in portrait mode.
Photograph by Robert Rose

For my dad, the camera used is one of the least important aspects of a photograph. Whether he's using his Nikon D610 or his iPhone, he's looking for the right light, the right angle and the right expression. He stays in the moment, endeavoring to honor whatever his subject might be by taking the best photograph he can.

The resolution of the iPhone isn't much of a limiting factor these days; even when he's giving presentations, the images hold up well when blown up on a projector screen. And it goes without saying that even 12 megapixels can be overkill for social media and email marketing.

Perhaps most importantly, my dad finds photography with the iPhone to be refreshing, fun and freeing. And as he turns 60 this year, he definitely isn't missing the bulky DSLR swinging from around his neck.

Pokhara, Nepal. iPhone 8 Plus.
Photograph by Robert Rose

Then there's the workflow advantages; On his most recent trip, dad went with only his iPhone and a bluetooth keyboard. Backups are taken care of automatically via the cloud (as soon as he connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot, which are quite plentiful), image editing is intuitive and non-destructive. He can choose an assortment of images or video clips, write a short Facebook post and publish it right then and there in a matter of minutes - all without a laptop, a hard drive or a ton of easily misplaced memory cards.

Convenience can be a huge plus, especially when you're at altitude, fighting jet lag and trying to keep up with emails at the end of a long day.

But not the tool for every job

Niraj Acharya, a student with hearing impairment, poses for a portrait. iPhone 8 Plus in portrait mode.
Photograph by Robert Rose

My dad is quick to point out that, as transformative as a good smartphone camera has been for his travel and documentary work, it hasn't changed much at home here in the Seattle area. Sure, it's great to have a decent camera with you all the time when you happen upon a neat opportunity, but he's not going to be doing corporate headshots with an iPhone any time soon.

For us photographers, it really comes down to personal preferences and purpose.

And though dad's a big fan of portrait mode, he admits he'd like it to work a bit more reliably and he sees the lighting modes as 'gimmicky.' Contour lighting can add interest to an image that lacks great lighting to begin with, he says, but when you're looking for good light every time you take a photo, augmenting that light digitally can look a bit phony.

Lastly, as we reported in our review, dad found that the low-light performance of the iPhone is pretty poor - images can be blurry, noisy, or both. The Google Pixel does some clever image stacking to offer far better results (keep an eye out for our upcoming review), but since Dad's invested in (and really enjoys) the Apple ecosystem, he's hoping that low light quality is something that Apple's working on for the next generation of iPhones.

What's next?

Bhoudanath Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal. iPhone 8 Plus.
Photograph by Robert Rose

I'll admit this was an enlightening conversation for me - after all, the last time I went to Nepal with my dad, I brought a D700 and constantly swapped between two lenses the entire time. I also ended up with some images I'm really happy with, and I think I'm just too much of a gear nut to travel somewhere like Nepal without a 'real' camera.

That said, it's really hard to argue with the convenience, the compactness, the ever-improving image quality and the overall capability of smartphones for the seasoned world traveler. In fact, it's not uncommon to go along on one of these trips and encounter someone who has just bought a camera for the purpose of this new venture, only to find that they mostly use their phone because they hadn't bothered to practice or read the manual for their new device.

Kathmandu cucumbers. iPhone 8 Plus. Photograph by Robert Rose

My dad thinks that, while we'll still continue to see cell phone cameras improve, there will always be a market for real cameras and lenses, though it may continue to shrink for a while. But for us photographers, it really just comes down to personal preferences and purpose.

There's no doubt that a camera with a full-frame sensor will produce technically better images than a smartphone, but the resulting photographs depend much more on the hands that camera is resting in, and the perspective of the person hitting the shutter. And in the end, it's the photographs - not the camera - that matter most.