Style as Emancipation, Seattle, 2010. By Star Rush on the iPhone 3GS.

Until this September, my entire experience of smartphone photography was through my iPhone 3GS. I used one device for almost three years, only upgrading OS and apps.

When my 3GS started clicking whenever I used a photo app, I upgraded to the 5. The clicking, I’ve since realized, was the sound of my creative life changing.

I’ve kept my 3GS this long for aesthetic reasons, and because I liked the simplicity. I liked the softness, the appearance of grain and grittiness in black and white photos, and how the device struggled with light. I liked that I was pushing my little 3MP camera and exposure meter to their limits.

Upgrading changed everything: hand-feel, features, speed, size, profile, screen, viewing and shooting resolutions, and speed. The 5 is so fast, not just the camera, but all of the processing: load times, image viewing, online sharing, editing. The speed improves my workflow. I wait less. I can edit and share faster, which encourages my participation in social communities. There’s more space on the screen for buttons and slides for editing. The 5 is more sensitive to low-light conditions. Not all is good; the purple lens flare is consistently frustrating and the edges of the screen are less sensitive. Truly, this is a serious problem and one I wish Apple would admit to and fix. 

Upgrading has given me pause, as surely a new device is bound to affect what one does with that device. How would I change? How would my photographs change? Some photographers I admire used just one camera their entire careers. Was it necessary to upgrade my smartphone? Part of me resented this. 

Where the Heart Hangs Out, Seattle, 2011. By Star Rush on the iPhone 3GS.

I’m a person who wants to think about scenes, subjects or what I’m observing more than the machine or appliance I’m using to record them. I don’t want the machine to get ahead of the photograph. Thoughts of upgrading my mobile device every year or chasing megapixels and speed hasn’t been appealing. I am already caught in that more-faster-sharper culture of digital cameras -- and digital everything. It’s alluring and addictive to catch the new, better, faster wave. I’m not a commercial photographer or a photojournalist, and their needs are not my needs.

I liked having a simple, digitally connected device that did simple things. I also enjoyed gaining familiarity and comfort with a tool over time. I got used to holding, using, anticipating how my 3GS would handle situations. I didn’t want to let go of the “lo-fi” qualities that drew me into mobile photography in the first place. I was hesitant about the complications that come with each successive upgrade. It tends to be what manufacturers do when they pile on features; bring on complications, all too often needless ones.

Getting a feel for the 5

The 5 is more comfortable for me to hold in one hand. I have small hands, and the 5 doesn’t require me to stretch my fingers as wide to get a good hold. The grip is important to me. The device has to move with me, in my hand, become an extension of it. I don’t use two hands to shoot, with the fingers spread above and to the side. The “crab” or “spider” fingers are distracting and don’t permit the flexibility that a solid, fluid one-handed grip does. Two-handed just slows everything down if I or my subject is on the move.  

I took some of my first shots at a Madonna concert in Seattle. I didn’t intend to take the 5 through its paces, but I always have my phone with me, so why not take photos and see what it could do? I took most of the concert photos from about 8 feet from center stage.

I used my regular camera replacement app, ProCamera, because of its independent exposure and focus controls, ability to lock exposure, fast burst mode and slide-controlled stabilizer. Madonna and the dancers moved toward this area of the stage often and infrequently stood still or struck poses. With subjects moving rapidly, lighting changing regularly, excited fans bumping and pushing on me, it took all of my concentration to keep my attention on the my phone’s exposure and focus points, adjusting them frequently. Some photos can be seen on my blog at

Still the same photographer

After shooting with the iPhone 5 for nearly a month, I am surprised that my new photos closely resemble, aesthetically, those from my 3GS. Mostly, they look the same. Images are sharper, and they look brighter to my eyes on the retina screen. I have more  pixels to work with for cropping. There’s more sharpness, which I sometimes adjust down by adding blur or grain to keep the look I want.

Comet, Seattle, October 2012. By Star Rush on the iPhone 5.

I've considered why the look hasn’t changed much. I think about my grip, how I hold my body when I photograph with my iPhone as opposed to a conventional camera, what I choose to look at and what I don’t, and my editing choices. I remember my tendency to work my exposure meter toward highlights, and how the movement of my arm, wrist and hand impacts the capturing process. I’m still shooting in black and white and also processing to black and white. I am still who I am, doing what I do. I see these physical habits of mine affecting the way my images look, especially since I’ve kept my editing apps and workflow unaltered through the device upgrade.

New screen, new experience

The iPhone 5 hasn’t just prompted me to reflect on my capturing and editing processes, but also the process by which I consume, or view, my photographs and those of others.

Like people before me, I have been floored by the way images look on the retina screen. It makes me want to look at images. I’ve reexamined favorite images from others, and there’s all kinds of things I missed, when viewing them originally on my 3GS. I’m adjusting to how I experience images through such a screen. They are sharper, clearer and brighter, which affects how I see, not just my current photo stream or my online galleries, but those old images originally made on my 3GS. My old iPhone 3GS photos don’t look the same. To a degree, my perception of each is impacted by the electronic resolution of the screen through which I view them. Which is the photograph I saw in my mind’s eye?

Menlo Service, Menlo, Wash., October 2012. By Star Rush on the iPhone 5.

The new screen mediates my experience of my own photographs, which, to be honest, I find unsettling. My printed 3GS photos appear stable; they’re stuck as they were by the printing process, while the electronic photos, those have shifted. Are they different photos now because my screen tells me they somehow look different? Or are they the same photos, and the screen is altering how I’m perceiving them? Maybe it’s something between? It's possible that not too long from now, I may not be able to view the 3GS photos on the device that made them, seeing them as I experienced them then.

Upgrade extends far beyond device

My upgrade hasn’t changed how I make photographs or my relationship to my smartphone all that much on the surface of things -- yet. It has affected how I consume images, though. Faster processing and sharper, richer viewing encourages sharing, as participating in social networks is that much easier.

After all, mobile photography’s contribution to visual culture includes altering how we distribute and consume images and not just create them. I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am, with the ways that viewing my photographs in such sharp resolution and brightness on a more spacious screen surface affects the decisions I make when I make photographs.

As it is, I’ve caught myself thinking, prior to my upgrade, about my own mobile photography in decidedly none-mobile photography ways. I had been so focused on how upgrading would affect me as a photographer, I stopped short of anticipating what it would do to me as an editor, a curator, or viewer. I was thinking like a photographer, but not necessarily a connected one.

The impact upon consuming and viewing photographs were not necessarily on the minds of photographers of the past or those using non-networked cameras today. The key variable was the degree to which the new camera would improve the photographic making processes, improve workflow or add value to the way photographers could make the best possible image they could. Today, the smartphone photographer is also thinking about the implications of faster processing, better resolution, increased screen surface and improved editing and sharing processes that are as integral to this connected photography as creating images.

Star Rush@starrush360, is Seattle-based a photographer, writer, and educator. Her photography has been exhibited in the United States and Europe, and published in photography magazines Actual Colors May Vary, Camerpixo, Magazine, among others. Rush is a founding member of the Mobile Photo Group. She teaches composition and rhetoric, and literature at Cornish College of the Arts.