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iPhoneography, Photo Tips & Tricks

Do Apps Make iPhone Photos Less Legitimate?

There is a lot of debate in photography circles about whether the iPhone (or any mobile phone) is a “legitimate” camera.  I say emphatically, YES.  Just look at the work of award-winning photojournalists Ben Lowy and Damon Winter who both captured emotional images of war.  Or wedding photographer Jerry Ghionis.  Who wouldn’t want wedding photos like that?  Ghionis is spot on when he says:

“Photography is more about the craft of lighting, posing, composition and story telling, etc. than which camera you use.”

Super fancy camera gear may make a difference in certain situations, say high-speed sports action.  But at the end of the day, it’s still the person behind the camera making artistic decisions about how to shoot and the aesthetics they use to convey a message.  The iPhone is just another tool in the photographer’s arsenal, whether they’re an amateur or a professional photojournalist.  And iPhones are typically the cameras we always have with us and ones that make it easy to capture life’s moments without getting in the way.

Much of the debate around mobile photography is around apps and filters applied to photos.  About whether these apps take away from the legitimacy of an image.  But I think this is no different from adjustments people make in Photoshop.  Model in a glossy magazine?  Someone took her photo with a really expensive camera, but she’s not real, even though we’re expected to believe she is.  Just like Photoshop, iPhone apps can be used to enhance an image, maybe improve it, maybe give it a certain mood.  For example, by changing an image to black and white.

But what many iPhoneographers are also doing is using apps to create an image, turning a photo into something completely different like abstract art.  And while this may not be the right approach for photojournalism, I think this is just as valid an art form as oil on canvas.  Spend a few minutes on iPhoneArt to see what I mean.

For me, I feel like my iPhone photography has come full circle.  I went mad with apps in the early days feeling like I had this new cool toy and I had to check out all the fun things I could do with it.  But I’ve recently gone back to basics and am processing my images a lot less, trying to take a more minimalist approach to apps and letting the images speak for themselves.  As a bonus, this is also saving me loads of time.

These days I’m shooting mostly with Hipstamatic making conscious choices about the style I want before I shoot and leaving the image as is.  If you’ve tried Hipstamatic and been scared away by the lens and film choices (like I was originally) try following @hipstaroll or @hipstachallenge to get some ideas of combinations to try.

Things to Consider When Processing an iPhone Photo

  1. Photos of your friends and family, people in general, don’t need to be over processed and have filters and textures put all over their faces.  Make them black and white, enhance the color or contrast, but in general, just let their natural beauty, their realness shine through.
  2. Find a consistent style.  When you first start using an iPhone camera there is a tendency to go crazy trying out different apps, experimenting with ways to make your photos arty.  I know I was super guilty of this. But now I look back through my catalog of iPhone photos and they are all over the place with a multitude of styles.  Experimenting is a good thing.  I recommend it.  But, eventually, find what you really like and what speaks to you as an artist.  Maybe you even have different styles depending on subject matter, landscape, people, architecture, or abstract painterly art.  Try thinking about how your photos would look if you had to put them together in an art exhibition or a book.  Would they look like they came from the same photographer?
  3. Think about why you’re using a specific app.  Is it to enhance your photo or create a specific artistic vision? Or is it for the novelty of the app?
  4. All the rules of good photography still apply.  Composition, light, subject matter, emotion, etc.  Just because you can easily app a photo to death, doesn’t mean you should.  It’s no different from if you were shooting with a DSLR.  Get it right “in camera” first and make sure what you’re starting with is a good photo.  A badly composed photo is still a badly composed photo no matter what filter you apply to it.
  5. How will your images stand up over time?  Will you look back 15 years from now and think “that was a weird phase I was going through wasn’t it?”

What do you think?  Are iPhones legitimate cameras?  Or have apps become a crutch to compensate for average photos?

 iPhone Processing:  Shot with Hipstamatic (Loftus lens, Blanko Freedom film), Olloclip macro lens
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  • Reply Belle May 22, 2012 at 9:05 am

    I think that iPhones are absolutely legit cameras but I do think that sometimes the apps are a crutch. As an expat you know that you come across moments all the time that just come out of no where. If I’m in a hurry to grab a shot, which is typical when I’m out and the only thing even remotely handy is my iPhone, then I will process it more than I probably should. And I find myself processing the thought out moments, too. Paring back is probably a good idea, but apps are just so much fun!

    • Reply katherine May 23, 2012 at 9:32 pm

      Yes! I feel like because I’m living abroad I have to document everything! Thanks for the comment.

  • Reply Avito May 23, 2012 at 6:07 am

    Great, insightful post. I agree that when starting out, oe can go app-happy. I know I’m guilty there. The more I’ve experimented, the more I’m starting to learn what others have talked about – you’ll eventually have just a handful of apps you’ll use all the time. I love Hipstamatic, but mostly find myself using Snapseed and Camera+. Is the iPhone a legit camera? Absolutely! Especially when that one special moment passes by and that’s all you have. Are apps becoming a crutch? Well…have Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture, or Photomatix done that for traditional DSLR photography? It comes down to the photog. But again, try staying away from becoming app-happy. 😉

    • Reply katherine May 23, 2012 at 9:29 pm

      Avito thanks for the comments. I use Camera+ and Snapseed as well for some things. The list if apps I use is getting shorter all the time. VSCO cam is also quite good for minimalist edits. And yes, there are loads of life’s moments that I would not have captured if not for the iPhone!

  • Reply Matma May 23, 2012 at 9:11 am

    The staid traditionalists versus the new wave
    … lots of stumbles before the way ahead
    … yes?

  • Reply Chris / Interealtime May 23, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    Good post! I’ve been thinking about this a bit myself recently. I’d shown a friend a shot I was particularly proud of, and he then showed me a few of his that looked good. But then he basically said “the photos were rubbish, but if you slap a few filters on they look great!”.

    I figured it would be good to do something about this – and get people taking real photos and improving their skills. If you think that’s a good idea, join Filter Free Friday. Every friday, disable all filters and effects, and take totally unprocessed photos. Get back to basics.

    There’s a thread on Mobitog here where it started: I’ll start a new thread there this friday for the next one 🙂

    • Reply katherine May 23, 2012 at 6:20 pm

      Chris – thanks for the feedback. I’ll definitely check out the Filter Free Friday!

  • Reply Zeff May 23, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    Great post! I use both my camera and my iPhone. Though, like many, I have found it a lot easier to just rely on my iPhone when out and about as its so much handier. I’ve used a few other apps, but for me, I’ve not found anything yet that beats the ease of use of Camera +. I’m sure there are people who look down on apps, but I agree that if you end up with a fascinating and beautiful image, then it’s valid. You can certainly make an OK shot good with an app, and maybe a bad shot, OK – but if you’ve intrinsically made a mess of things, they’re little help.
    I photograph places around Boston, Massachusetts for my blog and in my obviously heavily biased opinion, I think I’ve come up with some good shots on the iPhone with a little help from Camera +. Personally, I’m against Photoshop (though don’t condemn those who use it creatively). However, I think playing with the texture, shading and tone of an image you’ve captured is a different matter and yields some great results.
    For rich landscape shots and portraits though, I think a camera is best. I almost see the iPhone and a camera as two different mediums.



    • Reply katherine May 23, 2012 at 6:31 pm

      Thanks for the feedback. Great point that the camera and iPhone are different mediums. Love your photos of Boston!

  • Reply Mark Hampton May 24, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    It is really exciting to imagine where all this may lead. Something that communicates in a profound way is art. Art has a time and place and right now it seems to be on the internet.

  • Reply vlad May 25, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    Apps are what is needed to make your smartphone smart and unique.Im fond of app creating and find it really helpful to use site like Snappii where i can build apps in minutes.

  • Reply Laura Williams May 25, 2012 at 8:57 pm

    Thanks for doing this post Katherine – I have been thinking about this for a while but have been unable to express it as eloquently as you just have! I have unconciously toned down my use of apps as well I think, after the initial excitement of having an iPhone with lots of ways to make your pictures look weird and wonderful. I use Snapseed mainly now just to enhance the photos slightly, but am trying not to make them look too unreal. Am enjoying rediscovering Hipstamatic as well though after our conversation the other day! x

  • Reply John May 29, 2012 at 7:16 am

    Good post!

    Photography to me is an art form and it is up to the individual what tools they use to create that image, a good or bad image will stand on its own merit.

  • Reply Briana May 31, 2012 at 1:02 am

    What a great post! As a professional, and obsessive, photographer I have hordes of cameras but the one I ALWAYS have with me is my iPhone. In fact, I often make the mistake of referring to it as my camera instead of my phone…but that’s what it’s used for the most. I love that I have this small, lightweight camera with me at all times that can post images to the internet right away. How handy is that?! haha Anywho, I could go on and on so I’ll stop now. 😉

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