iPhone Photography

View of Taipei - Taken with my iPhone 6
View of Taipei - Taken with my iPhone 6

So I recently took a 1 month long trip to Taiwan and, for the first time, I traveled without my DSLR (a Nikon D7000). It was a difficult decision to make, but in the end, the convenience of not having to lug a DSLR around won (not to mention the fact that I was running out of luggage space to pack any accessories). And I must admit that I did not regret it at all – in fact I found it enlightening to not travel around with a heavy camera slinged around my neck and taking extra care not to knock it against anything.

As smartphone companies cram better and better camera sensors (read: not megapixels), the balance has tilted in favor of photography using smartphones and mobile devices (including, god forbid, tablets). While I am not going out so far as to claim that this spells the end of professional photography, there are certain benefits of using a mobile device as a photography instrument. I myself am an avid Apple fan, so the points I make below are most relevant to fellow iPhone users, though they generally apply to all smartphone users.

View of Taipei - Taken with my iPhone 6
View of Taipei – Taken with my iPhone 6

It is almost always with you
You know what they say – the best camera is the camera you always have with you. While you might not always have your DSLR (or even your compact camera) with you, you almost always have your iPhone/other smartphone in your pocket. For example – I took the shot below when I was jogging up some mountain behind my accommodation in Taiwan. There was no way I would have brought my DSLR (or even a compact) with me on a run.

A view of Beitou district from Yangmingshan
Taken on a jog up Yangmingshan

It is convenient
And I am not just talking about its small form factor (though, of course, tablets are anything but small – don’t get me started on people who use tablets to take photos).

Share Menu in iOS 8
Share Menu in iOS 8

In this age of social media, it is all about sharing photos instantly. If I were shooting with a DSLR, my typical workflow would be 1. Shoot photos → 2. Transfer photos from SD Card to my Mac → 3. Edit photos using some post-processing software (usually Adobe Lightroom) → 4. Upload the photo using my Mac (or if I want to upload to Instagram: 5. Airdrop the edited photo to my iPhone → 6. Upload using Instagram). This process usually takes anywhere from days to months, depending on how motivated I am to edit my photos. Sure, the photos turn out great (or not so great sometimes), but it gets boring to be always posting those #throwback/#tbt photos after a while.

On the other hand, using my iPhone – I snap the photo → edit it on my iPhone (usually using VSCOcam) → and upload it to which ever social media platform I please. In classical Steve Jobs fashion – Boom done. Which brings me to the next point:

Apps Apps Apps
With a myriad of photography apps on the App Store (Google Play Store for you Android weirdos), it has become easier than ever to add beautiful effects to otherwise plain photographs (i.e. filters) without the need for post-processing software. See below for an example:

Even the built-in apps are pretty amazing. For example, the iPhone (and many Android phones) has an easy-to-use Panorama mode that allows the user to instantaneously take beautiful panoramas. No longer do I have to use Photomerge to stitch together multiple shots from my DSLR.

Nanfang'ao Panorama - Taken using iPhone 6
Taken at Nanfang’ao – not the most beautiful panorama, but you get the point

The iOS 8 Photos app also boasts a pretty powerful suite of editing tools (hidden under the simplistic menus).

iOS 8 Photos App
iOS 8 Photos App

However, for all its convenience and small form factor, smartphone cameras are still limited in terms of what they can capture. The 2 things I really missed while using my iPhone are:

Shooting in RAW
In simple terms, RAW files are produced directly from the camera sensor, with no processing and compression. This is unlike JPEG files, which are processed and compressed files. Due to the compression process, details in highlights (bright areas) and shadows (dark areas) are lost in JPEGs. This means that it is difficult to take compose photos with a high dynamic range (i.e. very bright highlights and/or very dark shadows e.g. taking a photo of a foreground object against a sunset) – though this limitation is offset somewhat by the iPhone’s HDR mode. It is also harder to salvage images that are over-exposed or under-exposed during post-processing. See the animated gif below for an example of how post-processing using a RAW file can fix an otherwise unusable photo.

Raw Post-Processing
From Gizmodo. Photo by Glyn Dewis

The downside to shooting in RAW is that the files will be much larger in size. However, with storage space reaching 128GB on the new iPhones, this has become less and less of an issue.

Manual Mode
If you understand the ISO-Aperture-Shutter Speed triangle, shooting in manual mode offers opportunities for more creative shots. (Sidenote: the iPhone 6 lens has a fixed aperture of f 2.2). For example, the photo below is a very plain photograph of the Shifen Waterfall. It would have been much more dramatic if I was able to slow the shutter speed to say 1 second to create an image of a milky smooth cascading waterfall.


Shifen Waterfall – ISO 32 f 2.2 1/120
While there are actually apps available on the App Store that allow shooting in Manual mode, I found the UI on those apps to be clunky and unintuitive. Moreover, the default Camera app is the only app that can be accessed quickly when the iPhone is locked, so there is little incentive to use third-party camera apps.

Of course, there are also hardware limitations such as the small sensor size (resulting in poor low light photos and slower auto-focus) and the lack of interchangeable lenses (I’d rather not have interchangeable lenses on my phone, thank you very much) which prevent the iPhone from encroaching on professional DSLR territory, but I believe that, as technology progresses, these will become less and less relevant. Rather, it is Apple’s unwillingness to provide software support for more advanced shooting options that would limit the iPhone’s usage in professional photography. And I do not blame Apple – after all, the iPhone is meant to be a phone (though it is so much more than that). It just happens to be a pretty good camera too.

You can view more of my Taiwan photos here.

To see some amazing examples of iPhone photography, check out Apple’s World Gallery or photos submitted for the Annual iPhone Photography Awards.

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