Watching the progress of photography through the last 15 years has been extraordinary. I started out shooting film, owning both a Canon AE-1 and the great-grandfather of Canon's consumer DSLR's, the Rebel G. I started shooting College Football at the peak of the transition to digital in 2005. My favorite picture of Vince Young was made with a Nikon D70 and a Sigma 120-300 f/2.8. Now when people see it on my lock screen, they ask if I took it with my iPhone.
There is no doubt that the quality of smartphone cameras, especially the ones on the iPhone, have become very good. But certainly the key to their success has been connectivity. Everyone who uses Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, etc. has noticed this, but Craig Mod describes the phenomenon well in his article Goodbye, Cameras in The New Yorker.
One of the great joys of that walk was the ability to immediately share with family and friends the images as they were captured in the mountains: the golden, early-morning light as it filtered through the cedar forest; a sudden valley vista after a long, upward climb. Each time, I pulled out my iPhone, not the GX1, then shot, edited, and broadcasted the photo within minutes.
The smartphone has been key in enabling the short-form of photography. As Mod describes earlier in his article, photography used to be a painstaking process. Ansel Adams would work all day to capture a single image. The smartphone camera is always with you, is easy and fast to use, and enables streamlined sharing with friends and family. In the same way that mobile has enabled us to share our thoughts quickly in short-form, the smartphone camera has made it easy to quickly share a short-form image.
I'm using the analogy with long-form and short-form writing intentionally, because it is commonly agreed that one is not better than the other. They simply serve different purposes, which is exactly how I feel about photography. Smartphone images are not bad images. They are artistic, emotional, provocative, engaging. All of the qualities of any good photograph taken in the last hundred years. But they serve a different purpose than the long-form version of photography where images are made with a purpose built camera. Quoting from Craig Mod again on the shift to networked cameras.
In the same way that the transition from film to digital is now taken for granted, the shift from cameras to networked devices with lenses should be obvious. While we’ve long obsessed over the size of the film and image sensors, today we mainly view photos on networked screens—often tiny ones, regardless of how the image was captured...
The distinction of a long-form photograph is how the image wants to be remembered. We view millions of images on our phone's small screen, but how often do we view them a second time? Will we cherish the images taken with our phones five years from now? Speaking personally, I rarely spend time with my iPhone images on a computer after I've shot them. I enjoy and share them on my phone, but thats it. I don't return to them later.
We don’t use our DSLR every day. It’s for big events, birthdays, school performances, and the iPhone suffices for the rest of the time. But it’s worth every penny and more, to look back on these photos years later and know we have captured them at their best.
This summer I spent 16 days hiking the John Muir Trail in California. I carried with me a Canon 6D, Canon 24-105 f/4L, Canon 300 f/4L, a variety of filters, remote timers, batteries, and 178GB of SD cards. That added about 10 pounds to my pack. I was already carrying my iPhone 5, so why bother with all the extra gear? I considered leaving it, but in retrospect I could not be happier that I kept it. The trip turned out to be one of the most creatively stimulating experiences I've ever had as a photographer. I came away with dozens of images that I will cherish forever. I ended up printing two books and a dozen large canvases, enough to decorate my home-office with memories of the trip.
I did still take pictures with my iPhone along the way. And on the few fleeting moments that we got a cellular connection I managed to share some of those images on Twitter. But when I look back through the images of the trip, none of those are the ones I cherish. I was happy to be able to share my trip immediately with my friends and family, but they are not the images I want to go back and enjoy later. They look great on my phone, but they don't compare well on a large monitor or in print.
There are plenty of examples in photography where the DSLR will remain essential for a long time. Sports and Wildlife are good examples, as they require very specialized lenses that will not be available on a smartphone. But even for other photographic genres that are less dependent on focal length I continue to believe that there is a place for both short-form and long-form photography. Mobile has opened up the short-form and made it accessible to everyone, but it has hardly killed the long-form. There is still a place for cameras that enable long-form photography, as long as people have memories that they wish to cherish.