Is that person with an iPhone a press photographer?

Last weekend at an outdoor cafe I photographed three sparrows that had been about to poop on my bald head.

I was able to do so because my picture-taking ability is ever-present: I am one of the 6.6 billion people on this planet who walk around with a camera in their pockets. It is as much a part of my iPhone as the speaking and texting functions.

I would not mention the defecating feathered friends, or my mobile phone, were it not for the fact that the previous day I had been engaged in a lively email exchange with a group of highly respected press photographers. We had been debating whether the iPhone would replace the truckload of camera gear that they had been carrying throughout their professional lives.

The debate had been prompted by an Associated Press article to mark the 15th birthday of iPhone. AP had asked 16 of its photographers around the world who use iPhones to submit a photograph taken on their devices.

Enric Marti, the AP deputy director of photography (who oversaw the project) prefaced their images with an admission that he had a real nostalgia for the 35 mm camera with its 36-exposure roll of film that required tough decision making on when to press the shutter. He had thought that having a device in your pocket that let you take 3000 frames on an assignment somehow took the magic out of it.

After the photographers submitted their iPhone images he has “sort of” changed his mind. As a picture editor, he has hung up his professional camera, but he always carries his mobile phone “…which is kind of the point. You go through life having to change. The world is moving quickly. You have to adapt. What else are you going to do?”

The images submitted by the 16 photographers – plus one added by Marti himself – were arresting. Every one of them was as good – or better – than what could have been produced on a Nikon or Canon digital camera. Some said circumstances meant the submitted image could only be taken on a small, unobtrusive iPhone. You can read the AP story here .

It prompted me to ask six highly respected photographers and photo editors, with whom I had had the privilege to work, whether the mobile phone would stand up to challenging news assignments. In other words, did it have the ability to replace the press photographer’s signature kit of digital SLR cameras and an assortment of lenses?

Ross Land, the founder of the Fotopress picture agency, is already a firm convert. He hasn’t bought a new digital camera since 2010. In his email reply he said: “iPhonography is so entrenched that no one raises an eyebrow, it’s the norm now and has many advantages… There’s a lot to be said for blending in with the crowd rather than blundering in with a 35mm and making yourself a potential target.”

He proved the point by sending the picture you see above. It was the first news assignment he carried out with an iPhone – a street protest in Auckland in 2014. Many of the AP photographers agreed with his view that mobile phone cameras allowed them to blend in with the crowd (many of whom would be taking pictures on their own phones), although one curiously thought that doing so was a form of subterfuge.

Personally, I see no ethical dilemma is avoiding danger and perhaps I should refer him to an editorial by Stuff’s Head of News Mark Stevens during the protest in Parliament Grounds after his staff had faced violence and threats. “They’ve had gear smashed, been punched and belted with umbrellas,” he said. “Many reporters have been harassed, both in person and online, including one threatened with their home being burned down.”

So, yes, there is certainly a place for using mobile phone cameras in situations where other equipment might mark out the photographer – and the reporter beside her or him – as targets. But is it versatile enough and does it have sufficient picture quality to work in all situations?

Brett Phibbs, formerly chief photographer of the New Zealand Herald, replies with an emphatic ‘no’.

“They would absolutely be crap for rugby,” Phibbs said. “The telephoto in a phone is a digital zoom and not optical, which makes a difference in the quality stakes. The iPhone has its advantages in being discrete and all that, but it certainly doesn’t match the quality of a 35mm camera and [long] lenses. The iPhone is still a bloody great tool, but different horses for different courses.”

There was general agreement on his final point. Different types of assignment demand different equipment but some of his colleagues disagreed on the quality front, particularly with the latest models of mobile phone.

Note, in saying that, I do not single out the iPhone. In fact, in last month’s Digital Camera World survey of the top five mobile phones, the iPhone came in fifth. The best phone for photography was judged to be the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra. It sports five (yes, five) lenses with ultra-wide, wide, telephoto and a super-zoom that is the equivalent of a 500mm conventional lens. Its image resolution is four times that of a standard phone.

Land has no issues with the resolution of his iPhone, which he says is better than the last digital camera he bought. His colleague, long-time Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday photographer Keith Waldergrave, backs him up on image quality and adds inbuilt versatility. To demonstrate, he recalled a wide panorama shot he took of the team time trial in the Tour de France. To take the same shot on a conventional camera would, he said, have required a lot more skill and effort. And the quality was high enough for it to later be transformed into a 5ftx2ft canvas wall print.

And the mobile phone certainly has earned its place in sports photography. For example, Brad Mangin, an American freelancer who regularly works for Sports Illustrated, covered the 2012 Major League Baseball World Series using an iPhone. The results appeared in a book called Instant Baseball.

So, quality-wise, the mobile phone can carry its own against conventional cameras.

However, Rob Taggart (an outstanding Kiwi photographer who was a senior executive at Associated Press in London) raised a different issue.

“The problem I have with iCamera phones is that the built-in filters are easy to use and can completely change reality which make the end result look stunning but they don’t follow journalistic values,” Taggart said. “I know, and have been lucky to have worked with, the majority of the photographers featured in the AP feature. They are all great photojournalists who follow the rules and to them the iPhone is just another tool in the camera bag.”

Taggart is right. Pre-sets are like magic in an iPhone and it is very tempting to use them.  Press photography must avoid those temptations and stay within the bounds of reality. Yes, superfluous objects can be removed – Waldergrave, for example, used Photoshop to erase a lamppost from his Tour de France shot – but the fundamental ‘truth’ of the image must not be distorted. There are, however, many tools available to ‘enhance’ an image whether it is captured by a digital camera or an iPhone. It is professionalism, not technology, that draws the ethical line.

We didn’t put the future contents of the camera bag to a vote but I sensed a recognition of the mobile phone’s present and future role. Certainly, it would be a brave person who said the phone camera will never replace the other tools in the bag. Who knows what features will be included in the next generation of phones, or what Apple will do to bring its iPhone to the top of the rankings?

Wayne Harman, one of the best picture editors this country has produced (and managing editor of the New Zealand Herald by the time he retired) said professional photographers will always embrace technological advances and the ubiquitous mobile phone will play an increasing role. Yet I could detect a wry smile when we spoke – on our iPhones. You see, it is not the gear that makes great photographs. It is the people who take them.

There is a fundamental difference between an iPhone in the hands of a reporter or member of the public and one in the hands of a professional photographer. The AP feature proved the point.

In fact, the point has been made for almost as long as the iPhone has been around.

In 2011, photographer Michael Christopher Brown was covering the descent of the Arab Spring into war in Libya when his conventional camera broke. He recorded the conflict with his iPhone and the results were later documented in his book Libyan Sugar, judged by Time magazine as one of the best photobooks of 2016.

In 2013, Nokia sent British and American fashion photographers David Bailey and Bruce Weber to Harlem with the company’s latest mobile phone. The results were Harlem through the eyes of masters of the art. You can see their gallery here.

For me one of the most graphic illustrations of the point was made that same year in Chicago. Local ice hockey heroes the Blackhawks had brought home the Stanley Cup after beating the Boston Bruins. The Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times filled their front pages with the victory. Unfortunately, the Sun-Times had just made its photographers redundant and its front page image was taken by a digital editor. Spot the difference.

Press photography has been ever-changing. The Speed Graphic with its 4×5-inch film pack was replaced by twin-lens Rolleiflex film cameras and a growing range of 35 mm cameras. Wire transmitters enabled pictures to be sent from distant assignments. Even the Polaroid instant camera had its place in the studio, where it was used to test light and composition before a studio camera took the shot. Then the darkroom was rendered obsolete by the entry of the digital camera. Now the mobile phone is challenging that innovation.

What has never changed, however, is the need for the technology to be in the hands of people with ‘the eye’ – that almost supernatural ability to know precisely when to push the button to capture what 35mm pioneer Henri Cartier-Bresson called “a decisive moment”.

Cartier-Bresson was one of the founder of the Magnum picture agency. He liked his small 35 mm Leica, he said in the 1930s, because it granted him anonymity in a crowd.

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