Ansel Adams Meets Apple: The Camera Phone Craze in Photography

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mobile-phone photography. “The Relentless Eye,” a two-month juried exhibit of hundreds of mobile-phone photos launching today at the Helen Day Art Center in Stowe, VT, is just the latest tribute to the craft.

Amidst all this fuss, it needs to be said that mobile phone cameras have their limitations. They usually have tiny sensors, meaning they have fewer pixels to work with than dedicated cameras. And they have small, fixed lenses that don’t let in very much light, so it’s hard to capture moving objects or to get clear images in low-light conditions. There are times when quality and performance really do count; if the best camera is the one you have with you, then I’m really glad the Apollo astronauts took Hasselblads to the moon, and not iPhones.

Popular photos from the Best Camera communityBut if you spend some time looking through the iPhone photos that Jarvis and other users of his app have snapped, you quickly realize that art is often about turning limitations into inspirations. In my personal experience, the iPhone camera produces pictures that are relatively grainy and splotchy; bright light sources have a tendency to bleed across images, and you get glows and haloes where none existed in real life. But many of Jarvis’s own shots use these odd effects to beautiful advantage. I can’t show any of them here due to copyright restrictions, but there’s a cool gallery at his site, and Jarvis has collected a whole bunch of his iPhone shots into a 256-page, $20 softcover book entitled, naturally, The Best Camera Is The One That’s With You. (You can order it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble; ads for the volume are built into the iPhone app and the community site, which is part of what makes the whole campaign so clever. But be warned as you explore Jarvis’s photos, writings, and videos: he isn’t exactly short on confidence or ego.)

The newest iPhone model, the 3GS, has video recording capabilities as well as a still camera, so a whole culture of iPhone videographers is now sprouting up. But I’m stuck with a 3G for now (AT&T won’t let me upgrade until December), so I’ll have to wait for a while to start hacking around in that community. By the way, I’m aware that this column may sometimes sound like it’s “all iPhone, all the time”—but the truth is that the iPhone is simply the best consumer-level platform these days for creative digital experimentation, so I can’t help myself. If the rumors about an Apple tablet device are true, I’m going to be spending a lot of time writing about that in 2010. Next week, though, I promise to write about something non-Apple-related. Probably.

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • I wonder if the observation that we’re “living in the age of lowered expectations” also applies to photography, and whether the relatively lower quality of camera phone-generated images is a fad. Or, perhaps I should say “different quality,” quality being in the eye of the beholder. Many camera phone images seem to be remarkable only with respect to the technology used to generate them.

    That said, I have to admit that some of my favorite images have come from my iPhone. There’s a certain freedom that comes from accepting the inherent limitations of a 3 megapixel photo taken through a dodgy lens, and worrying more about the message than the medium. If nothing else, camera phones seem to be repopularizing lomography!

  • “Lomography”! Now there’s a word you don’t hear every day. I had to go look it up. According to Wikipedia, it’s photography using cameras from Austrian firm Lomographische, which are known for their “unique, colorful, and sometimes blurry” images.

    Eric, I actually feel the same ambivalence you do about all of this. As I wrote my column yesterday, I also thought about going into the question of whether playing around with an image using digital filters pre-defined by experts like Jarvis really counts as “creativity.” But I ran out of time! That’s a subject for a future column, I guess.

  • I don’t think there’s an opener big enough for the can of worms involved in defining creativity! ;-)

    To me, the end result is what’s important, not how you got there. The digital artist or photographer may excel at the most arcane of tools, or she might just use canned filters, but the viewer probably doesn’t know or care if the resulting image strikes a chord in his soul.

    After all, most photographers don’t build their own cameras and lenses.

  • Rich

    The title of Javis’ book — The Best Camera Is The One That’s With You — really says it all. I have an iPhone, but I tend to pack a Canon when I think that picture taking might be a possibility. But truthfully, the iPhone is more apt to be in my pocket than is the Canon (or both of them).

    Picture taking opportunities present themselves all the time. Keep your eyes open to the possibilities and keep that iPhone or Canon or whatever handy!

  • I am always perplexed by people who seem to feel the camera is what makes a photographer. For the millionth time it’s the artist eye, imagination and talent that makes a great image not the tools he/she works with.

    I remember back in the late ’80’s a couple of guys went on a nationwide tour with a red couch and shot everything with a cheap little P&S camera… The coffee table book looked great because the photographers practiced their craft rather than worked their equipment.

  • Tom B

    For sure, it is the imagination of the photographer; not the camera– that makes for great art. Having said that, better cameras give you way more options and make some kinds of images much easier to capture. I do a lot of macro. And I use advanced settings a lot– bracketing, etc.

  • John

    People usually criticize the iPhone for the 3MP camera. I think the number of pixels is the least important factor here. The lens, noise level, white balance and autofocus speed are all more important.

  • Ben Swanson

    These days, now that the iPhone has a far more powerful camera, the most important element is how you’re processing your photos on your iPhone. For Ansel Adams quality photo processing on your phone I suggest checking out Hipsta Hipster Cam from