It's Not the Camera...

Ft. Bragg, CA, July 2018. Taken with an iPhone 8 Plus.

Ft. Bragg, CA, July 2018. Taken with an iPhone 8 Plus.

The photographer Jay Maisel observes that if people see the grain or noise in your photographs, it’s because your images aren’t compelling. I thought of Maisel’s comment while meeting with friends who were offering me travel tips. They had lived for over a decade and a half in one of the countries that I plan on visiting, and they provided excellent suggestions of sites to see and where to stay. 

And then our conversation turned to photography. When it came out that I was going to take pictures with my iPhone 8 Plus, at least at the beginning of my journey, I was subtly chastised. The iPhone, I was told, isn’t a real camera, and our discussion turned to talk of sensors and lens quality, best brands, and a terrific showing of books that they had published from an online publishing company similar to Apple Books. But the most essential discussion didn't occur. 

Because photography is such a technical art, it lends itself to these technical conversations. In the old days, it was 'what film are you using?' 'Which zone are you placing your shadows (if you were shooting black and white)?' Now it’s ‘what camera are you using (because the sensor matters)?' 'What software for post?' 'Which printer?' That’s because these discussions are far easier than ones of aesthetics, though far less substantive. It’s far simpler to talk with someone about the specs of their camera, and far harder to share ideas about how abstract expressionism influenced Edward Weston’s photography, or even the effect of Stephen Shore’s oeuvre has had on the explosion of car photographs on Instagram. 

(In fairness, the backdrop of our exchange was a photo project of mine which failed because I shot it on film with a view camera, and couldn't score enough darkroom time to make prints of the quality that I wanted. I had compelling images and prints, both by my and Maisel's standards, but not as many as I hoped for, and improving the mediocre ones required more access to the darkroom then I could secure. My friends were trying to ensure that I didn’t suffer a similar photographic setback while traveling.)

What was missing from our conversation was a discussion of theory. What makes a compelling photograph? What compositions excite the eye? How does one take a photograph that drips with emotion? What is an authentic image? These are the things that matter about creating art, and the point that Maisel is attending to. Forget the camera and take good pictures. If your photographs are exciting, no one will notice the flaws.

I may find, as my travels unfold, that the iPhone is an inadequate camera for the task, though I doubt it. I’ve photographed enough with it to know what the 8’s strengths and weaknesses are. The advantages are too many to mention, though clearly, I love its portability. The shortcomings are that it oversaturates color, pincushions a bit, and the telephoto lens doesn’t have as much reach as I’d like. The strengths far outweigh the weaknesses for my needs, and I remain astonished by a device that allows me to carry my reading library, music library, camera, video, and more in my pocket. In time I may find the iPhone inadequate, but that doesn’t feel likely.