A Photographer’s 10 Year Transition From DSLR to iPhone X and 8 Plus

Panorama Shot on the iPhone 5 in 2012
Panorama Shot on the iPhone 5 in 2012

With the pending announcement and release of the iPhone 8, or the iPhone Pro, iPhone X or whatever the new flagship iPhone is going to be called, the photography industry as a whole is once again going to be forced to advance to places it perhaps never considered 10 years ago. Features like dual sensors with different focal length lenses, the possibility of something like “scene selection,” and even the good “old” things like geo-tagging images (why is this still not a standard on all DSLR’s at this point?) will continue to provide space in the market between Apple and the big camera makers. This is probably never more true for Nikon and Canon who, over the last 10 years, have started to look slightly “Nokia-like” in advancements beyond the DSLR. They haven’t completely stuck their proverbial head in the sand, I think they woke up just in time, but it was just far too late for me.

Both companies have started branching out into mirrorless cameras, but it feels like they’re just playing catch up with Sony and Fujifilm, not transformational as in the past decades. Sony and Fujifilm at this point feel like the cutting edge of cameras just beyond the DSLR market, perhaps a bridge between mirrorless and the smartphone. Yes you will be able to shoot DSLR at native ISO-64 (and in probably complete darkness before long), and many other incrimental advancements, but they feel almost forced, and very late.

Of course Nikon and Canon built their empires on the SLR and then the DSLR, so changing business models 10 years ago probably wasn’t even on the horizon. The never ending product cycle of updated models was huge back when digital photography made giant leaps each year rendering previous models ancient worthless dinosaurs. My Nikon D100 I paid $2,000 for back in 2002 is worthless today, and that’s good for Nikon, except I’m no longer buying new models, and that can’t be good for them. I know there are more people like me who have come to the realization that, yes the sensor on the iPhone isn’t a DSLR, it’s never going to capture the same IQ as a full-frame or APS-C sensor, but now, and with the iPhone 8, it’s finally good enough.

I get it. It would have been hard, if not impossible, for them to abandon their cash cow. I just can’t help but think about how those meetings went when they finally decided to divert sizable cash reserves to R&D for some unknown non-DSLR future. Other industries can vouch for similar fates. How about the music industry, newspapers, magazines, point-n-shoot cameras, or when was the last time you bought a flashlight or a calculator, or how about an alarm clock?

From a “serious” photographer’s perspective I know what you are thinking, you just can’t compare a digital full frame sensor, or even an APS-C sized sensor, with the microscopic sensor of an iPhone. And you are correct. I’m not. I’m comparing my own walk through years of equipment purchases with the fact that I have now come to the point now where I no longer consider the big bulky expensive DSLR to be a required tool for the serious photographer, or at least for this photographer, who is serious about his work.

And while the iPhone may never kill off the DSLR, it has decimated the point-n-shoot market, and continues to make big strides in little packages. Just peruse Flickr and look at the trends of uploads. Perhaps Flickr isn’t the best example but I always enjoy flipping through the “top” camera images to see the trends in camera usage. Yes, maybe 500px is a better place to look for the more serious photographer, but their stats aren’t quite up to date for an equal comparison, and any way you look statistically at the argument right now it’s flawed, but consumer equipment on mobile devices is staggering.

Top 5 Cameras for Users on Flickr
Top 5 Cameras for Users on Flickr

Nikon and Canon aside, companies are continuing to think outside the box when it comes to capturing light, and that’s a great thing for consumers. Advancements like Light.co who just released their handheld 52mp 10 sensor point-n-shoot to Apple, maybe Samsung, even Fujifilm to some extent, have changed photography from the few who can (try to) afford big glass and new DSLR’s over and over again, to being completely and totally ubiquitous. In the past 10 years, this change has completely rearranged my thinking about the tools I carry as a photographer.

I’ve been shooting since 1984, and shooting seriously since about 1996 when I started studying photography in college. I made the transition from instant film in the 80’s to 35mm film in the 90’s to digital in 2000 (with a rinky-dink 1mp digital HP point-n-shoot. I was just so excited to be shooting digital I got the first digital camera I could find and afford).

Without getting too much into the technical aspect of image sensors and how many pixels get packed into something on the order of the 1/3.6in (or 3.99mm x 7.21) size sensor of my iPhone 7 Plus, it’s obviously a much smaller sensor than a 35mm full frame sensor. For me, it’s finally come to the point where it doesn’t have to. The results you can get with the iPhone today are well worthy to be called another photographic tool in the camera bag of a serious photographer. The colors have rich tones with little noise. The dynamic range improves all the time, and the editing tools have even moved to more advanced modes including RAW.

Atlanta Airport at the Gate in the Rain Shot on an iPhone 7 Plus
Atlanta Airport at the Gate in the Rain Shot on an iPhone 7 Plus
Foggy Sunrise Shot on the iPhone 7 Plus
Foggy Sunrise Shot on the iPhone 7 Plus
Jordan-Hare Stadium November 28 2015, Shot on the iPhone 6
Jordan-Hare Stadium November 28 2015, Shot on the iPhone 6

My iPhone 7 Plus works for 85% of everything I want to shoot on a daily basis, and since the iPhone 5, that percentage seems to be going up every time a new version comes out. Of course no, I’m not shooting weddings anymore, or senior portraits, or super long exposure astrological events. You can only push the iPhone sensor so far, but those times when I truly miss my DSLR have become fewer and fewer each year.

This year I took the leap to give up my biggest pro mirrorless body in anticipation of the iPhone 8, and I’m ok with that. With the release of the iPhone 8 / Pro and a sensor that can perhaps shoot 4k video along with 1080p in 240fps, with two lenses, wide and mid-focal length, AND take great images, I just can’t justify carrying around anything else in my camera bag (i.e. pocket) on an hourly/daily basis. The best phrase I’ve heard over the years is “the best camera is the one you have with you,” and that is never more true than one that can fit in your pocket.

Shooting at Las Vegas Airport with my Nikon D100 and Nikkor 80–200mm f/2.8 lens in 2002.
Shooting at Las Vegas Airport with my Nikon D100 and Nikkor 80–200mm f/2.8 lens in 2002.

I started shooting with the first consumer DSLR that Nikon released in 2002, the Nikon D100, and from that time forward I became a pixel counter with the masses. I think must have used every lens and every DSLR that Nikon made between 2002–2015 (minus the D5). That camera, along with the Nikkor 80–200mm f/2.8 was a great, but a super expensive, combination for what I was shooting at the time, aviation photography. My long haul camera combination in that time period was the D7000/D7200 and the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 lens. That came to be my most used and loved combination that went all over the United States, Uganda, and Europe. I shot well over 100,000 images with that combination, and I loved it. But now, times are different, and where the Nikon D100 cost $2,000 at the time of launch, the iPhone 8/Pro will be half the price, weigh basically nothing, fit in a 6-inch form factor, and is miles ahead in it’s light capturing abilities.

Camera System Relevance vs Time Against DSLR and iPhone Cameras
Camera System Relevance vs Time Against DSLR and iPhone Cameras

I’ve owned every iPhone model released (basically for the camera), except the 5S, and over the last 10 years I’ve also gone through this DSLR “gear acquisition syndrome” (G.A.S.) that all photographers go through. It’s always been the DSLR is king, and the cellphone is garbage. Now, over a period of just 10 years those two positions have changed dramatically, and with the release of the iPhone 8, to me, the DSLR has been de-thowned for every day use. If you look at the (very unscientific chart above) they have, in my photo bag world, had two opposite corresponding curves. At least for me, the iPhone 8 Pro will solidify that, even before I see the specs on the camera.

Sunset in the Winter Shot on the iPhone 5 on January 27, 2012
Sunset in the Winter Shot on the iPhone 5 on January 27, 2012

The big shift in my mind was when the iPhone 5 came out. The image at the top of this article, a panorama of Jordan-Hare Stadium, has for years now been the best selling image I have ever taken. And it was taken with an iPhone, almost 5 years ago! When the iPhone 6 came out I sold my Nikon gear and moved to the Fujifilm mirrorless X-Pro2 and X70, (a fantastic system), and this year, I’m moving to the iPhone 8/Pro and completely out of the heavy, bulky, expensive cameras.

The inside the main sanctuary of Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham AL shot on the iPhone 5 in 2012.
The inside the main sanctuary of Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham AL shot on the iPhone 5 in 2012.

The term iPhonography has been around a while. I started intentionally shooting with the iPhone camera since the first one was released, and this is just a sliver of what I’ve been able to achieve over the years with that tiny little sensor. That doesn’t even take in account my Instagram, which I loved way back before Facebook even knew it was a thing. Almost every image on that site was shot on some version of the iPhone. And if you want to see some truly amazing work done on the iPhone visit IPPAWARDS and browse their winnersthat span over the 10 year lifetime of the iPhone camera.

The problem with camparing a DSLR to a smartphone though is flawed at best because you aren’t comparing apples to apples so to speak. A better comparison or statement might be what are you giving up? What are the tradeoffs you are willing to make when going from a DSLR to a smartphone?

So I’m less about making a direct comparison of DSLR vs iPhone than I am confirming that, if you are passionate about photography, forget about the gear. Read, study, shoot with whatever you have, and improve every day. Learn why depth of field is important and how to use it. Learn about stops of light, exposure, shutter speeds, and shoot as much as you can possibly shoot. In the mean time, here is some iPhonography favorites of mine so far this year.

Waiting at the Gate in Atlanta at Sunrise, Shot on iPhone 7 Plus
Waiting at the Gate in Atlanta at Sunrise, Shot on iPhone 7 Plus
MacBook Pro and Fujifilm X70
MacBook Pro and Fujifilm X70
Jet Flyby in Auburn Shot on iPhone 7 Plus
Jet Flyby in Auburn Shot on iPhone 7 Plus
Selfie with Raindrops on the Hood of My Truck
Selfie with Raindrops on the Hood of My Truck
Auburn University Iconic Samford Hall
Auburn University Iconic Samford Hall
Super Foggy Morning in the Pasture
Super Foggy Morning in the Pasture
Black and White Reflections of the Clouds in Atlanta, Shot on iPhone 6S
Black and White Reflections of the Clouds in Atlanta, Shot on iPhone 6S
Halftime Fireworks at Jordan-Hare Stadium, iPhone 7 Plus
Halftime Fireworks at Jordan-Hare Stadium, iPhone 7 Plus
Black and White Sunrise, iPhone 5
Black and White Sunrise, iPhone 5

The images above were all shot on an iPhone, most on the iPhone 7 Plus unless undicated, and edited with the Apple camera app. I rarely use anything other than the Apple Camera app, but on occasion I will use Snapseed, Lightroom Mobile, and once in a while Camera+. Photography on the iPhone is less about the edit because for the most part you are not shooting RAW and editing is limited to a JPG, it’s more about good technique and getting back to the basics of photography. Light, composition, exposure, subject; that’s what I try to concentrate on those over what filter some app provides.

I can’t wait to start shooting with the new camera in a short while. What are your hopes for the iPhone 8 this year?

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