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?

How to Find the Best Jordan-Hare Stadium #VantagePoint

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Auburn vs LSU 2008 from the South Parking Deck After the Game

This is an amazing time to be a photographer. Whether you’re a fan of the hype or not, the announcement this week from Apple about the iPhone 7 Plus, specifically the new dual camera, was something I was anxiously awaiting. The technical achievement to having two different camera sensors in your pocket brings a whole new life to what’s photographically possible… from something you can carry in your pocket! Another camera company working on multiple sensors I’ve been eagerly following is Light.co who have been developing a camera called the L16 which uses 16 different sensors. Light.co is taking a different approach to multiple sensor from Apple and LinX. The new iPhone uses two sensors to house two different focal length lenses where the user can choose to use one or the other. Light.co is taking a 16 images from 16 different sensors and stitching them all together for a final 50mp high res DSLR-like image. But none of those advances alone creates a beautiful or successful image. After watching the progress on the L16 for a while now I was thrilled when they asked me to explore the aspect of  finding a good “vantage point” here on my blog.

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M25 Mission Camp in Atlanta

The Cornerstone M25 Team
The team on the last day as we prepare to head back to Auburn

There are several entries that have been sitting in my drafts for a while that I’ve trying to get posted, and this happens to be one of them. M25 Mission Camp is a youth missional organization in Atlanta that works with the homeless in a way I’ve rarely seen over the years. It wasn’t the first youth trip for me, but it was the first one in a while, and I was amazed with every aspect of the experience, mainly because it changed perceptions and perspectives on life and serving others well. This video we produced can explain it better than I can here. For now, there are some images that shows a little of the week we spent trying to love others well.

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An Auburn Alley or Two

Afternoon Alley Sun
The sun in the late afternoon in the alley near J&M Bookstore in Auburn

As of late I seem to be going from one day shooting thousands of images of an event to shooting almost nothing. Shooting nothing serious for days drives me nuts. But those are the times I try to get out of my comfort zone, slow down, and tackle subjects that have no deadlines, that interest me personally, but also will advance my knowledge and experience as a photographer.

It’s quiet here in Auburn right now. The calm before the fall-sports-storm, when you can get a table at a restaurant and find a parking place. But that makes street/people subjects challenging. In my ongoing series The Streets of Auburn Project, I have added a few from the “Alleys of Auburn,” but this is just a start of that point of view, or a first initial look at the alleyways, and I didn’t make it very far that day.

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The Rural Decay Photo Ops in the South

Abandon House Engulfed in Growth
This house is being consumed by the ivy and tree growth around it since being boarded up.

I have a few projects I’m kicking off on my blog and one of them is The Rural Decay Project. I’ve been interested in this topic for a while now, and have made some loose attempts at photographically capturing these images but until recently without much cohesiveness that one needs to tell a story.

One of the things about photography that took me a while to learn is you can’t always be thinking about that exotic locale that you might get to visit some day to finally make some great images. To be a photographer is more than vacation or travel, you have to photograph what is around you all the time in your daily routine of life. That can sound quite boring for some of us that don’t live in some beside resort community, but it works, and it’s unique to you.

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The Streets of Auburn, Part 1

Toomer's Corner in Auburn
The famous Toomer’s Corner Drugstore in Auburn in the summer

This week I finally had a few spare minutes to get downtown to take some street shots. I’ve been wanting to practice up on my black and white technique and revisit street photography for a long time but just never made time to do it. Auburn is generally a fantastic place for street photography for several reasons; people are super friendly (almost overly so which also has it’s challenges in shooting), there is almost always something going on that makes for interesting subjects (especially during football season), and it’s a small condensed area so you can cover a lot of ground by foot quickly.

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Don't Include Power Lines in Your Photography

Power Line Sunrise
Power lines run all over the place in rural Alabama, no such thing as underground lines.

Since January I’ve spent a good bit of time reading and re-reading all of Eric Kim’s books on street photography. There is so much practical real world advise in each one of his books that they are probably the few collection of books I’ve read multiple times. While we share different philosophies on life, we both share a love of photography, and it seems, a driving desire to continue to learn and improve. One of the reasons I continued to read and follow Eric Kim’s work over the years is he has completely changed and rearranged how I think about photography.

He’s made me re-think how I view my own personal photography, what’s acceptable as a quality image and what’s not, and even what equipment is actually truly needed. All those rules I spent years learning, like “don’t include power lines in your photography” it will ruin the shot, were disseminated by Kim’s books. I think I was 10 years into photography before I actually realized it was ok to include people in the images (my main teacher and book learning early on was 100% nature photography).

When you have been doing something, like practicing photography for 25 years, you don’t often come across new ways of thinking about the art, so it’s been a super refreshing experience so far this year. The ideas below came straight out of one of his books, The Street Photography Project Manual, which I was able to read because of his vision on open source information.

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The Rush of Life

Overlooking an Atlanta Freeway
Overlooking an Atlanta Freeway

Last week I took about 5,000 images of so many different aspect of life in downtown Atlanta. This one still stands out to me as a metaphor to the pace of life we lead today, This was one of the only times I can remember over the week when the interstate wasn’t bumper to bumper and crawling. I think I have enough traffic and freeway images now to do a photo essay on Atlanta traffic, but that would just be depressing. In this case, we were serving the homeless that lived underneath the freeway bridges where the pace of life is ironically slow.

Graflex Speed Graphic Medium Format Film Camera

Graflex Speed Graphic with 135mm f/4.7 Lens
Medium format 4×5 and 220 film camera with 135mm f/4.7 lens made popular in the 1940’s

If you study the history of photography from it’s first shot through today’s almost incalculable iterations, you will see the art form takes on an enormous range of artistic expressions. I’m actually proud to say I started off in the age of film photography. I know what it’s like to have to be super intentional about the exposure, about getting it right the first or second time because film cost a fortune, and getting it developed cost even more. I also know what it’s like to take a photo and not see the results for a week or more (that was probably the worst part about shooting film back in the day), which made improving as a photographer a slower, more intentional process. Looking back at all that film I shot, I know it helped me tremendously when it comes to shooting in today’s digital world.

My grandad was a photographer as well, and he of course also did all of his work in film, but it wasn’t the 35mm film I grew up shooting, it was a medium format, 4×5 film, and still popular 220 film roll that he used. The one 4×5 negative I still have of his is this self-portrait, taken with the very camera showcased in this post. It was taken back in the 1970’s (when you kept cameras for more than a year or two), back in a time when these were called “self-portraits” not selfies.

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Rural Decay Exploration, Structure 1.100

Rural Decay Structure 1.166
Abandon one room house in the woods on a rainy day

Perhaps a little known fact about me is I really love the unique beauty of urban decay. In the south, as is the case virtually all over the world, you see abandon buildings, houses, and various different structures that are being reclaimed by nature. You’ve heard of “urban decay photography,” sometimes referred to as urban exploration, urbex, or UE, which is the exploration of those various places, but you rarely hear of “rural decay” exploration. Probably because most people don’t live in the rural backwoods of wherever, they live in the city.

For those of us who do spend most of our days in the rural south, little abandon houses, barns, sheds, and all kinds of structures are literally everywhere. Sometimes you have to look pretty hard because they have been completely reclaimed by the trees like the first image above. Barely visible from the road, it was probably once a small house sitting on the road on the way to town. Today it’s being consumed by the land.

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