iPhone Photography

The new Polaroid-Holga for the 21st Century

By Dan Burkholder Back to


And in the Beginning

My personal iPhone journey started on Thanksgiving of 2008. Waiting eagerly for my other-network contract to expire, I couldn’t wait to browse the web, have visual voice mail, sync calendars and address books, play games and…oh, and it had a camera. I was initially dismissive of the iPhone’s camera. It was low resolution, fixed focus, and had no control at all. You know where this is going. Slowly but surely, I was seduced by the iPhone’s ease and accessibility. The image quality worked its way into my photo- graphic heart. The software (“apps” of course) was inexpensive and incredible (Curves not only in RGB but in CMYK and LAB modes!). Sure enough, I’m now a dedicated iPhone photographer, using it to capture everything from family happenings to pastoral landscapes. An important personal validation came when I sold my first iPhone-produced fine art print in a respected photography gallery. Yes, the iPhone is a real camera capable of making beautiful prints.

Welcoming Yet Another Era in Photography

Late in the 19th Century, George Eastman enchanted Americans with his slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest,” forever changing the previously hassle- prone medium of photography into an inviting pastime for non-technical amateurs. Suddenly, the process of recording memories of family, friends, events, and places was accessible to anyone with a finger and a postage stamp. Americans responded by taking millions of pictures, and George Eastman responded by growing fabulously rich. It was a win-win deal. But in a medium like photography— founded and nurtured on change—you know that isn’t the end of the story.

Decades later Edwin Land shook up the photo world with cameras that produced instant prints right on the spot. His Polaroid cameras (with all their incarnations of camera backs, sizes and films) became photography’s toys, cultural icons, and professionals’ proofing tools nearly simultaneously. Sadly, anyone who drives a web browser knows how ineptly Polaroid managed her segue into digital imaging. It’s not—excuse the pun—a pretty picture.

Firmly embedded in the 21st Century, we’re now entering yet another imaging era, one that further democratizes photography while opening new and exciting creative doors, all in the same instant. Of course we’re talking about cell phone cameras in general, and iPhones in particular. For the first time in history, you find yourself carrying a camera even if you didn’t intend to. Grab your phone as you go out the front door and, yep, you’ve grabbed a camera, too. The camera is just one feature in a device that offers many. Let’s see why that’s important and then talk about how that adds to our photographic lives.

How Does an iPhone Liberate Us?

One of the big plusses of working with a handheld device is owing to one of its most obvious limit- ations: a screen measuring a mere 2″x 3″. No (good) software developer will be tempted to cram too many features into such a diminutive interface. In fact, if one thing throws up a red flag for me when I’m checking out a new photo app, it’s when a software developer tries to make his/her iPhone app a photographic jack-of-all-trades. There just isn’t any comfortable way for the user to navigate a mess of nested menu options and a plethora of preferences in such a small space. Hence, we witness a return to simplicity in software. Now isn’t that sounding welcome?

Tree and House, Palenville

No Rushing Back to Your Computer

You know your DSLR workflow. You shoot in the field, chimp the shot, get excited, and…then you wait until you get back to your desktop or laptop computer to start working with the image, bringing it to the visual fruition you felt in the field when the shutter clicked. The word “wait” is instrumental here with more than a subtle suggestion that there is a creative block, or at least delay, in your path to the final inspired image that’s ready to print.

iPhone photography changes all of that. Obviously you can compose and shoot with abandon with your iPhone; that’s a given with any digital camera. It’s what comes after the capture that separates normal digital capture from iPhonography. Tree and Pond in Fall is an image I captured while on a late November motorcycle ride here in the Hudson River Valley. This wasn’t a photographic outing in the proper sense. That is, I wasn’t saddled with camera bodies, lenses, tripods and such. Instead, an iPhone 3G was in my jacket pocket. Riding down an unfamiliar road, I pulled to the shoulder when a farm pond and weeping willow came into view. The lens on the iPhone is mildly wide, about 37mm equivalent on 35mm. To capture the full sweep of the willow and pond, I shot an overlapping set of images and then stitched them on the iPhone (fig. 1).

Remember, I did not merge this series in Lightroom or Photoshop. The bracketed series was stitched on the iPhone (with the excellent AutoStitch app), tonally adjusted with PerfectPhoto and filtered with PhotoForge. Yes, we do perform something of an “app dance” on our iPhones, exploiting a suite of applications to adjust and stylize our images just the way we want.

Tree and Pond in Fall, 2009
Bracketed series for Tree and Pond image

Final Notes

If the iPhone were merely another mediocre camera, it’d be no more exciting than the introduction of another Holga or pinhole camera. But with the iPhone, we have the camera and digital darkroom right in our shirt pockets! In short, the iPhone is so much more than a camera-software platform for photographers. It’s an entire system of tools and information that can enhance our image making, both for capturing with the iPhone itself, or to augment our real photography with a DSLR, view camera, pinhole or any other camera we choose.

Certainly we’ll see other exciting eras enter and leave our medium of photography. But for now, I’m trying to learn as much as I can with this pocket picture powerhouse. Watch these pages in future issues as I delve deep into the stuff of iPhone photography. From advanced stitching, to retouching, to filter effects, to video editing, we’ll be dipping our toes into nearly every pixel pond where our iPhones and photography mingle. You’re going to have your iPhone with you anyway; now’s the time to explore its incredible arsenal of picture making talents!

About the Author

Dan Burkholder
Dan Burkholder has been teaching digital imaging workshops for 15 years at venues including The School of the Art Institute, Chicago; The Royal Photographic Society, Madrid, Spain; The International Center of Photography, New York; Mesilla Digital Imaging Workshops, Mesilla, NM and many others. Dan’s latest book, The Color of Loss (University of Texas Press, 2008), documents the flooded interiors of post-Katrina New Orleans and is the first coffee table book done entirely using HDR methods. His award-winning book, Making Digital Negatives for Contact Printing, has become a standard resource in the fineart photography community. Dan’s iPhone images can be seen at: www.iPhoneArtistry.com/.