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Photography

When and How to Use Your iPhone on the Job (and When Not To)

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This post is part of a series called How To Use Your iPhone Like a Pro.
How To Use Your iPhone Like A Pro: Post-Processing
5 Smart Ways to Use Your iPhone in the Photo Studio

Without a doubt, the iPhone is a fantastic camera. It is not, however, a camera without limitations. In this article we'll take a closer look at those limitations and how to turn them to your advantage.

So far in our series How To Use Your iPhone Like A Pro we’ve looked at how to take better images using your iPhone, how to overcome its inherent limits with additional hardware and how to post-process your images using additional apps. We've also thought about the nature of smartphone photography, and it's own special visual language.

But how do you use your iPhone as a pro? When is it the right time to kit up phone and go to work, and when should you leave it in your pocket? Let's find out.

Does the Smartphone a Photographer Make?

Last year, when the Chicago Sun-Times laid off it’s entire photo staff, it handed their reporters smartphones as a replacement. It was an important moment for newspaper photographers. Many of those photographers were hired-back as "multimedia" journalists, but to those in the industry the layoff signalled a turning point.

Then, last week, The New York Times published a grid of Instagram pictures of a winter storm on it's front page, a first for "The Gray Lady." iPhoneography, long ascendant, has arrived.

It's hard to argue against the incredible always-there, go-anywhere powers of the iPhone. The newest versions of the handset only increase the phone's stature as a tool for all kinds of photography, from e-commerce to war reporting to film making.

The smartphone camera isn't the sole source of disruption in the world of photography and video, but it certainly has changed things. In all the excitement of new technology it's easy to get swept up, but let's pause and take a step back for a second: you know how to use your iPhone like a pro, but when is it actually appropriate (and even advantageous) do so?

When It Isn’t Appropriate to Use Your Phone

Before digging into when it is appropriate to use your iPhone professionally, lets look at when it isn’t: when your iPhone is not the best tool you have access to. There is an assumption when being hired that you will use the best quality tools for the price. Most clients do not assume that the iPhone is the best-quality tool for their job.

If you are a wedding or commercial photographer, showing up and deciding to to do the job with your iPhone is an easy way to get yourself blacklisted. That isn’t to say that you couldn’t take amazing images with it, just that the quality of the images would not match the quality of the work you were hired to make.

The exception to this rule is when you can convince your clients that the iPhone is the right tool. The smartphone aesthetic, like the point-and-shoot one aesthetic that came before it, is one that can be used to create a feeling of casualness, youth, vibrancy, and cool. For some people, that's exactly what they want. If you do want to use the iPhone in this kind of situation, go for it! But talk to your clients first.

Stretching the Limits of the Tool

The phone's limits are the crux of the issue. The iPhone is an amazing camera, but it doesn’t have the broad capabilities of a DSLR. The lens has a fixed focal length and a fixed aperture; with the crop factor accounted for, it’s equivalent to a 35mm lens on a full-frame camera. The lens is stuck wide open at f/2.2. The iPhone’s shutter speed and ISO range are also more limited than any modern DSLRs. The iPhone’s sensor is also tiny, which creates noise and issues when working in low-light. Working with flashes is nearly impossible. Finally, by default it’s almost fully automatic.

In the previous tutorials I looked at overcoming some of these issues by taking manual control and using additional hardware but, even with these work arounds, it’s still a limited tool. While these limits can push you creatively, they hinder you professionally.

So when is it appropriate?

When Speed is of the Essence

One situation where it is possible to use an iPhone professionally is when you need to take pictures and send them to someone as soon as possible. In an age of an always-on news cycle, The Chicago Times’s decision partially falls under this.

Images captured with an iPhone can be processed and emailed to an editor in a fraction of the time it takes someone with a DSLR to export their pictures to a computer and then send them on. Many breaking news stories use images pulled from social media—people who are on the ground are uploading pictures far faster than the reporters can, if they’re even on the scene yet.

A reporter who’s a competent photographer using an iPhone, and the additional hardware to overcome some of it’s limitations, will produce and upload images that are far better than what the average Twitter user is sending out. If you’re a reporter who specialises in breaking stories, then maybe (and it's a big maybe) the iPhone is actually the best tool for the job.

On a Personal Project

To push yourself photographically you need to embrace limits.

To stick to one medium, one lens, one colour palette, one shutter speed is a hard limit. Working with a smartphone can restrictyour choices in a good way. By forcing yourself to explore within a fixed domain, you’re challenged to think creatively.

It’s very easy to take drastically different pictures with a 18–135 mm zoom lens. The same subject photographed at 18mm, 70mm and 135mm will produce completely distinct images. Taking different photos with a fixed 35mm lens is a different story. The iPhone forces you to zoom with your feet.

iPhone shot
A shot I captured with my iPhone 5S. Lorient, August 2014.

Using your iPhone as a way to spur creativity has been embraced by many professional photographers. Chase Jarvis, for example, published a book, of pictures shot with his iPhone.

Since 2007, the iPhone Photography Awards have highlighted the best smartphone photos. The quality of the winning pictures is phenomenal. From a technical perspective, the image quality is lower than what the photographers would have got in the same circumstances with a DSLR, but from an artistic perspective, the images are fantastic and stand on their own.

IPPA winners
Some of the 2014 iPhone Photography Award Winners.

So embrace your phone. Cherish it’s limitations. Use them to push yourself. If the results are great, have a gallery show, publish a book and sell prints. Not only is this approach appropriate, it’s one I’m taking myself, and I’d encourage you to as well.

As a Composition Aid

For digital photographers there is little point using your iPhone to test your composition—you can just look at it on the LCD—but for film photographers and cinematographers it can be a godsend.

With the Artemis Director’s Viewfinder you can simulate the field of view of different camera and lens combinations. Admittedly, at $29.99 this app is a little pricey, but it's not nearly as expensive as the old way of testing: buying instant film. While aimed towards cinematographers it also works for film photographers.

artemis directors viewfinder
Artemis Director's Viewfinder in action.

Before even loading an expensive roll of film into your camera, use your iPhone to take a few test shots. This way you can see what you like, try things out and get many of the benefits of shooting digital images, before putting your phone away and taking the final capture with your classic camera.

For cinematographers it’s even more useful. If you’re working on a short film, head out to the location a day or two in advance. Use your iPhone to explore the shots available, decide on what you want and only then bring the full crew, van loads of gear and company of actors out to the middle of nowhere.

For Behind the Scenes Footage

An iPhone is the perfect camera for capturing casual behind the scenes footage. For some of my tutorials on Tuts+, I’ve used my iPhone to take pictures of how my DSLR is set up. If you’re taking time lapses, long exposures or any other kind of capture that requires that your camera be setup in a particular way, there’s no better tool for sharing that set up than an iPhone.

behind the scenes
Behind the scenes shot taking with my iPhone for my tutorial on Bramping with TriggerTrap.

Even if you’re a cinematographer, the behind the scenes footage you can capture with an iPhone is more than high enough quality for the YouTube clips to accompany your films.

When Your DSLR is the Wrong Tool

Sometimes a DSLR can be just too much camera. There is nothing subtle about a Canon 5D with a 70-200mm lens on it—anyone seen with one will instantly be labeled "the photographer". While this can be useful in some circumstances, in others it can be a massive hindrance. People react differently when they know there's a camera around. 

If you are documenting an event and want to keep it as candid as possible, then your iPhone may be the tool for the job. Its 35mm equivalent lens is the perfect focal length for this sort of casual shooting; there's a reason it's used by street and news photographers the world over. 

Similarly, there are times it might be inappropriate for you to use your DSLR. There are certain events, like funerals or and other religious ceremonies, where photography is frowned on. While you may have a pass to photograph the event from the organisers, using your smartphone instead of your DSLR might save your from some unknowing guest's ire.

Another situation when your DSLR might be the wrong tool is when you're travelling or otherwise worried your camera might make you a target for thieves. While there's nothing to say your iPhone won't get stolen, it's far easier to keep it hidden on your body. Many of the shots I take when I travel are with my iPhone rather than my DSLR for this reason.

Conclusion

So is it appropriate to use your iPhone on a professional shoot? The answer is sometimes. Unless you want to make use of its speed and network connection, or it’s part of a dedicated project, the iPhone works best as a support tool. Testing compositions and capturing behind the scenes footage is the perfect use.

What do you think? Do you use your iPhone when you’re shooting in a professional capacity? Let me know in the comments.

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