The benefits, drawbacks of using camera phones as a photojournalist

The mind can sometimes play tricks on you.

After returning from a trip to Europe several months ago, I viewed some of the photos I had taken and was disappointed by how they turned out. I resolved (no pun intended) that it was time to get a new camera.

Some of the pictures were just not as sharp as I had hoped; others, taken in the evening, didn’t record enough information in the after sun-down darkness. Giving up something that I had happily used for several years at home and on vacation was difficult, but it was time.

So off I went and replaced my iPhone 3Gs with a new iPhone 4s. Yes, my camera is my phone. It wasn’t until I was heading to AT&T and not a camera store that this thought crossed my mind. With a snazzy new lens, 8 megapixels and HD video, the camera is most impressive.

I know I am not the first to have had this type of revelatory moment; one where you transfer the characteristics of something known into something new and different. But having spent more than 20 years as a photojournalist, as well as personally reporting on the rise of cellphone cameras, I was still shocked at how easily my brain exchanged the image of a professional SLR for one of a cellphone. Welcome to the 21st century!

So what’s a photographer to do? I could hold onto the past and resurrect my metal, film-fed companions, or their newer, digital counterparts and repeat the mantra that a phone is not a camera. But what’s the point when the vast majority of the active picture taking world has already made that shift? (The iPhone 4 is the most popular camera among Flickr users.)

“Steve Jobs saw this coming” says J. Sybylla Smith, curator of the recent show, "iSee: The Eyes of VII in the Hands of Hipstamatic." Held at the Griffin Museum of Photography gallery in Boston’s South End, the show featured iPhone photography by 19 photojournalists from the VII Photo Agency. All but one of them used the Hipstamatic iPhone app to record their images.

“The iPhone will have an impact on our visual culture," Smith said in a phone interview. "We’ll need to make rules and be in discourse for a while about this.”

According to Smith, and several of the photographers featured in the show, the camera phones’ “lack of an interface” broadens photojournalists' ability to capture images. “It allows for an intimacy and immediacy that the Canon (professional SLR) does not," she said.

In this statement, I find echoes of conversations had in an earlier time when photographers were first contemplating the move from Speed Graphics and Rolleiflex cameras; with their large film formats (4x5 and 2 ¼, respectively), to the smaller, more nimble and intimate 35mm Leica. Today we are at another inflection point in photography; one where the technology makes a sudden turn and takes the art form with it.

“These camera phones allow the photographer on assignment to quickly enter into a dialogue with the public because of how quickly we can take and transmit images," Smith says. “Photojournalists are pleased to have another tool in their toolbox.”

Many photojournalists, however, are involved in the other conversation Smith mentioned; what is and isn't acceptable when it comes to the easy digital manipulations that many camera apps make possible.

This "discourse" ignited when The New York Times photographer Damon Winter won a major photo award for his Hipstamatic images from the frontlines in Afghanistan. (Winter's use of the app created controversy and raised some interesting questions about the role of apps like Hipstamatic in photojournalism.)

The Getty photo agency now has Hipstamatic images for sale, and magazines have begun featuring the latest iPhone photography by hard core photojournalists.

In his review of Smith’s show, Boston Globe writer Mark Feeney categorized the "Hipstamatic Question" this way:

“It’s a given that a high-powered photojournalist is going to have a smartphone. It’s equally a given that he or she is going to use it for photographs only as a last resort. So many of these pictures convey a sense of being taken on the fly. An analogy might be gifted painters working with Magic Marker, or piano virtuosos playing on battered uprights. Of course the beauty (or trick) of Hipstamatic is that the battering is a technologically sophisticated ruse.”

While some in the photo world chafe at Hipstamatic’s (and Instagram’s) old timey ruse, more and more of them are pulling out the smartphone camera first.

Smith’s take? “The filters allow for another artistic layer. Some of the filters ‘pop’ the picture in a way that is captivating to the viewer. We are looking at something that results in artfulness that sometimes takes away from the content, but we are a sophisticated audience and sometimes we want the art."

At NPR, our multimedia team has decided to treat our iPhones like cameras; just like our 5D’s; just like Cartier-Bresson’s Leica. When we shoot with them for "publication" (which isn’t often) we use either Apple’s included camera app or the 6x6 app, which takes a square image, either in color or black and white. Our standard, go-to camera is still a digital SLR (the Canon 5D Mark II), but there are times when the iPhone is a better choice.

Most of us then use the Photogene2 app to adjust levels when needed, to add metadata, and to ftp into our system. Occasionally, we’ll also post those photos to Instagram; NPR maintains an official feed there as well, which is an eclectic, group curated mix of photos, not all of which are taken with cell phones.

NPR’S David Gilkey took this photo at a station stop along the Trans Siberian Railroad in Russia.

On a recent trip across Siberia, NPR photographer David Gilkey found his iPhone to be the only camera "ignored" by his wary Russian subjects.

Our rules at NPR have quickly evolved and will probably change again. Many of us also have personal Instagram feeds where we are happy to let the filters fly over photos of food, concerts and cats. Other news organizations, such as The Washington Post, freely publish filtered Instagram photos right next to those taken in a more traditional manner.
As the world of photojournalism continues to evolve, so too will the tools that we use for visual storytelling. With the new "views" easily available in all the various app stores, art as well as journalism may now both be in the eyes (and iPhones) of the beholder.
I'll leave you with a few examples of photos taken with a camera phone. All of these images were featured in the Griffin Museum of Photography gallery I mentioned.
This image, which appeared in the Griffin Museum of Photography gallery, are from Lynsey Addario's first experiments with Hipstamatic while on assignment for Newsweek in August 2011. The image was taken while she was covering the drought in the Horn of Africa.
This image was taken by John Stanmeyer, who spent most of his career as a Time magazine photojournalist in Hong Kong.
Tomas Van Houtryve took this image in China.
  • Keith Jenkins

    Keith W. Jenkins came to NPR in July 2008 as the Supervising Senior Producer for Multimedia. In this role he oversees the multimedia unit of, responsible for the photography and videography throughout the site.


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