Mobile Photography: 5 Reasons I Love It

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Seoul, South Korea. iPhone 5S.

So I said I was done with gear posts during the last post. I guess I kind of lied. The one camera I hadn’t talked about yet was probably the one I use the most.

My phone.

The mobile phone has been the camera I’ve used the most over the past 5 or so years. Like people always say, it is the camera that is always with me. Unlike many others, I don’t always carry a proper camera. In fact, I usually only carry a camera when I’ve remembered to charge its battery. Considering my laziness, that isn’t all that often. So, there are many circumstances when the phone is the camera I end up using to capture my memories.

I didn’t really know how to write this post, so I’ve separated my thoughts into a cheesy “5 reasons” list.

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Jeju Island, South Korea. iPhone 4.

1. The Purest Way to Capture Memories

I think this is the most important reason why I like shooting with my phone. A phone, at least in my opinion, is easily the least obtrusive way to take a photo in the modern world. I mean both to the subject and myself. Because of the very simplistic nature of a mobile camera it doesn’t allow for extreme manipulation of moments. I think when I take photos with my phone, the moments most closely match my feeling. When I look back at photos taken with my phone, they always seem to be the most honest interpretations of my memory. The above photo, for example, was taken during a trip to Jeju Island in 2011. I had taken two other cameras with me on the trip (A 5D Mark II and a Leica M9) as well as a plethora of lenses. The trip quickly became more about the cameras than the experience. It is easy to say that is my fault for letting it happen, but if we are honest with ourselves, switching lenses or trying to decide which camera to use isn’t conducive to actually “experiencing” anything. This photo still feels like the most authentic memory of the trip. I can still remember the time leading up to taking it. I was sick of carrying around the other cameras and when we decided to go to a temple on a rainy morning I left all my gear at home. It is still one of the only moments I really care to remember and I didn’t need the giant cameras to record it. In fact, I doubt I would have felt the same way about this photo had I taken it with one of the others.

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Seoul, South Korea. iPhone 3GS.

While this photo maybe isn’t one of my best, it is one that will stay with me forever. It was the day after starting my summer vacation in 2010. I was staying in a hotel in Seoul after partying pretty hard the night before. I took this photo right after receiving a phone call from my brother telling me my father had drowned. I can say with all honestly I don’t remember taking this photo. I don’t remember why I took it. Somehow though, I did. I’ll never forget that moment and while it is probably the saddest of my life, I’m happy I took this photo. I don’t think I could have or would have taken this photo with a “real” camera.

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Jeju Island, South Korea. iPhone 4.

This is another photo from the same trip to Jeju Island I talked about before. After ditching my cameras in the morning for the temple we spent the afternoon climbing Korea’s tallest mountain. I didn’t take many photos during the walk but I felt like I had to take this one.

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Toronto, Canada. iPhone 5.

2. Unobtrusive is Always Best

The second reason I love shooting with my phone is similar to the first in a way. Because mobile phones are so common nowadays they are very unobtrusive as cameras. I don’t silence my phone when I take pictures, never really felt the need to do so. When I take a photo with my phone, people generally don’t care a whole lot as they seem to never really take it seriously.

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Suwon, South Korea. iPhone 6.

I remember taking this photo of my friend in his house. He is generally the kind of guy who hates having his picture taken. If I stuck a real camera in his face he would probably punch me in mine. However, even knowing I’m a “photographer” he wasn’t bothered at all I took this. He was leaving Korea soon after, so I’m glad I took it.

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Seoul, South Korea. iPhone 5S.

People in public react similarly as well. I remember taking this with the flash on and the girl just sort of looked puzzled. I think had I been using a proper camera she might have wanted more of an explanation than flattery.

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Montreal, Canada. iPhone 5.

Of course not always the case, this little dude was smiling at me until I stuck the phone in his face ha.

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Toronto, Canada.

3. Why Ever Miss a Shot?

I feel like one phrase I’ve heard too many times is “ah, if I only had my camera now.” I always find this funny since the person saying it is usually holding a phone perfectly capable of taking a photo. Sometimes I’ll mention it to them and the answer is usually something stupid like “well what if I have to make a print of it later?” Sure, you will. Sure. And even if said hypothetical person wanted to make a print they most likely could make a very decent one.

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Toronto, Canada. iPhone 5.

This photo, I took with an iPhone out the front window of my car was used for an album cover and poster series by a popular band here in Seoul. Sure, it looks grainy as hell but I’m not sure it really matters. Embrace the fact that there are limitations to what the camera can do and use them.

Leading to…

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Iksan, South Korea. iPhone 3GS.

4. Creative Constraint

For me, the constraints of the mobile phone camera sensor can be a good thing. I think shooting with mobile phones has taught me to figure out how to make a good photo in a bad situation. This is something real cameras don’t do. Real cameras figure out how to do that for you. The above photo, for example, was taken at night with an ancient iPhone 3GS. I remember one thing I always did with that camera was expose for the highlights which is what I did there. Because the depth of field is so deep I could focus on the lights in front of me and keep the boys still very much in focus.

I made a pretty big print of that photo for a mobile photography exhibition and it looked fine. 3.2 megapixels.

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Toronto, Canada. iPhone 3GS.

Another example of how the extremely deep depth of field helped me. In fact, I was carrying a Leica M9 when I took this photo but decided to take it with the 3GS I was using as an MP3 player to make sure I kept everything in focus.

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Suwon, South Korea. iPhone 6.

Of course, the iPhone lens is pretty wide but I took this photo while playing with a cheap wide angle adapter in an accessory store. I just held it up to the lens and turned on the flash to see what kind of flare I could get. In the end, people will probably never take mobile photography very seriously. That being said, it is very fun and I think for most of us that is what photography is supposed to be about.

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Montreal, Canada. iPhone 5.

5. Less Choice for Better Decisions

One of the things I’ve always struggled with in photography is having too much choice. Sometimes I look at my gear on a Friday night and I can’t figure out what camera to take with me on a Saturday. Sometimes, I’ll go on a trip and end up taking three cameras because I can’t decide on one and then get stressed out trying to figure out which one to use each day. It is fucking stupid.

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Montreal, Canada. iPhone 5.

I remember going on this trip to Montreal in 2012. I decided on a whim to just take my phone as a camera. I can’t tell you how much relief I felt during the trip not having to think about it. Too much choice in anything is a negative. I took better photos because of having less choice.

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Suwon, South Korea. iPhone 6.

If you don’t believe me, try it. Go on a trip and just take your phone. You’ll be surprised by how it makes you feel. And if you’re worried about not being able to get the photos you want you’re probably far too dependent on your cameras to take good photos as opposed to your skill. People will argue that certain cameras are made for certain situations. While that is perhaps true, to me, that is more of an excuse than anything else. Especially to the 99.9% of us that just do this as a hobby.

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Seoul, South Korea. iPhone 5S.

That isn’t even taking into account the convenience of not having to carry around a camera with you.

You’re going to take your phone anyway.

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Iksan, South Korea. iPhone 3GS.

So, that is about it for my rant on mobile phones and gear. If you have any questions feel free to ask. If you’re curious about editing, all the photos were edited in the VSCO app with the B1 filter.

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Suwon, South Korea. iPhone 6.

25 thoughts on “Mobile Photography: 5 Reasons I Love It

  1. Great article, I’ll be posting mine sometime next month. One of the things that stood out to me was when you mentioned the photograph after the passing of your father (sorry to hear that btw). I like what you said about how if you had your “real” camera you wouldn’t have taken this.

    I too feel like at times certain images aren’t worthy of my Fujifilm camera. For example, I never photograph anything that pertains to me or my life. I often go outside and document society, but never my own. Here’s to hoping I can capture more personal memories with my iPhone.

    • For me, now, I document the people in my life 99 percent of the time no matter what camera I’m using. In the end, those are the photos that will matter to us so why save our expensive cameras for total strangers. We aren’t magnum photographers, so in the end, our photos will be for ourselves. When I’m an old man and looking back at my photos I won’t give a full about the photos I took documenting people not related to me. Therefore, I don’t really do street photography anymore aside from out of boredom and passing time on my way to doing something else. I can’t remember the last time I went outside to take photos. At least a couple years ago, ha.

      • I am traveling the circle with this, too, in a way. In my twenties I always, compulsively, took photographs whenever we went out with friends. This being the 1980s and 90s and using a Nikon film compact that I wore out resulting in boxes of archived prints. I never considered that I was “photographing” just recording.
        Then my wife and I travelled 6 months across AU’s and NZ, and I documented everything on disposables.
        Only when the digital era arrived did I start to move towards wanting to be more than a simple documentarian, and I’m sure that that had a lot to do with gear. I still feel that I have to achieve something “higher” than just recording memories, but since my main impetus is travel photography I am getting more and more aware that I am starting to travel to photograph rather than the reverse. A reboot required on that thinking perhaps.

  2. Hi Josh
    I don’t have a phone. A have a Monochrom now. I recently went to Havana. I have a few Fujifilm cameras. So my choices are Monochrom for B&W and a Fuji X100 for colour. I would only take one camera out with me. The X100 for tourist pictures and the Mono for the street.

  3. In the past I shot with a phone (no smartphone, some basic LG with a great camera) exclusively for a while, because I couldn’t afford a new “real” camera (or film) at that time. I loved dealing with its limitations, but at some point I got the same issues I have with normal compacts: I like to play with DOF and I prefer focal lengths above 35mm, so phones are not really suited for my style.

    Nowadays, I do use my (i)phone for editing all of my Fuji X-E1 shots though. Presets in apps like RNI Films and BLACK (b+w) and VSCO (color) make life a lot easier.

  4. good post Josh, i agree with you that there are no excuses really to not take a photo nowadays, everyone is equiped with some kind of photo device. its all about collecting memories

  5. It’s just so different now. There’s the analogue photography trend happening around us. But then, I won’t be shooting film photos on silly things (sometimes ended up some good images) or 24/7 have a film camera lugging around me, so phone was really the destined choice no doubt about it. Until i saw my exhibit prints in 3×2 ft., it was all good. That had actually pushed me to keep going on with this path. I treat my mobile stuff as if they can be exhibits.

    Camera repair is a real bi_ch. I can’t imagine myself dropping off a rangefinder for more than a few days just to get the focusing mirrors adjusted and that being the only reason I had not Ebayed a dated M2 and cheap lens over last weekend. Oh and how about knowing how few photos I’m shoot normally.

  6. Great post, Josh. I am still coming to grips with my Sony Experia Z3. I don’t use it nearly enough. Hm, I must change that.

  7. Interesting reasons, gives as good of a case for mobile phones as I’ve seen. I imagine things like control and quality will only get better, but then there’s the form factor and having no view finder that kill it for me. Do you not find any detachment from the scene with how you have to compose and shoot with a phone?

    • Not at all. I don’t really understand the viewfinder argument aside from when fighting with the sun. Even masters like Moriyama compose with LCDs in the modern world. I compose with the screen like anyone might. In terms of control and quality, I’ve made large enough prints that I don’t worry much about the quality. Low light doesn’t really bother me since I leave the flash on nearly all the time anyway. The control, well, the LG G4 offers complete manual control and shoots RAW. Truth be told I haven’t shot raw on anything so I don’t think much about that. And usually I shoot in Pmode on any camera I use so I don’t miss the control. I would argue that not having to think about all of these things makes me feel more connected to the scene as opposed to less.

  8. My mobile phone has been my main camera for the last 18 months since I changed from a Blackberry to an iPhone. It works well enough for most situations I’d find myself in or care to take a photo of. At the end of the day, these photos are for me to remember certain moments and to share (online) with friends and family, and the image quality of the pictures taken with an iPhone serves the purpose.

    Your first point brought to mind something I heard in an interview with the author, Paul Theroux: “If you take pictures, you tend not to look very hard at the thing that you’re taking a picture of. If you don’t take pictures, you look very hard and you remember much more of the experience that you’re looking at.”

    Happy shooting!

  9. Great site you have here but I was curious about if you knew of any discussion boards that cover the same topics talked about in this article?
    I’d really like to be a part of group where I can get advice from
    other knowledgeable individuals that share the same interest.
    If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Appreciate it!

    • Hmm. There are some online surely. I believe there is even a website. I actually switched to an S7 recently and will be blogging about that shortly. The camera is on another level in my opinion. Really changed the way I consider small cameras.

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