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Why I love my iPhone for landscape photography

So why I must give it up

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Paul Arthur

Paul Arthur

Paul is a commercial architectural photographer in Birmingham and sometimes dabbles in a little landscape photography when he is allowed out!

I think that the French painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) would approve of the iPhone in the making of art. Dubuffet eschewed traditional aesthetics in favour of what eventually became known as art brut, or outsider art. He sought out art created outside the traditional art scene, free from the pretentions of academic art and painting. He scoured mental institutions and prisons for art that was ‘not the mere gratification of a handful of specialists, but rather the man in the street when he comes home from work… it is the man in the street whom I feel closest to, with whom I want to make friends and enter into confidence, and he is the one I want to please and enchant by means of my work.’


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  • Martin Stankewitz

    Very interesting to learn about your perspective on iphone photography. I think it is one of the strongest photographic tools one can get.
    Anyway, you say: ” I simply don’t have time to commit to a project, to visit the same location many times, or even to guarantee that I can make it out every couple of months. By necessity therefore, my landscape photography has to fit within snatched moments when I see something when out on commission. ”

    I would consider that a contradiction in itself. And I think in a way the great images you post seem to proof that.

    • Paul Arthur

      Hi Martin,

      I agree with you about what a great tool it is for photography, up to a point. I’m not sure why you think what I said has a contradiction in it – my point was simply that I spend my working life taking images for other people, and the locations and time constraints of it mean that I can’t make time to find images of my own most of the time.

      All the images above were taken during personal time, of which I have very little, or in between shots for a client – so that’s why I have relied on the iPhone so much, and why fundamentally those images don’t quite hit the mark.

      Thank you for your complement though, it is much appreciated.

      • Martin Stankewitz

        I think the more random images one collects the more likely it is that some sort of project or even several projects will emerge from the archive. What might look like random,short time windows and random places in the end might bring out some order or system in the photography. I think the images you selected are connected as they show textures or structures, so I would consider that a mini series already.
        The painter Lee Ufan wrote in his book “the art of encounter” that the way to a piece of art can start with a plan which is given up during the process or it can start without plan and later the plan emerges during the process.

  • Wonderful images and some interesting thoughts! Thanks for sharing these with us!
    For me the phone is my “everyday camera” – which usually means “picking out interesting details in not so interesting places”… Wide-angle wouldn’t be my preferred focal length for that, but the small sensors allow close focussing to make up for it. Quality-wise there’s of course compromises – you do gain an immediacy and ability to frame interesting compositions though. As with everything it’s about picking the set of compromises one is comfortable with. And then deciding which tools come along with that and how you’re going to use them.
    These criteria will be different for everybody – and even for one person they will change over time. And that’s certainly no waste of time :)

    • As an afterthought it occurred to me why I myself have rarely (if ever) been successful in re-photographing something with a “better camera”…

      Apart from the technical issues you mention I feel that usually the ‘unique circumstances’ (which made me interested in taking the photo in the first place) have changed – be it the light or the subject matter itself.

      The second time around you also approach it more on an intellectual level (rather than an intuitive, emotional one) which is bound to make a difference too.

      • Paul Arthur

        Oh absolutely. That’s why I always feel more attached to images that were taken first, rather than rehashes. Revisiting this methodology with my recent (non-iphone) work has produced a much higher hit rate in terms of images that I’m prepared to put my name to. It’s what I was talking about when I spoke of instinct. It’s like trying to rewrite a paragraph after your computer crashes and you lose it – it’s never quite as good as the first time.

  • It’s interesting (to me) that among the artefacts from the Renaissance that, culturally, we value the most are the drawings and sketches of the great painters. These were executed in a (doodling?) spirit of curiosity and inquiry, experimenting with mark-making, light and tone, and are usually more direct and spontaneous than the formal and considered paintings which sometimes followed. Most painters it seems, made many many sketches before their grander commissioned works…these sketches/cartoons give insights into the thinking and ‘workflow’ to use a modern term, of the artist.
    I honestly think the smart-phone is the modern pencil and paper, and eventually images made this way will be valued at least as highly as large camera images, and why not? Except very few will survive, unless printed!
    They are also superb to use. If you could combine the image quality of a professional camera, with the screen quality and responsiveness of a modern phone that would be quite something. In fact I think a fusion of the two is inevitable. So pro slrs with iPhone-sized screens must be on the camera designer’s minds already surely?
    Good stuff Paul, thanks for an excellent piece.

    • Very interesting comparison, Joe.
      My wife and I were actually just lucky enough to see an annual Turner exhibition here in Dublin, which displayed 31 watercolours and drawings (some of which intended to convince patrons to commission a bigger work).
      The absence of detail (compared to a more ‘finished’ work) made them purely about light and colour – giving them a literal ‘lightness’. A wonderful, emotional quality & something we definitely preferred at times over more detailed works…

    • Paul Arthur

      Hi Joe,

      I like the comparison between artist’s sketches and phone pictures, and as Tilman Paulin says about the sketches, I do think they are often pure, raw expressions of light and colour. I think though that the sketches gain value on the back of the main works, and the rarity of all the works available. Often the sketches that are most sought after are early workings of final masterpieces. They glow in the reflected glory of the main work.

      I’m not sure that any of the great masters would have made much of an impression if they had only ever created the sketches, and that is why I feel that although the iPhone is a superb tool, it mustn’t be the final stop for image making, for me at least, unless it catches up with the image quality available on a ‘proper’ camera, and even then only if the user gives over enough time to refine the image.

      I think as well that a painting is fundamentally an exercise in imagination, and so you are free to create anything you wish, and a sketch is part of the refinement process. This refinement process is different in photography, as we can fundamentally only work with what is in front of us. The iPhone actually got in the way of that process for me, as it provided a reference point that I got stuck on, and it wasn’t possible to recreate that reference point exactly with a proper camera. This left me feeling entirely unsatisfied with the result.

  • Mike Chisholm

    FWIW, I have found the Ricoh GR to be a very satisfying halfway-house between a phone and a full-on camera. Negligibly light, fixed wide-ish lens, very flat in profile (essential in a “pocket” camera), with superb image quality. I also find (quite contrary to my instincts) that the lack of viewfinder is a plus: as with a phone, looking *at* the image, rather than *through* the camera seems to have a beneficial effect on composition (also impossible to see in certain conditions, sadly, not unlike a view camera — hmm, perhaps someone should make a hood accessory…).


    • Paul Arthur

      Hi Mike

      I agree that being able to see a live view of your image is very beneficial in order to be able to see a close representation of what will be the final image, because with a viewfinder, you are still using the dynamic range of your eye. I use live view extensively for focussing and reviewing, and yes, it is sometimes difficult to see. That’s why I still carry a dark cloth!

      • Mike Chisholm

        A “dark cloth”! That’s the word I wanted, not “hood”. I was enjoying imagining my tiny Ricoh with a voluminous cloth attached to the 3″ screen ;) But, now you’ve confirmed the idea, may not be such a daft notion after all…


  • Tom Phillips

    I’ve become a committed iPhone photographer over the last few years. Originally it was just a tool to get sample shots on to social media quickly, but eventually, a shoulder injury made it just too much of a faff to carry my Bronica GS1 kit with me, and i found myself working more and more with a Lumix GF1 and an iPhone 6.

    I discovered the Viewfinder app which Paul mentions. Steep for an app, at £9.99. It’s now been superceded by what is known as the “Mark 11 Artists Viewfinder”. The earlier app doesn’t support the iPhone 7 Plus (I recently upgraded my phone) but the new app costs £25.99, and I decided it really wasn’t worth that much.

    I build a lot of my landscapes from a grid of numerous individual frames, which are then software stitched. I’ve used PTGui for this for several years. There is a useful spin-off from this combination.

    PTGui doesn’t stitch in simple gridded tiles, but intelligently searches out natural borders etc and stitches irregular polygons. Because every image used is perfectly in focus, the whole of the resulting stitched “panorama” (or whatever) is in focus from front to rear, with no drop off, etc. It might not completely overcome the problems of small lens/small sensor,mbut I think it goes a long way to offsetting them.

    It puzzles some viewers, who might be more used to a traditional point or plane of focus when studying an image, but it does it for me. It strikes me that the the deep (and wide) sharp focus of the results has a lot in common with how a lot of paintings are made. The results were great with an iPhone 6 and are even better with the 7 Plus. My website has a link to a recent exhibition (trailed here on OnLandscape) that used a number of images made this way. See http://www.tomphillipsphotos.co.uk

    Great article, Paul. Part of a discussion we need to keep going.

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