There’s something special about the the Feb. 17 issue of Billboard Magazine, featuring former Fifth Harmony member Camila Cabello on the cover.
Can’t figure it out? OK, I’ll just tell you: It was photographed with an iPhone 7 Plus using Portrait mode. But there’s no way you’d have known that unless someone had told you.
The cover was shot by portrait photographer Miller Mobley, who has worked for Billboard before and has photographed celebrities like Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lawrence, Tom Hanks, and Ryan Gosling.
The project — specifically to shoot with the iPhone 7 Plus’ Portrait mode — however, was Billboard’s idea.
“The photo editor was like, can you shoot the next cover with the iPhone 7 Plus?” Mobley told me over the phone. “I had never shot [professionally] with an iPhone. It was a cool idea. I’m all about embracing new technology and not being afraid of it, so I was totally up for the challenge.”
For cover shoots, Mobley’s go-to gear usually consists of expensive professional cameras like the Mamiya 645DF+ and a Canon 5D Mark III, along with tripods and complex lightning systems that add up to tens of thousands of dollars. In comparison, the iPhone 7 Plus starts at $770.
The result (heavily edited and retouched as it is) still looks pretty damn good:
Shooting professional work with an iPhone isn’t really a new thing. With each new iPhone, Apple ups the ante on imaging. And like clockwork, creatives rush out to push the camera to its limits.
“A lot of photographers have used iPhones at this point to do professional, paid work that would ordinarily be done on a DSLR or medium format camera,” said Greg Scoblete, Technology Editor at Photo District News (PDN), one of the leading magazines for professional photographers. “The image quality is definitely there. In the right hands, the photographer can definitely make it work.”
Ask any serious photographer what’s the best advice they would give to another shooter and they’ll probably say: Don’t focus so much on the gear and instead focus on making great photos.
That’s exactly what Mobley did while shooting Cabello at a residence in Southern California.
“My whole objective was to blend seamlessly my shots with the [Canon 5D Mark III] and [Mamiya] with iPhone shots,” Mobley said. “I want you to look at the images as a whole and [not] really think about the tool used to make them.”
“One thing that was cool was the subject I was shooting — she was a 19, up-and-coming pop star — she thought nothing of…[me] shooting with an iPhone. It was cool — because of this generation you’re just using this tool you have and it’s totally normal.”
Simple, but still challenging
As advanced as the iPhone 7 Plus’ dual cameras and Portrait mode are — making it easy for anyone to get “professional-looking” photos — it’s not without limitations, especially for professional work.
“One thing that was really tricky was low light. It didn’t perform at the level of the [5D Mark III],” Mobley said. “[I’d] have to throw a lot of light on the subject for it to read Portrait mode.”
Another challenge with using an iPhone to shoot professional magazine-quality photography is that the entire production process just takes longer.
Shooting with an iPhone 7 Plus and Portrait mode requires more thought into things like composition because, not only are you working with less resolution to crop later when compared to a beefy DSLR, the mode requires that you “preview” it from a certain distance (the phone camera needs to be within 8 feet of the subject and sometimes doesn’t register).
“These were more thought out images than me taking more casual snapshots,” Mobley said. “I wasn’t rapid firing shots. It was moments here and there… the speed of shooting — you have to slow down, especially with Portrait mode.”
“You can definitely tell that there’s still some work that needs to be done with the technology. There are just some strange things that happen every once in a while. [For example], the hair; some of it’s cut out and looks like a mask.”
In addition to the iPhone not being able to sync with many professional lighting systems that consist of flashes, strobes and other studio lights, photographers have to overcome technical challenges like its smaller image sensor, and inferior resolution and dynamic range.
Oftentimes, clients request photo resolutions far greater than the iPhone 7 Plus’ 12 megapixels. We’re talking files that weigh on average 600-700MBs or more; photos shot with an iPhone are less than 5MBs.
It’s one of the main reasons why professional photographers aren’t trading their pricey gear for iPhones just yet. “It’s kind of like fighting a fire with a garden hose. You could do it but it’ll take longer to get it to work,” Scoblete said.
While it would have been nice if Portrait mode included RAW images (the iPhone 7 can only capture RAW files in the regular camera mode, and only with a third-party app), Mobley said he didn’t find anything terrible about the JPEGs from his shoot.
Outside of a little color correction he made to tweak the images to fit his creative style, he said “there wasn’t much image deterioration.”
In the end, like any new experience, Mobley says it was an interesting challenge and he’d shoot with an iPhone if asked to do it again. “I would love to keep embracing it as an extra tool that I could use. I enjoyed the process. It was interesting,” he said.
What makes a photo professional?
Despite the iPhone 7 Plus’s incredible image quality, there’s still this stigma in the professional industry that it’s not good enough, even though it’s clearly good enough for a magazine cover and huge billboards.
Aside from the aforementioned technical limitations of an iPhone, why aren’t professionals taking the iPhone’s camera more seriously for their “real,” non-personal work?
One reason that’s kind of lame, but sadly very true, is simple perception. “If you have a client that pays you thousands of dollars, and you show up with an iPhone, it looks bad,” Scoblete said.
The perceived value of your professional services is suddenly diminished based on your choice of tool, even if you can produce better results with it than with something more complicated.
For example, for professional wedding photographers, they need to have cameras with dials, buttons, etc., because “that still matters.”
This shouldn’t stop anyone from using their iPhone for professional work, though, says Joe Hyrkin, CEO of Issuu, an electronic publishing platform for magazines, catalogs and newspapers.
“What’s the definition of ‘good?’ What is the effect you’re trying to achieve? If you can achieve that effect with the iPhone in your pocket and some level of lighting, then you can achieve that professional effect more effectively.”
Thanks to new platforms (i.e. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), the definition of “good” or “professional” has changed and will continue to change. What makes a photo on Instagram “professional?” It’s not what gear was used to shoot the photo, but the look and quality of the image — the creative vision behind it.
“We’re moving into an era where there’s more flexibility for the artist. They don’t always need to do it the same way it was always done and just do it one particular way,” Hyrkin said.