The camera as a tool for exploring the world.

Landscape & Environment

September 13, 2019 ·

Dan Wells
An ordinary-sized human being (Apple’s Phil Schiller) with an enormous iPhone looming over him.



A Phase One XT – a camera for contemplation and exploration.


There was exciting new tool for photographic art released on September 10, 2019. It is perhaps the most contemplative digital camera I have yet seen – manual focus only, uncompromising resolution, shift as an integral function. It’s not for everybody – it probably isn’t for me, because I work far enough into the backcountry that it may not be practical (and I can’t afford it), but the new Phase One XT brings the state of photography forward in some interesting ways. There have been cameras like it before – from Cambo, Alpa and others – but the initial information on the new Phase One suggests that it will be better integrated with its lenses and backs than its predecessors (many of which lack shutter buttons, relying on the cable release port on the lens) . Along with the Fujifilm GFX 100 and the Hasselblad 907C, the XT shows real innovation in digital medium format. It is frighteningly expensive, but it shows that digital technology can be used in interesting and creative ways.

Photographer Reuben Wu exploring the world with the new Phase One

There are many genres of photography where a Phase One XT is not the ideal tool – it is not a sports photographer’s dream camera, for example. It is an unabashedly slow, deliberate camera that encourages a large-format way of working, and should reward the careful (and well-heeled) photographer with large-format image quality. For certain types of landscape and architectural photography, the way it causes its wielder to think may be just as valuable as the image quality it produces. Is it the Deardorff for the digital age?

One of the most contemplative cameras of all – a vintage 8×10” Deardorff.

There are now a variety of cameras now on the market that offer us quality that was solely the province of large-format film (not always 8×10”, which the XT is capable of with the right back). In addition to medium-format options from Fujifilm, Hasselblad and now Phase One, there are an increasing number of 24x36mm mirrorless cameras that provide 4×5” film quality in compact packages. From a “take it or leave it” market where Sony was the only option, Nikon, Canon and Panasonic have released real competitors, each with a slightly different take on this type of camera. Fujifilm has their medium format line, plus a high-quality APS-C line with a special emphasis on great lenses. While perhaps less contemplative as a tool than medium format, these cameras provide very high resolution, dynamic range and color quality – all of these are tools which offer the photographic artist tremendous versatility to express their creativity. While the number of cameras sold declines each year, the quality of those cameras increases in ways that bring us new creative options. Each of them has a home as a creative tool – it’s a great time to be a photographer (if not necessarily a camera maker). I welcome the Phase One XT as a new addition, a new tool in the bag of the creative photographer. Wait! The Phase One XT isn’t the new camera that got most of the coverage on September 9? Apple released a new camera as well? There was no article in the Washington Post or the New York Times about Phase One’s announcement. Apple released the iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max, and they made a big deal about the cameras they contain. Do new iPhones (or any other phone) matter to Luminous Landscape readers – and do they matter as cameras, or as something else?

A bouquet of iPhones – how shall we use them?

A smartphone serves three different purposes to a photographer – one is enormously useful, one is useful in a limited set of situations, and the third is something we should be quite careful of. As a “one device” that is supposed to do everything, we need to be aware of this combination of functions, and make sure that we are the master of our phones, not their servant. The truly useful function is as a portable information source and communication device… If you want to know the weather, either where you are or where you are headed to photograph, good weather apps are easy to find. If you want to know the timing of sun, moon, tide or anything else that will make or break a photograph, it’s available. Direction, on foot, by car or via public transit? Sure… Need to call or text someone you are photographing with? That, too!

I use a variety of photography-related apps on my (four year old) iPhone, and some of these would work better on a newer phone – I’ll upgrade someday. My favorite photography app is probably Wunderground, one of many sophisticated weather apps available – weather is one of the most useful functions one could have in the field. I use both Apple’s Maps application and TomTom GO to get to trailheads – the TomTom application is especially nice because it works without cellular coverage. As long as you have the maps for a given area loaded (in the US, it’s by state, with a few large states split into two parts) ahead of time, it’ll navigate without service. I don’t use the phone for trail navigation, both because of battery life and because I don’t want cellular connectivity in the field – part of the reason I head for the backcountry is that I don’t want to live in a phone’s world when I am in the natural world (I carry a satellite communicator for emergencies and a phone turned off to make calls in town). I use camera manufacturer apps, annoying as they can be, to download images and send them to friends and family. They can also serve as remote controls for your camera – I prefer a dedicated remote, but have used a phone in a pinch. There are also non-camera photographic apps that I haven’t yet used, but keep promising myself I’ll check out. I have been looking for a better sunrise/sunset calculator than the default simplistic numbers in weather apps, and I know they’re out there. I’ve recently downloaded Sun Seeker, Moon Seeker and Wind Seeker – a sophisticated set of trackers that will hopefully fill that role. While the combination of modern in-camera light metering and the ability to view images in camera mean that my personal workflow doesn’t need a light meter app, a studio photographer in particular might find one very useful – and there are various options. The occasionally useful function is as a camera. A phone makes a wonderful convenience camera to remember a location you might want to come back to. It is a snapshot camera, perfect for quick memories of kids or pets doing something cute. It is a useful handy scanner for submitting receipts. What it really isn’t is a camera suitable for photographs where the goal is printing, archiving or editing. Even a high-quality compact camera like a Sony RX or a Panasonic LX will far exceed the image quality of any reasonable phone, with its far larger sensor and better lens. The smallest and simplest DSLR or mirrorless camera is in a completely different realm from any phone camera that might fit in a reasonably sized and shaped phone. We’ll never see an iPhone with anything beyond a snapshot camera, because Apple cares intensely that the phone’s size and shape are useful for its various tasks – the few attempts at phones with much more capable cameras have come at enormous cost in phone utility, a compromise Apple will never consider.

A few Android phones over the years have added better cameras at the cost of phone utility – they are the thickness of a RX100 type camera over at least part of the body, and they are essentially RX100 type cameras – quality compact cameras. Optical physics constrains the camera that will fit in a body a few mm thick enormously, and cost also plays a role. One technology that shows at least some promise is the use of large numbers of cameras and lenses to form a single image. Two or three cameras with different focal lengths are not enough – but what about the camera a company called Light tried to build – 16 cameras forming one image? Theirs didn’t work terribly well, but could the basic idea reduce the thickness of a camera to the point that a reasonable one fits in a phone? Even if a compound camera could be made to work, there is still a problem. The interior of a phone is not empty – it’s mostly full of batteries. If the engineers fill it with cameras instead, the batteries need to go somewhere else, creating another bump or bulge on the phone – or simply a much thicker phone.

As a pure camera, any version of an iPhone is laughable by current standards (as is any cell phone except those that have compromised all other usability for a better camera). The sensor specifications are not all that far off a good DSLR – from 2006! A Canon EOS 30D has about 8 stops of dynamic range at its best ISO – so does the best sensor (the intermediate wide-angle camera) on the iPhone 11 Pro ,according to Photons to Photos measurements of the EOS 30D and the iPhone XS Max – the 11 Pro seems to use the same sensor as its predecessor. The old Canon has approximately a 3-stop ISO advantage over the iPhone, since its best ISO is 200, while the iPhone’s is 25. At ISO 100, the iPhone is very comparable to the Canon at ISO 800, while the iPhone’s ISO 200 is close to the Canon at ISO 1600. Although the Canon has a resolution disadvantage (8 MP to Apple’s 12 MP), most DSLRs that compare in resolution will far exceed the iPhone’s dynamic range. A 12 MP Nikon D300 from 2007 offers nearly a stop more maximum DR and a four-stop advantage in ISO for the same DR. Perhaps the best comparison is Olympus’ E-30 4/3 SLR (or any other camera which uses the 12 MP 4/3 sensor). They offer comparable maximum DR and a 3 stop ISO advantage, and were already uncompetitive with other DSLRs when released in 2008. We recover much of the “lost” ISO with the speed of the iPhone’s lens – the f1.8 lens is around three stops faster than the average kit zoom on the old DSLRs. At the same shutter speed, the iPhone will be operating at an ISO three stops faster, assuming the very slow kit lens on the DSLR close to its slowest focal length. Of course, the DSLR can accept a faster lens, which the iPhone cannot. From a depth of field perspective, the iPhone lens is roughly equivalent to an f8 lens on an APS-C DSLR. It is a simple six-element lens, optimized for thinness and manufacturing cost (estimates suggest that Apple pays less than $2 per lens), not optical quality. It’s not too far off to think of even the newest iPhone as a 2006-2008 DSLR with a bag of two or three cheap f8 pancake lenses ranging from 13mm to 50mm and no other options. Apple’s choice to add a 13mm-equivalent wide-angle lens to the iPhone is an interesting one. A 13mm lens is quite difficult to use, both from a compositional viewpoint and because it’s very difficult to get the horizon level. In Apple’s insistence on clean user-interface design, the iPhone’s built-in camera app does not include an electronic level (the hardware is clearly there, but Apple won’t clutter the screen or add an option that people have to understand). How many people grabbing a quick snapshot will think about how to balance foreground and background with an ultrawide lens? Lenses that wide are also difficult to construct – and Apple’s is only a 5 element design (a modern 14mm Canon lens uses 14 elements, as does an inexpensive 14mm Rokinon). It is almost certainly a highly distorting lens that they are fixing electronically. Instead of the tricky ultrawide, my choice for a third lens would have been something longer than 52mm equivalent – maybe a true portrait lens in the 80-100mm range? Of course a portrait lens, even for the small sensor, would have been physically longer, inducing a larger camera bump.

Found a Brownie camera in good shape at Granny’s Antiques in Payson.

A Predecessor of the iPhone 11 Pro Max – a Kodak Brownie II

The iPhone as a camera fits firmly in a lineage of snapshot cameras that reaches back at least to the earliest Kodak Brownie (and, as a matter of fact, features Eastman Kodak products prominently through its history). The purpose of a snapshot camera is not to make art, but to capture memories. They are not supposed to be interesting to the kind of person who reads a subscription photography website, but rather to parents capturing their kids’ first bike ride, to teenagers documenting their lives, and to people on vacation. They rarely offer much control over the image – sometimes a “brighter/darker” lever that serves as a poorly marked form of exposure compensation, sometimes a couple of apertures or shutter speeds (rarely both). Sometimes a snapshot camera will have two or three focus distance settings or simplified autofocus, and they occasionally feature a couple of focal lengths or even a bit of zoom.

Snapshot cameras have historically been scorned by the predecessors of Luminous Landscape readers – because they’re not for us, at least for the most part. They have limited application to photography as an art form – sometimes an artist will deliberately use 110 film, or a Holga, or something else originally made for snapshots for a special effect. Occasionally, the supreme compactness of many snapshot cameras allows an image that can’t be made any other way (I’m sure some museum has shown images taken from model rockets – where phone sensors have replaced 110 or Minox film, because nothing larger is light enough).

Snapshot cameras have always been the majority of camera sales, especially by numbers sold, if not by value. It’s hard to find the data from before the digital era, because most of the available data is collected by associations representing the Japanese camera manufacturers, and, while film SLRs were primarily Japanese brands, snapshot cameras were not, especially at the low end of the market. 85% of cameras sold in the United States in 1976 were branded Kodak – and essentially all of those Kodaks were snapshot cameras. Since neither Kodak nor Polaroid appear in data showing shipments by Japanese companies, the ratio between snapshot camera and other camera sales is impossible to determine.

Everybody who enjoys photographing on an iPhone is now saying “but what about the computational photography”. The iPhone processes its images in a much more sophisticated way than any 10+ year old DSLR (and, in many ways, than any modern DSLR or mirrorless camera). A large part of this is simply 2019 processing power coupled with 2007 resolution – a Sony A7r IV would have plenty of power to perform many of the iPhone’s calculations on 12MP images (but not on its own 61MP images). Some of it is that trillion-dollar Apple can design its own processors with far more power than anything the much smaller conventional camera makers have access to at a price or power budget they can accept. Many of the computational manipulations the iPhone can perform are available in raw conversion software, but not directly on the average DSLR or mirrorless camera. Some of what Apple is doing involves AI that is used almost exclusively on phone cameras – because phone cameras are made by computer companies with armies of programmers. An important difference in approach between snapshot cameras and other cameras is the degree of automation in image enhancement. Raw conversion and photo editing programs like Lightroom, DxO and Capture One are dedicated to leaving the photographer in full control of the image. AI-based features are there if you want them, but they appear as sliders, leaving the photographer in control of the effect. Some newer raw conversion products such as On1 and Luminar make extensive use of AI and presets – they offer the option to apply similar image enhancements to what the iPhone uses, generally with somewhat more control. They may even have an “auto-enhance” button that performs fully automatic enhancement similarly to the iPhone. Snapshot cameras have auto-enhanced images since long before smartphones existed. In the film era, the film and the processing equipment worked together to produce acceptable images in difficult conditions. The high-ISO color print films usually used for snapshots traded off grain for extraordinary exposure latitude. If the light meter in the camera was off, or the situation was difficult, Kodak Gold 400 and 800 and their Fujifilm equivalents were designed to still record an image, and minilabs were designed to print poorly exposed negatives. Compact digital cameras were actually less forgiving than their film predecessors in many ways, largely because the JPEG file format didn’t offer the latitude of those fast print films, and there was no equivalent of the minilab step to automatically rescue poor exposures. Meters tended to be better than in 35mm compacts, and most cameras had at least an exposure compensation function, but the overall latitude of the process was less. Smartphones have brought back some of that latitude through their internal computations.

A Holga – very limited controls, but some artists love them for their unique vision.

There are few cameras that offer the photographer less creative control than an iPhone – perhaps a Holga? There are a few buttons which tell the computer what effect to apply, but it chooses the strength and how to apply it. Of course, for its fundamental purpose of recording memories, the iPhone doesn’t need creative control. Its job is not to record a creative image in fulfillment of a photographer’s vision, but to record a serviceable image to serve as a reminder of a day, or to share with friends. While different from how we as photographers often understand the purpose of a photograph, the snapshot ethic at least encourages the making of photographs, and the spending of time in a world where photographs are to be had. The third, and I would argue, one of the most fundamental purposes of a smartphone is to take us out of that world and transport us into a different, purely digital and purely commercial world. The smartphone is a gateway to a world that doesn’t really exist, and it is a world maintained for the express purpose of selling things to us, and of selling our attention to the highest bidder. Unlike the fantasy worlds of Tolkien, Spielberg, Lucas, Rowling and so many others, this world isn’t meant to teach us about our own world, and it is only meant to entertain us on a surface level – its real purpose is to sell us to advertisers. The job of the photographer is to see, document and interpret the world around us, using the camera as a tool to assist in that seeing. That is true regardless of your genre of photography, and it is true of all of the creative arts, whatever your tool set.. Whether you interpret the world through an electron microscope, a telescope or anything in between, and whether you are backpacking in the High Sierra, wandering the streets of Paris, creating thoughtful self-portraits, or documenting a wedding or a baseball game, what a photographer provides is a vision of the world, of their version of reality. Even photographers and other artists who specialize in fantastic worlds that don’t exist in any conventional sense are inviting us into the universe of their minds, which they document with camera, computer and other artistic equipment as tools. The camera is a tool that allows the photographer to select (literally) a lens through which they would like to see the world. A 300mm f2.8 sees the world quite differently than a 6mm fisheye, but it is a human, the photographer, who chooses between these two points of view. The camera and lens are tools that wait at our command. Each of us chooses our tools as the best to portray the world we wish to share through art. It is a hard photograph to imagine where an 8×10” Deardorff and a Holga would be equal tools, and it is equally hard to imagine where a Fujifilm GFX 100 which sacrifices everything for image quality is interchangeable with an Olympus E-M1x which prioritizes speed above all else. All of these cameras and lenses wait for us to take them on an exploration with us, to find a place for them to channel our creativity. None of them beep and flash at us demanding that we pay attention to a world they create. None of them, in fact, create worlds – they are our tools in exploring the world instead. This world where cameras are a tool of exploration is the exact opposite of an algorithmically created world where advertising rules. Phones are designed to be “sticky”, to encourage us to spend more time on our phones. Every website we interact with wants to e-mail us, every app on our phone wants to send us Notifications (notice that that word is always capitalized), and all of it is greedy to learn more about us so that it can personalize the all-important Advertising. Social media is largely about a created world where Brands are our friends and dogs aren’t (they can’t type). It is related to a few specific genres of photography (fashion and advertising in particular), but it is antithetical to many other genres.

Rather than exploring the world we live in, Instagram is designed to suck us into a world of perfect bodies in perfect places doing perfect things so we will buy something to make ourselves perfect. Facebook is designed to connect us with advertisers (and maybe friends on the side – but make no mistake, the leading citizens of Facebook’s world are advertising bots, not humans). YouTube’s raison d’etre is the recommendation algorithm whose job is, yet again, to expose us to more ads. Pokemon Go adds “pocket monsters” to the world around us, with the purpose of making us spend money on capturing these imaginary denizens of the real world. These are just a few examples of “the real purpose of smartphones is to make us spend more time on smartphones” apps. There are phone apps that are about the real world – weather, maps, communications with real people, but apps that are either ad-bot mediated or about sucking us into their world are common and pervasive.

This isn’t our world, it’s the phone’s world, in which we are allowed to exist as long as we play by the phone’s rules. Apple is better than most of their competitors, in that they are at least transparent about their purpose – they make the iPhone enticing so that we’ll buy more iPhones and subscribe to Apple Music and the like. They don’t claim that any part of the Apple experience is free. Most of their competitors offer “free” products paid for by ads and tracking – as Tim Cook says: “if something appears to be free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product”. On this iPhone Day, ignore the iPhone’s siren song. If you use it at all, use it to make connections to people or places outside its world. Grab your favorite camera (if it’s also a phone, turn off all the functions by which it notifies you of happenings in cyberspace, and use it just as a camera). Go and make a photograph of something or someone you care about. Grab a pen and paper and write or draw. Grab an interesting book and read about a world you don’t know. Best of all, find a friend or loved one, whether human or a beloved animal, and connect with them, leaving all the robots vying for your attention lonely.

Dan Wells

September 2019

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Dan Wells, "Shuttterbug" on the trail, is a landscape photographer, long-distance hiker and student in the Master of Divinity program at Harvard Divinity School. He lives in Cambridge, MA when not in wild places photographing and contemplating our connection to the natural world. Dan's images try to capture the spirit he finds in places where, in the worlds of the Wilderness Act of 1964, "Man himself is but a visitor". He has hiked 230 miles of Vermont's Long Trail and 450 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail with his cameras, as well as photographing in numerous National Parks, Seashores and Forests over the years - often in the offseason when few people think to be there. In the summer of 2020, Dan plans to hike a stretch of hundreds of miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, focusing on his own and others' spiritual connection to these special places, and making images that document these connections. Over years of personal work and teaching photography, Dan has used a variety of equipment (presently Nikon Z7 and Fujifilm APS-C). He is looking for the perfect combination of light weight, ruggedness and superb image quality.

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