Surf iPhoneography

Will tomorrow's best surf photos be taken with a phone?

Five years ago it would have been ridiculous to think that a smart phone image could look this sharp and tight and well-saturated…let alone one shot in the water at Pipeline. Photo: Zak Noyle
Five years ago it would have been ridiculous to think that a smart phone image could look this sharp and tight and well-saturated…let alone one shot in the water at Pipeline. Photo: Zak Noyle

It's been a little over a year since Andrew Reid, a highly respected professional photographer and journalist, wrote an earth-rumbling essay titled “Consumer DSLRs ‘dead in 5 years'”.

The aftershocks are still being felt.

For those of you who might not know, DSLR is an acronym for Digital Single Lens Reflex, or, in looser terms, a “Big Boy” camera as you're most familiar with it.

Mr. Reid's online article struck a deep chord within the professional photographic community because it smacked of some dark math already being calculated in the back of many insiders' minds. Word had begun to spread that the steady, decade-long run of strong digital camera sales had begun to rather severely reverse itself, while sales of smartphones with their well-marketed, built-in cameras had continued to gain momentum. At one point in 2013, for example, consumer DSLR sales were down a whopping 36 percent.

Suddenly, it was hard to see any kind of long-term health for companies like Nikon and Canon.

In his essay, Mr. Reid outlined four reasons for the decline of DSLR camera sales, not the least of which was the rise in smartphone camera quality, especially the iPhone. Even Mr. Reid, a dyed-in-the-wool old-school shooter himself, said, "As a more demanding user, even I'm impressed with what you can shoot with the iPhone 5S, like seamless 10K panoramas."

And this increase in quality has not gone unnoticed by surf photographers. SURFER's own Zak Noyle has already been shooting part-time with an iPhone for a good while. A proverbial bell went off in Zak's mind a couple years back when he noticed that his iPhone produced the same size files as the Canon EOS camera he began his professional career with. Since then, Zak has been experimenting with his iPhone and multiple water housing set-ups. And now, he's even got his own signature model through a manufacturer named Watershot, Inc.

More importantly, though, is what led Zak to attempt professional-quality imaging with his iPhone: his knowledge that good photography isn't about the bells and whistles on a fancy camera, it's more about a fundamental ability to properly capture a scene.

"My dad has a saying", Zak said, referring to his commercial photographer father, "the best camera is the one you have with you."

Zak took his dad's love-the-one-you're-with philosophy to heart and has been using his iPhone with significant impromptu success at places like Pipeline and Sandy Beach. He is the first to admit that there are limitations with shooting with it (not the least of which is shutter lag), but other advantages make it more than worth playing with. More importantly, as iPhone quality continues to improve, Zak will already be ahead of the curve.

And speaking of the curve, very few people on Earth know what lies ahead for the iPhone camera better than a San Diego-based surfer named Jack Davis. An excellent photographer himself, Jack is one of the world's leading Photoshop experts, and teaches comprehensive iPhone photography classes around the world and online at CreativeLive.com.

In a recent conversation, Jack, like Andrew Reid, pointed to the panorama feature when talking about the iPhone 5S camera's strengths. But then Jack started to talk about the iPhone 6, which had been on the market for a few months now, and frankly…shit started to get a little weird. Apple now offers two hard-to-believe improvements for the iPhone 6: the ability to shoot 10 frames a second at full resolution, and, with the help of third-party apps, the ability to manually change shutter speed.

Now, as a professional photographer myself, I'm here to tell you how shocking the news of these two developments are. Basically, those are two of the main features that separated amateur point-and-shoot cameras from “Big Boy” cameras in the past. One of the great public misunderstandings about digital point-and-shoots (and older smartphones for that matter) is that their inferiority is due to lack of file quality. It's not. It's mostly due to over-automation, and the notion that you can now manually over-ride this flaw skyrockets the iPhone 6 into the potential professional utility stratosphere.

Rather quickly, the limitations that previously disqualified smartphones from being used for something as dynamic as professional surf photography seem to be under siege. For example, the arguably boring fixed focal length iPhone lens can now be mitigated with the help of after-market wide-angle and telephoto lens attachments made by such companies as Olloclip. While these attachments might not represent fantastic professional quality, they are harbingers of the future. People in the know like Jack Davis see a high-quality, built-in zoom lens in the iPhone's near future.

And lastly, “shutter lag”, or that obnoxious delay in capturing the image after pressing the button, seems poised to be lessened or even eliminated in the very near future as well.

While all this news may be a bit depressing for us professional photographers who happen to like our “Big Boy” gear, Andrew Reid's blog concludes with a silver lining. He predicts that the gravitation of the public (and in particular, the serious amateur) to smartphone cameras will force the large camera companies to concentrate on appeasing the higher-end professional—a group they've been accused of putting on the backburner for several years. Chances are that smartphones, and especially the iPhone, will serve as another tool for storytelling, be a reasonable backup for a professional photographer, but will not ultimately replace cameras as we know them.

At least in the short term.

In the face of shots like this, even the most jaded, old school photographers have to admit that iPhoneography has a bright future. Photo: Zak Noyle
In the face of shots like this, even the most jaded, old school photographers have to admit that iPhoneography has a bright future. Photo: Zak Noyle
If an image this clean can be shot with an iPhone 5, imagine what future generations will be capable of. Photo: Zak Noyle
If an image this clean can be shot with an iPhone 5, imagine what future generations will be capable of. Photo: Zak Noyle
Just like DSLR imagery, there's no shortage of ways to improve a smart phone shot in the afterworld. Photo: Jack Davis
Just like DSLR imagery, there's no shortage of ways to improve a smart phone shot in the afterworld. Photo: Jack Davis
One of the most useful features on the newer iPhones is the ability to shoot seamless panoramas. Photo: Jack Davis
One of the most useful features on the newer iPhones is the ability to shoot seamless panoramas. Photo: Jack Davis
With the knowledge of exactly what an iPhone is capable of, there are already times when a dip into the camera bag is unnecessary. Photo: Rob Gilley
With the knowledge of exactly what an iPhone is capable of, there are already times when a dip into the camera bag is unnecessary. Photo: Rob Gilley