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Wednesday, 28 July 2021


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Spot on! Though I don’t know how you would regulate the competition. One of the companies that makes cheap security cameras shows interesting/amusing video clips caught by their users cameras which I guess would fall into the same category of not being recorded otherwise.

I’ve entered competitions where I’ve truly been humbled. And then there are those that have some 20 year old judges, and I get to thinking... they must be some real hot shots! Then I actually see their work and... Whoa! They’re gonna judge me, seriously?!

Then there’s the small matter of personal taste...

FWIW, I posted a link to such a contest at The Guardian on Monday, as a comment to a post.

“Just to help reset the needle to zero, a good reminder that photography ain’t really about cameras.

The Guardian 2021 iPhone Photography Awards


To say the least, I’m disappointed by your reaction. I’ve no energy to debate the matter. It just seems so self-evident that “… photography ain’t really about cameras”.

[It's the same contest. The WaPo and the Guardian are just reporting/promoting the results of the same contest. As did many other outlets. --Mike]

If I may add a little rant of my own about this: it's not actually a smartphone contest, it's an iPhone contest. To me, this is just as silly as if the Washington Post made a Canon camera contest. Why is it not a smartphone, writ large, contest? Why is the WaPo doing marketing work for Apple, specifically?

Photo contests exist to promote something like a product, webpage or publication, or they serve to fill the space between ads and generate clicks, and that's okay. Of course photos in such contests tend to be of a certain type and that's also okay. Cellphone contests serve to demonstrate the progress in cellphone camera technology and that the cameras are serious photographic tools, and that is good. Some of the photos will be happy accidents and others will be from serious photo pursuits and that is also good. I enjoyed looking at the photos, though I probably don't hold them to as high a creative standard as you do. I am curious at the level of hostility they seem to have generated for you.

"Renaissance frieze"
In reference to the little light that turns back on when you open the door, correct?

Oh, wait wrong century. Always get the late renaissance and the enlightenment confused.

IMHO it is worth your time to check out 'The Phone Book' by Robert Herman - all photos taken with an iPhone. Sadly, I just learned as I was researching links to his book that Robert Herman took his own life recently. https://www.lensculture.com/robert-herman?modal=project-38573-the-phone-book

The most common subject taken with phone cameras is food! Then they bombard others while they are eating. Frankly, I'm sick of seeing pictures of food. They make me lose appetite.

Well, my friend, while I get where you're coming from I think that this is a complaint in search of a problem. If someone happened to take an incredible landscape photograph with an Olympus Stylus Epic or a Rollei 35 instead of a Hasselblad, and then won an award for it in a photo contest would that be worthy of complaint? I mean, the Oly and Rollei's strength is not in landscape photography, they are tiny pocketable cameras best used for spontaneous photography not landscape scenes usually shot with MF or LF cameras. Probably the best landscape photograph I have ever taken was taken with a Sony RX100 that I had in my pocket when I saw the snow covered mountains mirrored perfectly in the ice covered lake in front of me and I jumped out of my car, climbed a snow drift and took a quick snap or two. No tripod, lightmeter, Zone system, whatever. I see no problem with celebrating great photographs taken with iPhones even if they are not toddlers climbing into grandpa's refrigerator intimate. Might inspire folks to use them to create photos other than selfies.

Just gotta chance to view the winning images- and was pleasantly surprised! Whenever I see superior smartphone photos, my second thought is- too bad it wasn't taken with a real camera that could pay it justice. But then I suppose one could also say- too bad that photo was taken with a small format camera instead of something larger that would really make it shine! Point is, if you can appreciate the image in the first place- mission accomplished.

I find the response interesting, perhaps puzzling. Does a camera type have a photo type? Do all view camera shots have to look like Ansel Adams's photos of Half Dome in Yosemite? TLRs look like Vivian Maier's snapshots on the streets of Chicago. Film SLRs have to be grainy black and white? DSLRs must produce images over-sharpened, over-HDRed and with supersaturated color? Do smartphone photos have to be candids of people? How about video of disturbing events?

Reminds me of my favorite paraphrasing of Kurt Godel's philosophy: All generalizations, with the possible exception of this one, are false.

I look forward to seeing your anti-IPPAWARDS exhibition!

~The pictures looked like stock photos to me. "No heart," I guess is what I'd say, if I had to sum it up. I liked the one of the girl jumping, well enough, although it feels staged. That said, it would be a boring old world if everyone's tastes were the same.

Do be aware (as you probably are) that many smart ’phones have serious compositional limitations that arise due to restricted lens focal length capability. For example, my wife uses a Apple iPhone model XR, which has only one lens, and it's 26mm (re. 135 format full-frame equivalent). So it can capture great selfies, group photos, and dinner plate close-ups, but it absolutely CANNOT be used to shoot a decent single torso (standing or sitting) human portrait without rendering gross perspective distortion.

When I recall great photos they were great by design or by capture at the decisive moment. It was the photographer's eye that saw it and snapped it. How many won prizes? Beats me. Just before I read your column I was speaking with a friend about his youngest brother. They aren't close, but they get along. The younger brother had just sent a quick note under a picture taken in a grocery store of cantelopes in a watermelon box (write your own caption, he did). People don't discuss philosophy on the phone but a chat with a friend can brighten and broaden your day. To my eye the best of those pictures were the simplest, two or three colors, two or three lines. They won a prize? Great.

I was also pleasantly surprised by a lot of the pictures in the competition, and agree with everyone who says who cares what kind of camera they were taken with...

Except that they did seem almost as if each one had been chosen based on its ability to surpass the viewer that a phone could be used to produce that picture. And I think this kinda gets at where you're coming from, Mike. They're phone pictures that look like pictures you'd expect from bigger cameras.

A good picture is a good picture, but different cameras do have a certain look or at least certain mode of operation — and you can work with or against that for various kinds of effect.

This competition did feel like it was pictures taken against the mode that phone cameras are best known for. Mike, you're asking the question "What if we went with their grain instead?" I think it's a really good question.

The stand-out mobile phone photography work for me is Michael Christopher-Brown's Libyan Sugar. The pictures look like my iPhone pictures from the same time — decently composed, but tightly cropped, square, over-saturated, close, intimate — only the subject matter is starkly and violently different. And the book is assembled like a kind of a camera roll from hell, interspersed with emails and texts from friends, family and colleagues as the diary unfolds.

It's what comes out of, or maybe what gets stuck inside, smartphones: things in and from the moment.

When 35mm came out it drew the same flak that smart phone cameras do today.

Isn't this the problem with competitions in the first place, that they tend to choose competent but safe choices? But there is also something deeper at work. We live in an age of the level playing field made possible by digital communications where the traditional gatekeepers have been (mostly) made obsolete.

For photographers, that means although it is simple to get your work in front of an audience, it only gets more difficult for your work to actually be seen. In light of this paradox, people want their cake and to eat it too, and so they want, for example, Big Brother approving their thoughts on social media and photo contests to make their digital photos famous (I exaggerate but only a bit).

In the long run, this is reactionary and a lost cause. For example, I can scroll through Instagram in 5 minutes and see photos as good or better as the iPhone contest winners. It also creates an environment (especially the deep need for approbation) that proves irresistible to fraudsters and con artists.

Lastly, for photographers, there is one more level yet: the individual photo is really not that special. Everyone can and does take one or two great photos in their lifetime - if they take enough of them. That's just the nature of photography. So individual photos, whether they be in a contest or on an Instagram feed are really not a big deal. What's challenging is making a beautiful print, which isn't so easy, or a thoughtful portfolio or an engaging book. Most people decidedly can't do these things. They are hard. This is also a corollary of technological innovation: it favors convenience and promotes over-simplification and eclecticism.

The irony is that photography is, appropriately, an emblem of this process and the medium of our times. Photography is the most Democratic form of Art in human history. And yet it is difficult to master - and easy to go a lifetime not knowing what you don't know. So Photography is itself a reflection of something hidden within ourselves, what we value, and the choices we make.

Generally I only use my smartphone camera when I'm looking for deep focus. The small sensor and wide angle can yield some serious depth of field.

Phones... man. Just... man. Phones, which have provided an ecosystem for Facebook. And other antisocial media. And contributed to the decline of quality photography. Where was I? Oh yeah, not adapting to these devices that are destroying society - I'm sorry.

The weirdest thing? The way that people take photos and videos of stuff, instead of just enjoying the experience itself. Like at concerts or when they're in front of the mona lisa. Be... cause...??? And the way that people who do that, act like they have the right to do it anywhere - as if it's in The Constitution.

We'll look back on this period in history and be amazed that we just accepted these horrid devices into the fabric of our lives. Hmm... too morbid a comment?

Mike, I really don't understand why you let things like this bother you.
It is a For Profit enterprise that charges people to enter their pictures, then gives very small prizes to a very small number of people.
Their Gimmick is choosing the camera with the largest base of users and charging a relatively small fee per picture.
I wouldn't' be at all surprised if they didn't even look at all the entries--
They had 12 probably part time employees to cull them.
-all they had to do is find a few nice ones and call it a day.
It has little to do with photography and more to do with a scam that capitalizes on people's egos.
People pay them to look at their pictures, would YOU do that?

It is just another "Contest" for Profit. Since they disclose the terms up front, it is a business and not a scam--- but in my opinion , barely.
I'm certain lots of very nice pictures were submitted, but that was never the point for the folks who made the money.

By your own "snapshot" metric I think there are a number of nice examples that might have been missed if they didn't have their iPhone with them: Christmas trees, Walking on air, Black Summer Blue Montaigne - not all my favories but plausibly "snapshots".

Maybe we can next get a wooden field camera contest going and complain if they aren't all landscapes and architecture!

Clearly it’s a marketing thing to call it iPhone both from a entry and viewing results participation but that does not bother me, I'm always happy to see people wanting to show their their images, and what other folks pick as winners.

i am not a pro, nor educated in the ways and wiles of photography.
and i appreciate your rant, for my own reasons, as thus:
for the smartphone camera to mimic "the look" requires an incredible degree of AI.
the more basic and limited the medium, the greater amount of AI that goes into the photograph.
ultimately, AI is a compilation of compromises, compromises that are agreed to by a few folks in the engineering and marketing departments of the manufacturer.
AI is discernable, even a feature, in each of the photographs that won their respective category in the subject competition.
so for me, i see a smartphone photograph and i see the exposure and post-processing decisions that were made in an office far away and applied in the same way on every copy of the camera all around the world.
every engineering effort is a compilation of compromises, no doubt.
The limitations of the smartphone (sensor size, lens size, etc) just serve to make the compromises more obvious when even the casual observer can see the difference between a smartphone landscape and a medium format landscape for example.

I've only entered one photo competition but most competitions I read about are locale-based or subject matter based. Is there much of a history of tool-based competitions?

I'm having some difficulty getting past the idea that gold is more valuable than platinum. Somebody tell American Express (whose Platinum card is a higher level than the Gold card).

I guess it's all the result of ultra-hyping gold for 50 years. Seemed stupid at the beginning, and it still seems stupid—but now I wish I had invested at the beginning so I could ride up with the stupidity :-) .

Mike: Thank you for providing this information:

"the contest is run by an outfit called "iPhone Photography Awards (IPPAWARDS)" at 401 E 76th Street 3W, New York City, New York, 10021, which, according to zoominfo, has 25 employees and annual revenues of $4 million. It charges entry fees of between $3.02 and $5.50 per image, and ....."

I landed on the mailing list of a similar outfit, only their entry fees were much higher. It smelled and I never even considered digging into who was behind. Also, I did not consider sending them a photo with a cheque.

Come on Mike. Have we not woken up to the fact that the smartphone is set to be the new all round camera, if it isn't already? The competition is a blatant money making enterprise. Nothing new there, but the pictures were good I thought. After all, the DSLR is an all round camera for enthusiasts and professionals. No one complains about one of those being used for portraits, landscapes and still life do they.

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