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Positive Restraint: How the Limitations of iPhoneography are actually its Creative Strengths by Amy Cobbfeels


I don’t like to admit this to many other photographers, but I have to confess: I rarely use my DSLR anymore. Even when I’m shooting a photograph that errs more on the side of “artsy” than “snapshot,” I’ve started to default to the shutter on my iPhone. I know that this makes some photographers, well, shutter, especially my friends who are still committed to physical film and their insistence that the materiality is the heart of photography.

I didn’t always disagree. In college, I developed an obsession with artist CaroleeSchneemann, who reveled in the physical nature of the film by painting directly on the stock. In doing this, not only did Schneemann add a textural element to her films, but in a more general sense, she took the limitations of film—and motion pictures—and created art out of it.

Orson Welles once stated that “[t]he enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” The age of digital media and Adobe Photoshop seemed to introduce limitless possibilities to the world of photography. I certainly bought into it—I loved that I could make a shot appear to be in focus using filters on Photoshop. I loved that I could put my digital camera into “burst” mode so that I didn’t have to worry about the cost of each shot. I hardly missed working with film, though if you would have asked me as an undergrad, I would have talked extensively about loving the tactile experience.

Nevertheless, my photos became boring.  My only limitation was my lack of interest in clicking through the million photos I took of my town’s 4th of July Parade. I had a big memory card and an even bigger backlog of photos to edit. My phone can only hold so many photos, and while I can easily load them on my computer, I can’t do that while sitting cross-legged on a church lawn with an America flag in my other hand.  My iPhone reintroduced limitations to my artistic practice, and I think my photos are better for it.

iPhoneography is a growing niche in the photography world. Technically, iPhoneography involves capturing and processing photos on an Apple iPhone as opposed to another digital device, and purists will claim that you ought to edit your photos on your iOS device as well. While apps make it possible to edit photos as one would on PC or Mac-based editing software, the size of the screen itself has proven to be a worthwhile limitation for some artists.

As for the everyday photographer, the popular Instagram app and community has forced iPhone photographers to consider composition in a whole new way. You will not be able to fit your entire image on Instagram—it must conform to a 612×612 pixel square, not the standard 4:3 aspect ratio that so many of us have learned to consider as we shoot. This limitation has inspired photographer/developers to develop apps that either hack Instagram or help photographers see the square on their screen while shooting as opposed to having to consider the composition in their heads.

iphonegraphy 2

And what about photo quality? My iPhone takes great quality photos, but they’re never as sharp or nuanced as what I can capture with my DSLR. I know this. As my interest in Schneemann’s films may reveal, I’m a sucker for art that reveals something about the medium itself. The iPhone is easily the device of our time, and when I take photos within the grasp of its limitations—or that hacks its limitations like the physical manipulation of film—I’m not only capturing a visually-striking moment, but I’m also able to say something about photography in the digital age. If I wanted to, I could make a comment about the democratization of art photography. The ability to both make compelling images and contribute to the larger photographic discourse makes me more of an artist than simply taking pleasant photographs.


photo credit: Alícia

But the limitations presented by shooting with your iPhone will spark your creativity—force you to make connections and deal with the physical realities of the technology at hand—even if your goal is to make your friend who lives across the covet your dinner via Instagram every night. Perhaps the ubiquity of iPhoneography hasn’t diluted the appreciation of interesting, well-crafted images, but has instead created the ideal situation for more photographers to identify and engage in well-crafted photography.

Author – Amy Cobb feels most at home behind a keyboard or a snapping shutter. She’s a Jill-of-All-Trades media refugee turned blogger who, since jumping ship from the Fourth Estate, blogs on all things media and media-education-related. Most recently she’s worked on cataloging the best photography colleges. When not writing, Amy is thwarted by square foot gardening or playing with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Snarls Barkley.

1 comment to Positive Restraint: How the Limitations of iPhoneography are actually its Creative Strengths by Amy Cobb

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