Apple fan uses two first-gen iPhones: One for calls, one for trippy pics

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Joe Cunningham
We don't remember the original iPhone camera taking photos like this!
Photo: Joe Cunningham

Joe Cunningham loves the original iPhone so much that he carries two of them — one for calls and texts, and one for taking trippy photos enhanced by a mysterious glitch in the decade-old device.

Like the kind of haunted handset you’d find in a Stephen King novel, the second iPhone exhibits a strange quality: It takes pictures that look like they’re the result of a bad acid trip.

“The psychedelic iPhone only gets used as a camera because I want to extend its life as long as possible,” Cunningham told Cult of Mac.

Joe Cunningham "psychedelic iPhone" photo
The “psychedelic iPhone” from 2007 is great for shooting urban scenes, says its owner.
Photo: Joe Cunningham

The iPhone, which celebrates its 10th birthday this week, has come a long way when it comes to photography. The original’s 2-megapixel camera is positively primitive compared to the 12-megapixel, dual-lens monster inside the iPhone 7 Plus.

The latest iPhone has garnered raves from pro shooters and marks a major milestone for photography.

Still, Cunningham thinks the first-gen iPhone from 2007 has never been bettered.

“I prefer the user experience of the original and its design much more than any subsequent release,” said the Minnesota photographer.

The fact that one of his original iPhones produces highly stylized imagery is a bonus — and a lucky one at that.

When his original iPhone broke in 2013, after a solid six years of use, Cunningham was thrilled when his brother Casey presented him with another first-gen iPhone, still in its box. He had discovered it in a drawer at the IT company he owns, and with nobody coming forward to claim it, he passed it on.

“I happen to be a photographer and I immediately began experimenting with it to discover what subject matter it would be useful for,” Cunningham said. “For example, it is useless for portraiture [and] rural landscapes. I soon realized that urban imagery was its forte and began shooting out of the windows of Minneapolis city buses every day. This perspective is unusual because you’re 10 feet tall in the middle of the street, viewing life downtown through the lens of an acid flashback.”

Joe Cunningham "psychedelic iPhone" urban street scene
The “wonderfully damaged” camera in Joe Cunningham’s first-gen iPhone helps him capture striking urban street scenes.
Photo: Joe Cunningham

Cunningham keeps a blog of his images and is planning to publish a book of them.

When the first-gen iPhone that Cunningham uses for calls and texting dies, he has a 2013-era iPhone 5s waiting for him, although he says “its design is forgettable in comparison to the iconic smartphone that Steve Jobs first showed the world.”

He’s never discovered exactly why the “wonderfully damaged” camera on his psychedelic iPhone renders photos in such acid-soaked colors.

“I’m an artist, not a technical person, so I have no idea what the malfunction is,” he said. “But if one of your readers knows what’s going on I’d love to hear the details. I have searched the internet for similar imagery and come up empty.”

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  • Laszlo Gaspar

    This is admittedly beautiful effect is likely caused by a glitch in either the filtering of the raw data that comes from the image sensor or a hardware problem with the ADC that leads to the misinterpretation of colours. Given the consistency and clarity of the image I would say it’s more likely that this glitch is occurring in the filtering of the image data which results in pixels of the wrong colour. After the photo is taken, image processing then tries to correct the errors in the image but instead amplifies them and leaves you with the images shown in this article. The same effect can be achieved in photoshop by playing with RGB levels but the result is not quite the same in that the image loses clarity and colours tend to blead across the image due to the lack of process correction which the iphone will perform but photoshop will not when playing with manual options. I hope this gives some insight into why this effect occurs. If anyone is interested in further details I can suggest a number of articles which discuss image corruption and the various effects it can produce.

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