iPhone or Canon? A veteran photographer debates digital versus analog



Pros and cons of iPhoneography

Longtime photographer Dan Marcolina tells why an Apple smartphone can be the ultimate tool of his trade.

Untitled traditional portrait

"I’m tall and shy -- so I can’t be inconspicuous. That means a lot of my traditional portraits are shot from the side or the back," Marcolina says. In this 2009 shot, he was able to compose it carefully, because the subjects weren't facing him, and it expresses his "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" no-cropping philosophy for analog photography.

Untitled mobile portrait

"Mobile photography is more like sculpture - you're poking at the pixels to make them talk," he says. The color of the ribbons was amped up with app Snapseed afterwards, "making the story a little more intense." While he could've captured this from the doorway with a traditional camera, Marcolina walked in close with his iPhone and the man never stirred.

While it's generally easier to go stealth with an iPhone, "people are getting a lot more savvy about having their photos taken," Marcolina says.


"The traditional work is from a collection of standard film cameras ranging from Toy Holgas to 2x2 Rolleiflex to Canon 5d digital. This work is never manipulated and rarely cropped, what you see is what I got." In this portrait of a bride with MS, note the shadow of Marcolina in the foreground.

“You’d never get this shot with a traditional camera,” Marcolina says. “It would be weird to be so close as this guy does a handstand in front of his girlfriend.” With an iPhone, you can control the camera in creative ways, getting this sculpted look by with a slow shutter and rotoscope effect.

"Photoshop is a production tool, not a discovery engine in the same way apps are," he says. And while the bathroom darkroom may have gone the way of the daguerrotype, the bog can still serve as an editing room for digital images, along with the supermarket checkout line.


Digital portrait

This is one of those shots, Marcolina says, where paring down the image digitally really made the shot.

During his 25-year career as a photographer, Dan Marcolina has captured moments of everyday despair and delight, from beaches and backyards to bus stations and wedding celebrations.

His work exhibits the ease of an inside joke or a knowing wink; the images are visual juxtapositions that live up to a high point of praise from Richard Avedon, who once commented that Marcolina makes images that aren’t “trying to be beautiful.”

An early adopter of mobile photography, Marcolina swapped his trusty Canons for an iPhone. Rather than bemoan the demise of traditional photography, he clicked immediately with the new technology, going on to write popular books about mobile photography and organize an iPhoneography event called Mobile Masters Sessions. Digital photography is democratic, he says, putting a camera in every pocket, to be used at any moment.

Seven years after the debut of the revolutionary and magical device, iPhone photography has developed to the point of being used for war coverage in The New York Times. Apple’s smartphone models take four slots on Flickr’s five most-used cameras list (the only traditional one is a Canon EOS REBEL T3i).

“People don’t know the rules about photography, yet they’re discovering images from their heart and their experience,” he says. “It’s more about sculpting the image and less about worrying about expensive stuff, like camera lenses.”

His work has developed two distinct looks, he says, depending on which device he’s using. With a traditional camera, he aims for WSYWYG, which translates into a no-cropping rule and minimal post-processing. It’s all about patience and being in the moment.

In mobile? “It’s more like: ‘Push it man.’ You can change the composition completely or make it more iconic. You can simplify the background, telling story that you thought you saw in your mind.” Marcolina likens digital photography closer to the work he does in his multimedia design business, saying it forces him to think graphically.

For some of his iPhone candids, Marcolina literally shoots from the hip. He recommends that when you see a something photo-worthy about to happen, you hold the camera button down and walk into the scene. A simple rubber bracelet — like a LiveStrong wristband — can act as an ad-hoc camera strap to tether the device to your hand.

He also takes advantage of the iOS7’s “burst mode,” which lets you snap up to 10 pics per second by holding down the shutter button. Camera-replacement apps can come in handy for stealth mode, he says, since many of them allow you to touch anywhere on the iPhone screen to snap a picture.

“The advent of digital is as important in my mind as Kodak coming out with color photography,” he says. “It’s brought major artistic breakthroughs and provides instant feedback on your work.”

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  • imajoebob

    I just got back from my first long (>4 days) trip since I bought a DSLR. Here’s what I discovered:
    1) you end up taking a sh**load of pictures with a digital camera (more than 40 a day)
    2) I got about as many “great” pictures as I got when I used to shoot 2 or 3 rolls of film. The rest were either meh or garbage. Film got me a few mehs and the occasional garbage, but that was usually due to unrealistic expectation than technique.
    3) I probably missed a few opportunities to get more “great” pictures, because I became reactionary to my surroundings (‘Push it man,’ to quote Mr Marcolina). I didn’t spend a lot of time looking for shots, just pointing and shooting.
    4) I was able to test out different settings and techniques that I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) with film because of the cost. I learned a bit, but not really anything more than I used to intuit with film.

    It takes discipline to make good photos. Digital makes it (too) easy to be lazy. Most of my better pictures came at the end of my trip, when I wanted to make sure I got “good” shots of certain things before I went home. In other words, the same attitude
    as when I used film.