iPhone Photography: Yosemite made me a believer.

Half Dome in the clouds.

As I write this entry on a long flight back to Austin from San Francisco, I’m feeling blessed that my wife and I got to experience God’s majesty, California-style. Our trip began with my wife’s business conference in San Francisco. We then rented a car and headed east to Yosemite Valley, where we spent 6 nights.

For me, any travel adventure becomes a photographic experience. Leading up to this excursion, I was clueless about which camera gear to bring. Something about lugging around my Sony a7R III + lenses seemed heavy—and not just from a weight perspective. The thought seemed heavy. Too much tech. Too much hassle. I also thought about about bringing my Leica M6 and shooting film. I have had pleasant experiences with this camera in Colorado nature, so it made sense.

There was this part of me that wanted to do something radical (for me), and just bring my iPhone XS Max. To leave everything else behind. But, would I freak out once I got there, “only” having an iPhone to shoot with? I suppose reason won out. I brought the Leica M6 too—along with 10 rolls of film. Know how many rolls I shot? Less than two. You see where this is heading.

Ego, Insecurities, and Uncertainty

"Grizzly Giant" Giant Sequoia in Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove.

"Grizzly Giant" Giant Sequoia in Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove.

My ego continues to be pummeled by iPhone photography. In fact, during one of our glorious drives through the mountains in Yosemite, I got to do a complete mind-dump with my wife Sandra, and express these feelings that are coming up.

I told her that my inner-narrative goes something like this: “Joe, you are an idiot. You chose photography as a profession, and now every man, woman, and child on the planet has a camera in their pocket. The traditional photography industry is doomed.”

It helped so much to process what was going on inside. Do you know what I am now starting to say to that inner voice telling me that the whole photographic world is being turned upside down? Halleluia! Right on! And if you are a pro, a semi-pro, or a photography enthusiast reading this, you ought to be jumping for joy too. The photography industry is being rocked to the core, and the future is in the palm of your hand, not slung around your neck.

My ego tells me this:

“Joe- you had a run at it, creating all of those gorgeous images on your fancy Sony and Leica full-frame cameras, but now look at these amazing shots you are taking on your dinky smartphone. If you can create these images, so can everyone else, and that means you are no longer special.”

Can you smell the complete and utter B.S. in this logic?

Thank about it: How plentiful were the paint options during Picasso’s life? Yet, how many mastered painting like Picasso? How plentiful were the electric guitar options during Jimi Hendrix’ life? Yet, how many created guitar magic like Hendrix?

But, even as I “make the case” about how cameras are just a tool of creativity (versus the creative product itself), I find myself feeding my ego. Artists seem to be adept at feeding the ego. Ever noticed that? And guess what? It makes us miserable.

When I was a child I would create art purely for the fun of it. “Wow!”, my mom would say. “You are exceptional!” And I would be so proud of myself. But then, I started to depend on accolades. Looking back, I can see that so much of my motivation to create works of art was approval-seeking. There are so many gaps in time when I haven’t created much to speak of, and I think this sadly distorted motivation is the reason why. Hell, I couldn’t even plan what photography gear I was going to bring on our vacation to Yosemite without considering how it was going to fit into my “social-media strategy.” Oh, brother.

An iPhone Moment of Delight

I remember it so vividly: I was sitting on the sofa in our little place inside Yosemite Park, tinkering with photos from earlier that day, shot on my iPhone XS Max. I might have started with 20 or so images from that day, but I was slowly but surely culling the images down to the best of the best. Swiping, comparing, observing. Tweaking in the native Photos app. Tweaking in the Snapsead app. A little filter here, a little adjustment there. “Oh- I wonder how a slight vignette would look on this one”, I said to myself. Instantly, I saw the results.

And it dawned on me how much fun I was having on that darned iPhone. No SD card, no importing into Lightroom on my fancy iMac. No RAW processing and being forced into a rigid workflow; I was just sitting there on the sofa, having fun with my beautiful images. It felt like play, not work.

Honestly, I think I am going to look back at this trip as a watershed moment in my photography career. I got to drop my camera-snobbery just briefly enough to embrace a smartphone camera. I didn’t feel like I was wasting some magical moment by shooting it with an iPhone rather than a full-frame camera with high-end glass. I wasn’t comparing myself to all of the tourists around me taking snapshots with their phones. Actually that’s a lie. I was totally doing that. :-))

Are you a “skilled photographer” like me?

In other words, do you care about things like composition, layering, tonality, texture, mood, moment, and nuance? All of these important photographic considerations are as relevant to smartphone photography as they are to high-end camera photography. Your hard-fought skills still apply. The difference with smartphone photography is in the process. The tool you use to photograph becomes your editing and publishing platform too. Warning: it’s kinda fun!

Half Dome from Glacier Point

Pleasure Seeking versus Pixel Peeping

Like any artist, photographers might fall into one end of the spectrum or another. If you are someone who just enjoys taking a pretty picture on vacation, you rock. God bless you. Now please stop reading.

I want to address the photographers out there who believe in magic. Yeah you. Your images take on a life of their own, right? You hear about natives believing that taking a photo steals their soul and you get it. Why? Because you look into they eyes of the portraits you shoot and it sends chills down your spine. You are looking into a soul. You believe there is something downright supernatural about capturing a slice of time onto a camera sensor. It then lifts your spirits to take that image and lovingly process its light into your own version of reality.

Does this describe you? Good so far? OK then, now do an ego-check with me. Are you freaking out about the changing state of the photography industry? Worried about your expensive gear collecting dust? Resentful towards all of the “idiots” out there shooting on their cell phones, calling themselves photographers? If you can relate to any of these thoughts, you could be missing out on the greatest benefit of photography: fun.

I’m the first to admit I’m among the worst of the “pixel-peepers”. But just because over-analyzing details is a “thing” in photography doesn’t mean it brings joy to our hearts. These Yosemite images I created were so fun to shoot and edit. But then I rant into trouble. I opened them up on my Mac, clicked the magnifying glass, and started pixel-peeping. I saw the lack of resolution. I noticed the imperfections. And you know what? The joy subsided. My perfectionism was rearing its ugly head, robbing me of something pure.

A wet granite face shot from the parking lot.

Ask yourself why you want to photograph.

You may have long list of reasons why you currently photograph. But dig a little deeper and ask yourself: why do you want to photograph? Personally, I need to re-examine my creative motives from time to time. My love of photography gets tangled up in the things of ego, like comparison, unworthiness, technicalities, and perfectionism.

But, ask me why I want to photograph, and my answer is simple: For the joy of it. I pray to God that my gifting in photography would take me back to a childlike sense of wonder and awe at the world around me. It is also my heart’s desire to continue to experience emotional healing through photography. Perhaps I might even help others receive these blessings as well.

How about you? If you could re-spark your photography flame, what might that look like? Better yet, what might that feel like? Perhaps you could write something down and share it with the rest of us. 

We have all been subjected to massive marketing influence, telling us that better gear will lead to more fulfillment, and that’s a load of crap. Watch a child having fun with a camera and observe whether he then goes online and bitches about its lens’ lack of micro-contast or imperfect out-of-focus rendering.

The fun I had while shooting and editing images on my iPhone during this bucket-list trip really woke me up. There was something so freeing about not worrying about a million camera settings. Something so liberating about not obsessing about which lens to use. And, this was only half of the awakening. Tinkering with image editing apps on my phone was so entertaining. Sharing from the very device I was shooting and editing on made so much sense. Why don’t big-boy cameras do this?

Join me. Follow your (photographic) bliss, regardless of the tool you use. Tomorrow, as you go about your day, take a mindful moment with your smartphone and capture a unique perspective of this marvelous world around us. Then share it.


Joe Van Wyk
Austin, Texas

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