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6 things I learned by going all in on iPhone photography

For more than nine months, my iPhone 13 Pro has been my only digital camera—and I‘ve missed my fancy FujiFilm camera way less than I expected.

6 things I learned by going all in on iPhone photography
[Photos: Harry McCracken; Javier Esteban/Unsplash]

I have been taking pictures with cell phones since August 2003, when I splurged on a Nokia 3650, one of the first camera phones sold in the U.S. Since then, I’ve shot untold thousands of phone photos—in recent years, mostly with iPhones and the occasional Android.

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But in a way, I never took phone photography all that seriously. Most often, I thought of it as a digital equivalent of using a disposable camera: something that was more about quick-and-dirty convenience than artfulness. If I was taking photos I really cared about, I used a digital camera optimized for image capturing and nothing else. Since 2019, that’s been my FujiFilm X-T30 mirrorless camera.

The arrival of the iPhone 13 last September felt like an occasion to reconsider my instincts. Much of the internet’s insta-reaction to Apple’s newest iPhones and their camera features declared them to be ho-hum—and pointed out that photos taken in decent light didn’t necessarily look much different from those shot with previous iPhones. However, I was intrigued by the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max’s photography upgrades. They included macro capability, a new 3X zoom, and improved sensors that let in more light.

In other words, the 13 Pro phones were designed to be better at shooting things that were close up, far away, or hindered by murky lighting—precisely the kinds of limitations that would lead me to shoot with my X-T30 instead of my iPhone 11 Pro. (I’ve shot all my video on smartphones for years, so the iPhone 13 Pro video upgrades, though welcome, didn’t portend any major shift in my habits.)

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[Photo: Harry McCracken]
When I bought an iPhone 13 Pro a few weeks after its release, I decided to go all in. Since then,  I’ve been on an overseas business trip, traveled for the Thanksgiving holidays, gone on a Christmas weekend getaway, socialized (cautiously!) in the Bay Area, and taken photos for work. And I did all of it with my new iPhone as my only digital camera.

It’s been more than nine months since I took a photo with the X-T30. Herewith, some of the things I’ve learned—interspersed with images from my iPhone 13 Pro.

[Photo: Harry McCracken]

1. Photographic basics always matter most

If your hand shakes when you take a photo, the image will probably come out blurry. Okay, that’s one of the most obvious photography tips ever, and is applicable to every camera ever made. But when I took photos with a smartphone, I rarely stopped to remember it, because I wasn’t in a serious photography frame of mind. Now that I am, I’m steadying the phone more carefully, putting more consideration into composition, and generally doing all the little things that add up to better photos. They work!

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[Photo: Harry McCracken]

2. It pays to dig into Apple’s camera settings

When it comes to its own apps, Apple has a rep for being customization-adverse. It also shunts settings off into the iPhone’s Settings app, where it lists its apps in a truly mysterious order. (All I know is that there are two sections, and neither is alphabetized.)

I’ve found more pleasure in imposing discipline on my photography, even if technology doesn’t.

For these reasons, it’s easy to forget that the Camera app has settings at all. But it does—and they give you a surprising degree of control over your shooting experience. You can ditch Apple’s HEIC file format for the much more widely compatible JPEG, set the default portrait mode to 2X zoom rather than 3X, and even tell the Camera app to retain settings until you tell it otherwise—so it always opens up in black-and-white mode, for example.

The Settings app is also where you can select one of Apple’s “Photographic Styles,” such as Rich, Vibrant, or Warm. These presets remind me of the X-T30’s ability to emulate a variety of FujiFilm film stocks.

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Of course, if you’re the type of person who revels in advanced features, you might gravitate toward a powerful third-party iPhone camera app, such as Halide or ProCamera. I’m glad they exist, but I haven’t quite bonded with any of them. For one thing, Apple doesn’t let you set a third-party camera app as the default, so it’s tough to avoid its own app altogether. For another, while many camera apps beat Apple’s in terms of sheer features and manual options, I haven’t found one whose interface I like as much as Apple’s.

[Photo: Harry McCracken]

3. You should take (or at least keep) fewer pics

For anyone who grew up shooting 36-exposure rolls of 35 mm film—and paying to have them processed—a smartphone’s essentially unlimited photo capacity is incredibly liberating. Or at least, it used to feel that way. These days, the fact that I have 93,970 photos in iCloud feels like a burden; the gems are outnumbered by shots that are unexceptional or just plain crummy. And there are many instances where I have 47 slight variants of the same scene, because, well, there’s no reason not to keep pressing the shutter button.

But lately, I’ve found more pleasure in imposing discipline on my photography, even if technology doesn’t. If I’m documenting a dim sum outing with friends, I’d rather have a dozen wonderful photographs than 300 that exhaustively document the meal. So I’m taking fewer photos—and then trying to remember to go back and delete all the ones I don’t love.

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[Photo: Harry McCracken]

4. Taking lots of photos is a battery drainer

One of Apple’s most welcome upgrades in the current iPhones is their improved battery life. When snapping photos in moderation, you’re unlikely to run out of juice. But on days when I’ve shot with abandon, my 13 Pro’s battery has gotten a workout—and on a few occasions, it’s gotten perilously close to the zero mark. Unlike a conventional camera, the iPhone and all of its most direct rivals don’t let you swap in a new battery; the best you can do is to tote an external battery pack. (I bought one from Anker with support for the iPhone’s MagSafe wireless charging built-in.)

[Photo: Harry McCracken]

5. Camera phones still have ergonomic issues

If “the best camera is the one you have with you,” it’s tough to beat smartphones: Thanks to their portability and versatility, we do have them with us, almost always. But even though photography ranks among a phone’s most important functions, phones still don’t feel like they were designed to be cameras first and foremost. (There have been occasional exceptions.)

Pressing an iPhone’s on-screen shutter button may jostle the phone and blur the photo you take, and while you can use the physical volume up button instead, it’s not particularly well positioned for that purpose. I also miss my FujiFilm’s beefy grip when I’m holding my iPhone. And because the iPhone camera bump is located at the phone’s edge, I still take the occasional photo with my fingertip visible in the shot.

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[Photo: Harry McCracken]
All in all, it’s easy to understand why several companies have come up with mechanical shutter button cases for iPhones, turning the phone into something that feels a bit more like a classic camera.

6. I miss my “real” camera less than I expected

Smartphone cameras haven’t reached absolute parity with conventional cameras. My FujiFilm X-T30 packs far more megapixels than an iPhone, which comes in handy when I want to crop an image without ending up with something that looks too fuzzy. It accepts interchangeable lenses, such as zoom lenses, that go way beyond the iPhone 13 Pro’s 3X range. If I tote a camera bag full of lenses and futz with manual settings, I can still get results my iPhone can’t match.

And because the iPhone relies as much on advanced computer science as fancy optics to render images, there are times when the photos I get feel a tad overprocessed. I worry that future phone photos could look even more synthetic—and hope that Apple and other smartphone companies don’t smother their future camera phones in an excess of AI.

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[Photo: Harry McCracken]
Bottom line: I’m not arguing that the fact I haven’t used my X-T30 in months means that the iPhone 13 Pro has rendered it obsolete. Even so, I’ve never felt major pangs of regret for having left it at home. Between the iPhone’s capabilities and my newly thoughtful approach to how I shoot with it, I’ve had all the camera I needed.

Will I ever pick up my FujiFilm again? Almost certainly—hey, I’m still taking Polaroids. There’s a certain pleasure in using a device that does one thing well; and smartphones, by their very definition, aren’t that kind of device.

Still, I’ve come out of this experiment with a new favorite camera. The fact that it also happens to be a telephone, game console, e-book reader, voice recorder, and a whole lot more is merely a bonus.

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the global technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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