Check out the two aloe plant shots below. Can you tell which was taken with an iPhone and which was taken with a DSLR?
Although Los Angeles photographer Jessica Zollman snapped the succulents in the city’s Pershing Square a year apart, the technical differences between the two photos are small. Rich color, sharp resolution, depth of field—it’s all there in each. Their similarities are a testament to Zollman’s skill, of course, but also to how far mobile-capture capabilities have come. So which is which? You'll have to wait until the end of the article for the camera ID.
Camera phones democratized photography on a global scale in the late 2000s; suddenly, almost everyone had a picture-taking-tool in their pocket. The subsequent boom of mobile-editing apps put next-level software in the hands of the masses. Then Instagram provided a platform where pros and newbies alike could reach audiences around the world. It was a seismic social shift, but also a turning point for the photography profession itself. Early adopters embraced the accessible tech and pushed its limits, using it to kick off careers in uncharted territory as influencers, sought after by brands and businesses for the reach of their feeds. The subsequent years have seen attitudes toward, and acceptance of, these tools evolve alongside their features. Welcome to the age of camera fluidity.
Zollman, who is now the visual coordinator at LA coffee hotspot Go Get Em Tiger, had always loved photography—using her dad’s Polaroid camera as a kid, followed by disposable and point-and-shoot cameras—but it wasn’t until college that she started getting more serious about focusing her eye and efforts. Pics she took of friends’ bands became sought after MySpace headers—“I didn't get paid, but those were the first photo jobs I did,” she says—and she began scanning and uploading collections to Flickr, where she found the support of what was initially a like- and open-minded community.
“Then I dumped some of my first camera phone shots [on Flickr], stuff that I felt really good about, and people said that camera phone photos weren’t ‘real’ photos,” she remembers. “There wasn’t much of a difference in terms of subject or style, but I would get these snide comments. I remember feeling this sense of rejection.”
The response was frustrating, and Zollman was discouraged but undeterred. “I couldn’t afford a proper DSLR,” she says. (DSLR=digital single-lens reflex.) And yet it wasn’t simply about making due with the phone in her camera; it was about making art, and she saw the transformative potential. “I was so excited when the iPhone first came out [in 2007]—I waited in line and everything,” she says. “I knew this was going to be on me all the time. It was going to change everything.”
Oh Hello, Instagram
For three years, Zollman and millions of others—such as Pei Ketron—explored the creative possibilities of smartphones. Ketron is now a project marketing manager for Adobe Lightroom, but she had been a freelance photographer for seven years before Instagram shook things up in 2010.
“I was in that first initial wave of Instagram influencers, when the app was really centered around photography, rather than branding and celebrities,” Ketron says. At the time, users were on a level playing field because everyone had to use Instagram's in-app camera along with mandatory filters and borders, and post in real time. Working within those constraints provided unique, and uniquely appealing, limitations. Even after Instagrammers could upload and share camera roll images, regardless of where the photos came from before they made it to the camera roll, Ketron and many other users proudly remained “mobile only,” refusing to share photos that weren’t taken on a phone.
Editing was acceptable, so long as it was all done on mobile. “I was using as many as five different apps because they each did something different,” Ketron says. “I called it ‘app-dancing,’” Zollman says with a laugh. “Straightening, correcting perspective, filtering, brightening, exposure—you couldn’t do it all in one.”
Rather than gatekeepers who deemed more advanced, or traditional, devices—and by extension, the photographers—worthier than others, the Instagram generation was pushing for parity. “I think it was just something that we all kind of agreed upon as being the rules for engagement,” Ketron says. “We were capturing on our phones and sharing what we were doing. If someone posted something from a DSLR, it immediately stood out because it was a higher quality. It felt like ‘cheating,’ in a way.”
Zollman was also an enthusiastic early adopter and landed a gig as Instagram’s first community manager, which put her in direct contact with a fast-growing cadre of creators. “I was tasked with establishing InstaMeets and photo adventures, and finding interesting artists and people to feature,” she says. Those who garnered attention also netted huge audiences, which made them appealing to companies looking to leverage the platform's reach.
“Tourism boards were some of the first to jump on the bandwagon of working with influencers. It was basically trade for trip: We'll bring you out if you post about our destination,” Ketron says. “Dream job, right? But then we began to realize that our platforms, and our time, were worth actual money, too.”
For the most part, these clients and an expanding network of brands were often device-ignorant, or -agnostic, or both. “When I was still adamantly iPhone only, I would let clients know and confirm they were okay with that," Ketron says. “They would look at my feed, say they were super impressed by the quality of the work, and told me they absolutely trusted me to go for it. That was really great.”
Adobe doesn't choose sides—our photo-editing apps work on all sorts of photos. Take a look.
The Big Chill
Throughout, camera phone specs continued to advance. As the quality gap between camera phones and DSLRs continued to close, the thrill of the mobile-only challenge began to organically subside. ”At first it was jarring, but eventually it became more integrated, where we were all posting whatever we felt like,” Zollman says.
“There’s always that there's a time and a place for everything, right?” says Ketron. “By 2016, after six years building a huge audience, doing all these jobs for tourism boards, hotels, airlines, and big commercial gigs with my iPhone, it felt a bit like: Been there, done that.”
In many ways, we’re past the heady pics-or-it-didn’t-happen era, edging into a more tenuous post-truth time where pics shared online are done so with a strategy—personal or professional—and intention.
“Now I'm getting back to my roots, and to why I started [taking photos]. Whatever device I have on me, whether it’s phone or camera, and whatever photo I get—if it speaks to me, if I love it, if I feel it, if it fits in with the vibe that I'm putting out into the universe—I'm going to share it,” Zollman says. “It doesn't really matter what tool it came from; in the end, it came from me.”
Aloe plant identification: Zollman shot the left photo with a iPhone XS and the right photo with a Canon 5D Mark IV. Did you guess correctly? What qualities guided your choices? Let us know in the comments.