iPhone, Really?!

Panoramic image of Eagle River in Chugach State Park, Alaska.
Panorama taken with iPhone XS Max

It’s become something of a tradition with my wife and me that every Christmas Day- after the gifts have been opened – we head outside to enjoy the Alaskan winter scenery and reflect on the holidays.  Usually, we cross-country ski on Eagle River.  This year was no different except that I thought about bringing along my Olympus EM1-Mark II Micro Four Thirds camera.  Recently, I renewed a professional goal to be more prepared for the unexpected.  So, my inner voice reminded me that the portability of the smaller camera was the reason I bought it.  Also, I got a nice chest pouch to protect it during just such athletic outings.  Unfortunately, laziness kicked in and I decided not to bring the “real” camera.  But I did have my iPhone with me, I rationalized.  Still, I had a nagging feeling that I could regret the decision.

On this day we skied a side-stream which leads to the main part of the river.  Due to its narrowness, spruce trees enclose you and usually obscure the view.  Occasionally though, when the river turns, the view opens up.  Not long after we started skiing, overflow ice stopped us from proceeding further.  However, to my delight, the blue sky – with clouds still displaying warm light from the sunrise an hour earlier – revealed itself in a large opening. The snow covered white spruce stood in sharp relief against the sky with large trees as bookends at the extremes.  The ice covered river receded in a classic S-shape curve leading your eyes to the large warm cloud in the center of the frame.  Tracks on the ice recorded the passage of animals when the water first overflowed the surface.  Hoar frost accentuated their shapes and made them appear larger.  The warm, soft light belied the frosty, 3 degree cold.  The voice in my head shouted “take a picture!”  Oh, how I longed to have my 50-MPix Canon 5DsR camera with my sharp Sigma 35 mm Art f/1.4 lens at that moment.  But all I had was my 12 MPix iPhone XS Max.  How good a photo could that be?

Making the most of the situation, I made an in-camera panorama to cover the entirety of the river banks starting and stopping with the large spruce trees.  The panoramic format also increased the effective resolution of the camera and would provide plenty of pixels for post-processing.  The image looked great on my iPhone but needed some work.  Because the composite panorama is a JPEG file I could not work with a RAW file.  Fortunately, however, since macOS High Sierra, Apple has been using the new High Efficiency File Format (.heif) compressed 8-bit format.  This format provides twice as much information as a conventional 8-bit JPEG with better quality at the same size.  With the camera raw filter in Photoshop I moved the white balance temperature slider toward yellow to remove the blue color cast.  The black point was increased and the shadows opened up.  Clarity and vibrancy were enhanced slightly.  Next, I used Skylum’s Luminar (A.I. Accent and A.I. Sky) to improve overall contrast and to separate better the sky with the foreground.  Lastly, I cloned out some stray tree branches at the edges of the frame.

With the finished image on a large monitor I was impressed with how well it captured the light, detail, and mood.  Could it be that an iPhone image could rival the quality from a DSLR or mirrorless 35 mm camera?  Sure, the detail was not the same as the Canon 5DsR,  and sharpness was not as good, but was it good enough?  I had no doubt that this file could be used for a two-page photo spread in a magazine or book.  But would it make a good, fine art print?  The image was downsampled (yes, downsampled slightly!) and printed on an Epson SureColor P600 on 13”x19” Epson metallic paper.  I skipped the output sharpening since I felt the starting compressed file was sharpened enough.  As a skeptic, the result below was nothing short of astounding.  Displayed on its own, few people would ever know that it came from a smartphone camera.  Whether for use in stock or as a marketable print I came away with a usable image.

13″x19″ print of iPhone panorama

Earlier in the year I viewed a YouTube video in which a gallery of framed photos was shown and commented on by various people.  The photos were made with an earlier version of the iPhone and used as studies for finished pieces presumably to be produced with a professional camera.  The artist was John Paul Caponigro, the son of famed master photographer Paul Caponigro, and recognized as one of the leading contemporary creative fine art landscape photographers.  If ever the school of iPhone photography, known as iPhonography, became mainstream it would have to be because of photographers such as John Paul Caponigro, Dewitt Jones, and others who have embraced it.  And for good reason, when the results are as good as, and for many purposes indistinguishable from, professional cameras.  The adage that the best camera is the one you have with you was never more true for me a couple days ago on a beautiful Christmas morning.

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