(Above photograph shot on the iPhone 5 by Mike Avina)

Eric’s Note: I’m sure many of you are curious about the performance of the iPhone 5’s camera for street photography. Fellow street photographer Mike Avina has spent around a week or two with the iPhone 5, and here are some of his impressions. You can see his past feature on my blog here and follow him on Flickr.  

Mike: This is a review of the iPhone 5 as a street photography tool. I am picky about my gear and I am a bit of a minimalist—so I use one old film rangefinder body with a 35mm lens and one digital camera with a prime lens equivalent to 35mm. That said, I have been following the work of several mobile phone street photographers and have been impressed. When Eric asked me to do a review of the iPhone 5 I jumped at the opportunity.


I will cover a few technical details, but if you want the take-away right now I have three main points:

1. There are no perfect cameras—but with the snappy focus, 8-megapixel sensor, and apps like Snapseed, the iPhone 5 provides an adequate and therefore great camera.

2. Having a usable camera at all times allows you to practice seeing and shooting deliberately. Eric has previously posted about the role of practice in photography; the iPhone 5 allows one to constantly and conveniently practice seeing.

3. We are all photographers now. With the decline of print media, some say that photojournalism is dead. The counterpoint is that now with photo sharing websites like Flickr one can see work posted by people on the other side of the world. Some of this work rivals anything published in mainstream media. If you always have a usable camera on your phone there is a higher chance you can participate in and make significant contributions to the collective pool of images.

1. There are No Perfect Cameras

A protest in Damascus, Syria against the war in Iraq. March 2003. Copyright: Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos

Let me repeat this—there are no perfect cameras. There are a lot of opinions about the best camera. Battle lines have been drawn and charred corpses litter the field of debate. Think your rangefinder is the best tool? What about parallax error? You love that old film SLR? How’s the shutter vibration for you at 1/15 of a second? My point here is that every tool has limits—and inevitable compromises must be made. Because all cameras represent a compromise, if a camera is adequate you should use it and quit worrying about the details as long as you find the particular set of compromises acceptable.

The iPhone 5 has an 8-megapixel sensor and essentially zero shutter lag. You tap on the screen where you want the camera to focus and fire. I have tried several different camera apps but the native camera software works fine. The only real complaint I have with the firmware and design is that one cannot set exposure compensation in the traditional sense.

Some applications such as ProCamera allow separation of the focus and exposure points—but for street photography this may be a little slow. The phone has high enough depth of field that one can simply expose for the brightest part of the photograph and shoot—this is the best work around for the lack of exposure compensation. Add fill light or brightness as necessary in post-processing. I do hope that Apple fixes this and allows traditional exposure adjustment in an iOS update.

Because the iPhone 5 has fast autofocus and basic post-processing on the phone through apps like Snapseed it is a great tool for street photography. Phones aren’t serious tools, you say? Think again. Koci Hernandez makes amazing images with his phone. Alex Majoli won awards with 5 and 8-megapixel digital cameras. Get over it.

2. The iPhone 5 Allows You to Constantly Practice

Copyright: Eugene Richards

Eric wrote a great post about the role of practice in street photography. I agree 100%. I also know that practice extends off the street. You can make deliberate photos in your house or yard; it all counts towards the goal of improvement.

I attended a workshop with Eugene Richards this spring—if you aren’t familiar with his work you should take a look; his images have an unparalleled emotional impact. During the workshop he told us “In photography there should be no accidents; there should only be gifts.” What does this mean?

It means you should be fast enough and skilled enough that you are always deliberate. Encountering a great scene or character is a gift because you can’t control what you encounter unless you stage images. If you just happen to get a strong image you didn’t expect that’s an accident. You can control your skill and reflexes through practice so you get what you expect and intend.

Because the iPhone5 has a very high depth of field you have to manage every element in the frame—no using shallow depth of field with an 80mm lens on full-frame to isolate the subject. This is good for you; deliberately practicing placement of everything in the frame will make you stronger. Having an adequate camera and practicing all the time will make you stronger still.

3. We are All Photographers Now

A great street photograph by Tony Martin for the “Street Photography Now Project

Photojournalism is struggling. The era of in-depth photo essays published in oversized print magazines such as Life is gone forever. World-class photographers are resorting to alternative funding sources like Kickstarter to get the dough to do what they do. The upside is that with the convenience of digital cameras and photo-sharing websites we can share images with people on the other side of the world.

Some of the images on these photo-sharing sites are very strong. The downside is the torrential stream of boring images that get posted every second. Being a photographer is a duty not just a personal exercise in creativity. You can’t always have your full-frame dSLR or film camera ready. With an iPhone 5 you can however take a perfectly usable picture; therefore you have no excuse for missing that great frame you could otherwise share with the world.

Here are some of my own images taken and processed entirely with the iPhone 5—they have only been resized in Adobe LR:

iPhone 5 Street Photographs by Mike Avina

Mike Avina iPhone 5 Street Photography

Mike Avina iPhone 5 Street Photography

Mike Avina iPhone 5 Street Photography

Mike Avina iPhone 5 Street Photography

Mike Avina iPhone 5 Street Photography

Mike Avina iPhone 5 Street Photography

Mike Avina iPhone 5 Street Photography

Mike Avina iPhone 5 Street Photography

Follow Mike Avina

Huge thanks to Mike Avina for this review. Make sure to follow Mike on Flickr, Twitter, and check out my past feature with him here.

For those of you who have shot with the iPhone 5, what are your impressions/thoughts about it? Share your feedback and experiences in the comments below! 

Join the Conversation


    1. Great point–I can only speak from experience with one particular phone. That said, the general principle applies to any phone with decent resolution and minimal shutter lag, or any point-and-shoot camera. Personally I find the combination of the iPhone and Snapseed very useful but your point is well-taken.

  1. Great, I love the idea. I hope all street photographers read this and heed the advice. The more people start using the iPhones for for lousy street photography the better my street pictures, taken NOT with an iPhone will look.

  2. I dont know, these “5 reasons why you should”, or “how _ can make you a better photographer” articles are getting dumb really fast…

      1. I would like to see more articles like “The Psychadelic Color Film Street Photography of Sean Lotman from Kyoto.” And more stuff like this, as photographers we don’t care if our iphones can take pictures… we already know this!

  3. All these points are valid for any phone camera or any pocket camera for that matter.

    Shameless iphone plug.

      1. Iphones have been around for five years now. Not news at all. Unless this was about how the iphone 5 fares against the iphone 4 or the iphone 3 which would be amusing as I am almost sure there is little difference.

    1. I have an LG Optimus V and its shutter lag makes it near useless for the kind of street shots I want. Same for my wife’s point-and-shoot, a Canon Powershot A3300 IS. The iPhone is much more responsive from what I’ve heard.

      1. The iphone also is much more expensive as well so there is no point of comparison with those cameras you mention. You also have to evaluate how much value you are getting for your money. Try the Ricoh GR digital 4. A far more powerful camera, cheaper and just as portable as the iphone 5.

        The core arguments in this article are:

        “There are no perfect cameras.”
        “The iphone 5 lets you practice.”
        “We are ALL photographers now.”

        Those are sales pitches, and they can be used to sell any compact camera, digital or analogic, phone or not. One would think that since the article is titled “3 reasons why you should use the iphone 5 to shoot street photography” you would find specific things an iphone can do that any other compact camera in its price range cannot. That is not the case. This post is an infomercial and it should be judged as such.

  4. Some interesting points here. I’m half way writing a similar article on the idea of mobile phones [generally] for street photography. To my mind, handling is an issue but then if they looked and held more like a camera, they would be less discreet. Phones are the most discreet cameras!
    Interestingly the iPhone4 is the most popular camera in the world according to Flickr.
    I’d like to see a wrist strap option for iphone. Anyway, I’ll post the article soon, here http://streetca.wordpress.com/

  5. Those iPhone5 photos are crap, and I mean artistically not technically; posting them together with photos from Majoli and Richards isn’t doing justice to these photographers.

    More in general I don’t like much the habit of mixing own photos with ones of other authors in the same post. Either take your own and follow the technical path of sites like dpreview or be able to explain your own point only using material from other photographers.

    All the things in between look a bit like cheap advertising for yourself and your friends and I find it a big minus for your website.

      1. Mike, some of your photos are great, but not the ones here.

        I simply don’t see the point of putting pictures from other photographers in this context. Really putting on the same page protests in Damasco with a photo of a girl through a glass in a cafe (or home or doesn’t matter)? It is an ongoing habit on this blog, don’t take it personally it’s more a critique to the editor.

        It isn’t important where my photos are, let them be good, let them be bad, this doesn’t afflict my judgement capabilities and taste.

    1. It’s clear the author included his own photos at the end simply to show iPhone 5’s capabilities. That’s all.

  6. Hello everyone. I’m going to politely say that we’re “not” all photographers. If we were, then everyone that owns a CD player would be a composer. Naturally, that is a title that must be earned, and through the earning “of it”, one would be able to write everything from chamber music to extended works for orchestra. Now, you might ask: how does this analogy apply to the present conversation? It’s simple: one is the capture of the passage “of” time, the other, a moment “in” time. Other than that, the mathematics of the composition is similar. Therefore, my point is training. Once a composer, always a composer.

    Now, to my point.

    As in music, it’s all been done before. But the “been done before” -in the case of street photography- has been done too much. It’s basically over. So the plan, now, is to do something new.

  7. Thanks for the article Mike. Not sure if all of your example shots could be termed as “street photography”. No matter… You demonstrated the iPhone 5’s capabilities aptly. I have been using my iPhone 4 along with Snapseed for quite some time. It’s a great combination. So I am looking forward to the better responsiveness and improved low light performance of the iPhone 5 (mine arrives at month’s end!).

    The best part (for me) of using a mobile phone for street photography is that it simply is “always there”. I cannot even count the amount of missed opportunities I have experienced because I didn’t want to lug around my D700 or even my DMC-GX1. So an 8 megapixel camera with decent low light performance, great DOF, and a fast shutter is alright by me. It’ll be in my pocket 24/7.

    Kudos to Erik for inviting guest bloggers. It’s nice to read varying opinions.

  8. Do you think the iPhone5 would be good for war photography?
    I was thinking about buying one and going to Afghanistan for some reportage.

  9. Great article.

    As I get more and more interested in street photography, I am starting to reconsider my gear. I am selling my DSLR and 2.8 zoom lens and buying a Zeiss Ikon and a Lumia 920. I think a good rangefinder and smartphone are ideal companions for the kind of photos I like to do.

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