The Best Camera by Jack Kurtz

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A Vietnamese police officer in front of Ho Chi Minh's tomb in Hanoi.
A Vietnamese police officer in front of Ho Chi Minh’s tomb in Hanoi.

It’s sort of become an internet meme that the best camera is the one you have with you. Chase Jarvis, a well known photographer, even turned it into a best selling book, which is an endorsement not just of the iPhone as a camera but as “iPhoneography” as a real school of photography.

Sometimes, even when you have “real” cameras with you, the pictures you most like will have been made with “toy” cameras, like the one built into the iPhone.

We were in Hanoi recently and visited Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. It’s one of the places in Hanoi almost everybody goes to. There’s a large park in front of the mausoleum and a museum, other parks and government buildings all around it. It’s a little like the National Mall in Washington DC.

Even though the mausoleum is closed on Sundays, the area is usually crowded with Vietnamese and tourists seeing the sights. The public is not allowed to walk up to the mausoleum, which is huge but looks like a Soviet era complex (understandable since Soviet architects reportedly designed it) and not much like a Vietnamese holy place. And to millions of Vietnamese it really is a holy place. Ho Chi Minh is revered throughout much of the country as the founder of modern Vietnam, the man who led the Vietnamese out of the darkness of colonialism.

When we first got to the mausoleum I made a couple of pictures with my iPhone (then an iPhone 4) using the Lens+ app. I like Lens+ because gives me a selection of faux film filters and “lo fi” photography. It’s a bit like the Hipstamatic app, which I also use.

I put my iPhone away and made photographed the mausoleum with my “real” camera: my Canon 5D Mark III and an assortment of lenses from my 24mm all the way up to my 200mm.

Even though I used all my real gear at the mausoleum, the photo I liked the most is this one, made with my iPhone 4 and “lo fi” app Lens+. The file size isn’t what I would like, but I like the snapshot feel and I really like the body language of the police officer in the foreground. The trip to Vietnam was really revelatory – it was the first time I used the iPhone as a regular piece of my camera kit. It was a lot of fun and I liked the quality of the photos.

I wish I had this serious photo on a real camera. It’s the fleeting nature of “capturing the moment” that by the time I put my iPhone away and brought up my real camera the officer had moved on and two street cleaners had wandered into the photo.

Other photographers have used their iPhones for serious photography.

Damon Winter, a staff photographer at the New York Times, won a Pulitzer prize for his Hipstamatic photos from the war in Afghanistan. (An award that generated a lot of discussion and criticism.)

Michael Christopher Brown used an iPhone to photograph wars in Libya and the Congo.

Dan Chung, who normally works with Nikon D4 cameras, covered the Olympics with an iPhone.

The next time you’re out and the only camera you have with you is your iPhone, don’t think of it as just an iPhone. Think of it as the best camera you have with you.

One thought on “The Best Camera by Jack Kurtz

    Mark said:
    July 11, 2014 at 8:38 pm

    Nice post, Jack. As with anything, it ain’t the tool, it’s the vision (and well, sometimes the timing). That said, TIME magazine also sent Ben Lowry, Ed Kashi, Michael Christopher Brown and others to document Hurricane Sandy here in NJ and NY with iPhones. One shot even made the TIME cover >


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