Photoessay: An exercise in masochism

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In the unlikely event you might have gotten the wrong impression from the title, let me set the record straight: the masochism refers to attempting to photograph architecture with an iPhone. There are far more reasons not to do so than otherwise – lack of perspective correction, for one. But there might still be reasons why you would: the intellectual exercise; practicing the discipline of composition and light (you definitely don’t have much else at your disposal), only having the wrong focal length on your other camera (or no other camera at all), or because…well, sometimes we all get lazy. Or have to make Instagram fodder. Curiously, I find that the typical clean blue skies I prefer for architecture do not play well at all with iPhones; they land up turning into a noisy mess. I suspect on these smaller sensors, the blue channel is taking a serious hit – worse still if you’re adjusting exposure to avoid clipping in some other area. Something to watch for when postprocessing, and selecting subjects. MT

This set was shot almost entirely with an iPhone 6 Plus (there might be some 5S in there) from various places around the world over the last year or so, and processed with Photoshop Workflow II. You can also look over my shoulder at the underlying postprocessing in the Weekly Photoshop Workflow series.

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Prints from this series are available on request here


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. john heintz says:

    Once more you show that it’s the mind, the eye, the person, and not the equipment that creates a beautiful photo. But one technical question: why does the auto white balance engine in the iPhone work so much better than the one in my EM-10?

  2. Ming, I wanted to ask in my last comment but forgot. How big a print you have printed from iPhone6? For a picture with lots of details, such as trees and leaves. Yes, viewing distance matters but curious what print size you have attempted with satisfaction.

  3. Last image, Cuba, am I right and also I believe its a view of the building called “El Focsa” in the Vedado. When I went in Nov’ 14 I stayed in an apartment in Linea street overlooking the US Embassy there (at that called the Office of Interest of the US). Cuba was quite an experience. I think I’m going back this year to tie the knot.

  4. nice pic! very nice pics. every time i read about photographing with smartphones it remainds me about the endeless discussion about raw/jpeg and the more technical one about 12bits/14bits/lossless/compressed/uncompressed.
    your opinnion about this issue? do you think 14bits (or compressed vs uncompressed) is so much better that it really changes the quality of the final work? or do you think the differences are so, so subtle that it impacts very little on the final work/art?

    • Thanks. More bits is better ONLY if a) the sensor is capturing that much information – both hardware and user technique; b) you’re not losing it in postprocessing and c) you can actually display it. It definitely makes a difference in larger prints, but if you’re talking high ISO cameraphone shots handheld on the web, then no.

  5. Is there a way to get raw from iPhone?

    • Unfortunately not. I’m not sure this is a bad thing given the amount of processing that has to take place to get clean output from a sensor with pixels that small…

  6. I do have to say that I get so much insight from your response to various comments all the time. Really appreciate you taking time for well thought out reply.

    Loved this set. First thing that came to my mind was that you have an eye for lines that are aesthetically pleasing.

  7. Brett Patching says:

    Thanks for another great set of photos Ming. I’m curious: Do you save your shots as TIFFs on the iPhone?

  8. Love the last one – it’s like all the lines want to fly off and do their own thing, but then can’t or won’t. Remarkable shot.

  9. I’d say the real masochism is spending quite a large sum on a ‘proper’ camera just to compose shaky pictures on a screen rather than a viewfinder. The camera industry then tweaks its sadism by selling me, in Sigma’s case, a ’28mm’ optical viewfinder which is really a very precise 35mm viewfinder, leaving me with the exquisite pain, the Spanish Inquisition, of a mail-order lottery to find a bona fide 28mm viewfinder to match my Ricoh. For the man with simple needs and a limited budget the i phone is a weekend at a health spa compared to the boot camp of the industry’s basic failings and your latest pictures are a great advert for the simple life. Just a wee moan there.

  10. Alex Carnes says:

    Hot stuff! I particularly like IMG_9095b copy, you were on fire that day!

    I hardly ever shoot with my LG G3, the quality’s crap and I’ve usually got my GR on me.

  11. Aurélien says:

    Beautiful shots !

  12. Ming, are the iPhone shots available as Ultraprints too, as the post mentions? If so, up to what size? #5 is especially appealing, but they are all appealing.

    • Oops, my bad: it should just read prints – the perils of automatic post footers! We could Ultraprint them properly but they’d be tiny – or upsize and run through the Ultraprint process anyway, but I don’t think you’d see much – if any – gains.

  13. Even with an iphone, the way you took those shot can look very pro. Had you not indicated they were iphone shot, I would think u used a dslr camera.

  14. Splendid! There’s something at work here similar to what happens when you pick up an Olympus camera: the more limitation you sense, the more striking the final product. Maybe someday, just for kicks, you’d consider wandering about armed only with a YasicaMat TLR.

    • I’m not sure that’s necessarily true – the current batch of Olympus cameras have pretty labyrinthine menu systems and far too many unnecessary buttons to control effect filters and the like…

      No need to consider the Yashica ‘for kicks’. I do most of my personal work with a Hasselblad V these days (and have done in the past, too).

      • “I do most of my personal work with a Hasselblad V these days”

        It’s been a long time since you discussed your analogue photography. That is what brought me to your site originally. How about catching us up on your latest thoughts and works?

        • Well, it boils down to curation again: there are experiments which are not mature, and things which perhaps do not suit the expectations of your existing audience (like Un/natural and Paradise Lost) or things which are simply personal in nature. I do not believe every photograph has to be shown to an audience to be a successful one; shooting purely for oneself is sometimes necessary to avoid being unnecessarily confused by the vagaries of popular opinion.

        • Martin Fritter says:

          You mentioned that you couldn’t get film processed well locally. Does this mean you’re doing your own developing? Are you still using Across 100 exclusively?

  15. lol better than I can do with a real camera any day of the week….

  16. Gerner Christensen says:

    These compositions are impressive. There’s something blessed being able to compose with a ‘viewfinder’ in arms length, maintaining a real both eyes connection with the scene. Have to get on with it. First things first, to get myself a smartphone with a good camera in it 🙂

    • Thanks – I think it’s the finder size that does it; it’s much easier to see extraneous distractions if you’re not peering through a drinking straw at a tiny television 🙂

  17. Ming, Love the iphone shots. – Eric

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