iPhone: the new Leica?

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We're spinning through certainties faster than a speeding bullet.

It seems almost every day another long-held, cherished concept or technology is challenged and shattered on grounds of price, availability, ease of operation, miniaturisation and portability - and even cachet.

Twenty years ago any serious street photographer was clutching, with Magnum-stamped credibility and Lee Friedlander attitude and anonymity, her or his well-worn Leica M-series (2,3,4,6 - the 5 was a sad aberration), confident they were holding the world's finest 35mm rangefinder film camera with unparalleled functionality and quality of image. The movement was silk and the lenses pin-sharp.

I bought my first Leica (M3) in 1974 for a song and then my treasured M2 in 1981, and shot the hell out of them around the mean backstreets of Sydney, London, New York, Athens and Asia. Decades of improvement had brought this rare species to a peak of performance (with a hefty price to match), a tech-and-art pinnacle that none imagined could be surpassed: the camera as pure extension of the human eye. I lost both cameras in Rio to a couple of knife-wielding slum kids, and replaced them with a solid Nikon F2. - my sleek German handgun superseded by a huge but reliable Japanese brick.

Dreams of again owning a Leica receded but never went away. The world was turning anyway...

Digital burst onto the scene and Leica didn't know how to react - holding back, then stumbling reluctantly through various clunky iterations of a digitised M series towards today's M10, a beautiful piece of machinery (at last) if you have a spare $10K to invest - and we're talking body only, not matching Leica lenses, for which add another $10K for a decent kit. Germany did it best, as always. What certainty could be more certain than German camera engineering? Precision plus. For those who could still afford it, their investment, both financial and psychological, was secure. 

Meanwhile, across the planet in a cave in Silicon Valley (also known as the Valley of Analog Death), some university dropouts in jeans and tees were developing a product that would conquer the world. Steve Jobs, Uber-Nerd of the 21st century, flipped the telecoms industry on its back with the iPhone, a smartphone that was also a beautiful thing. A mobile phone, messaging system, a music machine, apps conveyer, a whole lot of things we never thought we needed. Oh, yes, and a camera.

Not that cameras hadn't been stuffed and squeezed into mobile phones before, providing an entire generation with family photos that reduced kids in the pool and partying adults to pixilated Martians. But the iPhone camera spoke a different language, from the very outset: the potential for serious photography. And it got better, and better. To the point where, this 2017 summer, heading for Greece, I left my Sony Nex-7 with Nikon lenses, a combo I'd sworn by for the past five years - the Leica I was having when I couldn't afford a Leica - lying on the bench in Sydney. The truth was, the electronics were playing up, telling me the lens wasn't connected when it clealry was.

In a life-changing moment, I decided to leave it at home and use my iPhone 6S...

First things first. I switched the iPhone over to 'noir' mode. This put me in a Lecia mood, with the additional boost that everything I saw before I pressed the shutter was in black-and-white. Don't forget, getting that Cartier-Bresson monochrome tone with the Leica M-series meant peering through a less-than-brilliant viewfinder, seeing the subject in its natural colour, framing a composition while waiting for the Decisive Moment, and simultaneously 'seeing' in your head the result in black-and-white.

With the iPhone it was already there in black-and-white; the whole world was monochrome, and that made a stunning difference to what I was doing. The final tonal range - the highlights, the contrast, the blacks - were there before my eyes. Which meant I could focus on the composition more, and the moment. Or moments. Because that was the other breakthrough.

The speed at which I could shoot three or four frames in a row was spectacular. In a bracket of four shots, grabbed in a second, I could almost always be assured of capturing the Decisive Moment. This happened repeatedly to start with, to the point where I questioned how good my photography would be without it. But gradually it settled, and I was again shooting only one image or perhaps two of every subject. The iPhone button, highly sensitive to the touch, had itself trained me to be decisive.

So, framing, seeing the contrast levels, grabbing the right moment - all this quickly became natural, a wonderful reversion to the great days of Leica photography. And where the Leica was relatively small and unobtrusive, the even smaller iPhone to its benefit was totally obvious - everyone assumed I was just another tourist taking snaps of the scenery. With the ubiquitous iPhone you can be half a metre from the subject and still not appear to be shooting their photograph so much as the wider scene. Nobody seems to care.

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Okay, there were downsides.

Firstly, the iPhone weighs a fraction of a Leica. You could kill someone with a Leica (and I'll bet someone, somewhere has) but whacking someone with an iPhone won't save your life. That means if you drop one on the sidewalk, it's as good as useless. You could drop a Leica in a rice paddy (and many photographers in the Vietnam War did) or have it fall off the roof of your moving car (as a friend once did) and it would still keep going. The iPhone isn't a toy, but nor is it a heavyweight tool.

But there'a a more common and constant side to the body weight issue: camera shake from such a light frame. For this I developed a simple and very effective solution: holding the camera horizontally with two hands, the right hand little finger under the frame as a stabilising base, and 'twisting' the body in opposite directions with the hands while shooting decisively on the screen button with the thumb. Very sharp. (I don't recommend the other option - using the side volume button as a shutter release - which tends to move the iPhone and lens when you really want stillness...)

The results were surprising in the iPhone, and even more surprising on the Mac Pro laptop. On the 15" screen, the images were strong enough and sharp enough to publish in a book. (Which they will be shortly.) Doubling the image size still gave acceptable quality, and thereafter the image breaks down quite rapidly. But who takes street images to blow up to poster size anyway?

I took maybe a thousand images in three weeks in Greece, and my excitement grew every day. I was back in Leica-land. I send a dozen or so images to my great photographic mentor Ed Douglas (he who worked on the West Coast with the likes of Imogen Cunningham, Judy Dater and Jack Welpott), who quickly wrote back: 'I think I hate the idea of iPhone photography but your work does look like it was created with a Leica and carries the feeling of a photographic tradition with it. Beautiful work.'  

The iPhone 7 is better than the 6S apparently. But I'm waiting for the 7S, due for release shortly. From all reports the camera quality will be stunning. And somewhere in the not distant future, another contender is due to hit the market. RED, the Hollywood digital movie camera maker than slayed giants like Panavision and Arriflex, has announced its first-ever smartphone, the Titanium, with a miniature lens that will potentially get close to Leica performance. It won't be cheap, but a lot cheaper than a Leica. And you can slip it into your shirt pocket. Meanwhile, Huawei's new P10 smartphone carries a Leica-branded so-called 'Summarit' lens - a marketing ploy, or a hint of greater things to come?

Perhaps it's too early to announce the death of the legendary Leica M-series. Or maybe the Wizards of Wetzlar are working on a smartphone that will shatter all before it. We all know about known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. Now, with smartphone cameras, we're into the realm of certain uncertainties. For serious photographers, that's a positive waiting to happen.

All images copyright Tony Maniaty 2017

All images copyright Tony Maniaty 2017