An Elle Magazine Cover Was Shot With an iPhone

Fashion magazine Elle has joined the ranks of Billboard, Conde Nast’s Traveller and a number of other magazines that have featured a cover image shot with an iPhone.

What does that mean for commercial photography and the future of cameras? Is it just a headline-grabbing stunt? Or it is more than that? And if so, what could be the implications for the larger world of photography?


Image by Elle Australia / Georges Antoni

Perhaps it’s a sign that the gap in quality between D-SLRs and smartphones is still closing. And if so, that could have profound implications for the future of photography. Here are five ways photography could potentially evolve, if magazine covers shot on smartphones end up being more than just a fad:

1. Photographers, bloggers, journalists, and consumers continue to see fewer reasons to buy a D-SLR and expensive lenses.

D-SLR cameras continue to sell poorly. Manufacturers dedicate their efforts toward shrinking tech so that it can fit into smartphones and/or on software that can replicate effects that used to be achieved with D-SLRsSmartphone cameras improve at a faster rate than D-SLR cameras because that’s where the money is.

2. Photography becomes a meritocracy.

As a career, photography becomes a more open field. It used to be closed to all but those who could afford expensive cameras, more expensive lenses, expensive film stock, and perhaps even their own expensive dark rooms with chemicals, enlargers, photographic paper, and all the other accoutrements that came with the job. It was partially about passion. It was a lot about money.

That continues to change. The difference between you and Georges Antoni, the photographer who shot the cover for Elle, is demonstrably not just access to good gear. More and more creative youngsters, even those who didn’t enjoy privileged upbringings, gain access to smartphones a lot like the one Antoni used.

The difference becomes artistic vision, audacity, imagination, style, make-up, costume, lighting, location, art direction, modelling talent, physical beauty, posing skill, etc. When it comes to the pages of a glossy magazine at least, the wizard becomes more important than the wand.

Image by Elle Australia

Image by Elle Australia

3. People who shoot magazine covers may no longer even identify as photographers.

Magazines like Elle grow to need photographers with an even more honed eye, borderline-magical storytelling skills, and unquantifiable qualities like ”vision” to create an image. Good gear doesn’t cut it.

In the case of this magazine cover, the model in the image, named Margaret Zhang, is sometimes spoken about as if she were the creative force behind the image. She’s a 24-year-old “digital disruptor”. She’s known for her creative direction, photography and styling. She is referred to as a “digital influencer”, although she balks at the term. She professes to make her living from consultation.

Social media content, blog posts, photographs, and marketing continue to be referred to as “storytelling”. They are all aligned in their main purpose: they are all considered “content” and they’re usually used to promote a brand. Sometimes it’s a personal brand, sometimes its on behalf of a corporation, sometimes it’s both, as it is here.

Marketers, influencers and social media content creators continue to perform tasks that were traditionally carried out by copywriters and photographers. We enter a world in which the ability to shoot and edit a photo is simply the price of admission into the larger field of storytelling.

4. Photography becomes more about what’s happening in front of the lens.

In the past, it was often thought that a photographer should be concerned with aperture, shutter speed, focal length, lighting, and other technical factors that can affect the look and feel of the image. Photography with an iPhone tends to focus the photographer’s attention (not to mention the viewer’s) on what’s happening in front of the lens.

When you’re using a phone’s standard camera app, you’re less likely manually to control strobe lights with a wireless trigger, to choose a wide-angled lens, or to shoot with a large aperture to try and achieve a shallow depth-of-field.

As such, photographers become inclined to focus on the things they can control: the make-up, the pose, the location, etc. Some people like this development. They’re pleased that more attention is being paid to less easily definable qualities such as “mood” and “attitude”.

On the other hand, the old guard bemoan the fact that traditional camera skills are becoming de-emphasised in this brave new world of smartphone photography. At least, that is, until smartphones start to offer easier and more intuitive ways to control things like depth-of-field. This is achieved both with lenses and aperture – the old school way – and via software.

Image by Elle Australia

Image by Elle Australia

5. Innovations in photographic technology become centred around software, rather than hardware.

Zooming has been done both “for real” with lenses and “faked” with software for some time. That trends continues as the popularity of 4k and 8k video grows. There is less of an incentive to invest in long lenses when cropping and enhancing a frame of video provides a “good enough” shot for a magazine cover or a blog post.

Depth-of-field simulation becomes more common in smartphone camera software. Depth-of-field, when simulated in software, was originally thought of as “fake”, but that perception gradually changes over time.

The camera market continues on its current trajectory. Smartphone ownership becomes the norm, D-SLR camera ownership becomes rarer. Depth-of-field effects created in software eventually become more common than those created with lenses.

We eventually have to explain to young photographers how we used to use giant box-shaped cameras with tube-shaped lenses emerging from them to achieve a shallow depth-of-field. They shake their heads in disbelief at how tragically cumbersome and primitive our process was.

So, what do you think about magazine covers being shot on smartphones? Is this a harbinger of major change on the way? Or is it destined to be dismissed as a headline-grabbing gimmick and then forgotten in moments?