Life,  Photography

Real Photographer


Dear Bubbles,
I am really enjoying the fun and simplicity of taking photos with my iPhone 11Pro. It’s always with me, I am taking way more photos and the quality is excellent (and I can shoot in raw too). I have my big-girl camera and gear, but I’m finding that it’s not as fun lugging around heavy gear and a tripod. I’ve been shooting for over 40 years so I know a thing or two, but the fun factor is higher with my iPhone. I’m struggling: Am I not a “real” photographer because I prefer shooting with my iPhone?

Dear Jean,

It’s exciting to hear you’ve found joy making photographs with your iPhone! But let’s clear up this anxiety over how it defines you as a human being. In short, it doesn’t.

Merriam-Webster defines “photographer” as “a person who practices photography.” It goes on to further qualify it with “especially one who makes a business of taking photographs.”

In an attempt to clarify the business part of the definition, the Great and Almighty Gods of Photography—the internet—have tried to make additional distinctions between amateur and professional photographers based on such things like how much money you make from your images, what percentage of income comes from the sale of your images (typically 50% or more), how expensive your camera gear is, how big your camera’s sensor is, how many frames you snap a year, how big your portfolio is, how many publications you get in a year, how popular you are on social media, how many bears you fought off to “get the shot,” how long you can stand on your head, and whether you can do the Hokey Pokey and turn yourself around. (Isn’t that what it’s all about?)

Some people mock, that in this day and age, anyone and everyone with a camera is a photographer. As if that’s a bad thing. (It’s not.) Anyone who uses a camera to practice photography, by definition, is a photographer. Anyone who uses their camera as solely a doorstop is not.

Now, these individuals may not make their living or even a penny from pressing the shutter. They could still be the best photographer to ever grace this planet. On the flip side, those who aren’t any good at it still qualify for the “photographer” label. This definition implies no level of aptitude, knowledge, or dedication. I know numerous so-called amateur photographers who make incredibly powerful and moving images. I also know all too many so-called professional photographers who make technically imperfect and creatively lackluster photographs. All. Still. Photographers.

The definition does not say “a person who makes $1000/week using a heavy full-frame big-girl camera off a tripod.” It’s not “a person who gets featured on the cover of National Geographic every month.” It”s also not “a person who practices photography except those who shoot with an iPhone.” If you are practicing photography, you’re a photographer. I see no reason to muddy up what is otherwise a straight-forward definition.

What does it matter anyhow? If the definition said a photographer was “anyone who practiced photography with any camera other than an iPhone,” would you stop taking pictures with your iPhone? No, of course not. You’d keep photographing because, regardless of what anyone else thinks about it, it enriches your life. That’s what matters.

What if someone had the audacity to tell you, “You know, Jean, you’re right. You really aren’t a real photographer”? (What an awful thing to say to someone.) Would you stop taking pictures with your iPhone then? I sure hope not! But, understandably, it would inevitably erode your self-confidence and crush your enthusiasm. To fill this emotional void, you’d likely keep asking this question of enough people until you got a “yes, you are a real photographer” response from someone you respected and trusted. And you’d likely still not believe it.

Save yourself some time and energy and ask the only person who can answer this for you once and for all. No, that person is not Bubbles. It’s you.

Do you respect and trust yourself? Good. Ask yourself. More importantly, listen to your answer. Writer Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost…”

You are the top authority on your life. Call yourself whatever you want. You get to decide what’s “real” or not based on whatever measures you chose. Not anyone else.

After last week’s post, I’ve decided to call myself a “raw-grapher” since I photograph in raw format. It makes me feel fierce! Like a lion. Raaaaawhrrrrr… maybe I’ll even dress up like a lion while photographing and make it “real.” As Rupaul said, “What other people think of me is not my business. What I do is what I do. How people see me doesn’t change what I decide to do.”

In the end, the noun “photographer” is meaningless. On top of that, “Real” is just another unnecessary label formed by judgments, by societal and our own self-imposed expectations. Throw the name out. Make photographer a verb. Do it while you are real, while you exist, while you’re alive. Photograph!

As you do, make photographs with whatever tool you choose. The Great and Almighty Gods of Photography—the internet—like to spend an awful lot of time bantering about whether an iPhone quality makes it a worthy tool. First of all, today’s iPhones offer better sensor and image quality than the output of my first digital camera. Second of all, it takes much more than just a tool to make an effective photograph. And third of all, who cares what other people think of how you chose to find fulfillment in your life?

I cringe when I see someone post photographs on social media with the disclaimer, “Made with my iPhone.” Full disclaimer, I have done this before. I have stopped. To make my point here, though, up until now, had you given any thought which camera I used to make the photo at the top of this post? If I told you I made it with a 4×5 large format camera, would you think I’m a more real photographer than I was 30 seconds ago? How would you feel if I told you I had made it instead with my iPhone? Why does it matter?

As if I cared what brand of pan you used to make a cake. I don’t care to waste my time concerning myself with such meaningless minutiae. Besides, if I did care, would buying a more expensive, fancier, heavier pan make you a more proficient, more expressive baker? No.

I don’t care about your pan. I care about the cake that comes out of it. More importantly, I care about the person who took the time to make the cake for me. Truth be told, I don’t even care what the cake tastes like. That person rocks. The world would be a far better place for all of us if we extended each other more kindness and less judgment. In cake. In life. In photography.

Photographing with an iPhone feels easier because it frees us from the burdens of the technical decisions we often have to make with our “big-girl (and big-boy) cameras.” This allows us to focus on our personal expression through our composition. It keeps us in the moment, in the experience—the reason why we care to photograph in the first place. Let’s be honest, hemming and hawing over what aperture or ISO setting to use can sometimes kill the mood, especially if those decisions are not yet a natural part of your brain’s muscle-memory.

But they can be! Technical proficiency evolves from slogging through repetitive practice, failures, and growing pains. For me, using my big-girl camera feels as effortless as using my iPhone to create images. It took 12 years to get there (2001 to 2013). I didn’t have access to an iPhone for most of that time. Had I, it might have distracted me from my learning efforts.

With that, my only warning with using an iPhone is this: don’t let it (or any other piece of equipment) become a crutch or a way to avoid the hard work. Should you wish to become a competent photographer, learning the technical aspects of photography are well worth the effort even if it takes a long time to get there regardless of what tool you decide to embrace. Knowing exposure, light, composition, etc. will make you a better iPhoneographer.

Of course, only if you decide that’s what you wish to do with your life. You hold this power–don’t give it away to other people and their opinions. When it comes to photography and life, I follow this line of thinking: if I’m having fun, I keep doing it. If I’m not having fun, I stop and find something to do. Listen to yourself and do whatever is bringing you joy (within legal, moral, and financial boundaries). Plow through judgments, expectations, and fears. Don’t worry about definitions. Do it! Whatever “it” is.

With that, keep shooting, Jean!

Be well, be wild,

Have a question about photography, art, and/or the creative life? Need some advice? Send your question to Dear Bubbles at [email protected] to be possibly featured in a future column post. (If you’d prefer a different display name than your real first name, please include your preferred nickname in your note.


  • Dory Blobner

    I also really enjoy taking photos with my iPhone 11 Pro and have thought about what makes that Fun Factor. I find the weight and hand dexterity of my “big girl cameras” have become an issue as I get older and I have lightened up with going to mirrorless lighter equipment. Sometimes I return with my big camera to a place or theme that I “discovered” was fun to shoot with my iPhone. It is nice to always have the iPhone camera available in my pocket as one never knows when the opportunity will strike for making photos. Thanks for your good comments.

      • Bubbles

        One of my very best iPhone photos is of you Wendy! From Great Smoky Mountains…involved some “crazy” 😛 LOL

    • Bubbles

      So great to hear, Dory. Makes sense about the weight (and one of the primary reasons I switched to a lighter mirrorless system). Photography should be FUN! Hope all is well with you and hope to see you again soon!