Forget the M10: The iPhone is the Real Digital Leica – Part Two


If you’re familiar with Leica history, you’ll know that the Leica revolutionized photography because it was small and light and allowed photographers to carry it with them wherever they went. Prior to the Leica, cameras were big and heavy and cumbersome, requiring tripods and supporting paraphernalia to laboriously process the results. The Leica conquered the world not because it produced the ‘best’ photos but because it got the shot, technical specifications secondary. Thus the long storied history of the Leica in the documentary tradition.

I’m reminded of this reality while traveling with my M4 and digital Ricohs, both of which I’ve rarely used on my current trip, mostly because I’m sick of lugging them around. I have burned a couple of rolls of film with the M4, but it’s mostly been shots of people dear to me, usually at homes of friends or out to dinner etc. And that’s because those are the photographs I want to last, because those are the photos that ultimately have meaning for me and it’s comforting to know I’ll have a negative, a physical thing to refer back to in the years ahead.

What I love about film is its permanence. In the last year I’ve been bulk scanning a lot of my negatives from when I was young and just learning photography, and what amazes me is how fresh those negatives are even close to 50 years later. Print them up again now, using the latest technology (Lightroom, Photoshop, Silver Effects, archival inkjet printing) and its almost as if I’ve been transported back through time, back again with family, friends and lovers long gone. A while ago I scanned and printed  a 40 year old negative of my first dog, a sweet little girl named Shannon I’d rescued from a shelter in Greenwood Lake, New Jersey. While our time together was short – a few years before I moved south and Shannon grew old and happy with a girlfriend’s family – she’s always remained special to me, and that photo, now framed and hanging in my bedroom where I see it every night from my bed, often triggers in me involuntary memories long forgotten, returning me almost palpably to another life and the ones I then loved. Loved ones only truly die when there’s no one to remember them anymore, and that picture, just a casual snap on an uneventful day, keeps her alive for me even though she’s been dead now for 30 years. I’m awed by this power photography possesses, the power to give permanence to these simple moments that mean everything in a life. Would that same photo shot digitally, a file nested somewhere on a hard drive, have survived for 40 years? I’m not sure. Why take the chance?



So I’ve made a conscious decision to continue to shoot film for the reasons above. But I’ve also learned a valuable lesson on this trip, and that is that I don’t really need to lug cameras and bags around with me to document my trip. My iPhone works just fine. In fact, it works better than fine. While I’ve not yet printed any of them, at least insofar as they appear on a computer screen, they look great, at the very least a level of quality equal to that we expected from our 35mm cameras, and the ease of use is incredible, as is the ability to process the results creatively in a way undreamed of 10 years ago. All the photos used to illustrate this post were shot and post-processed with my iphone, all with a few quick easy keystrokes.

Two shots of a fascist era bulding in Naples, both with the iphone. using either Snapseed or Hipstamatic, I post-processed both right there on my phone in a minute or two.

In a real sense, given its convenience and ease of use, the iphone is the legitimate digital heir to the Leica legacy. Quick and easy, always in my pocket, I’ve gotten all sorts of photos I’d normally have missed. I think at this point, the technology having sufficiently matured, the stand-alone  camera is obsolete except for specific applications that require non-standard focal lengths or for those willing to do the extra work for increasingly marginal gains. But it will never completely negate the viability of film: When I want a photo I know will last, film it is.

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23 thoughts on “Forget the M10: The iPhone is the Real Digital Leica – Part Two

  1. Rob Campbell

    Well, I tried using my cellphone as camera for a while – not exclusively, though – and put some stuff into a separate gallery on my website.

    I live on the coast; the skipper of a yacht sometimes chats with me, and one day, having seen some of the cellphone close-up shots of distressed hulls up on the hard, he asked me to quote for some blow ups for the saloon and master cabin. I had to tell him to forget it: no way I would be able to print those things up to look good in such an environment.

    I have never made a cellphone shot again, after that episode, beyond reference pix of taps, shower heads etc. with which to delight plumbers when I need to buy replacements for something at home. From that lost sale, I have decided that if something’s worth shooting, then it’s worth shooting as well as I can shoot it.

    You have my sympathies regarding the sense of security that film allows you. I only wish I’d clung on to all my stuff instead of destroying most of it almost forty years ago when we left the UK to go live in Spain. That bonfire of my vanities is perhaps the closest thing that unites me with Brian Duffy and Lillian Bassman: we were, the three of us, fashion photographers, and we all reached a moment when we cleaned out most of our histories in such wanton acts of self-destruction. I probably had better reasons than the others. One being that at least I was moving country…

    But yep, if I ever got back into a position to process film for myself again, it would probably be shot with an old film ‘blad and a 180mm optic. People, heads; that’s about it. For me, most of the rest is just a waste of time, in the greater scheme of things. Images need emotion. I can’t get emotional about trees, fields, mountains, sheep, cows or old barns, even if in the light of a setting Sun!


  2. douglasgottlieb

    Wonderful and moving post.

    I too shoot both film and digital, and with ever increasing satisfaction, an iPhone.

    On my to do list:

    Real silver B&W prints from digital originals. A few places do that now. Sounds like a great marriage. I hate ink jet.

    Curious to hear if any of your readers are using that process. DigitalSilver imaging is the firm I’ve seen. (I’m not affiliated and have not tried them yet).

  3. Scott

    Off topic, of course, but is “E. Fascista” the name of the building? The name of the street?
    Amazing that they haven’t changed that.

    1. JP

      E. fascista means Era Fascista. Here “Anno 1936 XVI E. Fascista” means “The Year 1936, 16th Year of the fascist Era”. You can find this on a lot of buildings in Italy. Quite the same phenomenon can be observed in Madrid with Franco. No need to “change” this: this is history. Erasing facts is useless, History is what it is and moral judgement is no part of the process.

      1. Rob Campbell


        ” You can find this on a lot of buildings in Italy. Quite the same phenomenon can be observed in Madrid with Franco. No need to “change” this: this is history. Erasing facts is useless, History is what it is and moral judgement is no part of the process.”

        Exactly! That’s why the General and the Dixie flag should be left in peace. The flag is actually a beautiful bit of design and graphically far more attractive than the one that replaced it. Yeah, yeah, I can count; I get the growing numbers.

        The problem, though, is that history can be erased all too easily, and with it, facts. It’s nothing new to see even recent history coming out in a variety of versions. You only need to read two different newspapers to see how vulnerable (and hard to discern), historic or even current truth can be. Makes one wonder how reliable any of history actually is… as for religions, well, I follow the one inside my own soul. I think it finds a commonality with several, so I trust it may be reasonably sound as a philosophical basis for living and dying.


      2. Scott

        Thank you.
        I thought perhaps it meant “16 East Fascist Street, built in 1936,” or something similar. That would likely have been changed, since I don’t think there are any Mussolini Boulevards left.
        You’re quite right, there’s no need to change the inscription, any more than you would chisel off a dedication to Hadrian.

  4. Daniel Fjäll

    I just discussed this with a friend of mine recently and we both agreed that despite cellphones having been capable for a long time now and are always ready to boot, our shooting style completely change when we use different cameras. We use our phones a lot to photograph, literally everyday, but every time I keep thinking ‘wow, could you imagine if this would’ve been shot on film’. Or any camera literally more capable than a phone.

  5. Rob Campbell


    August 11, 2017 at 5:20 pm

    “So we wont forget….
    Seems many people forgot recently.
    Ok it’s not a forum for politics.”

    Indeed, but even memory is doubtful: we also easily forget that he drained the marshes, produced lots of rice and mozzarella, made the trains run on time (one talent of his we could use in Britain!) and created a min-city of which the country could remain proud after his time was over.

    Alternatively, he could have defied the Great Nazi and thus ensured an even earlier destruction of Italy than the later one wrought by its “good” liberators’ equally destructive armies. No winners in these situations, except for the later generations of Italians who, as their forebears, have always known how to make the best of a bum deal… Ask the Venetians: as their city sinks they make a fortune out of the rubber-neckers who add to the problems.

    Meanwhile, the various mafias are doing just fine, thank you! Democracy, you see.

    I love these conversations on the human condition.



  6. Charlie

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. In terms of design, the iPhone is a direct descendant of Barnack’s cameras. In terms of intended function too, and that’s why. If the iPhone couldn’t make calls, it would make even more sense. It’s as if Apple looked at a Leica and evolved it into a telephone! I even get a similar flare in contra lighting from my phone as I do from uncoated, pre-war lenses.
    It’s like eating a meal though: Where even a scanned film image has so much more bite to it than a digital picture. The lens is the only thing they have in common, like the beef in a McDonalds patty being similar to what you might find in a Sunday roast… I’m rambling!
    Having just found a tiny 3.5cm Elmar for my Leica iii I’mlooking forward to having it with me at all times. We’ll see how it goes!

  7. Rob Campbell

    “I’m rambling!”

    Don’t blame yourself – it’s just what they put in those damned burgers.

    The only edible, as in for human consumption, burgers are made at home from non-genetically modified cows. Better yet, they must never be enclosed in shiny bread rolls and further destroyed with murdered, liquified, dyed, sugared and then homogenised tomatoes: they require a proper, pre-heated china plate and to be served with what we Brits call chips – but chips deep-fried in very hot virgin olive oil. If you find the right potatoes in the market, your chips will be delightfully golden, dry and extremely light, with practically no oil carried over when placed onto your plate. English mustard may be used; never French. Should you wish to be rash, a fried egg goes very nicely with that.

    Chefs scoff, but only because simplicity defeats their commercial pretensions. Not so far removed from photography, then.



  8. Wayne

    Not to mention the fact that you can take an IPhone photograph virtually anywhere, and of anybody, without really being noticed. It is if you are some kind of weirdo if you are not snapping everything with your Iphone. I have tried this out in a few spots. e.g. offices, grocery store, waiting for my car to be washed………. People just don’t seem to notice. I am not a “street” photographer, but if “street” is about stealth, the Iphone is the way to go.

    Not sure if I am crossing any boundaries here, but, I have an app called RedDotCam on my IPhone; it mimics the Leica experience and works pretty well.

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Yes. I’m currently in Paris. When I lived here 15 years ago, Parisians were really taken aback and upset when you pointed a camera in public. Simply not allowed. Never, never point one at the CRS (National Police). Today, I walked around Paris pointing my iphone at everything and everyone, including the CRS standing wirh their guns. No one paid me any mind.

    2. Charlie

      Do you know that the volume button on your headphones will activate the shutter if the camera is active? Super stealthy, just like the early right angle finders – I’m sure Oskar would approve!

  9. Archiver

    Your attitude about film vs digital could be summed up as, “for the important things you want to capture forever, there’s film. For everything else, there’s digital.”

    I’m using my mobile more and more for general snapshots, but only if I want to send the image to someone right away. Otherwise there’s always a small Panasonic or Ricoh in my bag.

    It could be that the benefit of taking ‘tourist photos’ yourself is that you have, indeed, taken them yourself. It’s a personal documentation of your trip, and your chance to create an individually meaningful image that you can’t get from looking at other people’s images.

    Several years ago, I lugged my M9 and four lenses to Japan, and came back with some of the best photos I’d ever taken and complete photographic documentation of the trip. We went to many of the usual tourist places but many that were just unusual surburban and industrial streets. No way would I do that with just a camera phone, not unless said phone had a large sensor and good lens like the upcoming RED Hydrogen.

    Today’s large sensor camera is yesterday’s film, in terms of film vs mobile pictures. A good M9 or GXR image is so much better than anything I can take with a mobile in terms of quality, depth of field control etc. The richness of a good digital image has become my new ‘film forever’, which is a bit scary.

  10. insolublepancake

    Leicaphilia is back ! I’m sure you timed it for the iPhone 8 launch day Tim, where one can see headlines like this: “How Apple Built An iPhone Camera That Makes Everyone A Professional Photographer” 🙂

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      actually, Henry, once you contacted my relatives in Portland wondering where I was I knew I couldnt hide any longer.

  11. insolublepancake

    Well, I actually though you were probably fine 🙂 but *I* was contacted by a fellow from the Leica Camera Forum (whom I don’t know) who wondered if I knew what was going on! At that point I thought, better make sure Tim hasn’t cycled off a cliff somewhere in the alps, at least. And I felt guilty developing any more film in that Diafine you sent me without knowing *for sure* you were OK. Ah, you are stuck with us. The internet can be needy, but this site really does fill a niche.

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