Why adding a smartphone to a photojournalist’s kit isn’t such a bad thing

In photojournalism, you want to cover your community accurately and thoroughly. There is some debate, however, surrounding the fact that so many people have smart phones with exceptional cameras, and this supports the rise of citizen journalism, which can be a dangerous thing in terms of job security for photojournalists and ethics of journalism. Some industry leaders are being too doom and gloom about the issue of access to smart phones. Smartphone technology, specifically the camera, has and can continue to be vital to the industry, and that starts with photojournalists adding their phones to their toolkit.

There are several examples of photojournalists using their smartphones as cameras, and never does the work seem to suffer. Ben Lowy, for example, did some conflict photography with his iPhone. Not only did he suggest it was easier and quicker to use than his DSLR, but he really liked the result of his pictures. It had a different look, and sometimes that may be what news viewers need after seeing thousands upon thousands of photos that are all somewhat similar. The smartphone isn’t something that is going to replace the DSLR, but it can be a secondary tool on the job.

“The best thing about using a cell phone is that you always have it with you,” Scroggins said.

However, using a smartphone on the job can hurt you in a given situation. To avoid those mistakes — and therefore avoid missing that newsworthy moment — here are some tips on how to use smartphone photography in photojournalism.

Be mindful when using image-altering apps.

Each and every professional has their own boundaries set as to how much editing is ethical, and they should continue to follow those guidelines either they or their employers have set for them when switching over to the camera phone. Damon Winters, a photojournalist for the New York Times, was in hot water after using Hipstamatic to document the frontlines of Afghanistan, which began the conversation on the use of smartphone camera apps. However, Winters stuck to the basics, which ultimately led him to winning awards for the photographs.

“For G.I.s, life on the front lines has two sides. There are, of course, the profoundly intense moments of fighting, when soldiers try to forget their fear, remember their training and watch one another’s backs. But the rest of the time is the dirty, sweaty, unglamorous and frequently tedious work of being infantrymen. They pull guard duty, play pranks, debate comic book heroes, wrestle, complain about shaving, complain about leadership, reminisce about home and women and fast food. At times the missions can resemble a guys-only slumber party or summer camp with guns. But more than anything else, the men wait; they wait for orders, for patrols, for the chance to sleep or eat. They even wait for the fighting they know will eventually come.”

Use VSCO to crop and tone if that’s what you already do in Photoshop after shooting with the DSLR. Avoid the rest of the tempting, but ultimately troubling features, for the story will suffer because of it.

Don’t trade in the DSLR for the phone.

A smartphone should be a secondary tool in a photojournalist’s kit, not a replacement to the DSLR. Even Apple recognized this — and settled down the fears of many in the industry — in which they stated during the most recent Keynote event, “We are not saying to throw out your DSLRs.”

Instead, use the smartphone when the camera can’t be set up quick enough. A benefit of using a camera phone over the DSLR is that it is much more convenient when having to capture something going on quickly and having to Tweet it on social media.

We are not saying to throw out your DSLRs.

Know when to pull out the phone.

There are certain situations a photojournalist could be in where a phone could do the job just as well — if not better — than their DSLR. On the other hand, there are also situations where one better have a fully charged Canon at hand before thinking about taking their phone out of their pockets.

Something that would be considered breaking news might be better to capture on a phone if the camera isn’t as convenient to get to. The moment a fire engulfs a building can only be captured right then and there in that second, so opt for a camera phone. However, stick to the DSLR when shooting sports or something with motion.

Below you will find an article I wrote for the National Press Photographer’s Association, in which I asked photojournalists Shawn Hubbard and Brianna Scroggins about when they choose to pull out their smartphones on the job.


Smart phone cameras are improving with every new model and visual journalists are increasingly using them when on the job. Like Shawn Hubbard, a freelance photographer from Baltimore, who took on the challenge of photographing the entire game of the Baltimore Ravens vs. New York Giants with his iPhone 7.

“I knew what I was getting myself into, but everything about [shooting with my phone] was different,” Hubbard said.

A team photographer for the Ravens, Hubbard said he uses his iPhone frequently both personally and professionally, but this was his first time he used one for an NFL game. There were differences between his phone and camera, from the responsiveness to lighting mechanics.

The biggest challenge was capturing any sort of motion, Hubbard said.

“Trying to get any game action was tough because even when things were happening in the end zones close by, it still felt far away,” Hubbard said.

Low lighting in areas like the tunnels or locker rooms were a challenge too, where he would get motion blur with any kind of movement, even simple walking.

You can see more of Hubbard’s photos from the game at his blog here.

The Texas State Fair project as it appeared in print in the Dallas Morning News.

The Dallas Morning News photo staff took a similar approach when they all used cell phone cameras to document the Texas State fair in October. On the newspaper’s photo blog, they write that “The result is a body of work full of quirk and levity, a kind of fun freedom and personal vision not usually afforded during many daily assignments.”

You read more and see their photos here.

And, Scott Strazzanti covered two nights of the World Series at Wrigley Field for ESPN.com which you can see here.

Briana Scroggins, a visual journalist for the Standard-Examiner in Odgen, Utah, also loves the quick and easy of shooting with her phone.

“The best thing about using a cell phone is that you always have it with you,” Scroggins said.

She also likes being able to post quickly to social media. In some cases, like the plane that had an emergency landing in the Hudson River, a cell phone image is the best spot news photo available.

“That ability to quickly capture something and get it on social media in less than a minute is a strong advocate for using a cell phone for work,” Scroggins said.

Scroggins loves using her professional camera because it’s what she was trained to use. However, there have been times when she has pulled out her phone and liked that photograph better than shot on her camera.

When photographing a house fire, she was able to pull out her phone much quicker than getting her camera set up to take a shot.

“The flames were a lot more vivid and ferocious, where by the time I got my camera out and had the lighting adjusted, it was a smaller fire,” Scroggins said.

It is risky to depend entirely on a cell phone for an assignment. At the Ravens game, if there hadn’t been another coworker with a DSLR covering the game, Hubbard said he would have shot with his DSLR camera instead.

Though this was a personal project, he said there are instances where clients might prefer great images from camera phones.

“If you’re shooting for clients who are just using images for social media and small print, I think a phone — in the right hands — can make nice pictures,” Hubbard said. “It just depends on the environment you’re in and if it’s practical.”

Hubbard said an NFL football game may not be the most practical of situations to shoot with an iPhone, but he was pleased with his images and the project was well-received.

“I did sort of worry that people weren’t going to take it seriously just because I was shooting with a phone,” Scroggins said.“I tried not to think about that because I was there to make images and do the best job I could.”