In the age of Instagram, everyone is a food photographer—for better, and worse. Which is why, for Bon Appétit’s March Culture issue, the magazine performed print sacrilege by featuring a 43-page feature spread, each frame of which was captured on an iPhone.
"Food culture has gotten a lot more democratic. We can all snap a photo, post a blog, it’s become more inclusive instead of exclusive. And the smartphone has had a tremendous amount to do with that," Adam Rapoport, editor of Bon Appétit, says. "We’re so immersed in that culture, we thought, what if we shot the whole feature well with an iPhone?"
The result, which hits newsstands this week, may well contain tiny moments of disaster. The cover will be fine—it was shot on a traditional pro-level camera—but as for how the rest of the issue will look? That's anyone’s guess. At the time of our interview, neither Rapoport, nor BA’s Creative Director Alex Grossman, had seen a final print.
"Did [we] do test runs? The short answer is no, because we were very busy with the previous month's issue," Rapoport says. "The more responsible thing would have been to play around for a couple months," he adds with laugh.
Instead, Grossman reached out to BA’s go-to photographers with the brief: For this month’s assignments—ranging from shooting an outdoor food festival, to more typical studio fare—they’d be using their iPhones. Needless to say, for professional photographers, it sounded like a risky idea—or, in some cases, a complete joke.
"Everyone was at first like, "But you still want me to bring the real camera?" And [we said] ‘No, don’t bring anything else.’" Grossman says. "‘Really? You're sure you want to do this?’ It was like, ‘Yup, we want to do this!" The other side effect was that, when you pull a pro camera from the hands of a professional photographer, they cease to look so professional.
"We heard from a bunch of photogs who’d say, ‘I’m here for Bon Appétit, can I take your picture?’" Grossman says. "And they’d be like, ‘Yeah right, bro.’"
Professional qualms aside, the other difficulty of shooting with an iPhone, of course, is that an iPhone camera is very different than a pro-level DSLR. While its resolution is technically high, its image sensor is still comparatively small. That means iPhones have to construct images from fewer physical photons than standalone cameras are able to see, which leads to compression artifacts. There’s also no aperture—which is basically the physical measurement for how much light the lens lets in. Instead, the iPhone handles light by lengthening exposure times and pumping up the gain (the sensitivity of the sensor) when it requires more light.
Grossman, prepared for some of these quirks, made it a mandate to shoot studio photography with the iPhone locked to a tripod, flooded the food with natural light, and used a remote shutter so that no one shook the iPhone by touching it to take the picture.
For the most part, these strategies worked. But what Grossman didn’t know was that Apple’s iPhone camera has some other headache-inducing quirks that only its engineers probably know about. For instance, when the camera needs more light, it naturally slows the shutter speed to allow more light in. But once that shutter is open for 1/25th of a second or longer, the firmware automatically applies an unadvertised noise correction filter.
"So when you look at small gradations of color in a similar range, it’ll try to correct the noise in a way that looks a little more pixelated," Grossman says. For whatever reason, this phenomenon was extremely common in the transition from light to dark browns.
"A lot of food is crispy golden brown!" Rapoport says. "We had to reshoot the fried chicken sandwich based upon what we learned." Grossman also succumbed to the camera’s quality by sizing most images a bit smaller than they might typically—though the issue features a full-bleed, two-page Hail Mary spread of Asian noodles. As Rapoport puts it: "We’ll see how it prints!"
Not having seen the issue for myself, it’s hard to know if the use of the iPhone is noticeable at all to an amateur or a pro. But if the issue achieves its core goal—and the difference is not aesthetically notable to the average reader—it could be a powerful statement. On the other hand, it could raise the question as to whether or not there was really any point to shooting with an iPhone in the first place.
"I’m curious as to why they'd choose to use the iPhone in studio. Traditional photography is important because there are so many variables when doing something in a studio, especially," says Sarah Filippi, photography director at Fast Company. "There’s a reason why people consider different lenses and lighting. The iPhone doesn't give you that opportunity."
That said, Grossman found that his own photographers embraced the challenge, and drew inspiration from it.
"They’re all very aware of Instagram tropes, the ways people shoot food over and over again: I hold it in my hand and look at the floor. I hold it against the wall, making a selfie of the food. Or the overhead busy shot," Grossman says. "People got into that, too, asking, ‘Could we do THIS shot?’ People were suggestion hashtags. I’m not going to say we were making fun of ourselves as we did it, but so rarely, in making a magazine, does it mimic real life. I’m not a writer so it always feels like there’s a level of artifice to how we produce reality. We make this beautiful dish with the food stylist. It’s real food, but you have a big rig."
"Here, you have an iPhone," he continues. "You have a big table of food, and you’re still holding your phone in that iPhone pose. It lent itself to making these pictures like we make every day, which i think lends to our hope when we went into the issue, that it would be how we saw food every day."