I have spent my career as a professional photographer, specializing in wildlife and birds. You may even know me as an Olympus Visionary. But my previous journey isn’t what I want to discuss. What I want to talk about now is an incredible NEW journey that has taken me down a very long and exciting road, leading me to the conclusion that the iPhone 13 Pro is perhaps the best stills and video camera I have ever owned.
Yep, I said that.
Editor’s note: We’re pleased to feature this guest post from Scott Bourne. Scott is a featured speaker at the upcoming Visual Storytelling Conference, where he’ll share his passion for using the iPhone to capture great images. Scott was the founder of Photofocus and continues to blog at Picturemethods.com as well as be an active podcaster with the iPhone Photo Show.
Open to innovation
I have owned many cameras and when I switched from DSLRs to micro four-thirds/mirrorless years ago, it freed me up in ways that improved my photography immensely. That change was one forced on me by medical problems that left me physically unable to carry heavy cameras.
I made the decision last year to switch to video for most of my work because I was offered a job as a cinematographer working on documentaries about birds. Unfortunately, the latest round of COVID-19 has put those productions on hold, so I decided to start exploring what I could do with the camera that almost everyone has with them almost all the time — the smartphone camera.
My long history with the iPhone
I came to realize that the need for help getting the most out of smartphones was great and that I might be able to help others learn how to do that. Specifically, I picked the iPhone because that is what I personally use and I have a history with that device too. I covered the original iPhone launch when I was working with my pal Leo Laporte at the TWiT.TV network and I even did the first-ever podcast dedicated to the iPhone called the iPhoneShow.
Now, I do a podcast with former USA Today tech columnist, Jefferson Graham called the iPhonePhotoShow, where we try to help people shoot great stills and video using iPhones.
Why I switched to the iPhone
The reason for my switch is pretty simple. Medical problems have driven me further down the road to needing lighter and lighter gear. My encroaching decrepitude hasn’t been kind to my body and while I am still 18 in my mind, my body thinks I am 98. So lighter gear it is and there’s not much lighter than an iPhone.
But what made it possible was the gains in the quality of the cameras and software that go with them in the latest versions of the iPhone. If BOTH these things hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have made the switch. But they did, and so did I.
I have spent the last four months shooting almost exclusively with the iPhone, except when I do my wildlife work, which still requires longer lenses than can be found on a smartphone. Everything else I do with the iPhone and I don’t think I’ve given up anything in the process.
I am having more fun than ever with my photography and I am seeing things in a whole new way. I am shooting stills photos that enlarge to and print beautifully at 11×14″ without any fancy software or hardware RIP. Using Topaz Gigapixel, I have printed to 20-by-30 inches and again, have been blown away by the quality I am getting.
Pro-quality video with the iPhone
On the video side, I am shooting ProRes HQ video with my iPhone. I shoot with the FiLMiC Pro app that grades and matches ProRes video from expensive cinema cameras. I am getting the results I need out of a small, lightweight, (and relatively) inexpensive package. The results are frankly stunning.
I originally had no plans to upgrade my iPhone 11 Pro Max because it worked fine (and it cost a fortune). I was going to keep it, until I found out the iPhone 13 Pro could natively use the ProRes codec. That was enough to get me to pull the trigger and wow, I am glad I did.
Why ProRes on the iPhone is a big deal
Since I am living in a more video-centric universe, I want to share my thoughts on ProRes and while this is not a white paper or even a deep dive into the subject, it does take a step or two toward better explaining why I think ProRes on the iPhone is a game-changer.
ProRes is a video CODEC and industry-standard with nearly universal acceptance. If you live in the Apple ecosystem as I do, then ProRes is a Godsend. It’s an Apple invention and it works nearly seamlessly with tools like Final Cut Pro.
The iPhone gives you a choice between different CODECS for video. You could use HEVC — which is widely popular. But by switching to PreRes you gain several advantages. Before I explain those advantages, I’ll mention that all CODECS are about compromise. You have to balance file size (compression) with image quality (image fidelity) and editing performance (complexity and speed).
For me, the choice of ProRes is a no-brainer. It ticks all the boxes as far as I am concerned. It does have a cost in file size, but I am willing to pay it.
There are two main reasons for this:
- It retains image quality without massive compression which makes it easier to color grade in post using Final Cut Pro.
- It provides both a faster/smoother experience which also offers better image and even sound quality.
While I cannot find any document that proves this, I am convinced that the flavor of ProRes used on the iPhone is 4:2:2 HQ. This compares with 4:2:0 if you’re using HEVC. The difference is that 4:2:2 offers better color fidelity than 4:2:0 — and this especially matters when there is a lot of color detail in your image.
As a bonus, sound quality is also better in ProRes than HEVC. ProRes records in 48kHz while HEVC records in 44.1 kHz. It isn’t a big deal, but every little bit helps.
There is a drastically better editing experience when using ProRes compared with HEVC. If you are lucky enough to have a computer with an M1 or M1 MAX chip, you get the benefit of special ProRes accelerators built-in. On my MacBook Pro with M1 MAX, I can edit 30 simultaneous streams of 4K ProRes video or up to seven streams of 8K ProRes video in Apple’s Final Cut Pro software. Try doing that with even four streams of similar HEVC footage and get back to me. Those are just crazy specs.
As a bonus, all iPhone 13s have the native ability to playback and edit footage right on the phone! MORE Crazy.
iPhone 422 HQ ProRes is a lossless format. This means you don’t suffer from generation loss, i.e. multiple exports.
When shooting ProRes, there will be the cost in larger file sizes. That’s back to that compromise I talked about at the beginning of this article. With ProRes 4:2:2 footage, file sizes for one minute of 4K 30p footage nets roughly 6 GB of data.
This means that an iPhone 13 Pro with 1TB of storage (like the one I use) and which is new out of the box (not full of other data) will give you a max recording time of about two hours, limited by the storage on the phone. This is why you should choose an iPhone with as much storage as you can afford if you plan to use ProRes.
But footage can of course be transferred to traditional hard drives for editing and freeing up space.
The best stills and video camera I’ve owned
I have several “real” video cameras including the Canon XF-605, and the Blackmagic Pocket 6K Pro. The XF-AVC files from my Canon XF-605 effortlessly convert to ProRes 4:2:2 using Apple’s compressor. Using native ProRes files from my Blackmagic Cinema Camera and combining them with footage from the iPhone 13 Pro, the Canon camcorder and the Blackmagic Cinema Cameras, I am able to get footage that goes together as if it were all shot on the same camera. I have to use some LUTs due to differences in color science, but it’s all really easy to put together.
After looking at the ProRes footage I captured in Bosque del Apache with a cell phone, I am a convert. I think (for certain styles/genres/kinds of photography and video) that we’re either at or close to a point where the only camera you really need comes in an iPhone.
This level of innovation is truly exciting. I look forward to sharing with you my journey with the iPhone and I hope you will join me.