Last September, Austin Mann was driving through the fog somewhere in Iceland, unsure of what was ahead of him. “I had no idea what was on the other side,” he told us. “At the end there was this giant glacier shattering into the water. And I was ready to capture it because I had my iPhone.”
Austin took a panoramic picture of the glacier, which is now displayed in Apple stores around the world. Other iPhone pictures he took during that trip have been featured online, on billboards, and on the sides of 30-story buildings. Somewhat unintentionally, Austin has become a pioneer into a new era of photography and videography — and a model of a new kind of photographer.
“It’s been an evolution,” Austin says. “In the 1970s, you’d have a guy with a Hasselblad getting hired for an advertising shoot, and the art director would show up and be like, ‘Wow, what is this thing?’ And the photographer was like, ‘Hasselblad.’ It’s a $50,000 camera, and the art director had no idea how to operate it. So that was a huge part of the photographer’s value. Fast-forward to 2009, and you’ve got a 5D as the main camera. The art director shows up and he’s like, ‘Oh, you’ve got a 5D. I’ve got one of those in my backpack.’ Now fast-forward to today, and my grandmother is carrying the same camera I’m using.”
It’s not just a technological revolution, though. It’s existential as well. The things that used to define a photographer and a filmmaker — gear, technical know-how — those things have never been less important. In fact, they hardly matter at all. Now, more than ever, it’s vision that counts.
Here’s a brief conversation we had with Austin Mann about all of this.
No. I don’t care what I shoot with. I think the best tools are invisible. All I want is something that gets me from point A to point B. The best tool is the tool that doesn’t inhibit your workflow, that doesn’t keep you from doing what you want to do, that allows you to capture what you see. The tools I’ve always pursued are the ones that get the heck out of my way. And the tool that does that the best for me is the iPhone. It conforms to me versus me conforming to it.
I have a Canon 1D X DSLR, and it’s sweet; but I have to conform to it. If I want to shoot a panorama on a glacier, I’ve got to put on my crampons, carry a pack, bring an assistant. I’ve got to conform to my gear. But the iPhone is the opposite: it conforms to my lifestyle. I can be curious, wander, chase life. On that glacier if I’d had my 1D X, I wouldn’t have been able to shoot panoramic because I didn’t have my panoramic kit. I couldn’t have shot slow motion. I couldn’t have shot burst mode. You never know what you’re going to find, and the iPhone adapts to that. I was just wandering around when the glacier shot presented itself, and I was ready to shoot with the best possible tool.
So that’s really all it is. I’m simply interested in the best possible tool. And I see that being the iPhone now. And even more, the iPhone in the future. What it’s becoming. It’s a platform that you can shoot, edit, and share on. And everybody is interested in all three.
I think people are going to begin shaping their businesses around that. I don’t think people appreciate how much they’re going to be using their iPhones in the next two years. Professionals think it’s ludicrous, but I think that’s shortsighted. Very soon people are going to be shooting pro jobs on their mobile devices.
You’re exactly right. You’re preaching what I’m preaching. Here’s what’s happening: We’re experiencing a democratization of technical ability. You’ve got web designers who are losing their jobs because of Squarespace and The Grid. In the past, you had all these different tools that were highly technical. Not everyone could use them. So people were hired for their technical ability. But these days, if you’re getting hired because of your gear or your technical training, you’re putting yourself in a really precarious place as a creative.
I try to emphasize to people: be an idea factory. Be valued for your ideas, not for your equipment or your technical expertise, because someone else can always offer those things. You’re just a plumber at that point. Nothing against plumbers.
As a teacher, I’ve always taught students not to focus on their gear. I’ve told them to focus on their vision. Their voice. The way they interact with people. Those are the things people need to work on. But still, gear has always been a major focus — especially for photographers because so many of us are geeks. I used to tell students not to focus on gear, but then I’d let them play with my $8,000 camera. They’d be like, “Yeah, I could take really good pictures too if I had a camera like this.” Now it’s like, “Hey guys, I have a 30-story image up in Dallas right now that I shot with the same phone you all have in your pockets. So let’s focus on what matters.”
Soon the whole world will be technically able. And that’s going to force creatives to work on their vision, which is really exciting for me. In the past, the people at the top were the ones who could buy the gear. But I want the people at the top to be the people with the best vision. I think we’re about to see the true creatives rise above the rest.
It’s a strange time to be a creative because these days everyone is a creative. Everyone has the ability to produce a film. Everyone has the ability to take high-quality photographs. For a long time our gear defined us, but less and less is that going to be the case. Like Austin said, though, this isn’t bad news. As the playing field levels out, the truly great work will become all the more apparent. Squarespace may have made it easy to produce a decent website, but spectacular websites are still the work of geniuses. Now is the time to develop your vision and hone your craft. Telling great stories is never going to get any easier.
All photos by Austin Mann | Shot on iPhone 6 Plus