A real camera.

My 1980 Christmas present was a real camera, an Olympus OM10.  I was a sophomore in high school.  Inspired by images in the Sunday New York Times, I wanted to be a photographer.  There, in Santa wrapping, was the door.  In my stocking were two rolls of Tri-X film, so I raced outside to start shooting.  I had no idea what I was doing, how to use the camera, what an f-stop was or what ISO meant.  I just wanted to take pictures, and I finally had the requisite equipment.

My sophomore year in college, I finally learned how to use it.  I also learned how to use others: medium and large formats, Quaker canister pinholes, Dianas and more.  In the process I decided there was no such thing as a real camera.

So when my neighbor, who knows photography was my college field of study, asked me to recommend a real camera for her teenage daughter’s upcoming birthday present, my answer came easily: an iPhone 4s.  Its image quality is as good as just about any point-and-shoot, and it allows the aspiring photographer (everyone) to start immediately doing the most important thing: taking pictures.

Framing a picture with an iPhone isn’t really any easier or harder than with a Hasselblad, and unless you spend time framing a few (thousand) images, you won’t know what type of picture best carries your voice.  Once you know that, acquiring more sophisticated gear and mastering the process techniques – depth of field, exposure, and the chemistry of development – can become a lifetime exploration, a matter of insignificance, or something in between.

One chilly day last November I followed my daughter’s class through the Japanese-inspired beauty of our Botanic Gardens, contemplating ancient traditions and modern reinvention, with my iPhone in hand.  It was, I recall, a perfect day taking pictures.