Meet the National Geographic photographer who covered the Southwest with a Nokia

National Geographic photographer Stephen Alvarez Page Arizona
The Colorado River near Page, Arizona.

As one of National Geographic’s full-time photographers, Stephen Alvarez has covered everything from high-altitude archaeology in Peru to the white-water caves of Papua New Guinea and war-torn violence in Africa. “Mostly my work has been centered around exploration, adventure, and natural history,” Alvarez said. “I have been for years the guy they go to for physical exploration.”

For his type of assignments, Alvarez normally carries three Canon EOS 5D Mark IIIs and half-a-dozen lenses, not to mention a computer, hard drives, and all the accessories that are part of a photographer’s gear. So when Nokia approached him about testing a preproduction smartphone camera on a special assignment in which he would only use the phone, Alvarez was intrigued.

“I’ve always been interested in where photography is going and what the new cameras and devices will be like,” he said. “I took the assignment cause I have kids to feed, right? I thought, sure, I’ll be able to see how it turns out.”

“I’ve always been interested in where photography is going and what the new cameras and devices will be like.”

But when Nokia revealed more details about the assignment, Alvarez wondered if he had signed on to something beyond his scope. “They said, ‘Oh, and by the way, the ultimate destination for one of these pictures is gonna be a three-page photograph on the inside cover of the 125th anniversary edition of National Geographic that celebrates photography,’ I almost threw up. I mean, I just thought, I don’t know if I can take the pressure. But when they got me the devices, I started off kind of skeptical, but over the course of 10 days, I really became a convert to it. I realized the interface is great, it lets me control the camera in a very intuitive way, and it works as advertised.”

That phone, of course, is the Lumia 1020, which has a large 41-megapixel sensor that Nokia has been marketing heavily around. To show that the phone’s camera is highly capable, Nokia has collaborated with professional photographers where they were asked to use the Lumia 1020 in their type of work, in place of a traditional camera. With Alvarez, he was asked to document the American Southwest during a 10-day journey, which was tied to a Nokia ad campaign in the photography-centric October issue of National Geographic and an online advertorial component detailing Alvarez’s assignment on Nat Geo’s website.

Alvarez and his assistant were one of the first to use the 1020. They were given three preproduction models in June – in advance of the official unveiling – and shot stills and videos across the Southwest, in secrecy. “That was a concern of Nokia’s, so they gave me some stealth coverage for it that made it look very generic. We were really worried around the Grand Canyon, where there would be a lot of public people.”

National Geographic photographer Stephen Alvarez Sand Flats Escalante Utah
Calf Creek Falls in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.

Although Nokia funded the campaign, Alvarez does seem genuinely impressed with the 1020, which has been praised by many others – us included – for its photography prowess. (As for whether Alvarez will continue to use the 1020 for big assignments in the future, it’s highly unlikely; he explains why below.) We recently chatted with Alvarez about his trip, and picked his brain about the device and smartphone photography in general.

Hi Stephen. How did this whole experiment with Nokia start?

Nokia called my commercial rep and said, “We have this new camera coming out, and we’d be interested in having Stephen think about where he’d take it, and we would really want him to show off the capabilities of the camera.” So I proposed a couple of ideas, and we settled on the Southwest because of the timing and I really wanted to see how this camera performed in a really big landscape; because you’re trying to show off a sensor like this, you want as much detail as possible. And that seem like logistically a good way to do it.

“It’s 120 degrees some days and I tell you, not having 30 pounds of camera gear with you is pretty nice on some days like that.”

I had about a week (to play with the camera before the assignment), so I had gotten used to it. I had actually met two people on the development team a week before I left. We met in a hotel room in New York and they swore me to secrecy and showed me the super secret camera.

Have you shot with smartphones professionally before? Did you have any reservations?

I’ve never really been confident shooting with a smartphone for magazine publication because the cameras have just not been good enough. That was the prejudice I kind of brought with me – “Oh my god, this thing can’t possibly be as good as advertised.” What I did initially was, I shot a couple of frames around my town, and I blew them up on a very good desktop printer; I made some prints that were 22 inches long and I looked at them with a loop, and it occurred to me that, in fact, this phone is as good as it’s suppose to be. It would produce the results that they claim it would produce.

What else impressed you?

If anyone has tried to shoot a picture like in a bar or restaurant with a camera phone, it’s a disaster always just because the sensors are small and they don’t perform well in low light. This camera’s got a really big sensor and so I was shooting constantly at ISO 1,600, but sometimes up to 3,200, and getting really good results. There’s still noise at the high ISOs, but publishable. It did things much more like a Micro Four Thirds camera but in a smartphone – that was one of the strengths I noticed right away. The weight and size are some of the big strengths. Another thing I noticed is that it has very, very good image stabilization. I ended up being able to shoot the camera at much slower shutter speeds. (The user interface) is another strong point for me. The sleeper feature: video.

I was constantly shocked at the image quality. I just go, “Oh my god, can you believe that?” Being able to zoom in and zoom in and zoom in, it was astounding.

I was talking to the assistant director of photography with National Geographic after the ad came out, and he just said, “Really, you shot this with a phone?” I shot this three-page ad with this phone, and people had a hard time believing the quality.

I’ve never talked about a camera phone in the same kind of sentences talking about a normal camera, because nothing ever approached the quality that you get out of the 1020.

What could have been better?

The only thing I found myself wanting was that the pictures be shot as a RAW file, because it produces a JPEG. It’d be great if you can just get the RAW sensor data straight off the camera because that’s what my other cameras do. And that would just give me that much more quality. (Editors’ note: With the latest firmware update, the Lumia 1020 can now shoot RAW files.)

How was your experience using the phone during the 10-day trip?

Because I have this prerelease model, they asked me not to put it on a network – any kind of network at all. So I used it just as a camera. (I use it as a phone now – it’s great.) Since I turned to digital photography solely in 2003, my biggest concern is how I’m gonna keep my cameras powered. And so we would recharge in the car, or I have a couple of little brick USB batteries that I would carry with me and charge the phone if we had some down time.

National Geographic photographer Stephen Alvarez Horseshoe bend Williams Arizona
Photographer John Burcham, who accompanied Stephen Alvarez on the assignment, looks into the Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River.

My standard protocol in the field is to download every night and back everything up. So I backed everything up to three hard drives. (Nokia) had also given me a handgrip that has a half-pound battery in it [for extended use].

It’s 120 degrees some days and I tell you, not having 30 pounds of camera gear with you is pretty nice on some days like that.

Now that you’ve spent some time with actually photographing with a smartphone for work, what are you thoughts about smartphone photography today, and where it’s going in the future?

There’s a lot of debate amongst photographers. My personal thought is, the more the merrier.

“I’ve never really been confident shooting with a smartphone for magazine publication…”

Technology has always driven innovations in photography. We saw a big change when people went from large format cameras to medium format cameras, and when people went from medium format cameras to 35mm cameras. They’re the same sorts of debates about whether or not this is real photography that existed at the time, and I mean, there have been debates whether color photography was really photography. It echoes the debates we are hearing now about smartphones.

I think it’s a big evolution. I don’t think it’s a disruption. I think the introduction of barely inexpensive, extremely good digital cameras is probably a bigger disruption. There are hundreds of millions of smartphones with cameras, and you have that many more photographers – people who are making pictures. And that’s the biggest change – how many images are being captured at any given time now. And I think that’s a good thing for photography in general because it’s increasing people’s visual literacy.

Does this mean you’ll ditch your DSLRs?

I think I’ll go back to my old gear. There’s awful lot that goes into a [DSLR that are] purposely designed for the camera. (Smartphones are) certainly not going to replace that for professionals, at least not anytime soon. Having a good lens choice, having the ability to set flashes…are just a couple to name right off the top.

National Geographic photographer Stephen Alvarez, on assignment and standing on top of the world (of sorts).
National Geographic photographer Stephen Alvarez, on assignment and standing on top of the world (of sorts).

But in that next category down (point-and-shoot cameras), having a camera in your hand when the picture happens…for most people that’s gonna be a telephone. Even for a lot of photographers it’s gonna be a telephone because you’ll have less gear – you’re walking down the street, and it gets really beautiful, and there’s the photograph…you reach into your pocket and you pull out your phone.

I used to carry a Micro Four Thirds camera on assignment, so that I’d have a camera on me when I didn’t want to carry my big DSLRs. I don’t carry that anymore – I carry the 1020. And I think that would be the case with most people [in the future].

Click here to check out Alvarez’s adventure.

(Images courtesy of Stephen Alvarez/Nokia/National Geographic)

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