May 31: Today in Apple history: Chicago Sun-Times replaces photo staff with iPhonesMay 31, 2013: The Chicago Sun-Times fires all 28 of its photographers, with the goal of training its staff to shoot photos using iPhones instead. Pulitzer Prize winner John White is among those who lose their jobs.

The move is significant not just because of what it says about the declining newspaper industry. It also spotlights the iPhone’s growing acceptance as a professional camera.

After the mass firing, the Sun-Times told its reporters they would receive “iPhone photography basics” training to produce their own photos and videos. “In the coming days and weeks, we’ll be working with all editorial employees to train and outfit you as much as possible to produce the content we need,” managing editor Craig Newman told staffers in a memo.

iPhone camera transforms photojournalism

It’s certainly true that iPhone cameras were getting significantly better by mid-2013. At that time, the iPhone 5 featured an 8-megapixel iSight camera. Although far lower-quality than a professional DSLR camera, it was much improved from the crappy 2-megapixel camera of the original iPhone less than a decade earlier.

The number of photo-editing apps in the App Store from 2008 onward also boosted iPhone photography. Suddenly anyone could give photos the kind of post-production sheen that once required a specialist multimedia computer or, before that, a darkroom to achieve.

By 2013, the iPhone was starting to be used for news reportage, partially down to its portability. For instance, when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in late 2012, reporters for Time used the iPhone to take photos in the field and upload them to the publication’s Instagram account. Even the cover photo used on the corresponding issue of Time was taken on an iPhone.

Still, many viewed the Chicago Sun-Times’ slashing of its photo staff negatively.

Sun-Times photographer Alex Garcia argued that the “idea that freelancers and reporters could replace a photo staff with iPhones is idiotic at worst, and hopelessly uninformed at best.”

The downside of democratization of tech

For me, this event was important because it showed the flip side of Apple’s democratization of technology. Since Adobe PageMaker on the original Mac, Apple products have been giving creatives powerful tools that produce pro results. These days, people can achieve in their front rooms work that once required professional facilities to accomplish.

The iPhone camera did the same. Apple certainly wasn’t the first company to build cameras into its devices. However, Cupertino did make a serious effort to improve iPhone cameras each year. By 2013, Apple was running ad campaigns to promote the iPhone camera as a tool for budding photographers. Apple continues to do so today with its successful “Shot on iPhone” billboard series.

The ubiquity of the iPhone also makes it an indispensable tool for photographers. By 2013, the number of photos shot on iPhone far surpassed those taken on DSLR cameras like the Canon EOS 5D Mark II on photo-sharing site Flickr.

Combine the iPhone’s popularity with the immediacy of online news and the decline of traditional print media, and you’ve got a recipe for a revolution. Old-school photographers seem unfortunately expendable.

Are you a photographer who relies on, or actively avoids shooting on, iPhones on a daily basis? Do you think the presence of smartphone cameras in everyone’s pockets has improved or worsened photography? Leave your comments below.