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Photojournalist Dan Chung reflects on shooting the Olympics with an iPhone

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Sudan's Rabah Yousif is captured through the Olympic flames as he competes in the Men's 400m heats. Photograph: Dan Chung/iPhone 4S/Canon binoculars/Snapseed

Award-winning photojournalist Dan Chung has spent his career shooting with heavy, expensive professional equipment in some of the world's most difficult environments. But one of his favorite recent shots, of  an athlete at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, was taken using an iPhone. Now that the excitement of the summer games is over, we sat down with Dan and asked him what it was like to shoot the Games without his usual DSLR equipment. 

Chung, a photojournalist with British newspaper The Guardian, set out to capture the Olympic games entirely by iPhone 4S for the British national daily newspaper, documenting the images on an Olympic smartphone blog. The resulting showcase features sharp sports photography, intimate snapshots of spectators and uniquely artistic interpretations of the games.

Award-winning photojournalist and videomaker Dan Chung made his name as a photographer for The Guardian and Reuters news agency. Dan lives and works in China, but travels the world on assignment. 

We recently had a chance to reflect on the experience with Chung, who spoke to us from China, where he is sometimes based for his position with The Guardian. Though he’s covered the Olympics in past years, he counts the London 2012 games  as his favorite.

“I found shooting on the iPhone quite enjoyable and quite liberating,” he said. “Surely, part of photography is also about that: Did the photographer have a good time, or not? And actually, I did.” 

Speaking about the show of Rabah Yousif, Dan says “It’s just a nice image, and it didn’t matter whether it was taken on an iPhone or not. Most people wouldn’t know whether it was taken on a DSLR or an iPhone”.

Photojournalist Dan Chung found an iPhone helped him easily squeeze into tight spots when shooting at the London 2012 Olympics this summer.

One of the advantages of shooting the games with an iPhone, Chung discovered, was the unique perspective the limitations of the device pushed him to take.

“I couldn’t do peak of the action as well as the guy with the DSLR - it’s obvious I can’t beat a Canon EOS-1D X or a Nikon D4 going at 12 or 11 frames a second with fantastic auto focus,” Chung said. “But there’s a whole bunch of other photos around huge events, and around daily life, that if you take a slightly sideways look at, also make really interesting images, and that’s what shooting on the iPhone allowed me to do at the Olympics.”

China's He Kexin competes in the Women's team uneven bars at the North Greenwich Arena during the London 2012 Olympics.Photo: Dan Chung/iPhone 4S/Snapseed
Italian Daniele Molmenti paddles his way to win Gold in the Mens's Kayak (K1) at the Lee Valley White Water Centre at the London 2012 Olympics.Photo: Dan Chung/iPhone 4S/Canon Binoculars/Snapseed
Fireworks at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympic games.Photo: Dan Chung/iPhone 4S/Schneider lens/Snapseed
Photojournalist Dan Chung laid on the ground for this shot of  BMX racers flying by during the 2012 Olympics.Photo: Dan Chung/iPhone 4S/Snapseed

Chung stuck with Snapseed as his primary photo editing app, and shied away from fancy filter effects. He primarily used the iPhone’s native camera app for its reliability and speed, but also because the remote control he used to trigger the phone in some situations would only work with that app. He also found QuickPix useful to capture fast action, and used 645 Pro when time allowed.Chung took along two iPhone 4S devices, with an assortment of accessories. He used the iPro Lens System, which includes a wide angle, fisheye and telephoto lens adaptor. Canon binoculars helped him 'zoom in' to the action, effectively creating the equivalent of a 300 or 400 mm fixed focal length lens.

“I just found Snapseed was the easiest, and gave me the best results,” he said. “I wasn’t in the business of proving whether you could make everything look beautiful while using Instagram - I wanted to prove that you could shoot it as it is … with an iPhone and it'll still look good.”

Chung also found that the iPhone was helpful in getting close to his subjects at the Olympics.

“I did quite a lot of candid shots, just walking around and snapping people in the Olympic park,” Chung said. “I think the reaction you get with the iPhone is just completely different to even the smallest DSLR that you might want to use. You can photograph people for much longer, they tend to react very well to it.”

British soldiers wearing busbys pose in front of the Olympic rings at the close of the weightlifting at ExCel tonight.Photo: Dan Chung/IPhone 4S/Canon binoculars/Snapseed
Olympics 2012: Fans with Union Jack face paint enjoy the sunshine in the Olympic park.Photo: Dan Chung/IPhone 4S/Snapseed

The phone’s unimposing small stature also gave him an advantage for achieving interesting angles and squeezing into tight situations. For example, Chung’s images at the Olympic pool had the unique perspective gained by positioning his lens flat against the glass. 

“I could actually kind of avoid most of the distortion that the glass would give,” he explained. “Even with your best DSLR, it’s quite awkward to get the right angle. It’s much easier to get the angle with an iPhone, just holding it and placing it, and seeing exactly what you’re getting.”

Dan Chung's iPhone 4S setup for shooting the Men's 10m platform.Photo: Dan Chung/IPhone 4/Snapseed
The Russian Federation team compete in the synchronised swimming technical routine during the 2012 Olympics.Photo: Dan Chung/IPhone 4S/Snapseed

Dan explained how he was also able to negotiate crowds of photographers more easily - “If there were photographers crammed into a spot, I can just reach over the top and point my iPhone, or go underneath, literally be a few inches off their lens and not really bother them as much if I was trying to use a real camera and get my eye up to the camera”.

So, did Chung’s Olympic experience convince him to take his iPhone on future photojournalism assignments?

“I’m not saying that the iPhone is in any way as good a news or press camera as a Canon EOS-1D X or a Nikon D4. It’s clearly not,” he said. “But it is amazing what you could do with it. I think for me the iPhone thing was not love/hate, but sort of love, and then occasional disappointment, and obviously that’s what it is – that’s the tool, you have to accept it like that.”

Chung's still not an Instagramer. But he's not one of those photographers that thinks it spells the end of photography: “I think the Instagram debate is a little bit of a tangent, because you’ve almost always been able to manipulate a photo, it’s just it’s a damn sight easier on the iPhone”.

“I think the future of photography is basically about allowing you to fulfill your creative vision,” Chung explaned. “And I think what’s great about where we’re going with iPhones, software applications and everything else is that more photographers will be able to fulfill their creative vision more easily than ever before, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

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