Zhendi Zhang won second place at the annual iPhone Photography Awards contest. We had a chat with Zhendi to find out more about his line of work, his approach to photography and his stance on mobile photography in general.

Zhendi focuses on minimalism, and started with just his iPhone 5S. With many years of experience, Zhendi illustrates that all you really need is the passion and the drive to improve your photography. The best gear you have is the one on you, isn’t it? See what Zhendi has to say about that.

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Tell us a little bit about yourself, your professional background and your hobbies.

My name is Zhendi Zhang. I was born and raised in Beijing, China. I went to Purdue University for my undergraduate study and graduated in 2017. I was studying Computer Graphics Technology and concentrated in Virtual Product Integration. I am currently living near New York City.

I love photography, both film and digital; exploring my way in film/video-making also; traveling, going for road trips; and I am very interested in technologies, tech stuff, products, such as mobile phones, digital/film cameras, drones, computers and hardwares.

I started to notice and practice iPhone photography around 2015. At that time I was using an iPhone 5S. Before year 2017, photos I have taken were not really post edited, instead, it was more counted on framing and composing the shot better and nicer. As time went by and I went through so many photos (it was all part of my learning experience), I found a way to edit my iPhone photos to a somewhat acceptable degree for myself. I have OCD and changes from time to time could really be a big bummer to me. But I have to think to myself that nothing is perfect and sometimes changes are necessary.

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Tell us the story of how you decided to participate in IPPAWARDS. How did you choose your images?

My first participation in IPPAWARDS was in 2017, the 10th annual awards. If I remember correctly, I first came to know IPPAWARDS from another iPhone photographer that I found on Instagram. I came across one of his posts that shows his winning photograph in previous IPPAWARDS, then I searched and checked out the awards.

Since I was and probably still am new to the awards, before I choose my images, I first browsed through the awards website and the former annual awards winning photographers and photographs, just to get a sense of the overall winning photographs’ styles and tastes. Finally it was just me looking over my existing photographs and pick the ones that I liked the most.

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What is the story behind your winning image?

There is not much of a story behind my winning photograph, as I was asked the same question when I get notified on my win. It was a normal story – I was on a road trip with my friends to Princeton University. While we were exploring the campus we came across the Prospect Garden in the campus. It was a rainy and cloudy day so the lights were very soft and dim. Just before I walked out to the garden, I noticed this little field in the resulting photograph hiding under shadows. The red fruits and green leafs really caught my eyes that they were so strong in color contrast. Yet probably not so many people would realize and notice this kind of hidden “treasure” and beauty in their daily lives.

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How would you describe your style and approach to photography?

I like minimalism, overall colors in a photo that are not too saturated and contrasted, and I would like to keep my photos as close to what it was, and that means no out-of-the-mind/overdo “photoshop” and editing to the photo. I understand that there are definitely needs for photoshopped photos in different fields but for me, I would like to present my photos as close to what I was see and feel when I take them.

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If you had a choice between your iPhone or a DSLR, which would you choose? Are you selective about your tool based on the situation?

I cannot really make a choice between my iPhone or a DSLR, at least for now. Both iPhones and DSLRs have advantages and disadvantages in their different usages and areas, but maybe one day iPhones would evolve and improve to a stage where they can compete with DSLRs, then I might choose to go only with my iPhone.

Yes, I am selective about my tools based on the situation. As the “evolutionary” mirrorless cameras started to came out, popularized, and took over many DSLR markets, more and more people got their hands on the lighter, smaller, and probably smarter and faster mirrorless bodies instead of the traditional DSLR, which normally would be bulky, heavy, and a hustle to carry around.

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The reason why I always have photos taken on my iPhone cannot be more obvious; it is light, small in form factor, and you get to carry and use it every single day, no matter where you go and wherever you are. Definitely, DSLRs have their places and advantages, for example, in low-light conditions, various lens choices, huge megapixel counts for billboard works, printing, or recomposing in post editing that gives people an ease of mind. Every tool has its right place to show its meaning and performance, and that is why we have so many different types of products in this world.

There is the famous saying that goes “the best camera is the one in your pocket”. Indeed, no matter how great your gears is, or how expensive it is, if you cannot capture the photo you want because you did not have the gear with you, then the gear you did not bring is “worthless” to you at that moment.

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Could you share a bit more about your personal photography projects? What themes and ideas are you currently exploring?

I do not have photography projects unlike some people would do I guess. Or I would not call them projects at all. Like I mentioned previously, the styles, themes, or ideas I like or come to know any day, I would try to find and spend time discovering it, exploring it, and trying to get photos that most importantly, I like myself.

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What are some things that you’ve noticed that have helped you grow as a photographer?

One thing I know for sure is that I would take photos on my phone or whatever camera I have with me, of the subjects I wanted to. Even though it means finding the photos I took were not great or satisfying. It is better to take the shot rather than missing it and have nothing at all.

Another one probably would be to take your time in taking your photos or processing them afterwards. I have to say that I have so many photos that I have taken but not yet processed, and they are all being stored and “left behind” in my hard drives, for now. I definitely wanted to get them over, processed and published, so that they can be seen by the world. But until I have the time and ease of mind to do so, I have to keep the eager cool and do not rush or push it. (I was thinking to myself that it almost feels like digital photos I took but time processed them as a for that kind of film feeling.)

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Do you think iPhone photography is an art of its own? What are some limitations with your phone, if any?

Yes, I do agree with “iPhone photography is an art of its own”. It was Apple that truly brought keyless, full touch screen display, and probably the best cameras in their iPhones when they hit the market  in their eras. Others came along when they realized and saw what a mobile phone can do and achieve so much more than what it used to be.

Limitations are true and cruel with iPhones (or mobile phones in general). First and foremost, the sensor size that companies can or are willing to put into a relatively small form factor mobile phone is limited. Like most photography enthusiast would know, the larger a sensor is, the better an image can be produced. Needless to say that a larger sensor can have more pixel counts, a larger per pixel light sensitivity which means better low light performance and less noise in the image, and a much higher resolution of the image. This is a reason why most huge commercial companies are still using large format cameras that cost tons of money.

Secondly, lenses. As of today, a reasonably looking smartphones would have two lenses on their body normally. Very few phones have three or even more lenses on them. Because of the size restriction or costs, mobile phones cannot be like having interchangeable lenses for different usages.

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Who were your biggest influences, where do you seek inspiration and what are the 3 things inspiring your work right now?

I do not have specific “biggest influencers” but certainly I do have people that I like with their photography styles a lot. I use Instagram a lot and I would browse photos from the photographers I follow and explore the ones I have not yet discovered.

I guess things that inspire my work would be the beauty of arts, things in life, and the pursuit of showing my liking, my world of view of what looks beautiful and nice.

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What are your thoughts on mobile photography in general? Where are things heading?  

Personally, I think mobile photography is definitely a trendy subject and it will become more and more popular since more people have mobile phones than people have DSLRs, and hardwares on mobile phones are getting better and more powerful to compete with DSLRs. Like the famous saying many people have their mobile phone in their pocket and taking photos cannot be easier than just pull your phone out and snap the shot. With more easy-to-use and powerful editing tools available for mobile phones, photos taken on mobile phones would become better.

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What did winning in IPPAwards mean to you? What are your thoughts now that you’re part of the history?

I only had two honorable mentions in my first participation in the 10th annual awards. Upset feelings definitely were there but that did not mean anything. By no means am I a professional and I received honorable mentions which was definitely a good start.

For my second participation in the 11th annual awards, I had the honor to be selected as the second place winner in the floral category, as well as several honorable mentions in different categories. It was kind of a surprise for me because I have never thought that I would receive my first award under the floral category. I thought I might have a better chance winning a place in other categories such as abstract, architecture, or natural.

Being part of the awards history now, I definitely feel very happy and honored. I will try my best to participate in every annual awards to come and hopefully my photographs could earn more and better places.

To see more work by Zhendi, visit his Instagram account.

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