National Geographic Photographer

Stephen Alvarez

Geoff Carterwritten by

Geoff Carter

Taking smartphone photography to the next level

Here’s a very abbreviated history of photography. The oldest surviving photograph dates back to 1826 and was created by French inventor Nicéphore Niépce. A colleague of Niépce, Louis Daguerre, refined the chemical process of photography, making it more widely accessible. George Eastman made the first truly portable camera, called the “Kodak,” in 1888; in 1948, Edwin Land introduced the Polaroid Model 95, which combined portability and instant photography. From there, it’s a hop and a skip to the introduction of the first digital cameras in the late 1980s, and then to the late 1990s, when cameras were first added to mobile phones.

Some of this might have occurred to National Geographic photographer Stephen Alvarez as he and fellow photographer John Burcham made the two-week trek up Mount Everest in April 2014, carrying only the essentials and a pair of Lumia smartphones. It’s more likely, however, that he was thinking how lucky he was to not need to schlep a five-pound, professional-grade DSLR up the world’s steepest incline.

“The digital jump didn't surprise me so much, but the miniaturization of cameras into telephones I never really saw coming,” said Alvarez, relaxing at his home in Tennessee. “Now, when I have to go back to the big DSLRs for work, I sometimes forget how huge they are. I mean, just how gargantuan is a pro DSLR with a lens on it? They're great imaging devices, but at the cost of an awful lot of weight and an awful lot of money.”

Alvarez knows a few things about shouldering that weight. The 50-year-old has been shooting for magazines pretty much continuously since graduating from University of the South in 1987; he’s been working with National Geographic for 20 years. He’s carried heavy equipment up mountains, through jungles and deep into caves, and felt lucky to do it.

So, when National Geographic asked him to photograph the Seven Natural Wonders of the World using only Microsoft smartphones, he probably didn’t give a second thought to the seeming magnitude of the assignment. Alvarez probably didn’t take a moment to consider the tools he was asked to use, or to consider just how much photography has changed in only two decades. And he shouldn’t have to.

“The equipment's obviously the most important and the least important thing,” he said. “The most important thing really is how you see. I know photographers that can make a great picture using an oatmeal box, because they see really well.”

And Tiina Jaatinen, senior communications manager with Microsoft Devices, was pretty sure she had something better than an oatmeal box.

“We knew that if we put our Lumia phones in the hands of a professional photographer like Stephen, they would perform,” she said. And where better to find such a photographer than at a publication whose debut issue, in a remarkable coincidence, came out in 1888—the same year George Eastman made the first portable camera?

Stephen Alvarez on a recent photo expedition at the Big Four Ice Caves in Washington state.

“National Geographic is famous for its great photography and great storytelling,” she said. “It felt like a perfect fit, a natural partnership.”

Looking at Stephen Alvarez’s formative years, it’s tempting to confuse him with someone who prefers to stay put. He was born in Sewanee, Tennessee; went to school in Sewanee, Tennessee (that’s where the University of the South is located); and currently lives with his wife and two children in the town of … well, take a guess.

But even when he’s at home, his mind travels. He’s always seeing photographs in his daily life, even during our conversation: “A girl just ran past the front window right now, and the light hit her so beautifully. I really wish I'd made a photograph of that.”

It’s a gift he’s had most of his life. He didn’t inherit it; his father is a college professor, his mother an artist. He didn’t really study it in school; his degree is in comparative religion. Yet he knew he was going to be a professional photographer “almost from the second someone put a camera in my hand.”

“It’s always been dead simple to me, how cameras work,” he said.

Shortly after college, Alvarez began assisting other photographers, a job he describes as being “kind of like going to graduate school, except you get paid and there are real consequences for messing things up.” He carried gear, set up lights, assisted in the darkroom and generally picked up an advanced education on the fly.

“In working with other photographers, you learn a lot about making images, but also about running a business, traveling and other things that you would never learn in school. Like how to get 30 cases of equipment on and off a commercial airliner,” he said.

He also learned how to light images, largely through the mentorship of Doug Merriam, a portrait and lifestyle photographer he met in Maine. Concurrent to that, he began to develop his adventurous streak.

“I had begun really enjoying exploring the underground world,” he said. “I realized that I could take the same lighting techniques I was using to make these magazine portraits and take them underground and light up caves, and show them in a way that people had never seen before. I loved that thought: that you could go into a black space that you can't really see and make a photograph of it.”

Eventually, Alvarez began shooting for the same magazines whose photographers he was assisting. In short order, he became “the go-to photographer in the South for New York magazines,” shooting everything from locales to golf pros. It was around this time that longtime National Geographic photographer Michael Nichols introduced him to the editors of his magazine, resulting in a five-year courtship that resulted in his first National Geographic assignment: a 1996 archeological trip to the mountains of Peru.

“They needed someone who could climb a tall mountain but also had the lighting technique to light artifacts and take pictures of a mummy that were evocative,” he says.

  • Selfie time at Devil’s Pool, near the edge of Victoria Falls at the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. Taken with a Lumia 930.
  • Sunset at Cape Royal in Arizona, on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Taken with a Lumia 1020.
  • A rugged rig holds two Lumia devices steady as they capture the Imja Khola River crossing during Alvarez's Mount Everest expedition. Taken with a Lumia 1520.
  • Local youth play soccer in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Taken with a Lumia 1520.
  • Exploring the otherworldly Big Four Ice Caves near Granite Falls, Washington. Taken with a Lumia 930.

Phoning it in

See some of the most beautiful places on earth through the lens of Alvarez’s Lumia phones.

It was Alvarez’s second trip to Peru—he’d been there previously on another magazine assignment—but it was his first real exposure to the awe-inspiring but dangerous world he now works in as a matter of routine. And, as he climbed Peru’s Mount Ampato, he got a taste of both wonder and peril.

“The scientist who had found the mummy was in a really big hurry to get back up high, so I went from sea level to 19,000 feet in about four days, and I got a high-altitude edema.”

Such altitude-related maladies can be fatal, but Alvarez only went (temporarily) blind in his left eye—and he kept it to himself.

“Honestly, I thought, ‘If I tell anyone about this, they're going to make me come down off the mountain, and I'll never work for National Geographic again.’ So I toughed it out. Shot at 19,000 feet. I shoot with my other eye, so I was all right. But I would lay in my tent in the morning, stare up at the ceiling of my tent and go, ‘What am I going to do?’”

John Burcham, Alvarez’s partner on multiple shoots, lauds his friend’s ability to “to put everything he has into it, and then some”—a trait he shares.

“A little cold, no food, no sleep … we’re used to all that stuff,” Burcham said.

If I tell anyone about this, they’re going to make me come down off the mountain, and I’ll never work for National Geographic again.

Still, Alvarez probably couldn’t imagine in those half-blinded moments on a Peruvian mountaintop that, nearly a year later, he would nearly drown on another National Geographic assignment, this time in the jungles of Borneo.

“My assistant and I were swimming down this river, trying to get back to camp. Suddenly, the river rose over these rapids that had a current that just flipped you over and held you under. I was underwater long enough to think, ‘Well, this is it. It's all over. I can't get up.’ We barely got to the surface. I was absolutely terrified.”

He chuckled softly.

“It was the coolest thing I'd ever done.”

The Lumia 1020 has a 41-megapixel camera, with an aperture of f/2.2, a high-resolution 3x zoom and optical image stabilization. All of this is squeezed into a package that you can hold in one hand and oh yeah, send texts, update Facebook and make and receive telephone calls. (Alvarez used his to talk to me.)

It’s a device that was born from huge ambitions—to surpass the utility of a single-lens reflex camera, to become the great camera you always have with you—and scaled down to fit in a pocket, says Microsoft’s head of imaging technology, Juha Alakarhu—himself an avid photographer.

“There are things you can do better in a mobile environment than you can with really big SLRs,” he said. “Many people are surprised when they compare our 41-megapixel phones to the big cameras. But we’re not achieving that image quality by mimicking the DSLRs, but by doing it in our own unique way.”

Even without the ability to make calls and send texts, the Lumia 1020 would have blown Louis Daguerre’s mind with its ratio of imaging quality to portability, which is what Alakarhu and his team were going for, and the baseline idea upon which Alvarez undertook the Seven Natural Wonders assignment. At first, Alvarez suggested using the Lumia 1020 to shoot the American Southwest, particularly the Grand Canyon; he thought it a suitable way to test the “tremendous resolution” of the phone, in an environment where portability could prove a distinct advantage.

There are things you can do better in a mobile environment than you can with really big SLRs.

“No one could believe the results, including me,” he said. “The photos were just so good.”

The story might have ended there, if Alvarez hadn’t been asked to travel to Abu Dhabi for the launch of the Lumia 1520, a phone with a 20-megapixel camera and a six-inch display. Inspired, Alvarez and Microsoft formalized the idea of shooting the Seven Natural Wonders of the World using Lumia phones.

“They asked me how I would do it, and I said ‘in order.’ We’d see how far we got down the list,” he said. The Grand Canyon was already done, so Alvarez moved on to the harbor of Rio de Janeiro, Mount Everest and Africa’s Victoria Falls, with John Burcham shooting video. Alvarez has yet to shoot Mexico’s Parícutin volcano, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Aurora Borealis, but they’re on his (smart)phone list.

Burcham said that the trips, while organized, were full of surprises.

And oh, the pictures. Using the phones, Alvarez has captured what are easily the world’s best selfies: floating in Devil’s Pool at the edge of Victoria Falls, cuddling up to a habituated cheetah in a Zimbabwe elephant camp. His from-the-hip shots of the Grand Canyon have the grandeur of a silver-screen western. And his shots of Rio de Janeiro’s people and places are among the most warm and personal I’ve seen. Whether hanging from a rope atop Sugarloaf or chilling with some kids in Vidigal Favela, Alvarez manages to easily capture the kind of genuine human moments you have to finesse a bit while packing a full DSLR rig.

“Everyone knows I'm a professional photographer,” Alvarez said. “Yes, I'm shooting for Microsoft; yes, these pictures will be used commercially; yes, they'll sign releases. Everyone's happy with it. But using a smaller device is just a lot less intimidating, because even though they know all that stuff, the camera that I'm putting in front of them is something that even people in the Khumbu Valley see every day. They all have smartphones and they all use them.”

In fact, Burcham’s video rig drew more attention than Alvarez himself did.

A picture of the ice cave from outside

“He just blended in,” said Burcham. “Meanwhile, everyone’s wondering why I’m chasing him around with a phone on a tripod.”

How did the phones fare in the drastically wide-ranging elements of Alvarez’s assignments? Even surrounded by the world’s tallest peaks, the Lumias were fully cooperative.

“Man, I tell you, that's the greatest thing about using a phone—these phones, in particular, which are designed in Helsinki. Going to Everest, I was really concerned about how they'd deal with the cold. I knew Juha, so I called him, and he said, “‘Compared to the winter in Helsinki, Everest isn't going to be a big deal.’ And he was right. I'm not nice to the devices. I carry them around in my pocket and they get dropped, they get wet. We leave them out in the cold all the time.”

In fact, the phones very nearly outlasted the photographer carrying them. At 18,000 feet, where Alvarez nearly froze solid wearing every piece of clothing he’d brought with him, the Lumias continued to shoot spectacular, magazine-quality panoramas.

“By the time I stopped shooting I could no longer feel my fingers,” Alvarez wrote in National Geographic. “The smartphones were unfazed.”

Like the tools of photography, Stephen Alvarez is ever-changing, ever evolving. He recently produced and photographed a National Geographic story called “The First Artists,” inspired by ancient paintings he saw in the Lascaux Caves of southwest France. It wasn’t something Alvarez was interested in, at first (“My wife talked me into it,” he said), but the modern qualities of the cave art lit a fire in him, and that began several years of research and several more years shooting inside caves from Africa to Europe.

“That gets me off the couch,” he said, chuckling. “I’ve always loved going places that are difficult to get to, making photographs and bringing them back. Going into jungles, climbing mountains, going into caves, places that are really very physically arduous to get to. Going there is great, but the thing that really gets me going is making images so that I could share that experience.”

That’s it and that’s all. Stephen Alvarez doesn’t want to be the camera; he wants to be the lens. He wants to capture these sights as faithfully as possible, burdened with as little weight and bulk as possible. And he’s earnestly looking forward to the day that the technology fully complements his vision.

“I always adapt how I see and how I shoot to the capability of the equipment at hand,” he said. “It doesn't matter how good the camera that you left in your hotel room is. The importance is how good is the one in your hand. For most people, including professional photographers, now it's going to be a telephone.”

Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft
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