I Misplaced My Fancy Camera On Assignment In Peru, But My iPhone Saved The Day

Ví­ctor Mendoza reached the top of the steep hill behind his home, then stopped and thrust a hand into his pocket. His 10-year-old son, following behind, sank into the grass nearby. In the distance, the yellow and green highlands of northern Peru unfurled until they met a dark sky.

It was the kind of moment I had travelled 4,000 miles to capture. Mendoza is the president of a farming co-op in a tiny community on the edge of a huge, controversial gold mine financed by an arm of the World Bank -- the subject of a HuffPost/ICIJ investigation released last week. The light was great, and, as if on cue, a sheep even ambled into the scene.

But when I reached for my camera, a versatile 16.2-megapixel Nikon d7000, I realized I had left it sitting in the grass a depressing distance downslope. Fetching it seemed too great a risk: At more than 12,000 feet, it was impossible to do anything quickly. So I fished my iPhone 5 out of my backpack, snapped a few pictures, and chalked the experience up to a missed opportunity.

Later, in my hotel room, I realized something surprising. The iPhone photos were actually pretty good. I emailed one I particularly liked to my reporting partner back in New York.

Six months later, that same photo was featured at the top of the story we published about the mine, beating out more than 1,000 shots I took over the course of the trip with the Nikon.

gold rush

Like most people reading this post, I've been taking snapshots with my smartphone for years. But it wasn't until my experience in Peru that I took the device seriously as a camera.

The iPhone 5s is old enough now that it falls somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of quality. The Samsung Galaxy S6 and iPhone 6 Plus seem to be the consensus favorites of the tech community. And any phone, no matter how sophisticated, still falls short compared to even a mid-market single-lens reflex camera like my Nikon, which can manage six frames per second and offers vastly more options for customization.

But the frustrating lag common with the earlier generation of smartphones is almost gone, and I am consistently impressed with the vibrancy of color captured by the 5s.

I'm not the first reporter to realize that great photography doesn't require a five-pound camera and a foot-long telephoto lens. Three years ago, photojournalist Ben Lowy shot the cover of Time Magazine with his iPhone 4s, telling the publication that at times "pros will push me aside" -- assuming he is a tourist or amateur because he is taking pictures with his phone.

My revelation happened later, on a hilltop in Peru. But I ended up in the same place: My phone is a camera that even a professional can love.

Just because, here is one more shot from the day on the hill: Mendoza's son, playing with his new puppy in the grass.