These stunning iPhone Photography Award winners were mostly shot on older iPhones

Side-Walking on Air entry for iPhone Photography Awards 2021
(Image credit: Jeff Rayner / IPPA 2021)
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The iPhone Photography Awards 2021 has just announced its winners for this year's competition – and one of the most striking things (other than the photos) is that they were mostly shot on older iPhones.

Of the 54 winners, chosen from thousands of entries taken in more than 140 countries around the world, only seven were shot using the latest iPhone 12 or iPhone 12 Pro Max.

The Grand Prize winner, Istvan Kerekes' shot of Transylvanian Shepherds in Romania, was taken on the iPhone 7 from 2016, while the 'First Place Photographer of the Year Award' went to Sharan Shetty of India for his black-and-white 'Bonding' image. This was taken on the iPhone X, which arrived back in 2017.

None of this really tells us much about the relative quality of various iPhones – and we still think the iPhone 12 Pro Max has the best iPhone camera – but it does highlight that you don't necessarily need the latest iPhone to take an award-winning snap.

One winner, Diego Moreno's 'The Watchman' (third place in the 'Children' category, which you can see further down) was actually taken on the iPhone 5S, which launched back in 2013. This is all the more impressive when you consider that the scene, with a streak of light cutting through gloom, is a challenging one for any camera, let alone an eight-year-old phone.

The rules of the IPPA 2021 awards, which are independent from Apple, also state that "the photos should not be altered in any desktop image processing program such as Photoshop", but that it's okay to use "any iOS apps". It's clear that many of the shots have benefited from some touching up using mobile apps (particularly in the 'Abstract' category'), but that is now a crucial part of the photographic process.

Still, many shots are very possibly also 'straight out of camera' and the sheer variety on show is inspiring to anyone who wants to see what's possible with an iPhone (of any kind) and a creative eye. Here's our pick of the winners of the 2021 iPhone Photography Awards.

Overall winners

The iPhone Photography Awards 2021 picked out four overall winners, which you can flick through above. The Grand Prize Winner and Photographer of the Year Award went to photojournalist Istvan Kerekes of Hungary for his candid shot of two shepherds traveling across an industrial landscape. The judges observed that "the grit of the men and the bleakness of their environment are a moving contrast to the hope and innocence of the lambs in their care".

Slightly confusingly, there's also a First Place Photographer of the Year Award, which went to Sharan Shetty for his touching monochrome shot of a man and his horse in an empty landscape. Then just behind in second and third place respectively are Dan Liu's sci-fi shot of an astronaut traversing a Martian-like landscape, closely followed by  Jeff Rayner's portrait of a young girl floating on a Lose Angeles sidewalk. The clever composition based around light and shadow in the latter makes it particularly striking.

Abstract

There are a ton of great iOS apps for giving your photos an abstract twist – check out Mextures, in our guide to the best photo editing apps – but sometimes all you need to do is frame an everyday scene in an arresting way. That's what Glenn Homann appears to have done for his 'Untitled' shot (first place in the 'Abstract' category), showing a walkway going behind an orange-and-red structure, which really pops in the full glare of sunlight.

More experimental in its technique is Bei Xiao's 'The Last Steam Train' (second place in 'Abstract'), which appears to use motion blur and ICM (Intentional Camera Movement) to help soften the details and create a stunning landscape shot. And then in a more classic abstract approach, Matteo Lava's 'Frozen Lines' isolates the shapes produced by cracked ice to produce what could be a paint-flecked piece that you'd stumble across in a modern art gallery.

Animals

The iPhone X was a step up from the iPhone 7 series when it came to capturing detail and texture and the 'Animals' category leans on this. The winning shot of a bearded dragon, Laila Bakker's 'Strike a Pose', picks out some impressive detail on the beardies' scales. 

Taking a more abstract approach is Elizabeth Burns' untitled shot of (what appears to be) a horse's mane, while Theresa Lee's 'Hair Raising' shows that a good understanding of composition is more than important than having a phone with multiple cameras. It was shot on the iPhone XR, which has only one rear camera. 

Architecture

Chinese photographers dominated the 'Architecture' category, winning the top three places – but all three take very different approaches. 'Candy' by Yuexiang Wang focuses on bringing out the dominant color in its arches scene, which looks painterly thanks to its simple composition (and possibly some color slider tweaking).

Even more stripped down is 'Untitled' by Yayun Liu, which uses the tight framing of a single cloud above a wall to create what almost looks like a side-scrolling Mario level. More traditional is 'Taj Mahal in the Mist' by Tao He, which uses unusual conditions to give us a striking shot of a famous and much-photographed landmark. 

Children

The 'Children' category winners are great examples of how choosing an unusual angle (or prop) can elevate what would otherwise be fairly familiar everyday scenes. Dong Wei's 'Untitled' photo (shot on iPhone 7 Plus) combines a low-angle shot of a climbing frame with the simplicity of black-and-white to create a striking shot of three kids playing in Sichuan, China.

Taking the opposite approach is Iakovos Draculis' top-down 'Untitled' shot of a kid getting swamped by the froth of an incoming wave. A fast shutter speed nicely freezes the water in their nicely balanced composition. Lastly, Diego Moreno's 'The Watchman' shows the quality that's still possible from the iPhone 5S with his clever shot of (what we hope is) a fake eyeball in a kids' mouth, giving it a 'second take' quality.

City Life

Some city skylines have been shot millions of times, but Liz Huang's 'Untitled' photo on Manhattan (first place in the 'City Life' category) shows you can always find a unique angle if you're prepared to explore a bit. Taken above some skyscraper roof repairs, this view might not be widely open to the public, but there are no doubt some similarly unusual angles available around New York's lesser-known haunts.

Not that great city shots have to contain famous buildings – Lisi Li's 'Winter Dawn in a Small Town' (shot in Xinjiang, China) uses subdued, post-snowfall color tones and a solitary figure to create a Lowry-esque atmosphere. Lastly, in third place is Ann Ghory-Goodman's timely shot of a 'social distancing' sign that's ironically in a deserted corner of Orleans, Massachusetts.

Landscape

During Apple's iPhone 12 launch there was a scene showing the phone mounted to a little FPV drone for aerial shots. Is this the kind of technique used by Lizhi Wang for the landscape category-winning 'Flight from Iguazu' shot above? It's not clear, but whether it's just a clever vantage point or aerial assistance, the result is a stunning view of the Paraná River in Argentina.

Also winners in the same category are two atmospheric landscape shots from Jialin Liu (capturing a shooting star above marshland) and snaking road in Xinjiang, China (an untitled shot from Shi Tian Zhang) that cleverly uses a blast of sunlight to draw the eye into one particularly scary hairpin turn in the region's 'sky road'. 

Lifestyle

A more vague category like 'Lifestyle' is likely to attract some diverse entries and that's reflected in this year's winners. Sometimes an arresting, unusual scene is all your need to make a great photo, as shown by Mahabub Hossain Khan's 'The Old Gym', which shows that all you really need for a workout space is some weights and a healthy dash of determination.

Taking the opposite approach is the second place winner 'Landscaper Study' by Keith Brofsky, which proves that a brilliant composition can be unearthed in even the most apparently humdrum scene. Lastly, La Vue des Filles by Valerie Helbich-Poschacher (or 'The View of the Girls') smartly frames the uniform dress of  a group of Muslim girls in Sri Lanka.

Nature

A great technique for photographing flowers is to fill the frame, and one of the easiest ways of doing that is to use a third-party macro lens. The iPhone X focuses down to about 10cm, so a lens accessory isn't essential, but we'd wager that the winning nature shot above ('Pondering the Positives' by Christian Horgan) uses a macro add-on from the likes of Moment. It's stunning shot that picks out the flower's intricate details.

An equally effective alternate approach is to strip out the scene's color and focus on form using black-and-white, which is what Mohan Wang's untitled shot achieves nicely. In a similar way, Marton Tordai avoids a busy, distracting background in order to highlight the color and shape of the leaves in their third-placed untitled shot.

Portrait

A popular portrait photography technique is using bright 'high key' lighting to blow out the background and you don't need studio lights to achieve it. Buried in your iPhone's 'Portrait' mode is a 'high-key light mono' setting and it's quite possible this was used by Krysten Crabtree for their excellent winning shot of a girl caught in the snow.

That's just one approach, of course, with a candid portrait in an curious setting (for example, surrounded by Christmas trees) being another route to a great shot, as shown by Juliet Cope's second-placed entry. Lastly, another great example of filling the frame in an unusual way is Quim Fabregas' 'Reach the Soul' portrait, which was given third place.