The Story Behind Albert Watson’s Portrait of Steve Jobs

After Apple founder Steve Jobs passed away yesterday, the company replaced its homepage with a well-known photo of the brilliant innovator made in 2006 by photographer Albert Watson. An article published by PDN Pulse today reveals the story behind the (perhaps soon to be iconic) photo:

Jobs didn’t look immediately at Watson, but looked instead at the set-up and then focused on Watson’s 4×5 camera “like it was something dinosauric,” Watson recalls, “and he said, ‘Wow, you’re shooting film.”

“I said, ‘I don’t feel like digital is quite here yet.’ And he said, ‘I agree,’ then he turned and looked at me and said, ‘But we’ll get there.’”

Jobs gave Watson about an hour–much longer than he ever gave most photographers for a portrait session. […] I said, ‘Think about the next project you have on the table,’ and I asked him also to think about instances where people have challenged him.

“If you look at that shot, you can see the intensity. It was my intention that by looking at him, that you knew this guy was smart,” Watson says, adding, “I heard later that it was his favorite photograph of all time.”

As with many other things, he was right about digital photography — he went on to turn the iPhone into one of the world’s most used cameras.

Steve Jobs: Visionary, Inventor, and Very Challenging Photo Subject [PDN Pulse]

Update: The photo was actually made in 2006 (we had said 2008). Sorry for the error.

P.S. Did you know that Jobs was also instrumental in the rise of Adobe?

  • PicturEverything

    He was truly amazing. Who knows how many other cool gadgets he would have invented in the following years… Who knows what his ideas were and what a revolutionizing digital camera he planned…

  • Jason Heilig

    A great and historic photograph of a great person.

    Thanks for sharing the story.

  • Anonymous

    Sticking with film MF seems kind of odd, given that there were a few digital MF backs around in 2008.

  • Starcloud

    4×5 is considered large format.

  • Perceptivelight

    I well remember the first Adobe application that arrived in Australia Adobe Illustrator and there was absolutely nothing as good at the time just so many good things happened.

  • Jason Heilig

    Wait, really? I honestly didn’t know this.

    In 2009 when I started learning on 4×5 view cameras, I started by learning with film. After that we were using the Aptus22, which is a medium format back, on those same cameras with an adapter. 

    Around that time I believe the Aptus22 was close to $20k, so a 4×5 version of that would’ve been well… ridiculous.

    I don’t mean to start an argument, I love the photo, and that’s the point.

    Also, call me weird, but for an assignment as important as this, I like the use of film, especially in a studio setting with controlled lighting. It adds a sort of honor, and dignity to the shots.

    I’m not a film junkie, so don’t think I’m that. I’ve had the same pack of  Portra400NC 120 sitting in my fridge for far too long. I just never toss it in the Rolleiflex. 

    I stand by my original point which is simply, this is a photo that will become absolutely historic in nature. I could see a print of this ending up in the Louvre, or MOMA

  • Jason Heilig

    I don’t think there is anybody in the world of photography who hasn’t been affected either directly or indirectly by Steve Jobs and his work.

    We lost a hero, and a great man. A visionary to be sure.

  • Anonymous

    Hasselblad offered up to 39 MP in 2007 though it broke compatibility with film backs, at 26.500 € list price:
    No personal experience, but I’ve heard it’s really good.

    The image does look fantastic. I don’t have objections to film, but to have said in 2008 that digital isn’t there yet just seemed a bit odd, so I started looking around.

  • Jason Heilig

    Interesting to know. I don’t have experience with the Hasselblad, my experience with the Aptus Leaf (which was admittedly slightly less than medium format), was that if I had a once in a life time opportunity, I’d shoot film. Well, in 2008.

    These day’s I’d go rent one of those ridiculous Hasselblad digitals or something. 

    I learned on that Aptus22 via a Mamiya 645AFD, I miss medium format digital.

  • Eli Snook

    No, it’s MF

  • 4×5 IS large format

    Eli you have no idea do you

  • APUG.Org Subscriber

    Using My Large Format { 4X5 } Camera, and Kodak Ektar 100 will
    produce a 270 MegaPixel Image. Total Cost Of My Camera, Film, And
    Processing Is Less Than $250.00, Where can I find the Large Format { 4X5 }
    Digital  Equivalent For $250.00. And My 30 year old camera will still be producing
    images 30 years from now.

    Thanks For The Update Eli Snook !

  • 4×5

    4×5 is considered large format.

    In fact, it is the most common LF photography.

  • Elias

    Ok, I love this article mostly. I love knowing that shot was taken with a 4×5 camera and the thought and intelligence that went into pulling that look out of Steve Jobs. However, you really ruined it by closing the article with, “As with many other things, he was right about digital photography…”. Why did it ruin it for me you ask? Because comparing the iPhone to a 4×5 large format camera is ludicrous. Digital STILL isn’t up to par with what a 4×5 can do in terms of image quality and dynamic range (without using HDR). It’s getting closer yes, and it probably won’t be long before we see digital finally catch up to film, but we’re not there yet, and using the iPhone as an example of how it has is simply lazy writing. 

  • Anonymous

    Just because something is available doesn’t mean it is “there.”

    Victor Hasselblad actually made it a point back in the day to wait for the technology to ripen and then expand upon it. Taking the new tech of SLR’s and marrying it with interchangeability gave us one of the greatest modular cameras ever invented.

    As a plus, my bet is that Steve Job’s idea that this photo of him was his favorite probably had a bit to do with the fact that it was an analog photo. He had lots of pictures taken, he was surrounded with everything digital in his job, and a touch of analog really differentiates Watson’s portrait from others of this man.

    Watson was and still is correct, digital still cannot match a 4×5 negative. It just won’t happen (for a while at least). 

  • Eli Snook

    Your right I don’t, I’m just learning large and medium formats. 

  • Eli Snook

    Like I said above just learning the formats, thanks for making it known I made a mistake.

  • Anonymous

    He didn’t have to, you effed up on the internet, and that’s for everyone to see. It was just as easy for you to ask if it was MF as it was for you to try and tell someone else they were wrong.

  • Eli Snook

    Exactly, I was thinking in cm and not inches, I had it stuck in my head that 4x5cm was a MF option.

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Zhang, PDN corrected their article stating that the shoot was in 2006, not 2008. Might want to tweak that.

  • APUG.Org Subscriber

    Don’t feel bad, I’ve been at it for 35 years, and I’m still learning about photography.

    But I know it’s always best to keep my fingers away from the keyboard.
    And just let people think I’m stupid, than to start typing away, and remove
    all doubts …

    Enjoy The Weekend !

    Keep Learning !

  • Michael Zhang

    Yeah, we got the email too. Thanks Christian :)

  • onedawg

    The new Phase One IQ180 may not have the same tonal curves as film, but it clearly outresolves 8×10 film. The Luminous Landscape recently had an interesting comparison test of the two.

  • Anonymous

    NP, like the little tag about Adobe at the end too. Did not know that about Jobs. A modern genius.

  • Elias

    Wait, if 4×5 translates to a 270 megapixel image (see’s comment above) how does an 80MP sensor outresolve 8×10? And with a price point of $44K the IQ180 is not a reality for most people. Like I said, it’s gonna happen someday, but digital isn’t there yet. Until you can get a digital camera that can compete with MF, or LF at a reasonable price (let’s say $2000) and with comparable dynamic range, I won’t consider digital “there yet”. 

  • Andrew MacDonald

    Thats why Im so sad. Yes he’s died and that is heartbreaking, but despite me having complete confidence in the Apple he has left behind, I cant help wondering that when his product pipeline runs out in 3/4 years, and Apple are making products that Jobs had absolutely no insight or input into, will they still be able to make products as cool as we get today?? 

    Im not so sure, and Im one of the biggest Apple Fan Boy’s around. And Im not afraid to be honest about that! Just like im one of the biggest Canon fan boys! 

    But all that aside, Mr Jobs, thank you for everything and please, Rest In Peace. 

  • Andrew MacDonald

    Could I ask someone’s opinion or advice regarding this picture. I see that it is in Black & White, how is black and white achieved on Film? Do they use a different type of paper or something?? 

    Excuse me if its a silly question. I’ve only ever used digital, so know absolutely nothing about film. 

  • Michael Zhang

    I think it was converted to B&W afterward. Here’s the color version:

  • Douglas H

    Eli, 4″x5″ is considered the smaller of of the large formats, I shoot 4×5, 8×10 and digital, I am not sure, but I assume 5×7, the medium of large formats never caught on and I am sure Kodak(the last company to make 5×7 film?) would have ceased making it given the financial stress the company is in. The reason 4×5 is the most common large format is it’s ‘portability’ if you can call hauling a camera with it’s large tripod and film holders around(slim cardboard film holders were invented but never became popular due to their finicky loading process). Few photographers still use 8×10 for portraits, it’s shallower depth-of-field is one challenge but it does not discourage Timothy Greenfield-Sanders(I believe Playboy® may still use them for their centerfolds) from doing ‘XXX’ his portrait book of pornographic actors albeit they are full length portraits so there is less of depth problem.

  • UnitedByPhotography

    No doubt this will remain an icon image of the man Steve Job’s the driving genius behind Apple.

  • Barry

    Hi Andrew,

    Until now, I’d only ever seen the B&W version of this image, so I was quite surprised to see the colour (sorry, color!) version.. this will have been converted to B&W in Photoshop (or similar).

    As I said, I’m surprised because the photographer, Albert Watson, is predominantly known for his B&W work, using B&W film, and processing/printing to get his signature style of tone and grain. (to pre empt the trolls, yes, I know he has also used colour too)

    He is one of the great photographers of our time, and blind in one eye too..

    As for film, pick up an old analogue body for your lenses and try a roll of Tri X, or HP5.. you might like it!



  • SD40-2T

    I must be getting old, comments like “I’ve only ever used digital so I know nothing about film photography” make me cringe. Give that kid a old Pentax k series and some good B&W film and let him learn something!

  • iAwani

    i hope someday iPhone can have a 20 mega pixel camera. Just like Xperia Z2.

  • iAwani

    i admire steve jobs a lot .. and i read many articles about him on the internet.