For years cellphones have sported cameras of one type or another. Today’s sudden growth in smart-phones with megapixel sensors makes it tempting to think that the era of the camera phone has finally arrived.
Now I have to be honest, as a guy who has made a living selling cameras for ages I wish that the phone companies had targeted some other consumer device to merge into their phones – perhaps a hairdryer or a lawnmower – anything but a camera. But to be honest, it makes perfect sense to carry a unified device for imaging and communication. I’m not sure if the engineer who first put a camera in a cell phone had any clue regarding the fusion of camera phones and today’s internet-based social networks, but now it’s hard to imagine one without the other.
Camera phones were introduced into the US market beginning in 1999. And since that day there have been persistent voices proclaiming the impending death of the compact digital camera. “More camera phones have been sold to date than film or digital cameras in all of history!” states one common claim. True enough, but have you seen any cell phones in the last six or seven years that haven’t had a built-in camera?
Frankly the statistic quoted only reflects the explosion in cell phone sales worldwide and not the use of camera phones as imaging devices. The bulk of camera phones currently in use worldwide are flip phones which sport cameras with less than two megapixels of resolution. The pictures look somewhere between fair and poor on the camera’s screen and worse on Facebook. The day may come when camera phones replace compact digital cameras but I don’t think that day is here quite yet.
The first topic I’d like to review in this series covers some of the pros and cons of phone-ography. There are some pretty compelling arguments for and against camera phones and this seems like a good place to start. I’ll tell you up front that I won’t be arguing that everyone should avoid a camera phone, nor will I be suggesting that we all should rush out and buy one. What I do suggest is that you follow the series and decide for yourself.
What’s Wrong With Phone-Ography
1) Tiny, wee, bitty imaging sensors – There is no way around it, the imaging sensors in smart-phones are among the smallest on the market. Then the manufacturers try to cram more and more megapixels into this small space. Size is important. Larger sensors perform better in low light; and by low light we mean common places like living rooms and restaurants. Larger sensors have larger pixels which do a better job of gathering light.
2) No real zoom - We have spent years telling people about the evils of digital zoom on their compact digital cameras yet the majority of smart-phones only offer digital zoom. Lets face it, for a real zoom lens the phone body would have to be larger and thicker which is the opposite of what anyone wants. A 2X digital zoom on a 5MP smart-phone lowers the resolution to less than 3MP; a 5X takes the capture to sub-megapixel resolution. A very few smart-phones offer optical zoom lenses but they hang out in the 3X range and tend to be the size and thickness of a compact camera.
3) Terribly weak ‘flash’ – Relying on a bright LED light to add illumination to a photo sounds like a good idea but the range is so limited that it is almost laughable. Most phone based ‘flash’ photography is limited to a distance of around three to four feet on a smart-phone. On compact digital cameras the useful range of their strobe-type flash units is about eight to ten feet. Most smart-phone images captured with the assist light look like they were shot in a tunnel, the subjects may look OK but they seem to float in dark, almost black space.
4) The absolute, 100% incorrect, and totally wrong way to hold a camera for steady shots – There just isn’t any place to put your fingers and still see the view screen AND keep everything solid and steady. It’s funny, we wouldn’t buy a compact camera that didn’t have image stabilization but we seem to accept camera phones without the feature.
5) Controls? Fuhgeddaboudit! – While we appreciate the simplicity in the design of a smart-phone the operation is all about automation. Even the cheapest Nikon or Canon compact camera (which costs 1/5 as much as a good Android or iPhone) has basic controls such as scene modes, image file size and even ISO. (There are some apps that offer a few additional controls to the basic smart-phone camera)
6) Slow as molasses in January – If I tried to sell you a compact camera that had as much shutter lag as a smart-phone you’d laugh your way out of the store. And fast sequential shots? Not unless you use a very low resolution. The cameras in smart-phones are all about snapshots not speed.
7) Image file management and exporting… sucks – There is no nice way to put it, unless you follow the well beaten path of upload to Facebook or some other site it’s a bear to work with the image files on a smart-phone. There are a number of ways to download the images to a computer but these methods represent a giant step backward to the early days of digital photography. Relying on automated software resident in a computer for downloading will often harvest the thumbnail or small display images rather than the full-sized image files. About the easiest way that I’ve found is to email the images to my Yahoo account and download them from there. So much for conserving my phone’s data plan.
Our biggest concern when it comes to cellphone image file management and exporting is the potential for important pictures to be lost. Physical backup under the users direct control is still the best bet for generational image storage. The cumbersome nature of direct image or video download to computer and then to a removable storage device or optical disk all but assures that backup won’t happen.
What’s Right With Phone-Ography
1) Millions of moments preserved that might otherwise have been lost – Take a look at YouTube and Facebook and think about the sheer volume of content uploaded to just these two sites. YouTube has two days worth of video – 2,880 minutes – upload every minute of the day. Or, it would take you 7.8 years of 24/7 viewing to watch every minute of video uploaded to YouTube today. Facebook picture uploads number in the billions per month.
We are documenting our lives like never before. More pictures are taken, more movies shot, and there is pleasure in sharing the results. As a kid, my grandparents received pictures of me and my sisters only when a church directory sitting or school photo day happened to be scheduled. Families that live far from relatives are enjoying a level of connectivity that is unprecedented in history. That is a very, very good thing.
2) Highly portable devices that are almost always handy – If you are out and about, chances are that you have a cell phone with you. A 2010 survey found that 91% of Americans use a cell phone. Look at just 18 to 29 year old Americans and that percentage jumps to 96%. Today, if you have your phone you have a camera. You are empowered to share the moment with anyone who is connected to the web.
3) Easy sharing to Facebook, YouTube and other sites – Many cell phones make it easy to upload images to Facebook or video to YouTube. These two aren’t the only players in town – Google, SmugMug, Vimeo and more also compete for cell phone pictures and video.
Alternatively it is possible to quickly attach images to emails and send them directly to specific people. Cell phones have this advantage over compact digital cameras: as long as you have a cell signal and available minutes in your cell phone data plan you may send images immediately from the device. With a few exceptions, cameras have to be downloaded to a computer before the images can be shared electronically.
This is a two-edged sword though. For as easy as Facebook or YouTube uploading is, we have to admit that the majority of the uploaded content isn’t relevant. Three minutes of video uploaded because a 45 second section of it is cute; all 50 pictures from the trip to the zoo posted to Facebook even though only three pictures are needed to tell the story. All of the extra imagery gets uploaded because it’s easier to hit “submit all” rather than take the time to edit the content.
4) It’s fun! – Blackberry, iPhone, Windows or Android – there are many apps that take your photos from regular to “Wow!” Free or paid, each of these providers offers easy applications that enhance or modify the camera’s imaging. There are even applications that permit photo editing right on the phone. It is just as easy to take a regular ol’ picture as it is to use a creative application. Will these apps appeal to everyone? Not at all. But that doesn’t diminish the fun of taking pictures or videos anywhere and at anytime and applying your own unique ‘look’ to the images.
There are many more pros and cons about camera phones, the fact is I couldn’t list them all if I tried. One sure thing is that the technology will continue to evolve and performance will be enhanced. However we do have some interesting options right here and now. Next we will take a look at a few tools that we can use to give a smartphone some important benefits, perhaps moving smart-phones closer toward becoming a family memory maker.