Sizing up smartphone cameras

Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from the Digital Focus blog at PCWorld.com.

I’m something of a grumpy old man when it comes to camera phones—for years, I’ve resisted them, complaining that I just didn’t see the point. “Using a camera phone dumbs down photography,” I’d say, citing poor image quality and lack of control. When I wrote Five Tips for Great Photos With Your Cell Phone, I did it reluctantly, mainly because my friends insisted that phones with cameras were incredibly popular.

Set your expectations accordingly

Things are looking up, though. For the last few weeks, I’ve been playing with the cameras in the Palm Pre and the Apple iPhone 3GS, and I can finally see why someone would want to use these devices.

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Don’t get me wrong: Even the best mobile phone cameras take horrifically bad photos compared to a good digital SLR or an advanced point and shoot. In a phone, you usually don’t get any control over aperture or shutter speed. There’s no ISO adjustment. And the image quality suffers from noise and color issues you’d never find in a quality camera.

A photo taken with a Nikon D200 DSLR...

Compare, for example, a photo of my cat taken with a Nikon D200 and another with my iPhone. The photo from my Nikon digital SLR on the right has rich detail, excellent color, and it’s sharp enough to cut yourself on. The grainy, slightly blurred iPhone snapshot below speaks for itself. And this is the best of a half-dozen attempts.

The Fun Factor

Sure, the photos aren’t great. But camera phones are so much fun! I’ve fallen in love with a $3 iPhone app called Pano, for example, that lets you take a series of photos and stitch them together into a panoramic shot right in the phone. It works amazingly well, and it even has a guide that helps you line up successive photos.

... and one taken with the iPhone’s built-in camera.

This iPhone app will never replace taking high-quality panoramic photos with a digital camera and stitching the panorama together on your computer, but I’m almost giddy with delight when I make a complete panorama using nothing more than my cell phone. The immediacy is amazing.

Speaking of fun, the iPhone uses a touch-based focusing system—just touch the part of the screen where you want the lens to focus. It’s simply delightful.

The Convenience Factor

And then there’s the sheer convenience of having a camera built into your phone. I've had a camera in older phones, like my Samsung Blackjack, for several years, but the resolution was just too low to be useful. Both the Palm Pre and iPhone have 3-megapixel cameras, though, and that’s enough to capture photos and see real detail.

Not long ago, I wrote about six unusual uses for your camera. I recently had a real-world application when I came home to find the pump in my 90-gallon fish tank had died. I snapped some photos of the dead pump with the Palm Pre—thank goodness the phone includes a tiny flash—and used it to get the right replacement at the store that evening. The camera phone’s 3-megapixel-resolution and its multi-touch screen meant I could zoom in and show the sales clerk small details with a simple two-fingered pinch gesture, right on the phone’s display.

As for the iPhone, though it has no flash, it captures video as well as still images—and includes the ability to upload directly to YouTube. It’s so immediate and convenient that I’ve uploaded a few short videos to YouTube myself—something I’m not ordinarily accustomed to doing. Apparently I’m not alone. I recently saw a story that reported a dramatic increase in mobile uploads to YouTube as a result of the iPhone 3GS.

So I’m feeling a lot more optimistic about mobile phone cameras these days. I still worry that camera phones will replace dedicated cameras, and we'll come to accept grainy, blurry photos as acceptable in the same way that teenagers listen to low-quality MP3s instead of higher quality LPs and CDs—but maybe that’s just the curmudgeon in me.

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