Cameras in our phones are becoming serious pieces of kit. It didn’t take long for mobile manufacturers to work out that megapixels make sales and, just one year on from 5-megapixels seeming like a huge amount, we’ve had 8s and now 12s are just around the corner. With camera phones packing the same kind of resolution as high end DSLRs, are the days of the dedicated photography hardware well and truly numbered? Is the digital camera dead?
There’s probably one thing to get out the way fast before anyone blows their top – megapixels do not equal quality. We know this. So, the short answer is that the camera is not dead and indeed will not die for at least the foreseeable future – at least, not the DSLR, but life isn’t looking so rosy for the compact.
You see, camera phones are more than just megapixels these days. Just look at the likes of the LG Renoir. You can control white balance and exposure, you can manually focus, there’s a world of compact features like face detection, blink detection, smile and beauty shots, anti-blur, image stabilisation, vibration reduction and they’ve got ISO ranges just as impressive as anything you’d pick up from Nikon, Canon et al.
In fact, with the likes of the Samsung Pixon on the horizon, there’s not really a lot that all but top end compact cameras can offer that a mobile phone can’t. Before long, they’ll be after the big boys but until then, here’s five things that the camera phone must do to mount a serious challenge:
If photography is about anything, it’s lens quality and one look at the tiny little shooter on the back of any mobile phone should give you an idea that it’s going to be little match for a chunky old hunk of crafted glass on a dedicated digi-cam.
Nokia and LG have got the right idea by getting world famous manufacturers like Carl-Zeiss and the impronouncable Schneider-Kreuznach involved but it’s still little match for NIKKOR and Leica and co. They’re going to have to work out how to condense that quality into that tiny peas of a lens if camera phones are really going to do the biz.
2) Shutter Response
For me, this is the main reason why camera phones are just as good/bad as compacts. It’s that killer aeon of time that passes between you pressing the shutter release and the photo actually being taken. Much of the lag is about waiting for the auto focus to catch but then there’s all the flash, double flash nonsense and general bleeping and chirping that gets in the way too. And by the time all that’s done, you’ve generally missed the shot.
Only DSLRs give you that instant shutter release and, when the camera phone has mastered that, they’ll be on the warpath. Something beyond two frames per second shooting would do nicely too.
3) PSAM (or a degree of autonomy)
I don’t often shoot in fully manual mode and rarely in either aperture of shutter priority for that matter but, damn it, I want the choice. Maybe I want to take a long exposure shot. It’s the kind of playground that real photography’s made of. Options people, give me options!
Weirdly, this is one area where compact cameras excel. People love to zoom. We must be a race of voyeurs.
I’ve lost count of the huge telescopic lengths to which compacts can take optical zoom but suffice to say it’s miles further than what you can get out of a mobile. Anyone mentions digital zoom to me and I’m crackin’ skulls.
5) Image Sensors
No one likes a CCD sensor. It’s all CMOS these days but just because it’s got the letters, it doesn’t mean this modern day version of camera film is as faithful in a mobile phone as it is in a DSLR. There’s love and care goes into the production of these things for dedicated cameras and although I’ve seen some interesting news about image sensors for mobiles, I’m yet to be convinced. Get this one right, and the glassware in order, and that’s most of the battle won.
Now just because the mobile phone’s playing catch up with the camera, it doesn’t mean that Nikon, Canon and co. have nothing to lean from telephony. There’s gadgetry within our pocket handsets which should be commonplace in compacts and DSLRs if they want to hang onto their edge too. So here’s five areas where they could borrow some tech:
A minuscule handful of cameras have GPS functionality built in but all too many require extra modules you need to strap on for all your geo-tagging needs. Two words for you there – annoying and expensive, whereas the humble mobile has had GPS for years.
GPS is also a hell of a power drain, so while we’re at it, how about the kind of battery life that wont make us fear turning it on like a dad fears people tampering with the thermostat.
2) Added Functionality
Both mobile phones and cameras have woken up to video capture at roughly the same speed. There’s plenty of DSLRs that shoot HD as there are phones now too, but how many cameras do you know that play music or play a variety of video codecs or feature Dolby sound?
Gadgets are converging and, although I’m not particularly interested in having a toaster on my camera, I appreciate that some people are.
3) LCD Displays
Camera displays are stuck at 2.7 to 3.0 inches. Phones are off to infinity and beyond and, with live view shooting becoming the favourite of future generations, dedicated cameras are going to have to up their game in terms of both screen size and touch interaction as well.
So, you’ve taken taken your stills, or video for that matter, and now it’s time to upload them to the web. Easy peasy on a mobile phone but where’s the Wi-Fi and 3G on a camera? The Eye-Fi is all very well and good but it’s not available in the UK as yet.
Now, I appreciate that there’s a whole world of SIM card-ery if this dream is to come true but they’ve made it work for laptops and, besides, it’s not me who’s making the rules here.
5) On board storage
It was all a bit trivial in days gone by but look at something like the N97 – 32GB of built-in storage, and that’s before you’ve bothered with an SD card. A few cameras have addressed the issue but most have a hard disk that’s filled up in seconds by more than a handful of snaps. Plus, when we’re talking HD video footage too, we can really do with all the help we can get. More storage please.
I wouldn’t chuck away your compact just yet but, the minute you see serious quality camera lenses telescoping out beyond a mobile’s body before packing neatly back away again, it’s probably time to start thinking about it.
As for DSLRs, well, I think there’s enough purists out there who’d never hand theirs in for the sake of a phone. They’re untouchable for both image quality and functionality and I doubt we’ll see them replaced for quite some time.
I like to think there’s something else in it too, something slightly more intangeable. I enjoy using camera phones but it just feels right taking pictures with a half a kilogram, specially crafted piece of kit in my hands. Snaps on my mobile phone I’ll take and forget. Photos on my camera are for life.