Cell phones s*ck as cameras…

…But that’s besides the point, as our contest winner proves

A recent story in Wired made me laugh. The headline was “Quantum Technology Promises Wedding Photos from Phone Cameras.” The new technology would replace silicon, which is found on typical sensors, with quantum dots, a nanocrystal made of special semiconductors, suspended in fluid, that are almost twice as efficient at absorbing light as silicon.

But while a 2X improvement in light transmission may help some cell phones produce decent 4x5 prints, it’s not going to give cell phones (or even compact digital cameras) the kind of overall quality that your typical Bridezilla will demand of her wedding album prints. The headline is also misleading, because as any experienced wedding photographer can tell you, camera phones can’t (at the moment) control lighting setup or let you change lenses for appropriate focal lengths for particular situations. These are the kinds of things that separate the pros from the wannabe’s.

Forget prints—it’s about digital sharing

If you use a camera phone, however getting photos that are competitive with professional photography, or decent-looking prints really is beside the point. Camera phones are not really cameras. They are image sharing devices. That’s where their strength lies. Say you’re at a wedding and you grab a shot of your friend sitting next to you, and you want to send it to another friend who wasn’t invited to the wedding. On most phones, it’s just a matter of attaching it as either an email or text attachment.

Don’t know how to do this? Ask the nearest 13-year-old.

You can also email images to yourself and show them off on your desktop. The image quality is no worse than what you could get out of a Kodak Brownie, or a Lomo, and with some phones, the images will look quite good.

Just look at the just-announced grand prize winner of our iPhone Photo Contest. Using an iPhone and some amazing apps, Neville Black created a surreal, dreamy image that earned him $1,000. The fact that some 17,000 people entered the contest says something about how powerful a photographic tool the iPhone has become.

I recently got an iPhone, and the allure of its easy-to-use 3MP camera with its moderate wide-angle lens makes it a tempting alternative “no excuses” camera, a camera I can use any time, when I don’t feel like bringing my big rig. Unlike the previous incarnation of the iPhone, the 3GS has autofocus that takes you to within an inch of the subject, which allowed me to get close to the flowers in the shot at right. The next generation iPhone is expected to have higher resolution (rumors are of a 5- or 8MP sensor) and perhaps a modest optical zoom lens.

The other part of the iPhone’s particular allure is the photo-related apps, of which there are many. For the picture at right, I intensified the color and added a rainbow effect filter in Photoshop Mobile, a free app, then added a black border. It rocks! It might not make a smashing 8x10 print, but I was easily able to mail this to myself and post it to my Facebook page so my friends can ooh and ahh in the comments and massage my photographic ego.

Of course, I’d rather carry along a stand-alone compact such as the Canon S90 under these situations, since I am guaranteed better quality and lots more flexibility (flash, zoom, and RAW file capture are among many features you are unlikely to encounter on a camera phone). And if I want to shoot serious, sellable-quality pictures, I must bring out my big rig with its big sensor and interchangeable lenses.

Remember that in its day, the Kodak Brownie, with its single, fixed-focus lens, was incredibly popular, while only a relative handful of dedicated shooters used big view cameras. In the 60s, most people used Instamatics or Polaroids, also fixed lens and fixed-focus, and not exactly paragons of quality, but they were cheap and accessible, and that was good enough for most snapshooters. Now, we have camera phones, which fill the space that was once occupied by the Brownie and Instamatic much more conveniently than a stand-alone compact camera.


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