Smart Cameras and Photo Phone Progress

iPhone sunsetI once took my DSLR out for a four hour walk. I took loads of pictures, but I didn’t use my DSLR once.

Afterwards, I thought about why I’d chosen to use my iPhone to take all those photos when I had a genuine choice of a far better camera, and I came up with two reasons.

  1. Sharing. I found this the less convincing reason, but here goes: The ultimate destination for my pics, these days, is not a dusty old photo album but Google+, Instagram and Flickr. For most photo editing, I find apps for the iPhone easier to use than those on my Mac. Taking pictures on the phone cuts steps out of the workflow and means I can get pictures up online even before I get back home. It’s less convincing because it is a real compromise (quality for convenience) but I think it’s a factor.
  2. The lovely lovely iPhone screen. When I got an iPhone4 the thing that really surprised me (apart from the fact that it’s camera could take rather reasonable still pictures) was its incredibly sharp and beautiful screen. Viewfinders/cheap camera screens are always a compromise. The reproductions lack detail, show up poorly in even moderate sunlight, and colours are not true (things may have progressed since I got my D40 5 years ago, but still). As well as the fabulous quality of the screen itself, it provides a completely different interface: adjusting focus and exposure by just tapping is incredibly intuitive. But above all it is the feedback from this superior screen that lets me see exactly what is wrong with a photo straight away and make adjustments there and then. Despite the inferior technical quality of the camera, I believe it lets me take better photos.

So where do cameras go from here? Is there a way of getting the best of both worlds? I’m rather unconvinced by the ‘smart camera’ concept, realised in the recent Android Camera from Nikon. It’s a camera running phone software. It might be a nice improvement over the standard camera, certainly from the point of view of adding sharing capabilities. But it’s not providing a phone’s operating system that will make the difference here – it’s how good the screen and the camera software make the photography experience. (Not that there’s not a bit of me getting excited over the hacking possibilities this type of development offers… they go beyond turning the camera into a phone!)

Of more interest to me is the concept of the camera as an iPhone accessory. We haven’t seen this yet, but a 14 megapixel gadget with an improved flash is due to be released by someone called will.i.am (I don’t know who these Black Eyed Peas are, but I had a vague impression they were a popular beat combo, not a tech startup). The phone already has the screen an interface – plus the software and connectivity for my editing and sharing workflows – but this could open up a market in hardware upgrades that allows all sorts of specialist add-ons for both still and video photography.

Exciting times.

About Simon Wood

E-learning officer, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See simonwood.info for more...

8 thoughts on “Smart Cameras and Photo Phone Progress

  1. You’re right, but then again, you’re absolutely wrong! It’s religious wars time.

    I think the only justification for using a smartphone as a DSLR replacement is if you’re worried about the weight of “stuff” that you’re carrying. Thus, I use my iPhone and my small Lumix DMC TZ-10 when I’m walking – out for the day, snapping if you like! That’s the only  justification for using these devices.

    Your arguments for using an iPhone are (unusually for you) just plain out of left-field (or is that right-field) and wrong! 

    Sharing – yes it’s nice to share photos when you”re out and about but you surely don’t select your equipment on that as a criteria. talk about dumbing down! What’s more it takes time away from the pleasure of the walk and gets you into a tizwaz if 3G isn’t up to scratch if you’re walking thinking about sharing. Sharing when walking is an afterthought and should never interfere with the walk. Then you talk about editing being easier on the iPhone – well yes it is, if all you want to do is add a filter, or crop the picture, but is that all you aspire to achieving? [I know from previous conversations that you’ve bemoaned the quality/features of the cataloguing on the mobile apps. Just relax and do it when you’re back home … in the warm.]

    Then you talk about the screen. Really … I only use my DSLR screen to see if I’ve got the exposure right (using the histogram) and got the image sharp (using the zoom) – ie setting up the shot, not for composition because I know I’ll get that right in editing, especially if I bracket the shot. And then … nothing can compensate for the lens you have to work with. So forget about the sensor – it’s all about the lens. So will.i.am can’t do much about what he has to work with, can he?

    So, where do I think things are going? There’s place for both. When I want to take pictures, I’ll use my DSLR with my tripod. When I want to walk and enjoy the company of the people I’m walking with – real social and sharing – I’ll use my iPhone/Lumix.

    Guess it’s about time for another session in The Goat Major 🙂

    1. Yes, well, first of all I deliberately pre-empted the ‘weight’ argument by giving an example where I carried both cameras but chose to use the phone. The ‘weight’ argument is well rehearsed and convincing – you take the best photos the camera you’ve got with you, and for spontaneous pictures that’s unlikely to be a heavy device. That’s an easy justification for the camera phone. My point was that there are other shortcomings of DSLRs to be addressed, at least for some photographers.

      Sharing – I did concede I wasn’t so convinced by this argument, so I won’t pursue that. (Except to say that while I may not be great at multitasking, I do manage to combine both ‘resting’ and ‘sharing’ with moderate success, and if there’s a lack of 3G I’m learning to respond philosophically to this.)

      Editing – no, I’m making the stronger argument that editing (not cataloguing) is easier and better on a multi-touch device than on a Mac. If I’m honest, that multi-touch device is an iPad, but the point remains, multi-touch interfaces knock mouse (or pen/tablet) interfaces into a cocked hat here.

      The screen – it’s here that I think you are ignoring the real advantage – for some photographers at least – that immediate feedback can provide for the learning process. Yes, there are those who can take great pictures with film, which they wouldn’t see before they got into the dark room. They know kit, techniques and darkroom tricks so well that they can translate what they see with the naked eye into the finished photograph. We’re digital now, but that’s what you are talking about. Some of us just don’t have that deep knowledge and so our imagination fails us. Feedback on what we are taking at the time when we can still do something about it radically changes to capturing experience. Of course you are right that there are some things that you can change in post production… You can compensate for poor exposure, for example, and with bracketing maybe even for the wrong depth of field. But you can’t recompose a photograph back at home.

      And on the final point – to put it in your robust terms – you are wrong! On both counts – on the importance of the sensor – and on will.i.am being able to do something about the lens. Because unless I’ve completely misunderstood, I can see no way that he can replace the former without also replacing the latter. The point about what I anticipate will be an emerging range of camera accessories for phones is they do let you add better hardware!

      However, the one thing you are indubitably correct about it being time for another session Goat Major 🙂

  2. Thanks for replying … you could have ignored me 🙂

    I accept your point about the screen and feedback, and that is valid if you don’t have a DSLR, but if you have, please invest the time in getting to grips with learning how to use it at its most rudimentary level because that’ll give you such better images to work with in post-production. [As an aside I wouldn’t rely on compensating for either poor exposure or depth of field in the edit.]

    The smartphone even with clever accessories will only be as good as its lens. The sensor will increase the pixel density but will not improve the quality of the image – exposure, aperture, depth of field are all left to working with a tiny, tiny piece of glass to work with. I can’t believe that you can improve on what’s there (the basic glass), even with fancy accessories added front and back. Replace the lens??? Can’t see Apple allowing that, can you? So you’ve left with something that clips in front of a tiny basic lens – no thank you.

    1. Just to be clear (though I don’t think this is in dispute) I’m not saying phone cameras are capable of technically better images than the DSLR. What I’m arguing is that they can help the photographer to be a better photographer. For a photographer equally skilled with each, of course the the DSLR will give you better images to work with post-production. But a crispness, clarity, resolution etc. do not on their own make a great photograph. If feedback can help a photographer take better photographs, then DSLRs need to equal iPhones in terms of that capability if they are to be the better choice in all situations.

      I think one of us is misunderstanding what this Black Eyed Pea is doing. Personally I can’t see a reason why Apple wouldn’t allow an accessory that had its own (replacement) lens and sensor (by replacing the lens I don’t think the implication is the existing lens need be removed)? Conversely, I cannot see how a replacement sensor could be used with the existing lens even if Apple wanted this? So I don’t think what we’re going to see next week has anything to do with clipping things in front of Apple’s lens. But maybe I’m missing something…?

    2. Looks like we can both claim to be right on this one!

      The thing has been ‘launched’ and it appears that there are two classes of product. One which, like you thought, adds a clip-on lens in front of Apple’s camera (it doesn’t replace the sensor either). I agree this is pointless (and it is also rather expensive). The other, like I thought, does completely replace Apple’s camera, and so has its own glass, but it won’t be available until February and details are still sketchy, which is a shame because this is by far the more interesting product.

  3. Now you’ve made a choice with your M43 Panny, I’ll look forward, as always, to the results. I now, in re-reading my comments see that I completely misunderstood will.i.am’s add-on (and what you were saying). If all the iPhone is doing is providing a camera back, which I’d not thought, then it could work, but I do feel that all the clipping and unclipping in a hostile environment, where ruggedness is usually of an essence, is not likely to lengthen the life of either device. Then there is the change in size (4 -> 5), and interface that limits the life of the add-on.

    So … I think your choice of the G3F is a good one. Consider my suggestion of lens cases however that you could clip to your belt, or bag, that would enable you to pop the camera into your pocket, or even better into a soft case that you pop into your pocket.

    1. I’ll do a post on my first impressions with m43 & the GF3 soon. Also one on the many accessories my greedy eyes have already alighted on. Still think your suggestion of a lens case is excellent, will go for that.

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