cellphone camera test

After having lived without a cellphone for the last two centuries I finally took the leap. Not only did I get a cellphone, I got a smart phone. The iPhones have been all the rage for a while, but I ended up selecting an HTC MyTouch serviced by T-Mobile.

As someone who’s a bit of a Luddite and who’s loudly protested cellphones and cellphone culture, I’m almost ashamed to admit owning the device. Still, something about the combination of a device that is part-phone, part-camera, part-wireless router, part-web browser, part-music player, part-camcorder, part-GPS unit, part-nanny, part-godknowswhatelse seemed compelling.

The view looking north, up past Scripps Pier

Last week a good friend came to visit for a few days. A tourist trip up to the top of Mount Soledad, the high point of coastal San Diego, seemed like a good idea. Thursday was a break between winter storms, which meant that the visibility could be pretty stunning.

Yes indeed. The views were terrific. Also, a lot of native plants surrounding the little pad of green grass and parking at the top of the mountain were breaking out into bloom.

Did someone say “photo-op?”

Scarlet monkey flower, Mimulus aurantiacus, but judging from the focus the camera was more rapt with the view of La Jolla below.
Deerweed, Lotus scoparius, also frustratingly out of focus, no matter how hard I tried to get the camera to focus on the flower instead of the background foliage.

Since I didn’t have my real camera this seemed like a good test for the camera feature on the new handheld device. (Really, can you call it a phone anymore?)

Here’s a short stack of snapshots I took up there. And yes, I consider them snapshots, only snapshots.

I’m used to cameras with lots of controls. For controls, this model has a moderate zoom option and the ability to turn the flash on or off or on automatic. That’s it for options. So, it does make for a simple-to-use camera, but it’s simple to the point of being simplistic.

Coast sunflower, Encelia californica, showing both focus and exposure issues.

The flowers of lemonadeberry, Rhus integrifolia. Unlike my other attempts at closeups, this shot came out clear and crisp--but still blown out in the highlights.

Achieving good focus or getting an exposure that doesn’t overexpose something in the frame can be a challenge. These are limitations for lots of point and shoot cameras, so I don’t know that it’s any worse than some of them. Lens flare when you shoot into the sun can be a problem, but that happens with even the best of cameras.

The phone designers probably realized that the camera would be liable to shake as you took a snapshot. To compensate they applied a fairly extreme level of in-camera sharpening. For some images it’s barely noticeable, in others it’s so obvious it hurts.

So as not to seem like I’m a total Mr. Negative, there were a few things I did like. The wide 9:16 aspect ratio of the image–similar to the current generation of televisions–is kinduv cool and cinematic. The 2:3 aspect ratio of old-school 35mm cameras is harder to work with and often feels unnatural.

A view with encelia and lemonadeberry in the foreground, as well as the ever-present coyotoebrush, baccharis.
That view again, this time with some chamise, Adenostoma fasciculatum, in the foreground. I still have trouble deciding whether I'm in coastal sage scrub habitat or maritime chaparral. The presence of chamise tells you that you're in chaparral.
A view to the south. You could easily see a couple dozen miles into Mexico that day.

Colors looked pretty true to life.

And in the end there’s the much better chance that you’ll have the cellphone camera handy when you’ve left the dedicated camera at home. You may never miss another photo op again.

So…has life changed with a cellphone? I can’t say that it has that much. It was handy to have when I was trying to navigate Philadelphia a couple weeks ago. It’s handy to keep in touch with people when you’re away from the landline. And I guess I feel just a little bit more hip. Like, now, when people talk about angry birds, I realize chances are that they’re most likely talking about the app and not what happens when you disturb a nest.

13 thoughts on “cellphone camera test”

  1. It is great to meet a fellow Californian blogger and read this interesting review. What camera do you normally use? Do you use a ring flash to compensate for glare?

    I have recently acquired a Blackberry after years with an old cell phone which mostly didn’t work. Now I feel as if I were plugged into the wall – connected at all times. I can’t say I like it.

  2. James,
    I waited a long time, as well, to join the ranks of cell phone owners. But… my oh my, yours is far more hip than mine!
    It looks like we may not meet in San Diego this time around. Next time, hopefully,

  3. Masha, the last equipment that I’ve used for large bodies of work has been FILM cameras–a large-format 4×5 camera and a medium format Mamiya 6. I’ve been taking most of my blog photos with a Canon Rebel DSLR–It does a lot of what I want a camera to do, though it doesn’t allow for the large, detailed prints that I was used to making. I don’t often use a flash of any sort and don’t own a ring flash. If I did a large amount of closeup or macro work I’d buy one in a flash, so to speak…

    Alice, I’m sorry we won’t be meeting up this time, but I hope you have a chance to enjoy what San Diego County has to offer.

    EE, good for you for not giving in. For me, I knew I’d eventually succumb. But I was surprised it happened so quickly and in such a dramatic way. I still don’t really use the beast as a telephone, but I enjoy the computer-like functionality it brings in a fairly portable format.

  4. Hilarious! Last time I tried to use my cellphone camera I couldn’t understand why the image was so bad – until I realised that the lens was covered in a thick layer of dust and pocket lint! I think of a cellphone as a means for me to get in touch and call for help if out and about. The idea of being constantly contactable leaves me cold. There is therefore something of a culture clash between me (cheapest mobile I could find, never on) and my mother-in-law (updates phone every year, always on, always texting etc.). Welcome to the dark side – I hope it doesn’t corrupt you too much! Stunning landscape and native flora – what a shame you didn’t have a “proper” camera with you 😉

  5. I’ve found that I enjoy some aspects of my iPhone’s camera quite a bit, even though your criticisms are spot on. I enjoy most the immediacy of posting photos with my blogs right from the phone – no downloading to the computer. I do cropping, recoloring, and resizing right on the phone and post using a blogging app. Other functionality that I enjoy is the high dynamic range app (iPhone 4 has this built in, but I use an app to get this feature) and the a couple of different panorama apps.

    After years with a Nikon 35mm then more years of a small digital camera, the immediacy, convenience, and features of the phone sort of compensate for the overall meager photo capabilities. My recommendation: Look for some apps for your phone and overcome the crumminess with them.

  6. Thanks, James. I am not at all familiar with film cameras (well, I had one before the digital ones appeared, but just for basic snapshots). I have a Nikon DSLR and do a lot of close-ups. Thanks for the heads up on the ring flash.

  7. Oh, please! Do not turn into one of those people who can be seen with a cellphone glued to their ear even when sitting across a table from a real live fellow human. Not much chance, I would guess. Pictures are not bad, in my opinion.

  8. James, it’s amazing how phones can now be cameras. I was a wedding photog in OC for 20 years, using Mamiyas. I ought to try and get a digital back for the newest one. What ever camera you get, it’s the lens that is important…it’s good to clean it now and then, (I remind myself, too)
    Out of focus photos…there ought to be a focus spray. We’d joke about that amongst photographers, but that was with film. There ought to be a Photoshop ‘photo-focus’ button.

  9. I was one of the last of my friends to get a cellphones, thought that was a few years ago. I’ve taken a few photos with my phones over the years, and they do come in handy when you forgot the regular camera at home. Beware Angry Birds, it is very very addictive.

  10. LOL, James, I’ve had to subtract one from my estimate of how many of us there are left without cell phones! I occasionally toy with the idea of getting one (not having one is getting to be a major eccentricity), but I’m still not convinced it will improve my quality of life.

  11. Janet, truth be told I hardly have used the phone portion of the gadget, and staying connected that way hasn’t appealed, and if this were just a phone I’d have resisted. But some of the other tools have been pretty compelling. Still, I don’t think I’ve gone over to the dark side…just yet…

    Brent, I do like the built in ways to share the images, and I found myself snapping photos the other day in a situation where I’d never have had my camera. The thing is convenient for sure. I’m still playing with what apps might have to offer. Resizing wasn’t built in, but I’ve been using an app that lets me do that so that I’m not sending huge files around.

    Masha, I think the breakdown in cameras is pretty similar, whether you’re talking film or digital. Many are meant to be easy to use–and they often are–but the more sophisticated ones can result in better photos. I guess I just want a camera that’s harder to use!

    Ricki, recently I did catch myself staring at the screen and not at someone right next to me. Miss Manners, please slap me!

    Sue, interesting that you were a photographer before! Yes, the focus spray–or focus app–would really come in handy a lot of times. Or I should be better at representing out of focus photos as intentional.

    Brad, thanks for the warning about Angry Birds, but I’m afraid the warning comes too late. Last night I was going to reply to my blog comments, but I got caught up in a long session of AB.

    Jean, the island is shrinking! Now I’m starting to question all the other vices I’ve avoided as not worth my time. But that would require pulling myself away from the phone first. But in the end, no, I don’t know quality of life is improved. I’ll have to spend more time in the garden to get away from the cellphone.

  12. Like many others already commenting, I too resisted the “tech” phones and went basic for years. There came a point where the constant peer pressure to give in, worked. I wouldn’t say I’ve lost out over the years… on the contrary I think I appreciate it so much more because I’ve skipped so many of these “additions” to phones over the years. Now I have a walking talking single phone that does the job of multiple bits of kit all in one. Of course it also lets me make phone calls!

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