It Takes Pictures, But is Your Phone a Camera?

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Back in the 1960s there was a car called the Amphicar, which as its name suggested, was a car and a boat, depending on whether you were tooling up the boulevard or up the canal. Though it was designed and manufactured in Germany, the engine and electrical system of these four-seater convertibles was English, which in itself should have served as a red flag for anyone considering one. But then again, the thought of tooling around in a convertible with four wheels, a propeller and a rudder was enough to make about 3,800 customers take the plunge… so to speak.

As for the performance levels of the Amphicar, critics universally agreed it was a miserable car and even more miserable as a boat. To add insult to injury, they were prone to rust, especially if you made a habit of driving them in salt water. Did I mention they leaked a lot, too? The curtains came down on the Amphicar in 1968 when tougher U.S. EPA and DOT regulations when into effect. With 90% of all sales coming from the States, the show was over within a year.

Fast-forward 40-something years and everybody’s taking pictures with their phones. While the picture quality of the some of the more advanced-generation smartphones has certainly improved since their original introduction, are we witnessing the death knell of cameras as we know them, or is this an Amphicar redux?

Defining “Photo Quality”

The term “photo quality” is often bandied about without being properly qualified or defined. For example, if your final output needs are for Web applications, which only requires 72 dpi resolving power, a smartphone containing a 2-3MP imaging sensor might very well be sufficient for your needs. This is assuming your subjects do not contain extreme contrast or tonal ranges and are not finely detailed. If, however, you are dealing with contrasty subject matter, extended color ranges or subtly-graduated highlight-to-shadow transitions, you’re far better off going for a higher-res sensor.

If high-quality prints are included among your end needs, don’t consider anything less than a 5MP imaging sensor, which is considered the minimum sensor size for producing a film-quality 8 x 10-inch print. And as with “real” cameras, your results will be that much better if you go the extra yard and spring for the largest sensor in the model line.

Note: The imaging sensors used in smartphones are smaller than their digicam counterparts, which means there can be noticeable differences in picture quality between smartphones and digicams with sensors containing the same number of pixels.

So, while smartphones are currently coming to market with imaging sensors in the 6MP, 8MP and even 12MP range, it’s not nit-picking to question whether the latest hi-res smartphone sensors are capable of achieving the same performance levels (sharpness, color fidelity, consistency and light sensitivity) as their real-camera counterparts. It’s also worth noting that while the largest imaging sensors currently available for smartphones are in the 6- to 12MP range, which at the low end is considered entry level in the world of point-and-shoot cameras, the majority of photo-enabled smartphones have imaging sensors on par with the sensors found in Hello Kitty and SpongeBob kiddy cams.

The bottom line on photo-quality smartphones is that while the best of them (smartphones containing 6- to 8MP imaging sensors) can capture more than acceptable imagery, the average consumer digicam can still trounce the best of the smartphones.

All Sensors Are Not Created Equal

One of the murkier sides of the camera-versus-smartphone debate has to do with the birthplace of the imaging sensors used in smartphones. All sensors start off as larger entities called wafers, and just as location matters in the real-estate biz, the picture-taking qualities of imaging sensors is greatly determined by where on the “mother wafer” the sensor in question originated. The prime center cuts of the mother wafer are reserved for scientific and/or military applications and seldom make their way into consumer products.

The balance of the surrounding portions of the wafer is divvied up for use in digital cameras, with the leftovers, i.e. the less critical outer snippings going into point-and-shoot cameras and the “pizza crust” being used for smartphones—in that order. (As in the meatpacking business, nothing goes to waste.)

It’s also important to note that even under the best manufacturing parameters, the levels of color and light sensitivities can vary greatly across the surface of these wafers, which means imaging sensors cut from the “same” portion of the wafer may or may not have the same native ISO, nor will they necessarily record color and/or tonal qualities the same way. According to a technical representative of a major camera manufacturer, ISO sensitivity variances of half a stop over or under are considered acceptable within the digital camera industry.

So, is the imaging sensor in your smartphone inferior to the imaging sensor in your digicam? It’s hard to tell, and even harder to verify, one way or the other. What we do know is that imaging technologies continue to improve, and there’s little doubt that smartphones will benefit from these improvements—perhaps not in step with digicams, at least not now, but certainly not more than a step or two behind them.

Optics

Optics is one category in which conventional digital cameras trump smartphones. Unlike point-and-shoot cameras, many of which sport close-focusing zoom lenses with focal ranges that go from really wide to really long, the visual possibilities of smartphones, which typically have fixed focal length lenses with an angle of view of about 60°, which emulates the look and feel of a 35mm lens on a full-frame DSLR. There are a couple of smartphones that feature wider-angle lenses (28mm equivalent) along with a selection of smartphones with digital zoom, but these are the exception and not the rule.

For most casual shooters, a slightly wide or normal lens is sufficient for snapshooting needs, which at the end of the day is pretty much what camera-enabled smartphones were designed to do. And while one can plausibly project the mystical cloak of a Leica with a 35mm lens onto current fixed focal length smartphones, let’s just say it’s a stretch… at least for now.

For those who wish to push beyond the limitations of a fixed focal length lens, there are a number of third-party fisheye, macro, wide angle and telephoto add-ons designed to expand the horizons of your smartphone’s imaging abilities, but like all add-ons, you’re most likely going to pay for this "creative freedom" in the form of reduced sharpness levels, most noticeably towards the edges of the frame.


Summary

There’s little doubt that smartphones with built-in cameras are here to stay, and the quality of the pictures they take will also undoubtedly improve with every new wave of product upgrades. For the time being however, owners of midrange smartphones containing built-in cameras will have to be content living (and shooting) within the constraints of current smartphone imaging technologies, which as they stand now, are comparable to the quality levels we accepted as “normal’ a half-dozen years ago from our point-and-shoot digicams.