16 November 2011

Blasting the myths - Is it wise to go gaga over camera phones?

Was it ever? No it wasn't. Sure, high-end camera phones do provide superb pictures in well-lit areas. But they are still bogged down by problems inherent in such small compact devices, which will always make them inferior to dedicated image-capture devices (I hope you get the gist...am talking about cameras).

I have seen people go head over heels while praising their camera phones. The praise showered by them is usually made up of phrases like "you know...my cell has a 5mpx camera!" or "this is the latest camera phone in the market...and one of the most expensive too" and of course, the unmistakeable "my camera has a Carl Zeiss lens". I wonder what fortunes Carl Zeiss is showering on these camera manufacturers for their marketing blitz against innocent consumers. But then, such naive consumers always have it coming :)

Ok so what's wrong with your camera you ask? You paid 30k for a camera which does not qualify in the arena of compact cameras in the 10k bracket - that's what's wrong with your uber-cool camera phone. And to think, the device that you had actually set out to buy was a device that can make calls and send text messages and has a long battery life :)

Camera phones have a set of problems which have been prevalent to some degree since the inception of such phones. Some of them are explained below. I don't expect you to shun camera phones after reading this post; I just want to open your eyes to less-discussed facts about such devices so that you may not have unrealistic expectations from your big-budget phones.

* Shutter Lag
Camera phones do not have a physical shutter. This means that the software in the phone tells it to capture light for a specific time and save it as an image. This time difference between pressing the button & the image actually being clicked is called Shutter Lag. Even good phones have sufficient shutter lag in them.

The problem with camera phones is, the slower the hardware of the phone, the slower the image capture. Besides shutter lag, slower hardware will mean the image capture will take time and the saved image will be blurred. This means that in case of insufficient lighting (even if you are standing in the shadow of a structure in broad daylight, the lighting maybe insufficient for your camera) you would need to hold your hand still (and that applies to the subject as well) to avoid blur.

* Lens construction
Unlike in digital cameras, most low-end camera phones employ plastic or bad quality lenses which render your pride-instilling megapixels useless. Here, I would accept, that beating the "Carl Zeiss" drum actually makes a bit of sense :)

* Flash
Most camera phones have LED flash which is as good as nothing. I remember Sony Ericsson phones were packed with Xenon flash units which were bright and actually played the role of a "camera flash". So if your phone has an LED flash, just go bah! at it and turn around.

* Zoom
Most camera phones lack optical zoom and provide only digital zoom. Digital zoom is a stupid funda; the idea is so stupid that it works in hypnotizing most buyers! :) Optical zoom requires you to physically alter the position of elements within the lens by twisting the lens (in case of SLR cameras) or by using the zoom in/out buttons (in compact cameras). Digital zoom simply crops the image so that it looks big/zoomed-in. Try this on your PC - open an image in mspaint and use the select tool to select a rectangular portion from the center of the image. Use this as an image and repeat the process atleast 3 more times. What you see is what digital zoom gives you - a cropped, bad resolution image. In this case, the sensor is the same but the image is a cropped & zoomed-in version of the one that you would get without any zoom on your camera phone. See below illustration.

* Small sensor size
As explained in another post, stuffing 12 mega-pixels (Nokia N8 boasts of this one) on a small-size sensor will not yield the same quality as a 12 mpx sensor in a digital camera does. So the next time you hear someone boast about the number of megapixels in his camera phone, give him a knock on his head on my behalf :)

So why do I have a problem with camera phones you may ask? It's not that camera phones are evil; they are simply overpriced. But that doesn't refute the fact that they are convenient and handy. In fact, this article provides researched data that more than 70% of cell phone users claim that they bought the phone because of the camera in it. My occasional rant on this aspect of buyer behavior is directed at buyers who buy a 30k phone for the camera in it when they can easily buy a better digital camera for one third the price and buy a decent phone for a few bucks more. At the same time, I do agree that having a good camera with you at all times does have its advantages. Well, my intention was to bring the facts forward and clear the air about fancy camera phones and clarify that they cannot match up to digital cameras.

Here is a list of camera phones which have performed well in the labs. Nokia N8 tops the list, followed by iPhone 4s and Samsung Galaxy S2. So if you still are crazy about expensive camera phones, these are the ones that your eyeballs should be playing ping-pong with :)

Happy clickin!


  1. Brilliant posts.. if i may...

    Just a thing, hoping u don't mind me typing my views here..
    its just that "shutter lag" is a concept that there is a delay between the time u actually press the shutter and the time the camera/cell actually takes the picture as a result of time for signal processing from shutter button and shutter actually opening
    The blurriness as a result of long shutter shot isn't or rather cant be termed as lag..


  2. hey Steve! Thanks for pointing it out. Have made the correction! Great to have your inputs. Looking forward to more :)