Four ways camera phones are better than cameras

Tim Moynihan
4 August, 2010
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Aside from telling you when the bus will arrive, keeping tabs on your location, and maintaining an always-on connection to your various social networks, your phone takes decent pictures. It’s always in your pocket, too. If your phone offers that much functionality in addition to snapping serviceable photos, is there any reason to carry a dedicated camera with you?

Well, yeah. There are plenty, actually. Superior image quality, manual controls, and high-zoom optics are the obvious ones. Oh, and we’ve yet to see a smartphone camera that accepts interchangeable lenses, has optical image stabilisation, provides good high-ISO performance, or supports high-speed burst shooting. In short, DSLR owners should stick with a DSLR.

But beyond that, it’s getting harder to make the case that a stand-alone camera is a must-have device for casual snap-shooters. In fact, there are several ways in which a puny-lensed, small-sensored camera phone offers a better overall photography experience than a dedicated snapshot camera.

Point-and-shoot cameras, are you taking notes? Here are four ways that smartphone cameras are beating you at your own game.

App stores

Is your camera jealous of the downloadable extras that your phone has at its disposal? It should be. Smartphone apps are even making forays into areas involving some cameras’ core controls: You can find iPhone apps that let you wirelessly control a DSLR and use the iPhone screen as a remote viewfinder.

When you buy a camera, you’re effectively locked into the modes and features included in the pre-installed firmware. Some great workarounds, such as the Canon Hacker’s Development Kit, let you add useful features to lower-end point-and-shoots. But nothing matches the simplicity of visiting an online marketplace, downloading an app, and installing it on your camera.

Camera-specific app stores would take care of many of the shortcomings that point-and-shoots have in comparison to smartphones. You could introduce RAW-shooting capabilities to lower-end cameras. You could add full-featured in-camera editing suites such as Apple’s iMovie and Adobe’s Mobile. You could download in-depth in-camera tutorials and field guides for the types of photography you’re most interested in. You could tack on new scene modes and creative filters to experiment with, and you could delete the ones you don’t use.

It’s high time for in-camera features to go à la carte. Though the app store model counts as only one way that smartphone cameras are outdoing dedicated cameras, it actually represents infinity-plus-one ways, because that’s the number of features it could add to your camera.

Wireless sharing features

The Eye-Fi series of Wi-Fi-enabled SD Cards does an admirable job of bringing the convenience of the cloud to compatible cameras, and we’ve also seen a few Wi-Fi-enabled cameras that try to do it all by themselves. But I’ve yet to use a Wi-Fi-enabled camera that can equal the painless wireless sharing most smartphones permit, however, owing to limitations on browsing within the camera (usually a camera supports only a handful of sharing sites) and to user interfaces that tend not to be as polished as the ones you’d find in a phone.

Today’s phones beat any camera’s Wi-Fi-based sharing options by offering the upload-anywhere convenience of a 3G or an EDGE connection. They let you switch to Wi-Fi when you need it, and they support full web browsers and more-refined interfaces for uploading photos and videos to sharing and social-networking sites. After all, phones are designed to be big-screen mobile communications devices, while Wi-Fi-enabled cameras still seem to treat web access as an afterthought.

Stand-alone cameras have a lot of catching up to do in the realm of wireless sharing, as they’re three steps behind the smartphone curve: no cellular data options, no full web browsers, and inferior interfaces for accessing the web. The only hope that stand-alone cameras have of evening the playing field on sharing involves the emergence of a free, Amazon Whispernet-like wireless service for cameras or the ability to tether your camera to your phone.

Big screens and touchscreens

Cameras are getting smaller and smaller, but the opposite trend is occurring in the smartphone world. Rather than shrinking in size as technology advances, phones are getting larger to do a better job of showcasing multimedia content on their huge screens.

A number of Android phones are beginning to offer 4.3in touchscreens that serve as superb LCD viewfinders for framing shots. The largest camera LCDs top out at around 3.5 inches diagonally — and they’re few and far between. A camera’s LCD normally measures about 3 inches diagonally.

It’s not all about size, either. Razor-sharp resolutions such as the iPhone 4’s 326-pixel-per-inch Retina display remain crisp and clear when viewed in bright sunlight, whereas most digital camera screens lose visibility under the same conditions. Once upon a time, point-and-shoot cameras offered eye-level viewfinders to help mitigate visibility and battery-life issues, but those have largely gone the way of the LaserDisc. Unless you buy a DSLR or a larger camera with an eye-level electronic viewfinder, you’re stuck with that hard-to-view LCD.

As it stands, a smartphone’s huge screen does a better job of complementing the extended-arm shooting style that has become the norm for today’s point-and-shoot cameras, as well as providing a more enjoyable way for the user to view photos before transferring them to a PC or printing them. This is another area where stand-alone cameras won’t easily catch up to camera phones, especially if cameras continue to shrink and phone screens continue to increase in size and improve in quality.

There is a caveat here, however: sometimes a screen’s resolution can be too crisp and colourful when it comes to representing the underlying image quality. We’ve seen many phones (and cameras) with high-quality displays that make photos look amazing when they’re on the device. Offloading those images to a computer and viewing them at larger size often uncovers an uglier truth.

Innovative design ideas

Smartphones aren’t just connected to the outside world; internally, various linked components work cooperatively to strengthen each other. For example, a phone’s camera becomes exponentially more powerful thanks to the phone’s wireless connection, its video-chat capabilities, and any augmented-reality features it may have.

When a device does so many different things, the overall user experience is a crucial part of the equation. For this reason, interface design — which ties the device’s different elements together — can make or break a smartphone’s selling power.

The smartphone OS wars have spawned a constantly evolving population of handheld devices that offer innovative, intuitive, and fun-to-use combinations of hardware and software. The best user interfaces make complex combinations of features easy to manage, or even prompt the user to think about combining them in new ways. In short, none of these interfaces bear much resemblance to the design and usability of a traditional telephone.

But when a device does one thing only, designers often stick to the tried and true. Cameras are built to take pictures, and pedestrian software serves primarily as a way to manage the hardware and in-camera settings. Camera controls are designed in a particular way because they’ve always been designed that way; what’s missing is the smartphone’s spirit of rethinking from the ground up how to use the device.

There are a few notable exceptions to the conservative approach of most camera designers — and not surprisingly, companies that make both cameras and smartphones are among the leaders in developing innovative design ideas.

Some new Samsung touchscreen cameras offer smartphone-like, touch-and-gesture-controlled interfaces that reinvent many aspects of using a camera: you can tilt the cameras from side to side to change modes, draw an X on the screen to delete photos, and some feature a front-facing LCD screen to frame self-portraits and to display a countdown clock for self-timer shots.

Sony’s latest Cyber-shot and NEX cameras adopt such interesting features as a one-touch Sweep Panorama mode that cleverly employs the camera’s accelerometer, a Sweep Multi-Angle mode that lets you tilt the camera during playback to “move around” inside an image, and a Background Defocus setting that helps demystify aperture settings for novice shooters.

Certainly, designers don’t need to fix what isn’t broken or to scrap tried-and-true user interfaces. After all, most serious photographers just want fast, reliable access to their manual controls, not “gimmicky” interface tweaks.

But because so many point-and-shoot cameras offer the same basic specs and button layout, we’d love to see more experimentation with body styles and user interfaces. A range of color options just doesn’t cut it anymore.


3 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. john ciregna says:

    Due to cable, home phone, internet, not enough money to pay the VERY high internet connection to use i Phone as you wish so I, like many do not buy. Sad but true. IT at home already takes up 20% of weekly income. Far to much.

  2. Brian F Harris says:

    Wow! That detailed article sure has changed some of my views (no pun intended) on things. However, a couple of years ago I was walking a car yard & saw a 4×4 I fancied in another town. Snapped a shot on my 2mp mobile and it is on my Fotki site. After a little sharpening (as most pix get anyway) I find the photo looks just a good an most other. (Motorola 2mp) As the blog states, at least we would normally have the mobile on us so can get pix or movie anytime or anywhere. Make those doing things not within the confines of the law think a little deeper. “Gotcha”

  3. Xenophos says:

    You will always be able to do things on a real camera you can’t on a mobile phone camera – issues like background blur, how exposure is controlled and quality of pixels and lenses. However, one where pro took a photo of the same scene with a high end compact and then a medium format camera (better than SLR) and got his pro friends to try to guess which print was taken with which camera. The guess rate was only 50% right!

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