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Cell Phone Cameras

Hi Folks:

One of the gifts Mrs. Claus gave me for Christmas was a Samsung Galaxy S Vibrant GT-i9000M Android-enabled cell phone.  The name is actually longer than the phone itself; I’m not sure who comes up with this stuff!  The GPS feature combined with Google Maps makes navigating the sleigh a lot simpler, but that’s another story.  The phone also has a 5MP digital camera, and that’s the topic for today’s blog post.  BTW, I checked the Apple Canada site and the iPhone 4 also has a 5MP camera, so I’m assuming they’re in the same ball park as far as comparisons go.

The reasons for this post are two-fold.  For one, up until now I’ve never really had the chance to experience making photographs with a cell phone camera.  For the second, there have been a couple of posts on Mike Johnston’s ‘The Online Photographer‘ blog recently that say that the sales of ‘point and shoot’ cameras have been steadily falling.  His suggestion is that point and shoot cameras are single-use devices while cell phones with cameras are multifunctional… so more people are simply using their cell phone cameras rather than purchasing a separate camera as well.

Now, while  I do have a Fuji Finepix S1500fd as a ‘walkaround camera’, since most of my photography is fine-art landscape work I’m not the typical ‘point and shoot’ camera type of person.  I initially purchased the Fuji Finepix S2000HD but returned it after an hour because it had no manual aperture control and no Aperture Priority metering.  To that end, the various ‘scene’ modes available on most cameras today – like ‘landscape mode’, ‘sports mode’, ‘portrait mode’ etc. are lost on me.  I do very little ‘processing’ in the camera itself, preferring to do my post-processing work in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom instead.

Okay, back to the Samsung camera.  No MTF charts here, just my own experience.  As I mentioned, it’s a 5MP camera, giving a maximum image size of 2560×1920 pixels, or 4:3.  One can also choose lower resolution images, down to 1600×960 pixels.  Like the iPhone, the Samsung actually has two cameras – the standard one in the back and a second one in front for video calls and for those who wish to photograph themselves.  I rarely shoot images of people, and myself, pretty much never.  In addition to still photography one can also record 720p HD video, but I’m more of a photographer than a videographer.  I can’t find any technical specifications that list the focal length of the lens or the sensor size so I can’t list a 35-mm equivalent focal length; suffice it to say that it has a wide-angle, fixed focal length lens.  The camera does have a 4x digital zoom, but since the words ‘digital zoom’ are equivalent to ‘do not use’ in terms of image quality, I leave it at 1x.  The camera also has a macro mode, something which I haven’t really explored.  In standard mode it will focus down to about 1 ft (0.3m), and in macro mode it will focus down to a couple of inches (~6-7cm).  Rather than having specific focus points as is common in more advanced digital cameras, one simply touches the screen where one wishes the camera to focus.  That’s rather handy.  There’s an Exposure Compensation setting of -2.0 to 2.0 stops in 0.5 stop increments, but if one engages the ‘anti-shake’ feature in the menu, the exposure compensation is disabled.  I may be wrong, but I’m assuming that the ‘anti-shake’ feature underexposes the image to yield a higher shutter speed, then compensates for this in the firmware.  I leave the anti-shake off, but it’s too bad because I do have a fine motor tremor in my hands.

In addition to the single-shot mode, there is a continuous-image setting that will record up to nine images in sequence before filling the buffer.  There’s also a ‘scan panorama’ mode where one can simply move the camera slowly in one direction (either side to side or up/down) and the camera will link up to eight images.  Combined, the eight images yield about a 180o field of view.  I did play with the panorama feature a bit before realizing that when one engages this mode it drops the resolution to 640×480 for each image.

So, on to the results!  All of these images were made with the various settings in the camera ‘zeroed’ as much as possible, and then processed in Lightroom.

Rithet’s Bog

Rithet’s Bog

Rain on Leaves

Rain on Leaves

Christmas Hill

Christmas Hill

Sunset

Sunset

Lichen and Oak Leaves

Macro Mode – Lichen and Oak Leaves

Now I mentioned the camera has a sweep panorama mode, so I thought I’d do a little experiment.  The following image is of a stand of garry oak trees, made using the panorama mode:

Garry Oak 1

Garry Oaks – Sweep Panorama

This image is 1648 x 400 pixels, presented here at 900 pixels wide.  However, since I have both Autopano Pro and Hugin panorama software on my computer, I decided to make a series of 15 vertical images using the cell phone and combine them into a panorama on the computer.  It looks like this:

Garry Oaks 2

Garry Oaks – Combined Panorama

This allowed me to use the full resolution of the camera for each image.  The final image is 6491 x 2381 pixels, presented here at 900 pixels wide.  Finally, just to get really ridiculous (and to see if I could get smoke to come out of my computer), I made an HDR panoramic image using my Fuji camera.  This image is made from 183 individual images – basically 3 rows of 20 images each, with three exposures at each location using -1/0/+1 EV.  It looks like this:

Garry Oaks 3

Garry Oaks – HDR Panorama

The final image is 24527 x 6035 pixels, presented here at 900 pixels wide.  Now, if you look at the three images together you may be thinking, “So?  Other than a slight difference in colour and perspective, what’s the difference?”  I’m so glad you asked that.  The chart here shows the relative size of the three images in terms of actual pixels: the red is the image made with the sweep panorama mode, the orange is the panorama generated from the full-resolution cell phone images, and the yellow is the HDR panorama made with the Fuji camera:

Comparison

Image Size Comparison

Here’s a more graphic example, showing a similar size crop from each image (Click to see a larger version):

small

medium

large

The trade-off of course comes with file size.  The first image has a file size of 204KB, the second a file size of 17.3MB and the third has a file size of 144MB.  No one is going to try to make a 30″ print from a 204KB file, and if you try to e-mail a 144MB file to someone they won’t likely thank you for it.

As I said at the beginning, I’m not the typical point and shoot camera user.  Having said that, the cell phone is one device I take with me wherever I go.  What it lacks in resolution it makes up for in convenience, and I can see it finding a place in my proverbial camera bag.  Here’s my favourite image made with the camera phone so far:

Marcia

Mrs. Claus – the love of my life

Now go out and make some pictures!

Mike.

P.S.  A good blog post I found: How to take incredible photos with your phone

P.S. II, the Sequel: You can find more of our posts on photography and Lightroom tutorials here, and you can find links to over 200 other sites that have Lightroom tips, tutorials and videos here.

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