Saturday, April 9, 2011

Smart-Phone Photography ... First-Hand Impressions

It's frequently repeated that the best camera to have is the one you are carrying.  Meaning: Whatever you have in your hand is better than nothing when you really need it.

The latest smart-phones on the market are much better than nothing! I've started using a HTC Inspire 4G Android and I'm impressed.  I didn't buy it for its camera.  I need ongoing internet connectivity without schlepping my laptop everywhere, and this gives it to me. 

Its camera is a bonus. It can shoot at 8 mega pixels, zoom modestly to around 3x, has auto or "manual" focusing (more on that later), imprints GPS coordinates on the picture's meta data (a.k.a. geo-tagging), and does great closeups. What's missing is the ability to shoot in RAW, so I'm stuck with jpeg.  But hey, this is a camera that also lets me make phone calls, receive and send e-mails, and surf the web.

I won't even mention its video capability or the fact that the phone can also double as an audio recorder.

This post isn't a review of the product.  This is my first foray into cell phone photography and I'm just publishing a few paragraphs about my initial experience and impression. The internet is full of detailed product reviews, evaluations, and comparisons. I have no desire to add one more to the pile. 

Nor is this a how-to article.  If you, dear reader, know any good how-to articles for this baby, please let me know because I can use the help.  Documentation that came with the phone isn't very useful when it comes to photography.

I've avoided taking pictures on previous phones I've owned because my expectations were so low.  But I couldn't resist trying out the camera on this one because of all the hype I've heard about IPhone and Android cameras.

I'm not disappointed. This isn't a toy. 

As a camera, it's the real thing.  The display on the screen is bright, sharp, and large.  8 mega pixels of resolution is nothing to sneeze at. And most importantly, I can apply the same post-capture workflow to the pictures that I follow with all my other shots, except it doesn't give me RAW images. I easily import the picture files into Lightroom, assign key words, crop, make global adjustments, etc., export the images into Photoshop, work on the pixels, etc., etc. I regard this Android as one more image capture device that I own.

The limitations?  No lens shade, no filters, no control over shutter speed or aperture. Flare can be a problem. No histogram. JPEG only. And expect the usual  noise issues from a camera with such a small sensor.  Focus is a bit slow, and sometimes totally off the mark.  Occasionally, it's completely frustrating.   When additional light is needed, there is a flash. The "flash" is actually two LED's and they provide nice on-axis fill for closeup shots, but don't expect much power from them for shooting across a room. The same lights are available for video recording, by the way.

As for "manual" focus, the only difference between this and "autofocus" is who selects where the focusing box goes in the frame.  In the autofocus mode, the camera wants to decide.  In the manual focus mode, the photographer gets to place the box wherever the finger touches on the screen.  There is no control over depth of field.

Don't plan on this camera for action shots.  But for still-life, landscapes, close-ups and portraits it can get the job done.  On the Android, I can do a direct attachment of an image to an e-mail or text message. That makes it real easy to send a picture of something like a product selection to a decision maker. For example, I might send a note to a landscaper along with this picture, saying I want a tree like this in my lawn:

Or I could send a note to my music teacher friend along with this:

Or I could e-mail this to my granddaughter, telling her about my backyard friend:

All of the above images were shot on my Android smart-phone, then processed in Lightroom. The frog was further processed in Photoshop using Topaz Adjust plug-in.  Obviously, if I sent the images directly from the camera they'd be OK, but not as good.

The smart-phone's unique strength is this: As a simple point-and-shoot device, it can connect seamlessly to the internet without needing to download the image to my computer first. That's something I can't do with my DSLR.  But if you really want a presentable image, I suggest a healthy dose of post-capture processing.

Getting the job done is what it's all about.  I know there will be times when this will be the best camera I'm carrying. If I don't answer the phone when you call, it's because I'm out taking pictures.

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