Plugged In: Cell cameras phone it in on photo quality

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Are cellphone cameras finally “good enough?” Well, that depends on how they’re used, for what purpose and your own standards of acceptable quality.

Let’s first look at some practical comparative examples made for this article by my kid Ray Lee, who’s helped judge the Redoubt Reporter’s recent photo contests. These are not tiny crops greatly enlarged for overstated effect, but fairly large sections of a modestly enlarged 5-by-7-inch image.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 1 is our baseline image, taken under general indoor lighting at ISO 3,200 with an Olympus E-PL5, using the basic kit zoom lens that ships with the camera. The E-PL5 is among the smallest and best large-sensor, compact-system cameras, yet commonly costs less than most current “smartphones” bought at retail.

Even at ISO 3,200, a setting that’s often needed indoors or in dim light, the Olympus E-PL5 produces a crisp, low-noise image with good detail and tonal range. As a compact-system camera, the E-PL5 has image stabilization, RAW file options, high-quality interchangeable lenses and many other useful features not available on “smartphone” cameras.

Figures 2, 3 and 4 were all made with a new iPhone 5, considered to be one of the better smartphone cameras. Of course, the iPhone 5 uses a sensor that’s necessarily quite small in order to fit into the confines of a slim cellphone case. For digital sensors, at least, bigger remains better.

Cellphone camera lenses are fixed and there’s no image stabilization hardware. With the sole exception of the Nokia Lumia 1020, cellphone cameras do not include an RAW file option, forcing you to use JPEG images that are difficult, or impossible, to correct when the lighting’s not perfect.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 2, also made at ISO 3,200, is entirely unusable for any purpose occurring to me. Figure 3, made at ISO 800, is somewhat better but still not anything that I’d consider posting on the Internet nor making into a display print, no matter how small. These two illustrations suggest, at least to me, that even better cellphone cameras are not very usable under indoor or other dim light conditions.

Figure 4 was taken in bright outdoor light where the iPhone 5 set itself to a very low ISO 50. This illustration shows reasonably good detail and would be usable for small prints or as an acceptably good Internet posting. However, it’s no better than what one would expect from a basic compact camera circa 2006. Another photo taken by Ray immediately after Figure 4 included bright clouds in the JPEG image, resulting in harshly dark shadows and blown highlights only partially correctable in Lightroom.

Objective tests by DXO and other respected vendors show much the same results as our practical test. Cellphone cameras, even the best smartphones, are usable in optimum, bright outdoor light, at least if your quality standards are modest, but otherwise not very useful in dim light or other suboptimum conditions.

So, how much is good enough? As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, it depends on your intended uses

Figure 3

Figure 3

and your personal standard of acceptable quality. Cellphone cameras don’t make the grade, at least for me, under any conditions except, perhaps, casual use in bright outdoor light when nothing better is available.

On the other hand, nearly all current model premium compact cameras and large-sensor cameras with interchangeable lenses are quite adequate for casual family and vacation photos under most circumstances. That’s particularly true if you’re using the images primarily for small prints, casual slideshow-style display to friends on your TV set, or Internet posting. In such cases, convenience, price and ease of use are important.

If you intend to use your photos for serious and demanding uses, such as professional portraits, legal evidence, wildlife photography or large fine-art prints, then you’ll need to be more selective about your gear. Even here, though, there’s more flexibility compared to just a few years ago.

Many affordable compact-system cameras, including those using current 16-megapixel Micro Four-Thirds sensors, are capable of results that comfortably exceed professional image quality and handling requirements. Realistically, there’s rarely any objective need for digital sensors with higher resolution. In fact, Nikon bases its newest D4 professional camera on a 16-megapixel, full-frame sensor optimized for the best possible image

Figure 4

Figure 4

quality in demanding conditions. Seasoned pros know the difference between sensible engineering and marketing hype.

It’s been my experience that 16 megapixel remains the optimum resolution for most large-sensor digital cameras. Beyond 16 megapixels, low-light and image-stabilization performance often degrades while the slight optical flaws inherent in any lens seem to become more evident. There’s usually little real benefit, either. I’ve made sharp-appearing, 24-by-36-inch prints from a portion of a 10-megapixel image taken with an exceptionally good lens.

Rather than frequently upgrading your digital camera bodies, spend some of that money on a few good lenses that produce really crisp images. Spend some time reading the manuals for your existing cameras and learn how to use your existing hardware to better advantage. Buy some books that teach you new technical and artistic techniques and expand your horizons. That’s less expensive and more effective than constantly upgrading your hardware.

  • The art of family photos: It’s often said that the essence of art is your message, with all else merely the technical skill needed to fully realize that message. Although family photos are often derided as simple snapshots, some photography of our families around us reaches lofty artistic levels. As an example, Southern photographer Sally Mann’s family images are considered among the best art photographs made in the U.S. during the past few decades. More recently, some lovely family photography by a Russian mother who didn’t even pick up a camera until 2012 has received wide and deserved attention throughout the Internet. We’ll post the URL link in this column online at  http://petapixel.com/2014/01/18/russian-mother-takes-magical-portraits-two-boys-animal-friends/#more-128533.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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