By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 10:54 am
Over the past few days I’ve had fun taking photos with a couple of neat new cameras…that happen to be phones. They’re the iPhone 4 and Verizon’s upcoming Droid X, and their cameras are the best in any phones I’ve ever used. So much so that they left me pondering the future of point-and-shoot cameras that aren’t phones.
Phones have already killed traditional PDAs dead. The best ones also render media players such as an iPod largely superfluous, and the days of standalone GPS handhelds are clearly numbered. Are we nearing the moment when a meaningful number of people will skip buying a separate camera in favor of snapping photos with a phone?
Some thoughts on that in a moment–but first, my impressions of the photographic capabilities of these two handsets. When I had plenty of natural light, I liked most of the photos from both phones quite a bit…although even the nicest portraits I took looked slightly out of focus and lacking in detail. In murkier environments, the iPhone performed better than the Droid X, although the LED flashes on both phones aren’t very useful. (They only made a noticeable difference when there was very little available light, and even then tended to produce unflattering, fuzzy portraits.)
I haven’t shot mass quantities of 720p video with either camera yet, but so far, the iPhone 4’s results are more pleasing. (The video I’ve shot with the Droid is usually noisier, especially in dim settings.)
The Droid X has a dedicated hardware shutter button; the iPhone 4 has an on-screen one. I assumed I’d prefer the Droid’s approach, but the button isn’t quite responsive enough–it’s possible to think you’ve pressed the shutter and be wrong. The iPhone let me take pictures at a faster clip, although it feels zippier than the Droid in part because it uses an animated on-screen shutter animation to distract you while it gets ready to let you take another photo. The Droid displays an honest-but-inelegant PROCESSING message after each shot, reminding you that it’s not as snappy as you’d like.
On the other hand, composing pictures with the Droid X’s Jumbotron of a display (4.3″) was easier and more entertaining than the iPhone’s relatively diminutive 3.5″ screen. Count me in as a fan of big-screen phones. I also like the way the Droid uses its GPS to indicate onscreen where a photo’s being taken. (The iPhone 4 captures geotag information, but doesn’t use it until you upload photos to a computer.)
Bottom line: I’m impressed with both phones’ camera capabilities–given that they’re phones and not cameras–but the iPhone 4 took better shots than the Droid X overall.
My impressions aren’t definitive, and the Droid X I’ve been using doesn’t have the final software. But they’re generally consistent with more methodical findings by my pals at Macworld and PCWorld. They’re also still more evidence that cameraphones’ megapixel ratings don’t have much to do with image quality: The Droid’s extra megapixels theoretically give it a major edge over the iPhone, but you couldn’t tell it from my pictures. (Note that I’ve mostly used the Droid X in a six-megapixel mode rather than the full-resolution 8MP one–the 6MP setting is the default, and I like the 16:9 aspect ratio.)
Here are a few shots I’ve taken, none of which I cropped or otherwise tampered with, except to reduce them in size (click on them to see the full-resolution versions).
First the iPhone 4:
Here’s the Droid X:
Unlike the Droid X, the iPhone 4 doesn’t have any scene modes. But its image-processing capabilities did a nice job of dealing with tricky situations. The photo below was taken in a saloon that was mostly dark, except for the light seeping in from the open door in the background. The picture isn’t perfect, but it’s better than I expected:
And while the iPhone doesn’t have a macro mode, it’s surprisingly good at focusing in on small objects from a short distance:
iPhone 4 camera vs. Droid X camera is one thing, but such comparisons don’t tell you how these cameras compare to a modern point-and-shoot. So on the Fourth of July, I snapped photos at the Independence Day parade in Solvang, California using three cameras: the ones in the iPhone 4 and Droid X and the Sony Cyber-shot HX5V which I bought a few months ago. For testing purposes, I shot about a hundred photos per device. Natural light was available in vast quantity and I wasn’t trying anything as demanding as a portrait–and just about all the pictures I took looked decent:
(For the record, the first and fourth photos above are from the iPhone 4; the second and sixth are from the Droid X; the third and fifth are from the Cyber-shot. )
Even though I was able to take respectable photos with all three devices, there was no real contest. After a hundred photos, the Sony’s battery gauge still reported that three-quarters of the charge remained. The camera’s 10X zoom let me quickly frame marching bands, old cars, and toddlers as they passed. The bright three-inch LCD gave me a very good idea of what I was about to capture. I could have shot in modes up to ten megapixels–not necessary for the Web, but useful when I want to crop with abandon or print at very large sizes. In short, I was very glad I’d bothered to bring along a real camera.
The Cyber-shot has a bunch of other nifty features that I didn’t need for the parade, but which often come in handy, such as an array of scene modes and the ability to autostitch panoramas. (The iPhone 4 makes almost all photographic decisions itself, and the Droid X offers only a smattering of settings.) I try to avoid using the Sony’s flash except when absolutely necessary, but it’s way more helpful than the dinky ones on the phones.
Taking the iPhone 4 and Droid X on a major photographic expedition turned out to be a bad idea. After I’d shot a hundred photos, their batteries were in the danger zone: Neither would have lasted for the rest of a normal day of phone calls, e-mail, and browsing without being recharged. Their digital zooms, unlike the Sony’s optical one, are cumbersome to use and enlarge the image by throwing out pixels, thereby degrading picture quality.
And here’s something weird: It was an intensely sunny day in Solvang, and an hour or so into the parade, the iPhone seemed to suffer from heat stroke. It appeared to stop backlighting its display, and it told me that it was going to shut off its flash until things cooled down. I stuck it in my pocket for a while, and when I tried again it had recovered.
So to get back to my original question, are stand-alone point-and-shoot cameras an endangered species? No, not yet. They’re capable of taking much better pictures and offer far more photographic settings than their smartphone brethren. And absent several technological breakthroughs, I don’t see how phones will catch up with point-and-shoots. Big lenses outperform little lenses, and optical zooms still take up so much space that (almost) nobody tries to cram one into a phone.
It’s worth nothing that cameraphones beat point-and-shoots in respects that go beyond image quality. The Droid X and iPhone 4 both use their GPS capabilities to geotag your pictures, a feature that’s still pretty exotic on “real” cameras. (The Cyber-shot has it, although it’s harder to use than on the iPhone and Droid.) They let you instantly share pictures in an array of ways, rather than making you wait until you can transfer images to a computer. They’ve got bigger LCDs than nearly any traditional camera. I have a hunch that smartphones like these will influence future point-and-shoots–hey, how about a camera that runs Android?
Ultimately, the new wave of fairly-decent smartphone cameras are a boon: If you’ve got one of these phones along, you should always be able to take a photo that’s way better than no photo at all–and which might, under the right circumstances, compete with a photo that you’d take with a point-and-shoot. But when I know I’m going to take photos I want to keep, I’m still going to tote my Cyber-shot. And I’m reasonably confident it’s not the last real camera I’ll ever buy.
Remind me to come back to this topic in two or three years, though. I reserve the right to be utterly wrong about all this…