Archive for February, 2018

OK that headline is harsh! But it refers to having a camera that is not mounted to your smart phone. Now don’t worry phone camera lovers this is not a rant against camera-phones. In fact I intend to praise them in many ways. Camera phones are now the primary means of image capture for well over half of people who take pictures. Even the majority of those who have a “better” camera, take more pictures with their phone than the “real” camera.

This is a good thing. Having a camera on our phone, which in this day and age is the only thing we weren’t born with that we never leave home without. If the house is on fire and your buck naked running for your life, odds are your grabbing that phone off the nightstand on the way out the door. So we get to see images of so many things that previous generations often missed. Just from a saved for posterity angle the smart phone camera could be the greatest single invention in the history of mankind. There is absolutely no excuse to not have pictures of any significant event EVER. It should be clear by now, that aliens and Bigfoot can’t be real, there is no way they wouldn’t have been imaged with clear detail in this modern world of cameras everywhere.

old camera

GAF 126 cheapy camera

Now when I was just a wee lad… way back in the 1970s my parents bought me a camera. They probably didn’t want me messing with my dad’s kind of expensive Kodak 110 camera that had a real glass lens and an actual rangefinder focus system. So I got a GAF 126 camera. This plastic POS was equipped with a genuine plastic 35mm f/8 lens that was fixed at that aperture and fixed focus. It had one speed fixed at 1/80th of a second. You can see, the “fix” was in.

When it got dark it used flash cubes. Yes younglings a consumable flash! That camera couldn’t take a good shot if Jesus was operating it. But that is what I got at least until I was about 15, and bought my own 35mm SLR in 1979. So for all the younger people who grew up in a digital world, you have it really good when it comes to making pictures. In the 1970s most Americans were still taking pictures with cameras that were the equivalent of rubbing sticks to make fire.

Today’s modern smart phone camera is flashing some serious tech. I want to know why the hell we aren’t flying around in Jetson cars and don’t have a robot maid in every house, because the tech these phones have is unreal. But as good as they are they continue to have severe limitations when contrasted against modern digital cameras.

Even a modest camera like my Canon S110 has a sensor nearly triple the size of the sensor in most phones. The smaller phone sensors are jam-packed with roughly 12-16 megapixels. Each pixel is so nano-small that they just can’t absorb as much information as larger sensor cameras with an equivalent pixel count. Take a look at this sensor comparison chart, the smallest sensor is a typical smart phone camera sensor. My S110 uses the 1/1.7 and has 12 megapixels. My Google Pixel 2 XL uses a tiny sensor in between the two smallest on the chart (1/2.6), and has the same 12 megapixels. Yet when taking a basic picture the pixel is every bit the camera that my $400 S110 is. At least until it isn’t.

The pixel has a single prime lens that is fairly wide-angle with a 35mm equivalent of around 26mm. The S110 has an optical zoom lens with 35mm equivalent range of 24mm-120mm. The second you need some reach the little S110 pulls away. Furthermore what happens when you try an manipulate the image in Photoshop? Well the smart phone fails quickly as there is just not enough information stored in those itty bitty pixels. Noise quickly becomes unbearable when trying to make any severe adjustments in Photoshop or similar photo editing software. The S110 is dimensionally about the same size as my Pixel 2 XL. It is half as tall, about the same width and twice as thick. Now this little comparison is just between a S110 and a smart phone, pull out something deeper like a MFT or APS-C and it’s a bloodbath for the phone the moment you need something more than a snapshot.

photo of statue

Unedited other than resize

In this section I want to try to illustrate the difference. All of these photos can be enlarged to 1800 pixels on the long side by clicking on them.

My wife took a business trip to San Diego last spring. At the time she was using a Samsung Galaxy S6 model phone. The camera in that phone was pretty good, but the latest generation of iPhone and Galaxy S models are much better. None-the-less, many people, perhaps even the majority are using cameras of this caliber in their phones. And only the best smartphones are using a camera that is any better than the Galaxy S6. She grabbed a snapshot of a statue in the evening and the phone struggled to get good exposure because of the extreme spot lit statue against a dark evening light. The picture is actually pretty decent, but the highlights are blown out and the shadow detail is a bit limited. Still pretty decent in all fairness.


attempted highlight and shadow control

Even excellent top grade cameras could struggle with these kinds of lighting scenarios. So take a look at the original unedited shot (resized only) and contrast it to a shot with Photoshop’s  basic exposure, heavy highlight and shadow control applied. There was no fixing this shot without being an image editing genius. The noise levels blew up long before enough highlight and shadow control could make a difference. The edited version of this shot also still has blown out highlights despite having a 100% reduction in Photoshop. The detail is simply not there because the tiny little pixels can’t absorb enough light to keep those details intact. It has nothing to do with the lens in the camera, other shots taken in ideal lighting conditions are very sharp and crisp with excellent detail on that same camera phone.

Now I didn’t happen to have been on this trip so I don’t have the same shot taken with a DSLR, but I do have a similar harsh light scenario that can demonstrate the range of a large sensor camera. It is all about the amount of light information each pixel can pickup. Had I taken that same shot with a larger sensor camera, I would be able to pull details out of the spot lit highlights and better detail in the shadows, without the color shift or digital noise.

sunset picture

5D MkIII unedited

This shot taken with my 5d MkIII was intended to be a picture of a lot listed for sale. But the sun is so bright it is able to fool the sophisticated light meter in the camera. I took another shot at +2 exposure that was better. But let’s say this was all I had to work with. If that were the case, all is still good in the universe, because this is a redeemable shot. Using the same basic Photoshop sliders I used above, I have the ability to push the highlights and

edited sunset


shadows all the way to maximum range and still have nominal noise. The shot isn’t ideal, but clearly the detail in the shadows and the crazy bright sun, were there. I was able to flush out clear and definable details while maintaining good contrast and with no significant noise or color shifting. That is all about the large sensor not the expensive lens or camera body. The 5d series cameras are full frame sensors so they are 56 times larger than the typical cell phone sensor. The 5d Mk III has 22.3 megapixels and the Samsung S6 has 15.8 megapixels. The 5d has approximately 160 pixels per millimeter. That might seem like a lot considering there are 25.2 millimeters in an inch. But the S6 has 1,170 pixels per millimeter! Those are some seriously tiny pixels.

This phenomenon of little pixels equals weak dynamic range can be at least partially offset by modern HDR tech. Also you may notice that some of the better rated camera phones have fewer megapixels. The top rated Google Pixel 2 phones have 12 megapixels on a slightly larger sensor and it will destroy that old 15.8 MP Samsung S6. Partly because of larger pixels and partly due to Google’s magic pixie dust software.

The Google Pixel 2 is the undisputed heavy-weight champion of the universe for smart phone cameras. That thing uses some kind of magic voodoo to do stuff that just shouldn’t be possible. Hey Google, enough on the camera, give me a robot maid 😉 Oh and Elon, if Google can make a phone camera that freaking good, I expect my zero emission flying Jetson car next year!

The portrait mode in the Pixel 2 uses AI to create a pretty decent background blur.  That camera has a lens with a focal length of 5mm. It has a ridiculously deep depth of field. That is great for landscapes but terrible for portraits. They continue to pursue technological solutions and the results are becoming more than just adequate. But no matter how good the tiny sensors and AI pixie dust gets, that tech will also help the larger sensors get EVEN better still. There is always a place in your life for a real camera.

Some of you however cannot be convinced that a camera other than the one attached to your phone is necessary. Just as there were people in 1975 that thought a 126 plastic instamatic was good enough. At least today’s good enough is better than yesteryear’s top of the line, so in that sense, I get it.

picture of woman

Google Pixel 2 XL in portrait mode, some Photoshop lighting effects applied.

If you are going to use your phone as your only camera then please at least get a real smart phone camera. The Google Pixel 2 is the gold standard. It is the benchmark by which all others are judged and all others fail in its wake. But the iPhone 8, iPhone 10, Samsung S8, and Note 8 also have solid imaging. If your phone is your camera then get a good one. If you have a real camera, then get whatever phone suits your fancy or your budget.

Oh and unlike smartphones, cameras are much more techno-durable. What I mean is they don’t go obsolete on you after a year. My S110 is a camera that was introduced in 2012 and up until just very recently was still available brand new from Canon. My EOS 5d Mk III was introduced in 2012 as well and that camera was available brand new from Canon until the end of 2017! Both of these cameras have had just one successor, S120 and 5d Mk IV respectively. Try using a smart phone from 2012 and see how well you like that. Hey boys and girls, can you say “Android Jelly Bean?”

These are awesome times for photography my friends. Take your smart phone and make pictures everywhere and all the time, but whenever you can, take a real camera, even if it is just a little pocket-sized camera like the s110. Because for anything you wish to preserve for posterity, you should strive to render it in the best fashion possible. Modern cameras are dedicated to that end, smartphones as good as they are, remain a jack of all trades and master of none.

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