Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Case for a Camera that doesn't Make Phone Calls

Smart phones are brilliant little entertainment and convenience devices. Whether you belong to Team iPhone or Team Android, we all love our little glowing rectangles that connect us to all the other little glowing rectangles out there in the ether.

One of the greatest things about our glowing rectangles is their ability to snap a photo and instantly share it with the rest of the world (or a carefully-curated subset of the world we call "friends"). In the dark ages, our phones snapped photos that would embarrass a Polaroid camera, with tiny 0.3megapixel (mp) photos not even worth sharing on MySpace! Our 4.3mp point-and-shoot (p&s, or "penis") cameras of the time humiliated them in picture quality.

But now, NOW... phones commonly have 5-8mp cameras, And those cameras actually do a good job of imitating a lower-end p&s camera, especially when viewed on a computer screen, which generally get no higher in resolution than about 2.1mp (for a massive 1080p monitor). And that's all we really care about, eh?

So are we done here? Should we all toss out our p&s (you just said "penis" in your head -- admit it) cameras for web work if we can't afford a DSLR (which have a high price entry point)?

Not so fast. It so happens that I have on hand three cameras of very differing qualities and costs. One, a 5mp smartphone acquired for "free" (with a 2 year commitment to pay insane data fees, but that's life in the future, eh?). Two, a high-end p&s by Canon, the inimitable 10mp S90 -- around $350 refurbished. And three, a 12mp Olympus E-PL1 -- about $225 refurbished1. So, let's do some test shots and discuss the results!

First, we'll shoot some boring gloves for a focusing test (or bokeh, or narrow depth-of-field, or whatever you like to call it).


The Canon and Olympus shots are pretty darned close in image quality and color, but the Olympus defocuses the background and foreground a slightly better (narrower DoF, better bokeh, you get it). The phone shot doesn't look awful, exactly, but the whole shot is in focus, which takes the interest away from the subject you're trying to draw out of the image.

Next, let's look at the colors they produce on some lovely marigolds:



The Canon and Olympus give very vibrant, true-to-life color and contrast, and once again do a good job of only focusing on the subject. The phone's colors are duller and there's less definition between the petals of the marigolds.

So which is better? Well, it's plain that while phone cameras might be closing in on $100 p&s cameras, they have a long way to go to beat a good p&s2 camera like the S90.

Okay, then... Canon or Olympus? The Olympus might be able to defocus the background a little better, but it's a little clunkier to use, and you have to understand well things like aperture3, shutter speeds, sensitivity, and whatnot to get a really good shot, and it sometimes requires a tripod. But it can do something neither the Canon nor the phone can do: swap lenses. For the purposes of this comparison, I used the standard lens the camera came with (though I bought another mega-zoom lens) to show you what the $225 could get you.

12 oz tasty beverage can included for size reference. It's a little bigger than
 a compact camera, and the lens is swappable, like a DSLR.

With the Canon, you really do just point and shoot!

The Canon, while substantially more pocketable than the Olympus, is still
hefty, but that's the price you pay for good image quality. 
So what's the final word? My personal preference is the Olympus, but that's because I like maximum bokeh, and it's my camera, and I love fiddly things... and it was a great deal. As you can see from the photos, the Olympus is bigger than the Canon, but substantially smaller than a DSLR. Though I keep it on the strap, I can shoot with one hand.

Starr loves her Canon because it requires little effort with the camera to get a good quality shot, so it allows her to focus her efforts on staging and composing the photo.

Now, you need not spend $350 to get great quality plus ease of use. There are several cameras in this list that hover around the $200 mark. What's special about that list? Sensor size. To oversimplify, a larger sensor tends to enable better image quality and better background defocusing. Those cameras' sensors have roughly four times the surface area of a cell phone sensor, and it will show in your photos.

If you decide to take the leap to an interchangeable lens camera like my Olympus, I'd recommend Olympus or Panasonic because they use the same lens standard, giving you a broader selection of lenses, though Sony and Nikon make similar cameras. It's a very good idea to take a course to learn all about the capabilities and how each setting changes the photo, too. Community colleges are a great resource for such courses, but if you need more flexibility, there are very inexpensive online resources, too.  Just don't let all those bells and whistles go to waste.

1Since I learned what refurbished usually means -- "I took this out of the box and didn't like the way it beeped at me! You take it back and give me my money back!" -- I'm buying refurb from now on. My Oly "refurb" was indistinguishable from new.
2Penis, Penis, Penis!


  1. DEFINITELY the Olympus. The DOF is fantastic. Great post - good food for thought. I recently rejoined the cell phone world after going without for a few months because out here in yonder sticks it's hard to get and keep a signal. But after doing some research, I decided my 3G iPhone would be retiring, my Android (Galaxy S, I think?) would be hurled violently into heavy traffic, and I would upgrade to the 4S. So I wandered down to Charlotte to visit the Apple Store and picked myself up a factory-unlocked 4S for the whopping price of $649. Now, before that squenches your cost-savings sphincter (and believe me, I have one, too), let me tell you that this was THE best phone investment I have ever made. While I paid about $350 more up front, the amount of money I will save over the life of the phone is staggering. See, I also visited and paid $15 for one of their new "bring your own device" SIM cards. This enables me to use my beautiful new 4S just like anyone else does, for the paltry price of just $45/month. That's it: 45-bucks FLAT. No contract, no fees, no nothing. Gone are my days of iPhone hell with AT&T and being ass-raped every month with ever-increasing fees, taxes, surcharges, etc, etc. A family plan with three iPhones, 700 min (shared), and unlimited messaging (shared) was almost $400/ month. DISGUSTING. Not to mention the incredibly shitty customer "service" the ass-rapers provided. No thank you, not for me - no more, I say!! My ST plan includes unlimited EVERYTHING, the service/signal is fantastic, and I am once again able to sit comfortably without a donut pillow. I have strong 4G signal even out here in the sticks. Best freaking move EVER. And the phone basically pays for itself in less than 9 months. I heart you, Straight Talk, and I heart you, iPhone 4S. Thank you for reconnecting me to all of the other glowing rectangles :) Oh, and PS: while it's no Nikon, and I don't have the control of all of my different lenses, I am pretty damn pleased with the picture quality - thrilled, in fact. Beats any penis camera I ever had, including the very first one, by HP, that had a whopping 3.1mp

  2. The Olympus, for sure.

    Penis, penis, penis. I still carry 2 (Kodak & Iphone) everywhere I go, everyday.


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