The Walking Dead

Posted on June 23, 2011 by psu

Ever since Nikon put out the first usable consumer DSLR camera (the D1x, btw) what people have pined for is something that would shoot pictures that are nearly as good, but in a much smaller form factor. Over the last few years, several cameras like this have finally become available. Most recently this has culminated in the almost comical Pentax “Q” System which combines what everyone has always wanted: small sensor cameras and interchangeable lenses. What?

Anyway, the universe has yet again dealt the camera companies an ironic blow. Just as they come around to the idea that people want higher quality pocket cameras, we come to find out that actually, no one wants a higher quality pocket camera. In fact, in five years the pocket camera will probably be all but irrelevant.

My partner in blogging, peterb, actually called this in his first comment on this post. The truth is that the smart phone (in my case, an iPhone 4) will destroy the pocket camera. There is almost no question that this will happen. I did not believe him at the time because the camera in the iPhone 3GS was actually kind of sucky. I believe him now because the camera in the iPhone 4 is, for the most part, not sucky. I realized this on my most recent trip to Paris where by far my two favorite pocket camera shots were taken with the iPhone. Here is the first one:


The second one is a bit more interesting thing than that, but you’ll have to take my word for it because as a general policy I don’t post family photos to the public Internet. Just a paranoid tick I have.

In any case, here are the four things that make pictures on the iPhone better than all the other cameras:

  1. The camera is good enough in terms of image quality, responsiveness and general feature set.

  1. In camera HDR. Cannot stress this enough. This one feature makes the camera 100% more usable.

  1. Autostitch.

  1. The phone is close to the Internet at all times.

We can go over these one by one. The first speaks for itself. The camera is missing nothing that is absolutely critical for about 75% of the photos I ever want to take. By which I really mean 90%. The second is more subtle. What is nice about the HDR is that it compensates for the one major shortcoming of the tiny phone CCD: limited dynamic range. So, instead of black shadows and blown highlights, in most situations you get decent pictures. The pano above takes great advantage of this. I also love love love using Autostitch in the phone. I’ll do panos in my phone in a heartbeat, whereas I hardly ever bother to do panos with my real cameras. This is because doing them in Photoshop sucks and doing them in Autostitch is fun. I can’t explain it. In fact, the picture that I didn’t show you is a 2×2 square HDR pano. It’s the only combined horizontal/vertical panoramic shot I’ve ever actually tried. I would never do this sort of thing with my Nikon, but the fact that I can see the stitch almost immediately in my phone makes me try.

Finally, the fourth one is important because in general we take pictures to share them, and these days the way you share pictures is on the Internet.

I will posit that no current camera-company camera, be it a lowly point and shoot or a $20,000 professional digital back, combines all four of these features in one package. In addition, I (and others who are smarter than me) would argue that the camera companies will never understand how to put a package like this together. This is because they only understand cameras as they were used between 1960 and 1995. I think they still don’t understand how important easy sharing and having a software platform in the camera is to most users. If they did, they wouldn’t have spent the last 10 years in a megapixel pissing match. Instead, they would have given us cameras that are more usable and actually take advantage of things digital can do that film couldn’t.

Anyway, to end, here’s another phone picture I took in Paris which was better than what I got with my big DSLR:


I think this might also be a panorama. But I can’t remember. I can’t remember because I didn’t have to sit at my laptop for 20 minutes watching Photoshop chug trying to put it together. See how that works?