When was the last time you saw a cell phone that only made calls? These days, such devices can send text messages, play music, offer Web browsing, provide directions via global positioning systems (GPS), and take pictures. The camera function has become especially popular over the last few years, as new technology has improved picture quality and allowed users to share photos over the mobile network. In April 2009, 66 percent of cell phone consumers used their cell phones to take pictures; just a year later, in May 2010, this figure rose to 76 percent. The percentage is even higher for users aged 18 to 29, 93 percent of whom take photos with their mobile phones [source: Pew]. Despite this increasing popularity, cell phone cameras are typically less advanced than dedicated digital cameras, so it's important that you purchase a quality device and familiarize yourself with its functions.
Camera phones have been around for more than a decade, though early models lacked the resolution and storage capacity of today's devices. Interestingly, software entrepreneur Philippe Kahn developed the first prototype at a hospital in 1997, while his wife was in labor. Armed with his laptop, digital camera and cell phone, Kahn was able to jury-rig the devices together and send a picture of the new baby to his friends and family's e-mail accounts [source: Maney]. Just two years later, in 1999, camera phones hit the market in Japan, and in 2002, they were introduced in the United States [source: CTIA]. The popularity of these devices was evident in 2010, when the iPhone 3G became the most popular camera on the photo-sharing Web site Flickr [source: Hadhazy].
Camera phones utilize the same technology as stand-alone digital cameras, but have yet to match their traditional counterparts in functionality and image quality. Less sensitive sensors, lower quality lenses and a lack of customizable options mean that serious photographers still have to tote around a second camera in order to capture more professional photographs. Still, camera phones are a very simple and convenient way to capture unexpected moments from your everyday life and share them with your friends. The following sections offer tips for choosing the best camera phone and suggest techniques for making better pictures.
How to Know Which Cell Phones Take Good Pictures
Not all camera phones are created equal. The images they produce depend heavily on the quality of the sensor, the types of materials from which the components are made and the capabilities of the software system that processes the images. As a general rule, you get what you pay for: A cheap phone that came free with your service plan is unlikely to produce the results that a more costly one does. And while it can be hard to find the specifications for a phone's camera, there are some things you can look for to ensure that you're buying the best device you can afford.
One of the most difficult qualities to judge in a camera phone is the image resolution. In an ideal world, the image resolution would be directly related to the megapixel count, or the number of light-sensing photosites on a camera's complimentary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) chip. Most camera phones offer at least two megapixels -- enough for a clear 4 by 6 print -- but some can shoot as many as 12 megapixels. While this measure can be useful, image resolution depends on a number of other factors. One is the size of the sensor and the spacing of its photosites. The small sensors and tiny photosites common on many camera phones can create visual "noise," or grain, in low-light situations, making them useless for many applications. An inadequate image-processing system or a low-quality lens may also compromise image resolution.
The lens is another important aspect in determining image quality. Be sure to choose a camera with a glass lens rather than a plastic one, and look for a lens that bears the name of a reputable optics maker. An optical zoom is also a useful feature for a camera phone lens. This mechanism allows the user to magnify the image within the frame without compromising picture quality, unlike the more common digital zoom feature that simply crops the larger image. Other useful characteristics to look for include autofocus and aperture settings. With autofocus, a photographer can push the shutter-release button halfway down and it will focus on the object in the center of the frame, allowing for greater user control. Aperture settings can indicate a camera's versatility: While most camera phone settings are fixed between f/2.8 and f/4.0, look for one that can be adjusted across a wide range.
Having the right equipment is only part of taking good cell phone pictures. Read on to discover helpful tips and techniques for shooting photographs.
Tips for Taking Better Pictures on Your Phone
Because camera phones are typically more simplistic than most stand-alone digital cameras, observing good technique is central to making great photographs. The first thing you should do is to make sure that your camera lens is clean and dust-free -- a wipe with any eyeglass cloth will do the trick. Then set your camera to take pictures at the highest resolution and image size possible. These steps will improve your shots dramatically regardless of what you're photographing.
When choosing subject matter, it's important that you familiarize yourself with your camera phone's limitations. Such devices usually don't do well with movement or low light. Scenes with either of these conditions may turn out blurry, and dimly-lit images will often contain digital "noise," or grainy imperfections. If your phone has a built-in LED flash, use it to illuminate nearby subjects, but it will do little good if you're shooting something far away. As you frame your picture, avoid using the digital zoom because this feature simply crops the image, resulting in a more pixilated photograph. Instead, move closer to or farther away from your subject matter, if possible.
Once you have your picture composed, there are still a couple of things to remember before you press the shutter release button. Because camera phones often have a slow shutter speed, try to hold your device as steady as possible when taking the picture. For best results, hold the phone with both hands, take a deep breath and slowly exhale as you snap the photo. When you hit the button, you'll probably notice a slight delay. Compensate for this lag by continuing to hold the camera still for a second or two after you depress the shutter release button.
After you've taken some photographs, there are still things you can do to improve them or to make them more interesting. Adobe Photoshop, used for editing photos on a desktop or laptop computer, offers numerous tools with which you can clean up and sharpen your images, or even make them look better when enlarged. If you want to edit images directly on your phone, programs like the iPhone's PhotoForge offer tools like automatic noise reduction, white balance and exposure adjustments, and the ability to create filter effects.
Armed with these tips and techniques, you'll be surprised what you can do with a simple camera phone.
More Great Links
- Baldridge, Aimee. "The Camera Phone Book." Washington: National Geographic. 2007.
- Bilton, Nick. "Mobile Phones Eliminate Single-Serving Devices." The New York Times. Jan. 6, 2010. (Jan. 3, 2011)http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/06/mobile-phones-ingest-more-single-serving-devices/
- Hadhazy, Adam. "How to Take Better Cell Phone Photographs." TechNewsDaily. Jan. 29, 2010. (Jan. 3, 2011)http://www.technewsdaily.com/how-to-take-good-pictures-with-your-cell-phone-100128-0111/
- "History of Wireless Communications." CTIA--The Wireless Association. September 2010. (Jan. 4, 2011)http://www.ctia.org/media/industry_info/index.cfm/AID/10392
- Jeffries, Stuart. "The Rise of the Camera-Phone." The Guardian. Jan. 8, 2010. (Jan. 4, 2011)http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/jan/08/stuart-jeffries-camera-phones
- Johnson, Dave. "Digital Focus: Better Photos from Your Camera Phone." June 14, 2005. (Jan. 3, 2011)http://www.pcworld.com/article/120980/digital_focus_better_photos_from_your_camera_phone.html
- Johnson, Dave. "Five Tips for Great Photos with Your Cell Phone." PC World. March 2, 2009. (Jan. 3, 2011)http://www.pcworld.com/article/159775/five_tips_for_great_photos_with_your_cell_phone.html
- Johnson, Joel. "Take High-Quality Pics with Your Phone's Low-Quality Camera." Popular Mechanics. Oct. 1, 2009. (Jan. 4, 2011)http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/how-to/4282963
- "Photo Gallery: How to Take Camera Phone Pictures." National Geographic. 2011. (Jan. 3, 2011)http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/photo-tips/camera-phone-photos/#/fountain-portrait-england_23020_600x450.jpg
- "PhotoForge." GhostBirdSoftware. 2011. (Jan. 4, 2011)http://www.ghostbirdsoft.com/#photoforge
- Maney, Kevin. "Baby's Arrival Sparks Birth of Cellphone Camera--and Societal Evolution." USA Today. Jan. 23, 2007. (Jan. 4, 2011)http://www.usatoday.com/tech/columnist/kevinmaney/2007-01-23-kahn-cellphone-camera_x.htm
- Rocco, Shawn. "Cellular Obscura." Dec. 3, 2010. (Jan. 3, 2011)http://cellularobscura.blogspot.com/
- Smith Aaron. "Mobile Access 2010." Pew Internet and American Life Project. July 7, 2010. (Jan. 4, 2011)http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Mobile-Access-2010.aspx
- TechNewsDaily Staff. "Gallery: Cell Phone Photographs." TechNewsDaily. Jan. 28, 2010. (Jan. 4, 2011)http://www.technewsdaily.com/shawn-rocco-cell-phone-photos-100128-0112/