BitDepth#893 - July 09

Will smartphones ever replace traditional image capture systems? There are some hard facts about technology that may keep a real distance between pocketable cameras and professional gear.
Photography on a phone
That big green rectangle is the sensor of a modern full-frame digital camera, and it’s almost exactly the same size as a frame of 35mm film. The tiny pink rectangle is the size of the imaging sensor in a typical high-end mobile phone. All sizes relative, not exact.

Let’s face it. Your cell phone was never designed to be a camera.
The things that make it a good phone are the exact opposite to the attributes traditionally associated with a useful photographic instrument.
People using a mobile phone generally want something small, flat and light while photographers want something hefty and robust that they can grip comfortably.

Where these two interests meet, compromises abound, as anyone trying to hold a cell phone steady in low light already knows.
But the biggest issue facing anyone taking pictures with cell phone is the size of the image gathering sensors used in such devices.

At 4.69 * 3.53 mm, the sensor in a Galaxy S4 is only about 60 per cent of the size of the sensor in the Canon S100, a popular pocketable digital camera.
Both sensors capture roughly the same number of megapixels worth of light information, but the S4 (and similar mobile phones) uses smaller photosites to translate light into bits of data.

The smaller the photosites are, the less accurate the light gathering capabilities of the sensor. That’s why professionals still buy bulky medium format cameras and pay a staggering sum for the privilege. You can see a size comparison of sensors here and
do your own comparisons here.
Mobile phone photography didn’t really take off until someone rather cleverly turned the failings of the small sensors used in phones from a problem into a virtue.

Tools like Instagram changed the conversation about pictures on a mobile phone from an aesthetic of visual fidelity to an effects laden extravaganza that’s more Holga than Hasselblad.
A cellphone is now expected to produce gritty lo-fi images instead of the type of photographs that we’ve come to expect from more formal imagemaking gear.

Over time, and driven by the popularity of the filter infused software Instagram, such captures have come to be described as “Instagrammed.”
Rick Ross has a very rude song about the subject, so it’s officially a part of youth culture.

Beyond Instagram, which is really a whole ecosystem for sharing these heavily styled photographs effortlessly, virtually all the good software for working with images was to be found on the iPhone.
Among the offerings on the iOS platform are tools that allow you to
capture the uncompressed RAW data from the device’s sensor and create DNG files from the data.

For anyone who’s used to the richness of raw sensor data from a DSLR, this is pretty huge. The sensors in smartphones are tiny things and pretty limited in what they can capture, so being able to harvest all the quality they can offer is a major step forward in making these devices feel more like traditional image capture devices.

These advancements are happening exactly when the quality of modern camera sensors has moved beyond marginal to professionally acceptable. The images I get off an S4, for example, are better than those that I get off a professional full-frame DSLR made a decade ago.

This year’s crop of mobile phones in particular make it possible to take excellent photographs, some of which rival those from more professional equipment in good light.
The sensor sizes on today’s camera phones are roughly equal, if still irritatingly tiny, so which devices are best for pure photography in a mobile phone form factor?
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