A Phone is NOT a Camera (chapter 1 of many)

They're everywhere. It doesn't matter where you go, ten minutes isn't going to pass without seeing somebody holding up their phone, taking a picture. And why not? It's convenient, having a phone in your pocket.

I've known that since the 10th grade, when I carried my father's Voigtlander 35mm camera around in my pocket, ready to grab candid shots for the yearbook. That camera had the advantage of folding down to about 1 1/4” thick, so I could slip it into a shirt or vest pocket. But there weren't many of these cameras to be found 40 years ago.

Now, everyone has a phone that can take photos. It's nice. It's really handy when shopping, so you can save a picture of something you spotted as an idea for a gift, or you can send a picture to your spouse to make sure you're buying what they really want.

But here's the problem: not all cameras are created equal. At the time I was using my father's camera, a lot of people were using “pocket” cameras with 110-sized film. These were cheap plastic cameras with cheap plastic lenses. They used film that was about 1/4 the size of 35mm film, so they captured less visual information, and you could only enlarge the photos to a certain size without them appearing grainy or out-of-focus. You simply could not create a high quality photograph with such a camera. The same is true with most phone-based cameras available today.

The two factors that influence the quality of a photograph are the camera's sensor, and its lens system. Which, I know, runs contrary to what most of us hear when talking about digital cameras.

But wait! What about the megapixels?

For twenty years now, we've been hearing about how the greater the number of megapixels, the better the camera. To a degree, this is true. Megapixels is the word to describe how many pixels, or dots, make up the image. One megapixel is approximately one million pixels. A one megapixel photo is about 1200 pixels wide by 900 pixels high. At 300 pixels per inch (the standard for photo printing) this allows you to print a relatively clear 4” by 3” print. The higher you go with the resolution, ie the number of megapixels, the larger the print:


Pixel Resolution*

Print Size @ 300ppi


2048 x 1536

6.82" x 5.12"


2464 x 1632

8.21" x 5.44"


3008 x 2000

10.02" x 6.67"


3264 x 2448

10.88" x 8.16"


3872 x 2592

12.91" x 8.64"


4290 x 2800

14.30" x 9.34"


4920 x 3264

16.40" x 10.88"

Sounds great, right? Simple, right? Not anymore.

Over the past ten years, as phone manufacturers have been working to add more functionality to their phones while decreasing the weight, one of the sacrifices they have made has been in the size of the photo sensor. The elements of the sensor capture the light coming through the lens, with each element corresponding to a pixel in the photo. The sensor is a grid with millions of elements. As the sensor gets larger, each element also gets larger, and can collect more light from the lens. The more light each element collects, the better the camera can reproduce what is seen through the lens. So the size of the sensor can have a greater effect on the quality of the picture than the number of megapixels.

Only as Good as the Lens

The other critical factor for a good photograph is the lens. The light enters the camera or phone through the lens, which focuses the light on to the sensor. And this is where so many phones have a problem. Again, phone manufacturers are trying to reduce the weight of their phones despite the addition of new features. Plastic weighs less than glass, and plastic lenses are not new in the photography business. So many of the phones have plastic lenses. And this is a problem. Plastic is much more susceptible to imperfections in the manufacturing process. Tiny flaws in a lens can create refraction, an improper bending of the light, that shows up in your photos. Additional flaws can be created if the lens is subjected to stress, such as a bending of the phone. (you know, like when you sit down with the phone in your pocket?) Plastic also tends to scratch or haze more easily, which will also affect your photos. Glass lenses provide clearer, more distinct images, and are less susceptible to damage.

But Cameras Are Bulky and Expensive

Not necessarily. There are cameras to be found for under $100 that give you much better photos than your phone. The combination of the image sensor and the lens is usually better on a dedicated camera, even a compact one. Look for an established camera brand, though. There are companies turning out very cheap cameras that work, but the quality is not so good, and they tend to be slow, as well. This will be a problem if you are trying to take action shots. I recommend staying with a small group of manufacturers: Canon, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic, Olympus, Fuji and Kodak. Below, you will see links to some camera models that can be ordered on-line. Feel free to check them out, and check back here soon for discussion of my “must-have” features for cameras.

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