Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Where Have All the Cameras Gone?

Over the weekend, I attended a good friend's 60th birthday celebration. It was a wonderful event for a wonderful person.

All the trappings were there: friends, family, the cake, candles, jokes about being 60 and the requisite photos of the cake and blowing out the candle.

But then a tech-savvy friend of mine made the observation that there was not one stand-alone camera or video camera being used. All of the photos and videos were being taken with what we used to call "cell phones," but are now more commonly known as "smartphones."

There was not a single Canon, Nikon, Kodak, Sony or other major photo brand of camera in sight. That floored me.

I have never considered a smartphone to be an adequate substitute for a "real" camera. Part of this is my loyalty to the 35-mm SLR format I grew up with, and my willingness to carry around an extra five or 10 pounds of camera equipment, but much of it is having seen the (low) quality of smartphones in the past.

Smartphones have made great strides of late, upping the pixel resolution of their cameras. While larger pixel resolution is good, the mere fact that the diameter of a typical smartphone camera is under a half-inch means that until the laws of physics are repealed, these cameras will never live up to their larger-lensed cousins.

But who cares?

Having been raised as a fine art photographer with role models such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, I take my photography seriously. But I've learned to divide my photography into two parts: photography and snapshots.

Photography is fine art photography with high quality, great composition, care for color clarity, tone and printmaking, etc.

Snapshots are intended to record an event, such as a BBQ, birthday party, vacation or something else where the primary reason is to record the people who attended. Snapshots are also frequently meant to be sent to someone else who could not attend so that they can see how someone is growing up or how happy they are.

It's clear to me that smartphones are intended for snapshots, not photography. That being said, I've seen some creative people doing some amazing work with smartphones.

But for most events in people's lives, a smartphone -- especially one of reasonable quality -- will do just fine. It will allow the people to re-live their event with sufficient quality that they'll smile. It will allow distant people, such as grandparents, to see their grandchildren's birthday parties or their first homerun.

It won't matter that the still image is not in ultra-high resolution, although some of the smartphones now shoot in a version of High Definition video. What will matter is that the images will bring people together in ways that took much longer and were costlier even a few years ago.

In fact, over the weekend, my 5-year-old son went to his first Little League pickup game. I did not bring either of my "real" cameras, but when he got up to bat, I pulled out my smartphone and was able to record his base hit, which his mother was able to see later that day. The fact that he was tagged out before he reached first base didn't matter -- he hit the ball.

I have complained for years about the need to carry both a high-quality still and video camera with me. While I'm not yet ready to give either of them up, I do see that we are starting to have good options, especially in the snapshot area.

While I really enjoy the high quality I receive from my large still and video cameras, I certainly like the convenience of the more portable devices.

So, keep your eyes open as the quality and convenience of smartphone photo and video technology increases. There are many opportunities for taking snapshots of wonderful events.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 21 July 2010.
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