The Mobile Photographer: a Pro’s Opinion

The Mobile Photographer: a Pro’s Opinion


Editor's Note: New York-based professional photographer/videographer Jim Cummins wanted to see how far he could push the imaging capabilities of the iPhone. A recent assignment with New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, provided the opportunity.

My first job as a teenager was with Hagelstein Brothers, a large commercial photography house. We used 11″ x 14″ view cameras on a monorail. You took light readings with a light meter, adjusted the settings on your camera, removed the lens cap, went to lunch, and by the time you got back, you had a picture.

Today, you can take a picture on your cell phone, make adjustments and send it from point A to point B in the time it takes you to order lunch. What's amazing is the quality of these images and the number of applications that can be downloaded to improve picture quality as well as the device's capability.

The pace of the improvements are coming at breakneck speed, and the camera phone is quickly staking its claim as a legit imaging device—one that will soon be on par with point-and-shoot digital still cameras.

I believe three things will make this possible.

1. Liquid Lenses

2. Longer battery life

3. Nanotechnology

The last point, nanotechnology, is simply the ability to make these devices small and light enough to handle comfortably. Moving forward, I believe “Nano is the Word.”

Liquid lenses exist now in many devices that we use today—scanners, bar code readers, security cameras, etc. The biggest problem with images from a cell phone is image stabilization. Varioptics has just announced a system that will be in the next generation of camera phones by early 2011. Their A316S system has no moving parts and minimized power consumption. Wetting agents combined with a multi-electrode design tilt the light in all directions of space, refocusing the light.

Batteries with longer lifecycles and quicker recharging times are surfacing from many companies—Sony, HP, Panasonic, etc. They can keep cell phones going for a week at a time, even with all the applications and future functions such as the many emerging medical applications—a market worth keeping an eye on. Nokia also just announced they are coming to market with a self-charging battery that will address this issue as well.

Back to nanotechnology, this is the last part of the equation. The equipment is going to get smaller than you can imagine. If you don't believe it, consider the fact that you can download thousands of tunes on a device the size of a credit card. The music industry never saw this coming and look at the havoc it wreaked there.

Again “Nano is the Word”—a phrase I find myself repeating often these days.

Test Drive – Photojournalism Style

I decided to see how good these camera phones are at shooting some difficult assignments. I recently chose an iPhone because of the many apps that are immediately available. Clearly, the most challenging subjects would be in the areas of photojournalism, sports and entertainment.

The iPhone I used has a 3MP camera, and I decided to use it to shoot a recent assignment I had in Manhattan, not on the basis of what it could or couldn't do but what I felt I could do with it.

A few things to consider before I go into the details of the assignment: Becoming familiar with the ergonomics of the unit is key so when the moment comes you can get the shot as quickly as possible. Remember, there are no rewrites in photography. Also, a 3MP camera has obvious limitations when it comes to image quality.

Wrapping my head around the fact that I'm using a system roughly 1/7th the size of what I've used for so many years takes a little getting used to. Also take into account that being able to do the darkroom work right on the device is more than mind blowing to me.

The objective is to be able to come up to full speed in delivering a picture from clicking the shutter to processing and then getting the image(s) from point A to point B with all the corrections needed as smoothly and quickly as possible. Go full tilt.

I decided I'd go to New York City Hall and follow the Mayor's schedule. His first stop was a visit to Project Open Door Senior Center for Lunar New Year in Chinatown.

There was a fair amount of press so I joined in the usual struggle to get the best position. I was directly in front of Mayor Bloomberg and the speakers. I was quite surprised and impressed with the results that I got in a fast-moving news situation. The lighting was low, actually on the borderline of needing flash. Earlier I had applied a zoom app to the iPhone and a function that allows the entire screen to become a shutter button. I found the exposures to be fairly accurate using the function that allows you to move your finger across the screen to the areas that you want to focus on and expose for. Colors were very true to the situation. The picture quality was good given that I was shooting in available light and no flash. None of the pictures were Photo-shopped.

Amazing to me are all camera functions that would normally be mechanical that can be ordered up by pressing a button: zoom, effects, B&W, etc.. And don't forget, the iPhone also has video capability. This kind of flexibility is a big part of the equation as well and will all improve greatly moving forward.

While image quality is admittedly a bit of a limitation there were so many other positives in using the iPhone for this assignment. I think that given the speed at which innovation is happening in this market, the camera phone will be as functional as any DSLR in the near future and you'll find more photographers opting for a smaller “device” that can do many of the same things—focal length selection, transmissions without using a laptop and shirt pocket portability. All this in one device. I'll even predict that all the above could happen within the next year.

In summary, the current wave of camera phones certainly can provide adequate image quality. With the above advancements coming I truly feel that the camera phone could some day rival DSLRs and will essentially drive point-and-shoot cameras into extinction. It's no longer a matter of if, it's simply a question of when…and the when might be sooner than we all think.

All photos by Jim Cummins