Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Best Phone for Photographers

    The iPhone has gotten a lot of coverage in photography blogs (such as Strobist and Chase Jarvis) and has gained a reputation for being the best phone for photographers.  Since the iPhone revolutionized the smartphone market, however, many phones, particularly Android phones, have emerged to challenge the iPhone's dominance.  In this post, we talk to an expert on mobile phones, our very own Mohammed Shafik, to get an industry insider's advice on the best phone for photographers.



    Mic: Mohammed, thanks for your ongoing contributions to the blog, which are consistently among the most popular articles here.  Many readers may not know that in addition to your passion for photography, you are also an expert on mobile phones.  Can you tell us a bit about your experience with mobile phones?

    MS: You're welcome Mic, explaining and teaching things is one my favorite things to do, you will notice in all my posts that I talk way too much. My mobile phone background started with the first Nokia Symbian S60 phone, the Nokia 6600, I was mesmerized by the ability to install 3rd party applications, have multi player games over bluetooth and other stuff, it was a whole new world to me. In general I am a gadget freak, I love anything with buttons and screens, so I was able to fulfill a large part of this obsession with mobile phones. I was mostly attracted to Nokia's Symbian S60 platform, in my opinion they were the most flexible phones ever (remember the Nokia N95? Even the "Nokia/Symbian hating and ignoring" Gizmodo crew were crazy about it. I was also aware of the Windows Mobile phones but we never really hit it off.

I wrote some guest articles for http://www.symbian-freak.com/, and a while ago I decided to start my own blog http://www.mobile-thoughts.com since I had a deal with Nokia Egypt that I would be able to do reviews for new phones before they get released, but because of some changes in the company's management team we called it off, and I was lazy/depressed since then to even update the blog.

I have tried most of the phones I could get my hands on, and currently own the Samsung Galaxy S and the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10i, as you can see Android is my favorite OS for now for it's immense flexibility and openness.

    Mic: Well, thanks for taking the time to share your experience with us.
    
    Recently, my wife surprised me with an iPhone 4, which she got for me because she thought it was the best phone for photographers.  I'm finding a lot of photography-related uses for it such as:

        * Showing a portfolio
        * Browsing other photos
        * Photography apps
        * Surfing the net for tutorials, photoblogs, and photo-related forums
        * Photo ebooks (kindle, nook, ibook etc.)
        * Keeping on hand user manuals for cameras, flashes, and other gear.
        * Shopping / price comparison
        * Decent camera

    In your view, is the iPhone in fact the best phone for photographers?
    
    MS: Your list of how useful the phone is for a photographer can be achieved using any modern smartphone; whether it is an iPhone, an Android phone or a Symbian phone (which I know is not popular in the US, and cannot compete with the current modern touch OSes), I have used lots and lots of phones, but for the sake of brevity I will only consider the Android phones and the iPhone because they are the current market leaders. So let us discuss your list in a bit more detail.

    Mic: OK.  Let's start with showing portfolio.  Photographers who use iPhones such as David Hobby find the iPhone useful for displaying different portfolios for their clients.

    MS: This one needs a good phone display, and by good I mean good size, good viewing angles, good colors (not necessarily accurate/calibrated, casual people love vivid colors), good resolution and good outdoor visibility.

    The iPhone 4 fulfills all of these beautifully except for the size (3.5"), it's not small but not as large as the high end Androids (4" +).
    As for the Android phones the Samsung Galaxy S, the Nexus S and the recently announced Galaxy S2 are the best because of their Super AMOLED displays, you have to see them by yourself to believe, the colors are really vivid, the viewing angles are extreme and they have amazingly deep blacks, I can never tell the edge between the display and black body of the phone! The major reason I bought the Galaxy S was the screen to show off my pictures, and now thanks to supercurio & hardcore XDA developers, we have even sharper screens with the ability to tweak the color temperature (warm/cool).

    Mic: I have to agree with you about the AMOLED display.  My brother also got a Galaxy S for the same reason and the screen is indeed impressive.
  
Another use I find for the iPhone is for browsing other photos.  I like using the iPhone to look at sites such as Flickr, for inspiration and ideas.

    MS: Again, both smartphone OSes can do this very easily.

    Mic:  What about photo apps?  In my view, one of the differentiators between the different smartphones is the availability of apps, and in this case, photo apps.  For example, I found the 360 Panorama app quite useful (reviewed here: http://betterfamilyphotos.blogspot.com/2011/02/review-360-panorama-app-for-iphoneipod.html ).

    MS:  Check the following links, there is an abundance of good apps for both:
    Mic: Those are great lists.  Thanks!

    Moving on, I also use the iPhone to surf the net for tutorials, blogs, forums.  I like how the pages look pretty similar to their versions on my desktop.

    MS: Same again, both are extremely good at this, I have to mention the "Tapatalk" app for Android [Mic: also available for iPhone www.tapatalk.com] which currently supports lots of forums and you can have favorite forums and even topics which makes it extremely easy to follow up discussions and even search for new forums based on the content you want to see.

    Mic: Tapatalk looks useful.  It could really help me keep track of many forums.

    Another reason I like the iPhone for photography is for ebooks (Kindle, Nook, iBooks etc.).  I hadn't read my copy of Hot Shoe Diaries for the longest time.  But after I got the iPhone and downloaded Kindle, I was finally able to enjoy it when I had a bit of time here and there.  I even got to read Speedliter's Handbook (reviewed here: http://betterfamilyphotos.blogspot.com/2011/02/syl-arenas-speedliters-handbook.html ).

    MS: Both have all of these applications, on Android I use: Aldiko, Google Books and Kindle.

    Mic: On a related note, I also find the iPhone handy for keeping manuals on hand, as suggested by Bob Krist in this blog post. I use the built-in app iBooks to keep PDF manuals and the formatting is preserved as in the original PDF.

    MS: Easy peasy, all phones can do it, I use Adobe's Acrobat on Android and I have all my manuals and books saved in PDF format.

    Mic: Nice!  I also like to use the iPhone for shopping / price comparison.

    MS: Very easy using google but I would give the upper hand to iOS here because of the dedicated Amazon & B&H apps. However Google Shopper is extremely good and is available on both platforms. http://www.google.com/mobile/shopper/

    Mic: Lastly, I think the iPhone has a decent camera - it seems to have lower noise than my old P&S (Casio Exilim EX-V7), and even has HDR capability.

    MS: I would like to talk here a bit, when I first got the Nokia N86 and the Sony Ericsson C905 and compared them to my old Sony DSC-T10 digital camera, I was amazed at how good the mobile phone cameras have progressed, you can check my comparison here: http://www.symbian-freak.com/reviews/n86/nokia_n86_review_part_3_by_mohamed_shafik.htm

    Nowadays the mobile cameras have become even better, most digital cameras have 1/2.5" sensors (way smaller than any DSLR, check this link: https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/File:Sensor_sizes_overlaid_inside.svg), and mobile phones use these sensors or even smaller in their cameras, the iPhone 4 for example uses a 1/3.2" sensor, and despite that they keep increasing the megapixels. When I bought the Canon G11 I was proud of it's larger than most digital cameras sensor (1/1.7"), and at 10MP this enabled much less noise at high ISO, the G10 was 14MP with the same sensor size, Canon actually decreased the MPs to reduce noise based on user complaints. So imagine how I felt when the Nokia N8 was announced with a 1/1.83" sensor!!! For pixel peepers like me (I love to see my images at 100% magnification) the N8 promised very good images with very low noise, it will all come down to Nokia's JPEG compression algorithm. Check this link which compares the N8 to the Canon 550D: http://thehandheldblog.com/2010/10/04/shootout-nokia-n8-v-canon-550d-dslr/.

    So to sum it up, I stopped using my mobile phone as a camera because I don't really stand the lack of detail and noise in it's images, no matter how good the camera is. Of course there are situations when you want to use it to take a quick snap of something you might otherwise miss, and at web viewing sizes I can produce amazing images with any mobile phone camera, I am not one of the people who post every event on facebook and social sites, anyway, the trick nowadays with mobile cameras is the JPEG processing, that's why people really like the iPhone 4 because of it's vivid colors and live images, casual shooters never care for post processing, that's why they use their mobile phones for shooting, but since you are addressing photographers it is a different story.

    What I really appreciate in the modern camera phones is the HD video recording, it is way easy and very useful to have instant 720p video recording with wide angle and a huge depth of field to record action compared to a DSLR for example, of course dedicated HD video cameras are easier but they are one more thing to carry, the phone is always in your pocket.

    We come to the final question, what are the current best camera phones [as of February 2011]?

In my own opinion (I know there will be people who don't agree with me):

    - Nokia N8, largest sensor ever in a phone, f/2.8 aperture, 28mm eq. focal length, 10 cm focusing distance, Xenon flash and stereo 720p recording.
    - iPhone 4, vivid images, good detail, amazing 720p videos, backside illuminated sensor (http://www.camcorderinfo.com/content/New-Back-Illuminated-CMOS-Sensor-from-Sony-Promises-More-Sensitivity-35234.htm) which increases the sensitivity on low light situations.
    - From the current crop of Android phones, I would assume that the recently announced Sony Ericsson Arc and Neo with their Exmor R backside illuminated 8 MP sensors would prove really good, that's the benefit of having "Sony" as half of the brand name.  http://www.sony.net/SonyInfo/technology/technology/theme/exmor_r_01.html

    Mic: Thanks!  Readers who are looking for a phone that will support their photography will find this info useful.