DITCH THE COMPACT

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The Sceptical Shopper: After a slow start, smartphone cameras are getting better all the time. So where does that leave your old point-and-shoot? Our undercover expert zooms in

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2013

It may have already replaced your address book and diary. It hopes one day to make your wallet and keys redundant. And in the meantime, the next victim of the smartphone—that digital equivalent of the Swiss Army knife—may well be the compact digital camera.

The first phones to have cameras appeared a decade ago and were painful to use: they produced images like grainy postage-stamps, and their feeble processing power often brought a long delay between pressing the shutter button and taking a picture. That may have put many people off. But today’s smartphones are in a different league, with far more processing power and greatly improved optics. When it comes to image quality, top-of-the-range smartphones can now put up a fight against compact cameras—at least when the light is right. 

They perform much less impressively when things get dim and dark, however—chiefly because they use much smaller lenses and sensors than dedicated cameras, and so have much less light-gathering power. Using the flash is pointless. Even more than camera flash, it makes pictures look worse. But things are improving rapidly: in low light, the iPhone 5 is streets ahead of the iPhone 4S, and the Samsung Galaxy S III is better still. Besides, poor low-light performance may not be that much of an Achilles’ heel. It’s often possible to fix pictures that are too dark, using downloadable apps. And poor low-light performance may be outweighed by the advantage of always having your smartphone camera with you. 

It depends where you’re taking it, though. You can buy waterproof, extra-rugged compact cameras, but you’d be unwise to use a smartphone to take snaps in the sea, or to record your latest foray into adventure sports. Yet its camera will be as simple—if not simpler—to control, because of its touch-screen interface. Initially the phone will focus and expose on whatever is in the middle of the viewfinder. Tapping elsewhere makes it refocus and adjust the exposure, which means you can make fine adjustments to brightness. Smartphones have fancy advanced features rarely seen on compact cameras, such as panoramic shooting or high dynamic range, which combines multiple images at different exposures, and is particularly good at bringing out detail in the sky. Some phones even let you combine multiple group shots, to make sure everyone looks good. All of this used to require a lot of messing around with a computer; now, it’s a doddle.

That is before you start to consider the thousands of additional apps. Snapseed (for Apple and Android devices) provides an easy-to-use set of tools for image enhancement, allowing you to adjust brightness, contrast and saturation. It can also apply retro-style vintage filters, convert colour to arty black-and-white, and apply selective blur to simulate the shallow depth of field associated with a high-end camera. Big Lens mimics the effect of different lenses to make your smartphone snaps look as though they were shot with a giant Nikon. Other apps let you add text to photos (Over, Phonto) and share them quickly (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram). If that isn’t enough, you can add hardware accessories, such as snap-on fish-eye, wide-angle or macro lenses. Yet such gadgets violate the simplicity of smartphone photography—the whole point of which is to avoid carrying lots of gear.

If the convenience and flexibility of smartphone cameras outweigh their drawbacks—particularly if you can afford a high-end model—which should you buy? If your concern is image quality, five mega-pixels are plenty for most purposes; colour fidelity, sharpness and low-light performance are more important. In a side-by-side comparison with a Canon Powershot S100, the models that acquitted themselves well on this front were the Galaxy S III (from £440) and iPhone 5 (from £529), plus the Nokia Lumia 920 (from £490), HTC One X (from £277) and Sony Xperia T (from £290).

Ditch your compact camera for one of these, and you may well go one of two ways. You’ll either become a phone-photography convert, or you’ll decide to upgrade to a proper camera, with a viewfinder and interchangeable lenses, and keep the phone for snaps. Either way, the need to resort to point-and-shoot is vanishing fast.

Illustration Richard Rockwood