Point-and-Shoot Cameras Still Beat Cameraphones — For Now

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(For the record, the first and fourth photos above are from the iPhone 4; the second and sixth are from the Droid X; the third and fifth are from the Cyber-shot. )

Even though I was able to take respectable photos with all three devices, there was no real contest. After a hundred photos, the Sony’s battery gauge still reported that three-quarters of the charge remained. The camera’s 10X zoom let me quickly frame marching bands, old cars, and toddlers as they passed. The bright three-inch LCD gave me a very good idea of what I was about to capture. I could have shot in modes up to ten megapixels–not necessary for the Web, but useful when I want to crop with abandon or print at very large sizes. In short, I was very glad I’d bothered to bring along a real camera.

The Cyber-shot has a bunch of other nifty features that I didn’t need for the parade, but which often come in handy, such as an array of scene modes and the ability to autostitch panoramas. (The iPhone 4 makes almost all photographic decisions itself, and the Droid X offers only a smattering of settings.) I try to avoid using the Sony’s flash except when absolutely necessary, but it’s way more helpful than the dinky ones on the phones.

Taking the iPhone 4 and Droid X on a major photographic expedition turned out to be a bad idea. After I’d shot a hundred photos, their batteries were in the danger zone: Neither would have lasted for the rest of a normal day of phone calls, e-mail, and browsing without being recharged. Their digital zooms, unlike the Sony’s optical one, are cumbersome to use and enlarge the image by throwing out pixels, thereby degrading picture quality.

And here’s something weird: It was an intensely sunny day in Solvang, and an hour or so into the parade, the iPhone seemed to suffer from heat stroke. It appeared to stop backlighting its display, and it told me that it was going to shut off its flash until things cooled down. I stuck it in my pocket for a while, and when I tried again it had recovered.

So to get back to my original question, are stand-alone point-and-shoot cameras an endangered species? No, not yet. They’re capable of taking much better pictures and offer far more photographic settings than their smartphone brethren. And absent several technological breakthroughs, I don’t see how phones will catch up with point-and-shoots. Big lenses outperform little lenses, and optical zooms still take up so much space that (almost) nobody tries to cram one into a phone.

It’s worth nothing that cameraphones beat point-and-shoots in respects that go beyond image quality. The Droid X and iPhone 4 both use their GPS capabilities to geotag your pictures, a feature that’s still pretty exotic on “real” cameras. (The Cyber-shot has it, although it’s harder to use than on the iPhone and Droid.) They let you instantly share pictures in an array of ways, rather than making you wait until you can transfer images to a computer. They’ve got bigger LCDs than nearly any traditional camera. I have a hunch that smartphones like these will influence future point-and-shoots–hey, how about a camera that runs Android?

Ultimately, the new wave of fairly-decent smartphone cameras are a boon: If you’ve got one of these phones along, you should always be able to take a photo that’s way better than no photo at all–and which might, under the right circumstances, compete with a photo that you’d take with a point-and-shoot. But when I know I’m going to take photos I want to keep, I’m still going to tote my Cyber-shot. And I’m reasonably confident it’s not the last real camera I’ll ever buy.

Remind me to come back to this topic in two or three years, though. I reserve the right to be utterly wrong about all this…

This story, "Point-and-Shoot Cameras Still Beat Cameraphones — For Now" was originally published by Technologizer.

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