Digital cameras: Mobile camera-phones

The picture quality of camera-phones is improving. But can they replace the real thing?
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The Independent Online

A couple of years ago, cameras in mobile phones were little more than gimmicks, producing tiny, grainy snaps that looked more like computer graphics than real photos. Just a few shutter snaps later and camera-phones now have traditional digital cameras on the run, outselling them by a factor of four to one worldwide and capturing images that are good enough for the front pages of daily newspapers (see box, below).

It's all down to resolution - the number of tiny digital pixels that make up an image. An image composed of less than a million pixels (one megapixel or 1MP) will look great on a phone screen; two megapixels can be printed out at credit card sizes; and the very latest three-megapixel mobiles can produce postcard-sized prints to rival those from dedicated cameras.

As the picture quality has improved, so have the photographic features found on board. Many now have bright LED lights that, while not as powerful as real flash bulbs, enable low-light portraits - and help you find your keys when you drop them. Pinhole-sized lenses have evolved into autofocus and zoom optics.

The very best camera-phones, such as Sony Ericsson's K750i, Nokia's N90 or Sharp's 903H, use a combination of rotating screens and extra controls to transform themselves into camera-shaped devices, complete with a landscape format (horizontal) screen and shutter release.

LCD screens have also improved. Larger, more detailed displays are almost always better than smaller ones, but they'll affect battery life just as they do with normal digital cameras. The most power-hungry functions are framing and video playback, so avoid these if your battery icon is flashing. Some phones automatically switch off the backlight to save power after a few seconds, which can be irritating if you're just about to shoot.

Although they might look like cameras, camera-phones are still trailing in a few key areas. Cameras have largely eliminated shutter lag - that annoying delay between hitting the shutter and the camera actually taking the picture - but mobiles are still struggling with it.

It can also be tricky to get images out of the camera-phone. MMS picture messaging is great for beaming pictures to your friends, but the largest image you can send is just 0.02 megapixels, regardless of your phone's resolution. Not everyone knows that all cameras that can send picture messages can also send and receive e-mails - with picture attachments - although it can be a little tricky to set up.

The best option is to use tiny memory cards that, using an adaptor, fit into a normal card-reader or digital camera. Not every camera-phone can use these extra memory cards and the slots can be awkwardly positioned, so check before you buy. A 256Mb card costs between £20 and £30, depending on the kind you need. This will be large enough for hundreds of two-megapixel images, plus some MP3 tunes if you have a phone like the Motorola Rokr iTunes.

The future for camera-phones looks rosy, with research firm IDC forecasting increased sales of two-megapixel and three-megapixel handsets, even as sales of traditional digital cameras flatten off.

The next few months sees the launch of phones with vastly increased storage capacities. First comes Sony's new Walkman W900, with a massive 470Mb of memory, followed swiftly by phones with built-in hard drives, like an iPod, from Samsung and Nokia. But cameras aren't dead quite yet. IDC's Paul Withington says, "We don't anticipate that camera-phones will have a large impact on digital camera sales. In fact, camera-phones are still acting as a driver, generating consumer interest in digital imaging." This is borne out by research from America that a third of camera-phone owners planned to buy a digital camera after being introduced to photography through their mobile.

As camera-phones rush to catch up with digital cameras, the cameras themselves enjoy lighter, smaller, more powerful designs. Can this go on for ever? Analyst Paul Withington predicts that ten-megapixels will see the end of the resolution arms race, as images this big are simply too large to store easily and distribute. But with ten-megapixel-plus digital cameras currently costing well over £2,000, the battle between cameras and camera-phones certainly has a few more rounds in it yet.

SCOOP! MOBILE PHONE USERS MAKE FRONT-PAGE NEWS

With cameraphones now found in virtually every pocket and handbag, amateur photographers are making front page news, capturing images of everything from Kate Moss's indiscretions to the 7 July terror attacks. Both online and traditional print media encourage readers to submit newsworthy material but, according to "citizen's picture agency" Scoopt ( www.scoopt.com), getting fair payment for images can be difficult.

Scoopt founder Kyle MacRae says, "Most people will get ripped off if they go direct to a newspaper. They might get enough to buy a meal, a holiday or even a car, but they'll end up signing away copyright and their images will have no lasting value." Scoopt, on the other hand, splits everything 50-50 with the photographer. The agency, formed earlier this year, has had some notable successes, including sneaky snaps of Jodie Kidd's wedding and dramatic video of a train fire broadcast on ITV.

Although the majority of Scoopt images are still shot on traditional cameras, MacRae encourages the use of cameraphones. "Technical quality comes a long way secondary to subject matter - even an older phone is fine if you've got a stunning picture. But the better the phone, the better the picture. We're getting good quality photos from the two megapixel Sony Ericsson K750i."

A bigger concern for MacRae is that the photographer hasn't infringed anyone's privacy or, worse yet, taken pictures of a disaster when they could have been helping. "We have to verify all images," he says. "Members fill out a disclosure form with the circumstances surrounding the picture. We make it very clear that you can't break the law with a photo and expect to get paid for it."

Over 3,000 people have signed up as Scoopt stringers already and MacRae thinks this is just the tip of the iceberg.

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