Better cameras; worse pictures

Future Tense for May. 07, 2007

By Steve Welker

Watching the tourists clutching their cell phones on Main Street and at the Andy Griffith Playhouse, I’m never quite sure whether they’re talking or taking pictures — or both.

Camera-equipped cell phones are rapidly replacing standard cell phones and digital cameras, too. They’ve become one of the hottest segments of consumer electronics in less than five years.

Sharp introduced the world’s first “camera phone,” the J-SH04, just in time for Christmas in 2000. Produced for the Japanese company J-Phone, the cell phone came with an integrated, 110,000-pixel CMOS image sensor for taking digital pictures. Sharp quickly followed up with a color LCD screen on a flip-type phone, the J-SH05. Fourteen months later, in January 2002, J-Phone sold its 5 millionth “sha-mail” (Japanese for “camera phone”) handset.

Also in 2002, Mitsubishi and Fujitsu introduced their own camera phones. Cellular provider DoCoMo sold 5 million i-Shot units in only seven months.

Sony, Casio, Sanyo and NEC soon came out with their own models, adding features and increasing the cameras’ resolution (picture detail). Casio produced the first 1-megapixel camera phone; now you can buy one with a 7-megapixel sensor.

In 2003, manufacturers sold 84 million camera phones (16 percent of all cell phone sales), according to the Strategic Analytics group.

In 2004, sales tripled to 257 million camera phones — 38 percent of total handset sales — which is enough for every American man, woman and child old enough to say cheese.

Fortunately, neither cell phones nor camera phones are as common in the United States as they are in the rest of the world. We tend to think of the U.S.A. as a world leader in new technology, but Americans have been slow to switch from wired telephones to wireless. I say this is fortunate, because it gives us some time to adapt to some interesting problems and opportunities created by camera phones.

As an example of the problems, in California late last year, teachers reportedly caught students using camera phones to photograph and e-mail their tests, providing friends with a preview of what they would face later in the day.

There are numerous reports of camera phones’ being used in places where people expect some privacy while they’re undressed. The middle-Tennessee YMCAs last week joined a growing trend of banning camera phones from all gyms and dressing areas. When I searched for the words “voyeur” and “locker room,” Google returned 194,000 links, the majority of them pointed to pornographers’ sites.

Many art museums prohibit people from photographing works under copyright, but I saw at least one camera phone being used surreptitiously at the Art Institute of Chicago in December. Theaters, concerts and movie houses often ban cameras, but camera phones are easy to sneak in and hard to spot. The newest camera phones have both video functionality and hard drives and probably could record an entire show or a first-run movie.

On the other hand, there are plenty of good uses for camera phones. In London, England, an anti-graffiti campaign encourages people to send camera-phone pictures of offensive sites to their local councils. Many people have used camera phones to document highway accidents. I also remember a news story about someone who sent a doctor a camera-phone picture of a child struck by a car; the doctor’s office forwarded it to paramedics who received the picture before their ambulance arrived on the scene.

“Vanity of vanities ... all is vanity,” it says in Ecclesiastes. That’s as true now as it was 2,300 years ago. And although Shakespeare did not really say, “Vanity, thy name is woman,” he might have if he’d seen how women use camera phones. Vodaphone surveyed 3,500 female customers and learned that at least 20 percent had sent pictures of themselves wearing new outfits to get their friends’ opinions. Fifteen percent had used camera phones to check their hair, 10 percent to check their makeup and 4 percent to check their teeth. And as for that tattoo in a private place, well, it’s not so private when a woman (or her male friend) uploads a camera-phone picture of it to Flickr.com.

Flickr and other World Wide Web sites like Fotolog.net, www.BuzzNet.com, www.SnapNPost.com, Yafro.net and Snapfish.com started life as places where people could share their digital-camera photos. Now they encourage people to post camera-phone pictures with “tags” that describe the photo in a few key, searchable words. The services usually sign up members for free, because this is a big business. Tags easily can be used by software that matches a few discrete ads with a key word. I searched Flickr for “roses” and it returned 88 galleries with nearly 1,800 pictures and a handful of links to businesses selling roses.

Soon you will find similar sites featuring videos from camera phones.

The research firm Infotrends predicts there will be 656 million camera phones in use by 2008. That’s more camera phones than digital cameras. It doesn’t surprise to me that Kyocera will no longer make digital cameras so it can concentrate on making cameras for mobile phones.

Unfortunately, no one seems to be making better photographers.

When I learned photography, film cost a lot and processing even more. I was taught “to get the shot in one” — a single picture, well-composed and precisely exposed, that completely caught the moment.

For years, however, the trend has been to less-expensive film and processing. Quality succumbed to quantity. Now, because a digital photo costs nothing, people think nothing of making dozens of shots in hopes of getting one good picture.

And now, with the proliferation of camera phones, I expect to see a lot more lousy photos ... in the future.

This article, as well as reader comments can be found at stevewelker.net/article/21. Steve Welker is an editor and columnist living in Mount Airy, North Carolina. More of his writings can be found online at stevewelker.net