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Point and Shoot Camera Techniques #4338
Back To Discussion List Written: 2015.03.12 by: Robin Tivy

This discussion is about choosing suitable cameras and how to get good pictures.

After losing my faithful Pentax Optio 33 WR, (which had an optical viewfinder and optical zoom) I spent about a week trying to figure out what do do for a replacement camera. I was wondering how good cell phone cameras can be, as compared to dedicated point and shoot cameras like a Nikon AW130 or Lumix TS5. The biggest difference is that with a cell phone camera, you have only a fixed focal length, whereas the point and shoot cameras typically have zoom lenses.

But as far as quality goes, my guess is that high end cell phone cameras might be as good as or even better than a base level point and shoot camera (a $300 camera). Of course if you are willing to carry a full blown digital SLR camera with an optical viewfinder (or electronic viewfinder (EVF), you'd get better photos. But such cameras are too large, heavy and fragile for me. One step down from a D-SLR are rugged cameras with interchangable lens such as Nikon AW1 which weighs 356g + 182g. These are rugged, but are still larger and heavier than a point and shoot or cell phone based camera.

So I went the cell phone route. I bought a slightly used Samsung Galaxy S4 phone for $325, and that is now my camera until someone shows me consistently better pictures that they got from an actual camera.

Here is a link to a cropped photo I took using the Samsung S4 before I knew anything:Dreadnought from Paranoid Creek Pass.

 In the photo, I just used the auto settings, and the exif data shows that the camera used an aperture of f/2.2 and an exposure time of 1/1236 seconds with a "film" speed rating of ISO 50. In other words, a fast shutter speed on some slow film. The focal length was equivalent to what would be a 31 mm lens. Thus it is slightly wide angle. The metering was "Center weighted average".

The old SLR idea of manually setting the shutter speed/aperture combination is history when using a point and shoot. With a point and shoot, the most common adjustment you make is to choose a "Mode", which controls both the shutter, aperture, and ISO (sensitivity). My camera has about 10 modes, but the only two I've used are "Auto" and HDR.

The biggest thing I miss is a optical viewfinder, where I could compose exactly the photo I want. Without one, you can't really see what your photo will look like if it is in the snow. You just point the cell phone in the right direction, and the person is just a faint shadow on the screen. You don't really know what you've got till you get home. (Or I suppose you could put your coat over your head, but you don't usually have time for that).

The default cell phone aspect ratio is quite tall and thin (16:9). I initially used this for all my photos. But when I got home, I had to crop almost every photo to use them. I then switched to the 4:3 format as is explained in later comments.

HDR: The big problem with mountain photography has always been that there is such a high contrast ratio between trees and mountains that either the trees are black, or the mountains are washed out. The one feature that might overcome this is the thing called HDR (High Dynamic range) mode, which most cameras have now. The way it works is by taking multiple snaps at different exposures, then combines them into a single photo. Like cut and paste.

I think I would have been able to get the trees on the left to be less dark.

What would be interesting would be to hear from some bivouac authors who have done more experiments. Has anyone done experiments with HDR on snow? Another question is: how much better is an actual point and shoot camera as compared to these exotic cell phone cameras? Has anyone got comparison photos? I must also point out that the Samsung S4 has now been surpassed by the Samsung S5 and soon the S6 camera. And the iPhone 6 cameras are also possibly better. So I'd like to see some snow and trees shots with those cameras.

The cell phone cameras are just a tiny lens. It's advantage is that it is a fixed focal length lens, as opposed to a zoom lens found on most point and shoot. Another thing to compare on paper is the size of the sensor. For example, a Nikon AW130 has a sensor size of 5.76 x 4.29 as compared to 4.8 x 3.6 in the iPhone 6, so the cell phone sensors are not THAT much smaller.

The only way to really know is to have both cameras side by side for a comparison. Ideally someone would take both a cell phone camera and a rugged point and shoot, and take the same scene on both cameras, and compare the results. I suspect the high end cell phone cameras would hold their own. To really get a better photo, I suspect you need to go to the heavier SLR type cameras. At least then you'd have an actual optical viewfinder and a big lens. But due to a smaller market, you might not have as advanced computing power in the camera.


#1801 - 2015.03.23 David Wasserman - Phone camera vs. dedicated camera
These days, when entire movies have been shot with iPhones, there's no denying that a good cell phone camera can take serviceable photos. However, as Robin points out, they have some limitations. One he doesn't mention is their relative fragility.

Since I take my photography somewhat seriously, and since most of the places I hike have no cell phone coverage, I leave the phone in the vehicle, and carry as much camera as I feel up to hauling. When I want to cut back on the weight and the worries, I carry a ruggedized point and shoot. It's a Panasonic Lumix DMC TS2, which can be operated underwater (, is dust-proof, can handle being dropped short distances, and is better adapted to the cold. Nikon, Canon, and Olympus all have good quality ruggedized point and shoot cameras. The newer ones typically include GPS receivers, so you record exactly where you took the shot. Mine is outdated (they're up to the TS5 now) and lacks that feature. One drawback is that to make them rugged, lens movement (and therefore zoom range) is limited.

New prices for the ruggedized cameras are around $300; as with all electronics, the next model will be out soon with even more features, so watch for clearance sales.

If your photos are destined for on-line sharing and the occasional 4 by 6 print, you don't gain much by using a DSLR or ILC (mirrorless interchangeable lens camera). You will get a greater zoom range if you pair the DSLR or ILC with a wide-range zoom, which is excellent for incidental wildlife shots, and you will be able to shoot under a wider variety of conditions and print enlargements up to your wallet's maximum. But that's it. Changing lenses outdoors, especially in the backcountry, risks exposing the inside of your camera to damage from dust and grit. That's why I avoid it as much as possible. Carrying extra lenses is also a pain. But 18mm to 300mm zoom lenses are now available for DSLRs, giving enormous flexibility and hardly any need to change lenses. If you carry a rig like that and a ruggedized point and shoot as a backup, you can use the point and shoot for incidental macrophotography.

As a bonus, most ruggedized cameras will also shoot HD video and have Wi-Fi connectivity.

So depending on your photographic goals, a cell-phone camera or a ruggedized point and shoot both have their strong points. Only the serious photographer intending to sell photos or make large prints needs to invest in a DSLR.

The most important requirement in producing satisfactory photographs is thorough knowledge of your camera's capabilities, and that requires thought and practice, no matter what equipment you use.

#1800 - 2015.03.21 Robin Tivy - HDR Really works - comparison photos (Photos)
I was doing more photography experiments on my the past weekend with my samsung Galaxy S4. In particular, experiments with High Dynamic Range (HDR) (which Samsung calls RichTone). HDR is just another "Mode" on the camera, which you can select instead of "Auto" or "Sports". As I have previously mentioned, the way HDR works is that it takes 3 different photos really fast, then merges them together for a single photo. So in a high contrast situation, such as a person against a background of snow, it can have one photo with the correct exposure for the dark person and the background over exposed, and another photo with the correct exposure for the background, but the person is under exposed.

So while in the Windy Joe cabin, I took a couple of pictures of people against the bright background of the snow outside the windows. With the "auto" setting, the picture was a complete failure. But with HDR, you can see both the person and the background.

(If you are looking at this bulletin on the main discussion page, you must click on the title of this comment to see the actual photos.

[photo]20150316_130106_Compareauto.jpg[caption]Camera in auto mode. Bright light of windows results in exposure that makes person too dark. Metering is "center weighted average"[/photo]

Here are the "exif" settings for the first of the above two photos, the one in "auto" mode:

  Exposure Time: 1/780 s
  F-number: f/2.2
  ISO 50
  Metering: Center weighted average
  Exposure Mode: auto exposure
The "center weighted average" metering averaged the dark face with the bright background, and the result was too fast a shutter speed to get a reasonable exposure on Betsy. Whereas the HDR photo handled the problem. If I wasn't using HDR, the other thing you could do would be to change the metering mode to "spot" metering on the person's space. So I did a separate experiment in my kitchen to see how good I could get with "spot" metering.

  auto with spot metering
  auto with center weighted average metering

What I found was that spot metering wasn't as good as HDR. The spot metering was better than the center weighted average, but not good enough.

The above photos were only for experiment. To see a more normal set of photos taken with HDR mode, see Windy Joe Ski Trip in which all photos were on the Samsung with HDR.

#1796 - 2015.03.14 Robin Tivy - Changing the Aspect Ratio
Simon's comment made me realize I could change the aspect ratio setting in the camera, and thus avoid the tall thin photos. With the old 35mm film cameras, slides were always 36 x 24 mm which is a ratio of 3:2. The standard is to always list the width first, so 3:2 is landscape mode. With digital cameras nowdays, you can often choose between several ratios. Of course the dimensions of the display screen are fixed. On the Galaxy S4, the display is 16:9, which is the same as a widescreen TV.

So I went into the settings on the Samsung Galaxy S4 camera, and changed the "photo size" setting. The default was 4128x2322 (16:9) and I changed it to 4128x3096 (4:3). The effect of this is that the photo no longer fills the whole screen: in landscape mode, there are black bars on either side of the photo. 16.9 is the widescreen TV ratio and is longer and thinner than 4:3.

  4/3 = 1.3333
 16/9 = 1.7777
One interesting thing is that although 4:3 no longer uses all the available display pixels, on the camera sensor itself it actually uses MORE pixels. (4128x3096 is more pixels than 4128x2322).

On a camera with an electronic viewfinder, the aspect ratio should also change.

#1795 - 2015.03.12 Simon Chesterton - Exposure Lock
Does your S4 have exposure lock? If I'm shooting with a p and s with plenty of snow (and centre weighted metering) I'll usually exposure lock on the snow then move the camera to where I want to frame the shot. With phone cameras if you don't have exposure lock then bright objects can get washed out. The S4 should have 4:3 and 16:9 ratios so you can shoot landscapes holding the phone sideways. A guy had one on our recent Sphinx trip and it took some good shots, but most of the frame had snow in it so it metered well. Other problem with phones is digital zoom vs. optical zoom.