Smartphones and those megapixels

After avoiding using a smartphone for photos, I am taking a look at an iPhone 4s. So far the only advantage is weight. There's a lot of hype about the number of megapixels. That you need more and more to get good images. But do you?

From what little experience I've had (a Samsung Mini and the iPhone), the one thing I have discovered is, they don't really take very good photos straight out of the box. You have to buy and use certain Apps to compensate for the poor image quality. Alternatively the Nokia Lumia 1020. which says it has 41 MP—reality seems to be 38 MP (7152 x 5368 pixels) is something else.

Images I've seen from the Nokia are indeed good (if the ones shown are the default without special Apps). In fact they are as good or better than many digital cameras. So, is this the way forward?

What are these megapixel things anyways?
Image size pixelsTerminology
640x480 0.3 Megapixel
1280x960 1 Megapixel
1600x1200 2 Megapixel
2048x1536 3 Megapixel
2240x1680 4 Megapixel
2560x1920 5 Megapixel
3032x2008 6 Megapixel
3072x2304 7 Megapixel
3264x2448 8 Megapixel
7152x5368 38 Megapixel

Lots of megapixels is not the answer!
I can only speak of my own experience and want decent images for my blog. They are not for print and because of that all photos must be a certain size and load quickly. The best sizes are 320, 400 and 512 pixels wide at 4:3 format. Size in kilobytes range from 9-50k.

To achieve that, the image from the camera has to be reduced. Here is where stuff can go seriously wrong. Once you start shrinking a JPEG, TIFF or RAW—you lose definition. Pixels begin to merge, lines become blurred or lost altogether.

And it does not depend on me having 8-38 megapixels! In fact the less I have the better the images turn out.

The main key is the lens
All smartphones, if we are honest, have rubbish lenses. All except one that is—The Nokia Lumia 1020. It has a Carl Zeiss lens. This is the same manufacturer whose lenses adorn the best cameras in the world—Hasselblad. A Hasselblad will set you back a minimum of $1500 for a base digital camera. Start adding zeroes for a decent DSLR (try $30—50,000). The best way to get one is, be a brilliant photographer and work for National Geographic.

From the left: Pentax Optio M20, Panasonic DMC-FX10, Panasonic FZ18 and the iPhone 4s under them. This base image was taken with a Samsung Mini (first version).
The maximums on these are:
Pentax—6mp, FX10—7mp, FZ18—8mp and the 4s—8mp (only).

The Pentax lens is quite good, but not brilliant. Both the Leica/Lumix's are Leica spec lenses and fantastic. The 4s, well ... passable, but not as good as the Pentax. The thought of a smartphone with as good a lens as Leica or Hasselblad raises the ante—way up.

This is the secret of the Nokia 1020, but and a big but, unless you are doing serious high res imagery, 38 megapixels is 10 times more than you need to get good images for a blog. Even print you only need about 8 megapixels. Nokia is broadcast quality size (for TV) and I can see a lot of TV reporters ending up using them for that very reason—it blows the spots off iPhones for news agency work.

How do I make my images?
2 (rarely 3) megapixels, sometimes 1. Depending on what I'm taking a photo of. I never go above 3mp. The images come out a lot better from the initial, small megapixel size. If everything is okay color wise, then I use an unsharp mask of .3 with a 3-5 threshold, at 50% in Photoshop.

Once in a great while I get a bit too much noise on a surface. To correct that I lasso it and do low level smart blur, then shade if necessary. The Pentax colors are good but a bit too saturated so that gets dropped down a bit. Everything else is just straight forward stuff.

Downsizing from too large a file loses detail big time. Everything fuzzes up and unsharp masks lose their effectiveness. The whole object is to keep it simple and not drain the battery. After all, we travel and have to put up with poor WiFi connections (if they have them), a lack of places to charge your camera/laptop batteries not to mention the other hassles of backpacking around. Then there's the weight factor (I travel very light, backpack with everything is 14lbs—including Lenovo laptop). My FZ18 kit weighs in at 1 ¾ pounds. The iPhone with it's power plug and cable is 6.5 ounces—figure ½ pound with protective cover.

This shot was taken on my first outting with the FX10 (no polarizing filter on those). The low sun and 97% humidity made this a difficult shot to take. I used 2 megapixel size on it. An iPhone 4s photo, shrunk down to 400x300 would have no detail of the cattle grid, gravel, trees or the foreground road surface—it would be unpublishable.

I'm not going to give up on the iPhone yet though. It has possibilities and all I need is one or two pre-processing Apps (as long as the settings can be saved and used for all images—otherwise the iPhone goes). All the rest is done in Photoshop on my laptop.

Next, Camera Smartphone Comparison.
Mar 01, 2015

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