Phone cameras are getting amazing

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, December 26, 2017, 11:47 PM | comments: 0

I've been a photo nerd for my entire life. I shot black-and-white film for yearbook in high school, and as a grownup I required a nice collection of Canon lenses and a couple of bodies. I even have a Micro-4/3 camera with a really great lens that I adore using on vacation. But what shocks me is how good the cell phone cameras are getting. Now, you're not going to capture what you can get with a thousand-dollar lens and 18 million pixels, and you shouldn't shoot engagement photos with a cell phone, but for every day use, in the place you are with the device in your pocket, they sure are getting solid.

Right now, the tech press is having a good time debating which is better, the iPhone X or the Pixel 2. Many are leaning toward the Pixel, which, yay, that's the one I have, but I think a lot of the difference comes down to preferences over technical ability. I think photographers may lean toward the Pixel because the processing leans toward more realistic color processing and dynamic range that's ready to be used. (Apple likes to over-saturate color... just look at their menu screens.) I will maintain that $650 for a phone is way too much, especially when you consider the battery lifetime is at best three years of being useful. A grand is even more insane, because that phone isn't $350 better by any measurement. I'm not saying these aren't great devices, I'm just saying they're too expensive. I sound like a hypocrite since I did actually buy a Pixel 2, but with the service credits, trade and Google Home promo, I came in under $500, and I can justify that.

The first Pixel, and even the inexpensive Nexus 5X before that had pretty remarkable cameras, and I'm impressed with Google's continued improvement. I've had the Pixel 2 now for a little more than three weeks, and it keeps surprising me. The depth-of-field trick is accomplished by mapping distance, using a few algorithmic tricks, one of which is based on dual-pixel auto-focus, which is something Canon has been doing in their video cameras for some time (and it's awesome). So if you know distance, you can fake blur (bokeh) backgrounds and foregrounds as if you had actual limited depth-of-field, optically in the lens. Combine this with having lots of pixels and high dynamic range (the distance between "bright" and "dark"), and you can make some really amazing photographs.

The results are impressive, and that's largely because of the result relative to the portability of a phone. Yes, I can get better results out of my SLR's, or even the M4/3 camera, but I don't carry those around. The phone is never far away from me. So for landscape views and the occasional closeup of humans at close range, this is amazing. The biggest gap in the #TeamPixel story is that you can't exactly slap a 400mm lens on it and start shooting sports. Maybe they'll figure that out too at some point (I'm somewhat skeptical because the glass is what makes things awesome, but they're getting pretty close with short range stuff).

I've been excited about some of these photos, so here's a sample.


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