This holiday season, the sale of conventional point-and-shoot cameras is expected to be much longer then previous years. One major reason for this is the proliferation of cell phone cameras that many people consider good enough to replace the point-and-shoot. Is the cell phone camera good enough? Are all the cell phone cameras basically the same? What does a point-and-shoot offer that a cell phone doesn’t?
A point-and-shoot camera is generally defined as a camera where the lens cannot be removed, and its primary function is to take pictures. These types of cameras differ from dSLR cameras, which have removable lenses or video camcorders which might take photos, but its general purpose is to take video. A point-and-shoot will usually run you between $100 and $300 dollars, and in most cases, include a xenon bulb flash and an optical zoom lens, usually in the 3x to 10x range. Point-and-shoot cameras often come with many scene modes and sensitivity settings, and can have more advanced PSAM photographic control modes. Point-and-shoots range in megapixel (MP) rating, currently from 5 megapixels to 16 megapixels.
Cell phone cameras vary greatly in the quality of the sensor, lens, and features of the photo application. Most smartphone cameras today will be at least 5 MP and can be as high as 12 MP, whereas more basic feature phones can include cameras as low as 1.3 megapixels. Cell phones almost never feature an optical zoom lens, and rarely include a real flash. Instead, camera phones opt for a LED light to function as a flash. The software included with your phone varies, but generally, the options for controlling how the photo is taken are more limited than a point-and-shoot.
So what are the pro’s and con’s of each?
- Optical Zoom lens lets you get closer in on the action
- Wide angle side of lens usually wider than cell phone cameras
- Physical buttons make operating the camera easier
- Xenon flash bulb allows longer range, and even more flash photography
- Macro mode lets you take close-up images
- Optical or sensor-shift image stabilization keeps photos sharper in lower light
- Larger ISO range of sensor lets you take photos in lower light/higher shutter speeds
- Bulky and sometimes hard to carry. Many don’t fit in a pocket easily
- You’re not going to have it with you unless you remember to bring your camera
- Expensive, can cost hundreds of dollars
- Always with you. The camera you don’t have with you takes no photos
- Easily upload and share pictures directly from the phone
- Edit photos with built-in app or other third-party download apps
- LED flash (if you even have one) is much lower power then Xenon flash
- Lack of photographic controls
- No zoom lens really limits framing of photo
- Small camera phone sensor and lens can lead to noisy/less detailed photos
What about megapixels? Many people will tell you that the number one benefit to a point-and-shoot is a higher resolution sensor, producing more pixels. The truth is that for photos shared online or printed up to 8×10, anything over 8 megapixels won’t improve quality. Typical photos are printed at 300 dots per inch (300 DPI) and an 8×10 at 300 DPI works out to 7.2 megapixels.
What about ISO/lens quality? This is the real catch. From phone to phone, lens quality and sensor performance can vary greatly, and almost all of them are inferior to dedicated point and shoot camera lens/sensor quality. ISO 800 on a camera phone may produce very noisy photos, whereas ISO 800 on a point-and-shoot may produce a photo good enough to print. Lack of an optical zoom/image stabilization can’t be understated either, and is a big sticking point in favor of the point-and-shoot.
So which is better for you? Well, a lot depends on what you want to do, how much you want to spend, and how comfortable you are carrying around multiple items. I believe there is a purpose for both, and having a good cell phone camera comes in handy when you don’t have a traditional camera. Regardless, there are rarely any situations where a traditional camera’s quality will be inferior to a cell phone camera.
P.S. I mostly use my iPhone for personal family photos over my high-end Nikon dSLR. I’ve captured more great photos from my smartphone because it’s with me at all times.