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GLOBAL – There was only one name on our list when it came to deciding who we should ask to write about cameras in mobile devices. Steve Litchfield goes by myriad monikers, producing and writing for The Phones Show, Smartphone Essentials Magazine and All About Symbian. Long an expert in the area of mobile devices, there’s little Steve doesn’t know either about devices or how they work. And his passion for cameras is just as engaging. We asked Steve to tell us what he thinks “makes a good cameraphone”. You’ll find his answer right after the jump.

What makes a good cameraphone? – By Steve Litchfield

Although camera-toting smartphones will never get close to the results from high quality dedicated, semi-pro cameras, they’re easily good enough for most people in sunlight. Where the best camera phones shine (pun intended) is in taking photos when the going gets tough. The range from the brightest and harshest of conditions (where there’s far too much light) to the dimmest bar rooms and clubs really sorts out the best from the rest. What’s needed is a top quality sensor, as large as possible (within the form factor constraints), plus a high quality lens of decent size and aperture. These components will cope with most situations until nightfall – the N86 8MP is a great example of such a camera phone – in most light conditions, it’s almost impossible to take a *bad* photo!

The biggest problem with camera phones, bar none, is that almost everybody is horribly disappointed by indoor and night time shots. Even with the aforementioned N86, indoor shots can be blurred/marred by people moving, due to the shutter times needed (up to a few tenths of a second). And try taking shots at a party or club or disco and almost every camera phone on the planet will produce a blurry, grainy mess. Dual LED flash will illuminate that flower on your bookshelf that you’re shooting to test the phone, but it’ll get you absolutely nowhere in a real life situation with living, breathing, moving friends and family.

What’s need, of course, is a proper flash – in the camera world this has always meant using Xenon. This technology fires a light 10,000 times brighter than LED flash for about 1,000th the duration – meaning that fan blades can be frozen in time, snapping dancing people is a cinch, and so on. The Nokia N82 has always been the champion camera phone for night time use for this very reason. Even in 2010, I know several people who still carry their N82 out for evening events as it’s still the best smartphone with Xenon flash.

Traditionally, manufacturers have shunned Xenon, saying that the components are too large, but the Nokia 6220 (the N82’s little sister!) shows that this is a myth. It’s also important to note that the Xenon flash has to be properly integrated into the main Camera software – poor integration can still mess up night time photos, as we’ve seen recently on the very disappointing Samsung G810 and Sony Ericsson Satio. The N82 still awaits a successor.

Shooting video is another important function of a modern smartphone camera. VGA is now accepted as a minimum resolution, at 30 frames per second. A large, quality sensor with a large lens and aperture is again required for good video once the light levels drop below daylight levels – the N86 is currently the low light video champion, though the modern trend is towards widescreen video and, like the N82, the N86 awaits a successor with a larger, flatter frame size.

Incidentally, Xenon flash is only for still photos, by definition – for night time illumination, dual LEDs do what they can but are ultimately limited in output and have the side effect of being bright enough to make your subjects squint horribly but not bright enough to really light them up well. The only solution here is a larger lens and larger sensor.

The top camera phone of tomorrow, then, will need to be friendly to all parts of your life and not just that lived out in favourable light conditions. It will have a large, high quality 8 megapixel sensor (12mp forces individual sensor pixels to be too small), a N86 8MP-class variable aperture (for better handling of extremes of light), a top-brand lens (such as the Carl Zeiss ones Nokia often use) and a Xenon flash. Finally, I’d strongly advise a mechanical (sliding) protector for the camera glass (as on the N82, N95, N86 and N97) – since even small scratches can have a big effect on flash-lit photos.

Steve Litchfield
Producer for The Phones Show
Senior writer for Smartphone Essentials magazine
Editor for All About Symbian

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