Midweek mobile 15

Modern phone cameras get sharp and bright images with awful lenses and jokes of sensors. The most important aspect of the images is that they are usually viewed on the small screen of a phone. A quick search led me to an estimate that people take 4.7 billion photos every day. Be suspicious of such facile estimates. But it is clear that far less than a percent of a percent would be viewed on a large screen, where defects can show.

I stress tested my phone camera in exactly this way. My phone has a sensor with 4608 x 3456 pixels. I reduced it to 1667 x 1250 pixels for the leader photo. That looks good. But I asked what it I looked at it pixel for pixel: one pixel of the sensor for every pixel on the screen (1:1). I did that in the most detailed photo in the slideshow above. The next one compressed 4 pixels of the photo into one on the display (4:1), the next 16 pixels of the photo for one on the display (16:1), and the next (the featured photo) is shown 32 pixels per pixel of display (32:1). But for the post I compressed these views a little more; the closest is at 9:1, the rest are 36:1, 144:1 and 288:1. The result begins to show digital artifacts in the 9:1 view, although they are not overwhelming (at 1:1 they are unmistakable). Of course, I can’t predict what screen you’ll see them on, but if you have a choice looking at them on the biggest screen you have would be interesting.

On a whim I took a photo of a beetle and gave it the same treatment. Here you see the views in the ratios 9:1 (nine pixels of the photo to one of the display), with the successive frames showing 36:1, 144:1 and 288:1 compressions. It is only the last which looks sharp. On my phone the display is even smaller, so the image looks much sharper. But why this big difference between flora and fauna? I compared the exposure first. The flowers are taken with an equivalent exposure of 1/100 seconds and ISO of 100; the beetle with 1/50 seconds and ISO of 223. This means that the number of frames which are superimposed to give the final image is twice as many in the second. Slight hand movements could create the effect that you see, but the phone must compensate for that. But the ISO is also a factor; you can see more “grain” in the image of the beetle. I think another important factor must be the contrast between the object and background. That’s much smaller in the second photo. I’ll try to explore this further.

If you want a moral, I would say “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Your phone does not replace a good DSLR in image quality. Be happy with what it shows on its small display.

Phone photography changes our expectation of the interaction of camera hardware and image so dramatically that it is worth rethinking what photography means. I intend to explore this a bit in this series.