Home > Uncategorized > Smartphone vs. classic Instamatic: Fast fotos then and now

Smartphone vs. classic Instamatic: Fast fotos then and now

Hit cable TV drama “Mad Men” is noted for its attention to period detail. In one recent episode I spotted a character using a Kodak Instamatic 104 camera. Remember Flashcubes? I would wager a million closets still harbor an Instamatic tucked into the darkness. Nearly every family had one model or another of an Instamatic from the camera’s introduction in 1963 to its demise in 1988. If you went to college and traveled in the late ’60s through the ’70s you probably still have scrapbooks filled with square, somewhat garishly color photos. The handsome Instamatic 100 and 104 were slightly clunky, and, as pieces of industrial design, invoke their era, sort of like the democratic Ford Pinto:




Pinto dash

Just as no one would consider the Pinto for limousine service or luxury motoring, not one ever considered the Instamatic for any serious photography application.

Today’s Instamatic is the smartphone. Or used to be. The iPhone camera app even has a feature that produces square pictures, the format of the Instamatic’s 126 cartridge film format. Like the point-and-shoot film cameras, smart phones lack zoom or interchangeable lenses.

That’s where the similarity ends.

Thanks to the photographic software that was unknown when the Instamatic reined, even point-and-shoot smart phones have become fairly powerful imaging devices. Enhanced with a tool like True HDR that compresses dynamic range that otherwise is too wide for a smartphone, you can produce astonishing pictures. As organizations including government agencies mobilize their workforces, smartphones are fully capable of standing in for “real” cameras in a variety of situations. HDR tools give you the digital equivalent of the old maxim, “Expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights.” Below  is a straight show with the iPhone camera app. The second is an HDR photo. Now the “bald” sky and lack of detail in the dark leaves on the left.


Regular camera app image


HDR enhanced image

But after spending a few weeks concentrating on the finer points of smartphone photography, I still feel their tiny lenses present the biggest challenge. I say that in contrast to their lack of true zoom lenses, which is becoming less of a disadvantage (forget about digital zoom).

With enough pixel density and a perfectly steady hand, you can enlarge any photo to the magnification you want because perspective is a function of distance from the subject, not the focal length of the lens. In zooming in on a wide-field shot, though, you see the limited pixel density give out to the digital equivalent of film grain pretty quickly. So for serious telephotography, you still need a good digital body to which you can attach a telephoto lens.

This picture shows a distant hillside development through glass a few feet away:


Here is a part of the same image enlarged as if shot with a telephoto lens. You get the telephoto appearance, but the resolution doesn’t quite hold up. In fact it has the approximate resolution of an Instamatic image:


According to iPhoto data, the picture contains 3.1 megabits — 3264 by 2448 pixels, insufficient to blow it up too much. Given the progress in lens, software and resolution, I feel that eventually smart phone cameras will come close to rivaling expensive digital cameras. Newer smartphones are getting up to 8 megapixels sensors. But you’ll still need some way to hold the phone-camera steady and fire it without poking it.

I was thinking about all of this on a recent two-week, overseas vacation trip. At one time I would have traveled with two Nikon Fs and four or five lenses together with fistfuls of Kodachrome canisters. But I never really made the transition to professional grade digital photography. This trip was the first time I tried to do more or less serious photography with an iPhone.

My conclusion: At this point, smartphones are pretty darn capable photographically, but it’s an effort to produce the effect you want if you’ve spent decades with large, low-glare lenses and complete control over f-stop and shutter speed. Still, for some commercial and documentary uses, the latest generation of smartphones are capable photography devices. With their communications functions and sharing apps they are more useful in some situations than regular cameras. The other benefit is, now I’m starting to become re-inspired about photography itself, which at a long-ago stage in my life was a consuming passion.

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