The ABCs of camera phone technology

How good is the camera that comes with your new smartphone? We explain the technology and what you should look for.

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Phone cameras versus standalone cameras

I've hinted before at how phone cameras tend to be more convenient but less functional than their full-blown camera cousins. Here are some of the other major ways standalone cameras and phones diverge.

Flash. Camera phones, when they have a flash at all, tend to have a small LED flash as opposed to a full camera's Xenon-powered flash bulb. This isn't surprising: A large flash would be difficult to integrate with a phone without it being both cumbersome in size and a battery drain.

iPhone users can pick from a number of different flash add-ons. The iFlash iPhone camera flash adds an auxiliary LED flash via the iPhone's docking connector, and FastMac's iV for the iPhone adds a flash and a slew of other accessories via a snap-on shell. There are also third-party, non-phone-specific add-ons such as Phlash, a sidecar LED light that uses its own battery.

Lenses. As mentioned before, phone camera lenses have been a liability for a long time. They've tended to be tiny, cheaply made, limited in their focal length and, with one or two exceptions, lacking optical zoom. These issues are slowly being resolved with each successive generation of phones -- the Nokia N8 had a genuine glass Carl Zeiss f/2.8 lens back in 2010 -- but there are still other limits that are tough to work around.

For example, with a DSLR or even a point-and-shoot, manufacturers can include larger lenses, and so can pipe that much more light -- and that much more image detail -- directly to the sensor. Also, DSLR lenses are interchangeable (but pricier). For most camera phones, the lens you get on the camera is the lens you're stuck with.

iPhone owners do have some alternatives; for example, there are add-on lenses that allow full-blown DSLR camera lenses to be attached to the iPhone (albeit clumsily) and that snap a full 360-degree panorama (in conjunction with special software).

Camera lens
The size of the lens can be as significant as the megapixel rate. This Motorola Cliq XT has a 5-megapixel camera and a very small lens. The element shown here contains both the lens (to the right) and an LED flash.
Camera lens
An LG Optimus T with a 3.2-megapixel camera; because of the larger lens, reviews mentioned it did reasonably well in low-light conditions.
Camera lens
The lens of the Canon PowerShot SD880 IS point-and-shoot camera. A larger lens admits more light, which allows the camera's 10-megapixel sensor to be put to better use.

Battery. Batteries for standalone cameras can afford to be larger and provide more of the stamina needed to run the camera for long periods of time. With a camera phone, snapping pictures by itself doesn't drain much battery power, but the use of a flash might. Shooting video also eats battery life, although the exact impact will vary among phone models, depending not only on battery capacity but also on the video compression hardware used.

What's more, a standalone camera's battery is designed to be swapped with minimal interruption, since a camera can power back up quickly after a battery change. Changing batteries on a phone is far more onerous (assuming you can change the battery to begin with) and requires the phone to go through a reboot process that can take minutes.

From standby to snap. The current crop of standalone cameras can go from standby to taking a photo in a couple of seconds, since they're not built to do anything but take pictures. Camera phones can take a little longer to be picture-ready, although the biggest delays typically involve navigating the phone's UI to activate the phone app. Some more recent phones, such as those equipped with iOS 5 or Android 4.0, get around this by letting you access the camera directly from the lock screen. However, phones with a dedicated camera button tend to be more on par with their full-blown camera counterparts for speed.

Attachments. Camera phones don't come with a place to insert a tripod mount or a hot shoe (for adding an external flash), two features common to full cameras. On the other hand, there are third-party add-ons for allowing a phone to be mounted on a tripod (the MobiMount, for instance).

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