Last 4th of July, my wife and I headed out for a patriotic jaunt around the New York City metro area during which the photo on the left was snapped – it's on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River in Weehawken, N.J., where Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton on July 11, 1804. Romantic, eh?
Before we left our apartment, I stared at my collection of digital imaging devices – my then brand new iPhone 4, a point-and-shoot digital camera (specifically the Panasonic LUMIX DMC-ZS3), a Flip HD pocketcam, a full-size camcorder (the Canon VIXIA HV30), and a Nikon D300 D-SLR – trying to decide which to take along to record our adventures for posterity.
I really needed only one of these cameras since all but the Nikon D300 capture both high megapixel still images and high-definition video. And if I chose anything other than my iPhone 4 alone, I'd be carrying at least two gadgets with me since I obviously wasn't leaving the house without a cell phone. This is the 21st century, after all.
At deepening twilight last December 8, I wandered over the Imagine Circle in Central Park, the 30th anniversary of John Lennon's murder. With one of these devices I recorded the crowd singing "In My Life," which you can view by clicking on the link.
So, which device do you think captured the still image and which devices do you think I used for the video? (Answers at the bottom of this tome.) And which device do I recommend you schlep around with you on your adventures?
iPhone 4 (or any cell phone camera/camcorder):
Bear in mind, the "lens" on cell phone cameras are tiny, cheap plastic crap, barely better than a peep hole. And cell phones lack the sophisticated processing software of point-and-shoot cameras
Having said that, photos taken outdoors in the sun with cell phones cameras equipped with 5 MP image sensors or larger are actually quite good – bright, colorful, detailed. iPhone 4 uses HDR – high dynamic range, which takes several photos simultaneously then combines them to create the best exposure, and results in shockingly good photos.
Best of all, as soon as you snap a snap, you can immediately share it via email it or social networking post.
HDR, however, doesn't work with the phone's flash, which makes shooting indoors a problem for iPhone 4 and most other cell phone cameras. It's hard not to get a blurry shot using available light because it's hard to keep the cell phone still enough while a cell phone camera's usually slow shutter does its work. With the basic LED flash, if your subject is too close you get a big bright spot instead of a clear, evenly-lit shot.
But one thing iPhone 4 and other cell phone video capabilities lack is some sort of image stabilization. An cell phone is tough to keep still and your hand movement and unconscious shakes affect the often nausea-inducing final product.
Flip (and other sub-$250 slab camcorders)
All the issues cell phone camera/video recorders suffer are mirrored by the Flip and its ilk – cheap plastic lens, no image stabilization – except Flip and its ilk don't have flashes for stills, have smaller screens than any smart phone (usually around 2 or 2.5 inches as compared to the 3.5 to 4.3-inch displays on most smart phones) and you can't transmit pictures you shoot right from the device to friends, family and social networking sites like you can with a cell phone.
Some pocketcam makers have attempted digital image stabilization, but you're just trading one set of video problems for others, usually in the form of jerky picture movement and digital artifacts as the camera tries to virtually compensate for you being unable to hold the camera still.
Point-and-shoot digital cameras
Nearly all digital cameras priced $150 or higher not include at least 720p high-definition video recording; most digital cameras priced $200 or higher offer 1080p video recording. They obviously take better still photos, especially indoors or in other challenging lighting conditions, at much higher resolution than cell phones or pocketcams. And they have 2.7 to 3.5-inch viewfinder LCD screens.
Even though designed for still photos, the lenses on point-and-shoot cameras also are obviously far superior to the plastic peepholes on cell phone cameras and pocketcams. Because they have real lenses, many higher-end point-and-shoot cameras include optical image stabilization to keep videos shake free and clear of any digital artifacts.
In short, you get far more for your money and much higher quality photos and video with a point-and-shoot digital camera than you ever will with either a cell phone or a pocketcam.
You'll just have to wait until you get home and you connect your camera to a PC to share your photos.
If you're seriously trying to preserve a once-in-a-lifetime activity for posterity – your child's birth, your child's, well, everything – you're a fool if you don't use a full-size camcorder. You do not want to fool or put a price on these memories. To paraphrase Bogie in Casablanca, you may not regret it today, you may regret it tomorrow, but you'll regret not committing the moments of your life to anything but the highest quality video capture device you can in years to come.
It's the post-video shooting that's the bear – you will want to edit your footage, and that can be time consuming and, if you're unfamiliar with even the simplest editing software, tedious and often confusing.
These nearly professional digital cameras obviously take unbelievably good photos – if you know what you're doing with aperture and F-stops and focal range and all that other technical folderol. And nearly all D-SLRs now include HD video recording capabilities.
Great photos and video, yes. But these are heavy as hell, especially if you've got one slung around your neck 12 hours a day walking around while on vacation. Having the number of a local chiropractor can't hurt – just your neck.
There are new smaller D-SLR from Panasonic and Olympus called Micro Four Thirds – lenses about a third smaller than those of full-size D-SLRs and camera bodies around the size of point-and-shoot models. Supposedly they are a middle ground between point-and-shoot and D-SLRs – more manual control and near D-SLR higher quality without the bulk – but I haven't had a chance to play with one yet.
A $250-$300 point-and-shoot digital camera with at least 12 MP, a 5x zoom and 720p high-def video recording from Canon, Sony, Panasonic, Fuji, Samsung or Kodak is your best all-around digital imaging companion. One of these will perform all the required digital capture chores well-to-great and make your "which camera to take" decision a lot easier.
So scroll back up to the top and tell me – can you tell which device I took that shot with and which I shot the video with?
Both were shot with the iPhone 4.
As you can see, the Hudson River shot and the Imagine Circle video are of quite high quality, but not the highest. If you agree, you know what devices you need to carry with you.