When I wrote about the slow demise of the pocket point-and-shoot camera and the rise of the cell phone camera, I got some pretty vocal feedback from digital photography enthusiasts and friends in the technology world. My declaration that it was time to stop worrying and love the cell phone camera illicited responses that generally fell into three categories:
- People who agreed that a smart phone camera was good enough much of the time.
- People who think the cell phone camera's limitations (battery life, bad sensors, poor low-light performance) make it less than adequate as a camera.
- People who think I'm an idiot.
I will concede that cell phone cameras, despite their increasing resolution and features like the iPhone 4's "High Dynamic Range", are not as good at being cameras as, well, real cameras—for now. Which is why when I saw crows mobbing a hawk in a tree outside my window this morning, I didn't reach for my cell phone. I reached for my digital SLR and my telephoto lens.
I'm a pretty avid photographer, and when I am going out with the intention of taking photographs, I take the digital SLR and a gadget bag filled with lenses, and maybe even a tripod. I don't take a pocket point-and-shoot, because I don't get the kind of control over the camera that I want—things like depth of field. They don't do action well. They do "macro" photos adequately. And very few shoot in RAW, the format that gives the most to work with when you're tweaking digital photos later.
There are exceptions to that rule, obviously. But they cost almost as much as a digital SLR. For example, there's the Canon PowerShot S95. It does really well with action, and with low-light, and it even shoots in RAW. Panasonic's Lumix DMC-LX5 is another example of a pocketable point-and-shoot with those features—and it does high-definition video as well.
But these cameras are not typical pocket point-and-shoots, and they cost a bit more than the cameras most people throw into their pocket or purse—they both are priced at just under $400, just under the price range of DSLRs. They're a lot less like the Polaroid camera you used to carry around, and more like the Leica "range finder" camera I learned photography on in terms of quality and complexity.
Which brings me back to my original point. For people who just want to take quick snapshots here and there, like the ones that used to fill most family photo albums, that might be a little bit of overkill. A cheaper point-and-shoot might provide slightly better photos than an iPhone 4 or HTC Evo, but the question is whether that extra bit of quality is worth carrying another device.
If what's most important to you is being able to quickly share those pictures, the answer is probably "no." If you shoot a lot of pictures or video, and use a lot of flash, then the answer might be "yes", because battery life can be a concern with smart phones with that kind of usage. But then, you'd probably want a better camera than the $150 point-and-shoot anyway.