Fairfax Tech Talk Column

Fairfax Tech Talk Column

22.11.2019 Fairfax Tech Talk Column 173


I had a trip down to Bega and Eden on the picturesque Sapphire Coast this week – and apart from a variety of beautiful views I came across an incredibly unusual sight.

I saw a person taking photos…with a camera!

Sure - people still do use cameras to take photos but I admit to being a little surprised when I see something other than a smartphone used for photography.

And with good reason. Of the estimated one trillion photos taken across the world last year, eighty-nine per cent were taken on a mobile phone. Many people now cite the camera specifications as the main reason for their specific choice of mobile phone!

A camera on a device that is conveniently sized and is always with you sounds great but how do the pictures compare to a ‘real’ camera?

With the increasing power of a modern smartphone, they are actually pretty good. That last sentence doesn’t make a lot of sense. Surely it is all about the lens and the sensor – not the processing power of the phone? Well…yes and no.

Firstly, we should look at the power of a modern smartphone. I am going to oversimplify a comparison here but the latest smartphones have processors that are capable of approximately one trillion operations per second. In 1969 NASA used five IBM System/360 Model 75 mainframe computers to put man on the moon. A Model 75 would set you back a cool US$28 million in current terms and was the size of a small car. It could perform one million operations per second – so a modern smartphone is one million times more powerful. Even IBM’s famous Deep Blue, the first supercomputer to defeat a reigning world champion in a chess match, could only perform one million operations per second.

So a modern smartphone has some power.

The sensor where the image is captured is surely incredibly important? A modern high-end DSLR camera would typically have a full-frame image sensor that measures 36mm by 24mm. A high-end smartphone camera may have a 1/1.7” sensor that measures 7.6mm by 5.7mm or twenty times smaller than a DSLR. The actual lens is sized accordingly. Logically the increased sensor size gives you a greater surface area and therefore a better photo.

That is largely correct but the incredible power of a smartphone is delivering surprisingly good results with small sensors. Algorithms using that power are further enhancing those images such that a simple smartphone camera is delivering pictures that rival professional cameras. An inherent weakness of a small sensor is low-light photography but, as one example, computational photography can create a merged image of multiple photos of different brightness to create an enhanced image. Similarly with a panorama photograph where an unsteady handheld phone can be panned across a scene while the phone takes multiple images and stitches them together. New algorithms being developed will remove water from underwater images so, rather than a dull blue tint that is often associated with underwater photographs, the objects will appear as if they were sitting on land.

I haven’t even touched on the size of the image with most phones delivering image sizes of twelve to twenty megapixels but some as high as forty-eight – but don’t make a rookie mistake and use megapixels as your only rating of a camera.

With advanced bokeh effect and different cameras for different zoom levels and filters and effects and so much more, the hardest aspect of modern smartphone photography is deciding which features to use!

Tell me if you now take your photos on a smartphone at ask@techtalk.digital.

Mathew Dickerson