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Backcountry Photography

Phone‑y War: Camera, Phone, or Both? A Paddler's Perspective Out of Pocket

By Tamia Nelson

January 7, 2014

If you're old enough to have typed reports on a battered Smith Corona manual, watched television when all the shows were in black and white, and listened to music on a crackly AM portable because that was the only game in town, then you're old enough to remember when telephones were tethered to the wall by long cords (and when one phone line was often shared by several households, into the bargain). Making or receiving a phone call was a big deal in those days, and if you needed to ring someone up when you were on the road, you had to start looking for a public telephone booth. Chances were that you wouldn't have to search very long or very hard, however. Payphones could once be found everywhere, even in rural hamlets that didn't boast post offices. Of course, you couldn't talk and drive a car at the same time. You had to choose.

But the cell phone (aka "mobile phone," or just "mobile," if you're travel[l]ing on a British passport) has changed all that. At least a quarter of the motorists that I see nowadays are talking on the phone as they drive, while the proportion of peripatetic conversationalists is probably even higher among pedestrians, many of whom seem to be engaged in a perpetual dialog with some invisible interlocutor. And the once‑ubiquitous public telephone booth? It's joined the list of endangered species.

Then again, today's cell phones are much more than mere conversation pieces. Even Farwell's old Nokia 1100 is both flashlight and alarm clock, while the sleek new phones at the opposite end of the cost and capability spectrum, the so‑called smartphones, serve as on‑the‑go Internet workstations‑cum‑game consoles, not to mention providing an invaluable indicator of their possessors' social status, income, and general with‑itness. And then there's the shifting middle ground: mobile phones that, though not necessarily smart, cannot be written off as dumb. These are apparently known as feature phones, and I own one.

Farwell scoffs, but he isn't a photographer, and that makes all the difference. Because as well as boasting an awkward digital audio recorder and an over‑eager Web browser, my modestly priced, half‑smart phone possesses one very useful attribute:

A Camera to Go

It's not alone. Far from it. In addition to the legions of selfie‑enabled bivisual smartphones, there's a subclass of feature phones whose cameras are their selling point. To be sure, some of the camera‑phone cameras are rather rudimentary, capable only of taking acceptable holiday snaps and making blurry videos and nothing more. But others, including those built into most smartphones, rival digital point‑and‑shoot cameras in image quality and versatility. Which helps to explain why it's almost impossible to spend time in any public place without seeing someone snapping a photo on a phone.

This has given quite a few camera companies cause for concern. It also makes many old‑school photographers grumble and grouse. (I imagine that the first Kodak Brownie elicited a similar response from devotees of glass‑plate photography.) The rest of us, however, have wholeheartedly embraced the new age of digital photoubiquity. Some of us even leave our other cameras gathering dust on a shelf at home for much of the time, preferring the convenience of the camera phone. A good friend and colleague — a former commercial photographer whose current business interests frequently see him jetting across hemispheres — seldom bothers to bring his camera bag with him when traveling on business, and so far, at least, he's had no reason to regret his decision. His smartphone gives him everything he needs for casual (and even not‑so‑casual) photography. He's got plenty of company, too. Here's what Karl Engleka, a frequent contributor to In the Same Boat columns, has to say on the subject:

I have a professional photographer friend who said once that the biggest deal about a camera is having it with you when you have a photo opportunity. I have always favored small, easy to carry cameras. My last camera now languishes in its case — I almost never carry it because my cell phone does such a good job. I have yet to see anyone use any of the multitude of settings on a typical smartphone. We just snap and go.

Karl's photographer friend makes a point that's well worth reiterating: The best camera for the job is the one you have with you. Or to put it another way, borrowing a complaint frequently voiced in deer camps in every state and province: It's amazing what you see when you ain't got your gun. I doubt there's a photographer alive who doesn't remember at least one trophy shot that got away, simply because she (or he) didn't have a camera at the critical moment. The remedy? A small, light, handy camera — something that you can easily slip into a pocket. A camera that's always with you. And if it also earns its keep in other ways, so much the better.

Does this sound like a camera phone? You bet it does. Which brings us to the heart of the matter:

The Camera Phone and the Paddler

It's a safe bet that few paddlers are "serious" photographers, and fewer still are pros. But we all want to be able to capture what we see, both on and off the water. Whether it's a moose and her calf feeding in a weedy shallows, a puffin in hectic flight, or just the gang gathered around a driftwood fire on the beach, we'd like a photo or video clip of it, if only as an aide‑memoire. The small point‑and‑shoot camera is one answer to this need, and it's still widely used. But camera phones are gaining ground, at least on short trips close to home, where staying in touch with all that you're hoping to get away from is sometimes a necessity, albeit a regrettable one.

That's the situation I find myself in from time to time, and though I can't justify the purchase of a real smartphone — in part because cell coverage is still spotty in my corner of the northern Adirondacks — I do own an LG 500g. It's best described as a feature phone, I suppose, and one of its features is a video‑capable camera. Make no mistake: I won't be selling my "proper" digital cameras any time soon. (Especially when I just acquired a new point‑and‑shooter.) But the fact remains that I keep the LG 500g within reach during all of my waking hours. So the phone's built‑in camera is the one camera I can be sure I'll have whenever a photographic opportunity knocks.

The bottom line? If, as Woody Allen supposedly claimed some years back, 90 percent of success can be attributed to just showing up, then the camera phone is the best camera for 90 percent of casual shots. (OK. Both the math and the logic are a little dodgy here, but you get the point, I'm sure.)

That said, there are a few things you'll want to consider before …

Taking Your Camera Phone Trekking

And the first consideration is the most obvious. Camera phones are indifferently weatherproofed packages containing complex electronic circuitry, wholly dependent on batteries and subject to software glitches. The same thing could be said about most consumer electronics, of course — though standards of water‑ and weatherproofing vary. But if you're going to put all your photographic eggs in one basket, so to speak, you'd be well advised to give careful thought to …

Protection From the Elements.  Rain. Fog. Salt spray. Freezing cold. Baking heat. Dust storms. Tropical humidity. Any of these can put electronic circuitry out of business. So read your phone's manual. Get some idea of the manufacturer's claims concerning temperature and humidity tolerances, and then do your best to stay within those bounds.

Waterproofing remains a problem. A phone that's tucked safely away in a dry box or dry bag might as well be in a closet at home as far as opportunistic shots are concerned. Plastic freezer bags do a pretty good job in protecting phones from dust and splash, however — if you check them regularly for pinholes and tears. And they let you keep your phone in your pocket. They may even give you a chance to rescue a phone that you drop in the drink. But the best defense is good, old‑fashioned care.

Much the same thing can be said about …

Avoiding Hard Knocks.  The sleek lines and glossy shells of many phones look good in the ads, but they make it hard to hang on to the slippery beastie when your hands are shaking with cold or trembling from fatigue. Luckily, there's no shortage of grippy aftermarket cases. You'll want to cover the display, too, in order to guard it against scratches. And a lanyard never goes amiss, either.

One caveat: When fitting a case to your phone, …

Mind the Lens and Mic.  If your new case covers the lens, your camera won't be of much use to you, will it? Check before you buy.

And sure enough, for once I followed my own advice, with this result:

Outward Eye

Lens and mic are both unobstructed — though I have to watch where I put my fingers when I snap a shot, particularly when I'm wearing gloves, or when glare makes it hard for me to see the display. (Camera phones don't have through‑the‑lens optical viewfinders.)

Returning to the subject of hard knocks for a minute, it's vital that you not crush your phone …

Between a Rock and a Hard Place.  It's easy to do. Since your phone is small and light, you sometimes forget it's there. I've come close to grinding mine into powder when crawling around on my belly to get the perfect perspective for a macro shot with my digital SLR. And while I've avoided disaster to date, I do have a deep scratch on the phone's display as evidence of my fecklessness — an all‑too‑common instance of my NOT following my own advice. So much for my proud boast earlier.

Such avoidable damage from environmental assault and human carelessness aside, there are only a few other operational considerations worth considering. These include ensuring that your camera phone has …

Adequate Storage.  If your phone accepts a memory card (most do), make sure you have a spare. You can't have too much memory, after all. And the same thing can be said about …

Juice.  Unfortunately, few, if any, camera phones are powered by standard cells. And few owners of camera phones bother to purchase spare proprietary batteries. In fact, replacing the battery on many high‑end phones is akin to performing brain surgery. It's not something you'll want to attempt at the water's edge. Are there alternatives? Yes. You can find a wide variety of aftermarket phone chargers. Some get their juice from solar panels. Others use conventional alkaline or lithium cells. But this is a kludge too far for me. My solution? On longer trips, I carry a proper camera and use my camera phone only as a phone — when I use it at all, that is. A separate charger is just too much trouble to pack. One of the strengths of Farwell's aging Nokia is its incredible battery life. But then it doesn't take pictures. It's just a phone. There's no such thing a free lunch, right?

That's pretty much it for the cautions and caveats. Except for the inevitable Big Question, of course:

Do Camera Phones Take Good Pictures?

And the inevitable answer? That depends. Half‑smart phones like mine are the Kodak Instamatics of the camera phone world. They take so‑so snapshots, which you can tweak in your digital darkroom later. You can see a few of my own efforts below by way of example. They're not great, but at least I got the shot. Which is more than I could say if I'd been cameraless when serendipity struck.

On the other hand, better (i.e., more expensive) phones often yield images that rival those from a good point‑and‑shooter. You pays your money and you takes your choice. You don't always get what you pay for, of course. So if image quality is of paramount importance, you'll want to check the reviews before opening your wallet. In the final analysis, however, no matter how good a camera phone is, it's not going to shoot good pictures on its own. You make or break the shot. And the same considerations apply in all photography, whether you're using a homemade pinhole camera or a professional's digital SLR: choice of subject, composition, exposure… These are the things that matter most. Get them right, and there's no reason why a camera phone can't deliver the goods.

Cell Phone Triptych

The proliferation of smartphones has some camera makers worried. And for good reason. While serious photographers aren't likely to abandon their digital SLRs any time soon, casual shutterbugs find the convenience and versatility of camera phones almost irresistible. Do camera phones have a place in paddlers' pockets? I think so. Consider the cautionary motto of turn‑of‑the‑last‑century ornithologists, who traveled the world in search of species new to science at a time when good binoculars were rare and costly, but shotguns and shot were cheap: What's hit is history; what's missed is mystery.

Happily, modern birders prefer binoculars to birdshot, but paddling photographers will find that the old motto contains a nugget of truth, even if it does have to be reinterpreted for the 21st century. What's missed is forever a mystery. So don't chance losing that once‑in‑a‑lifetime shot. Keep your camera phone in your pocket, both on and off the water.



Related Articles From In the Same Boat
  • Backcountry Photography. A Mother Ship of sorts, this topical index disgorges more than 30 photo columns written for paddlers — and anyone else who likes to spend time out of doors in all weathers.
Plus these articles from everyman's (and everywoman's) encyclopedia, Wikipedia:


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