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Smartphones vs. point-and-shoot cameras

Smartphones vs. point-and-shoot cameras

I have been using a point-and-shoot camera for over 50 years, starting with a Kodak Brownie. While technology has really changed the size, shape and technique involved, the principles have remained the same: You’re exposing light onto film or a sensor with the intensity controlled by a shutter and aperture.

Today it seems everyone’s point-and-shoot camera is a smartphone. It brings together the marriage of super convenience with darn good quality. I’m truly amazed with some of the photographs that appear on my iPhone 5. The popularity of the compact point-and-shoot seems to be waning.

While my smartphone is good, it doesn’t really compete in quality and versatility to my older-model compact point-and-shoot Canon PowerShot S95, which I bought in 2011. It was released in 2010, which is considered ancient in technology years, but it still kicks the iPhone to the curb with its optical zoom lens (28mm to 105 mm; f/2.0 to f/4.9) with total manual controls, three-exposure auto bracing for HDR (high dynamic range) photos, low-light capability, tripod mount, a nice flash and a better battery life.

This is not to say I wouldn’t be willing to upgrade to a new camera. There are so many options, I would have a hard time choosing. My next small camera has to have built-in Wi-Fi — that’s priority number one. I could be talked into one that is waterproof. This would give it a real advantage over my iPhone.

coolpixso2inhand400pxThis led me to do a few comparison tests between my iPhone, my 4-year-old Canon S95 and Nikon’s least expensive camera, the Coolpix S02 priced at $99.95. I would have included my vintage Brownie, but that would have involved way too much work. And I will concede that my iPhone would easily take down the Kodak Brownie, plus it would be tough to find any 620-style film.

My first test was the Nikon Coolpix S02, which features a  13.2-MP CMOS sensor and 3x Nikkor glass lens versus the iPhone 5. The Coolpix won on aesthetics with its silver-chrome square design. It’s also very small at 3 inches wide by 2 inches tall and it has to be the cutest camera available. At least that’s the comment I got when people noticed it.

It also had three features similar to the iPhone, built-in memory (7.3 GB internal), rechargeable battery, full HD, 1080p video and a touch screen.

I thought the Coolpix S02 camera would be an interesting test since it’s one of the lowest-priced options. Certainly if I had picked one of the top-of-the-line Nikon compact cameras, there would be no contest. Smartphones still have a long way to go.

The Coolpix S02 did a nice job for the price especially with the optical 3x zoom. The photo quality was a little bit better at the same focal length than the iPhone, but as I zoomed in with Coolpix S02, there was a noticeable difference. The smartphone’s digital zoom just couldn’t compete in this test.

Next up, I was trying out the built-in flash. Again, the Coolpix S02 was the clear winner both in power and color balance. With my iPhone, I have to be so close to using the flash, plus the color always seems to shift. The smartphone is really trying to pack too many features into such a tiny package. You’re basically carrying a camera built into a computer that fits in your pocket or purse.

camera-pocket400When the light was good and I was snapping away the results were close. The Nikon Coolpix S02 was slightly better in the shade and any of the low-light situations. The two cameras were similar but I started to miss the amazing amount of apps available with the iPhone. Also, since the memory is built in with the mini Nikon camera, you need to use a cord to off-load the photos. The smartphone really excels in combining so much photography into a compact, easy-to-carry option.

My older Canon Powershot S95 pretty much crushed the iPhone in every test. It wasn’t close. It’s so nice to have a camera that has enough flash power for parties in dark rooms or fill-in outside in a back-lit situation. I find it frustrating trying to balance the light of the flash with any kind of available light with my iPhone. Having a camera where you can dial down or up the strobe is an important feature. Also, having the ability to control the shutter really makes a difference when you look at low-light photos. The camera also lets you shoot with auto-bracketing to produce amazing HDR photographs.

While the compact point-and-shoot market seems to be shrinking, especially among the lower-priced versions, I’m still a believer. Maybe I’m just too old-school. I want a nice quality camera in my pocket even though it’s extra work making sure the battery is charged and the SD memory card is clear, and, most important, remembering to take it with me.

That said, I never seem to forget my iPhone.

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Read more reviews and photography tips by Robert Lachman


  1. August 11, 2014, 10:34 am

    You're looking at anything compact that can be used to take pictures as occupying one big product category you call "the point-and-shoot market." Your S95 is not a "point-and-shoot" camera.

    Point-and-shoot cameras, like the Coolpix S02, lack the direct controls for aperture, shutter speed, and various other settings. The S95 and its successor models fit into the "advanced compact" category, along with the Nikon Coolpix A, the Sony RX100, and the Panasonic Lumix ZS40, all of which are seen briefly in the video piece. Like any camera, an advanced compact can be used to take snapshots, but they offer the user enough control to do more advanced photography. Products like the Coolpix S02 offer very little advantage over cell phone cameras, which is why they are rapidly disappearing from the market.

    The physical dimensions of the respective image sensors in the three compared devices, along with each camera's lens quality, makes the results of this comparison a foregone conclusion: Phones have the smallest sensors and the worst lenses; point-and-shoots may have the same sized sensors as found in phones, but they have superior lenses and image processors; advanced compacts have larger sensors, sometimes dramatically so, and even better lenses and image processors.

    Advanced, fixed-focal-length compacts like the Nikon Coolpix A and Ricoh GR have APS-C sized sensors, the same type as are found in most DSLRs. This and all manner of manual controls and advanced features make these cameras sophisticated as most DSLRs. For someone only looking to point-and-shoot, cameras like these would be a massive waste of money; the cheaper (but better) of the two, the Ricoh GR, currently retails for about $700. Not to mention, the typical point-and-shooter would likely get pretty frustrated searching the manual trying to find a way to make either of these cameras' lenses zoom.

    By: David
  2. August 11, 2014, 4:44 pm

    Great article. I have wondered why so many people seem to settle for the poor quality of cell phone photos. I know it's really convenient but the pictures just aren't so good as basic point and shoot cameras. It's very apparent on Facebook, for sure. I'll always use a point and shoot over a cell phone camera-they are so small and compact and easily replaceable should you lose it or stupidly drop it in a toilet at the Portland Jetport. As for old school, I prefer the quality of film over most digital as well, with slide film being my favorite. One of the great things about using my Canon Rebel film cameras is that I can use the same lenses with my 3Ti, although they aren't point and shoot. I like, too, that you have made the point that just because something is old doesn't mean it has to be replaced with something new.

    As for 620 film, Film Photography Podcast store has a nice selection, even has Ektachrome!

    By: Ezgi in Maine
  3. August 11, 2014, 4:54 pm

    Very interesting perspectives and great information.

    By: Nature Photography by Martin Ryer
  4. August 12, 2014, 10:31 am

    Out to dinner on a trip to San Diego we saw the giant checker boards in Horton Plaza. My smart phone pictures looked great on the screen. Back home and down loaded onto Photoshop Elements the distortion is very obvious. So sharing pictures to Facebook and other social media may be fun but the pixelated photos are unacceptable to even a mildly discerning hobbyist.

    By: coastcontact
  5. August 15, 2014, 10:27 am

    You can get SD cards with built in Wi-Fi now. Eye-Fi is one brand out there. No need to replace that camera if all you need to add is Wi-Fi for sending pictures to your smart phone.

    By: Alan

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