Back in 2013, I wrote a blog post (since taken offline) about my disagreement that modern smartphone cameras “make compact cameras obsolete.” My premise being that for many types of photo – just about anything of an object out of reach – the lack of optical zoom is a severely limiting factor.

Later I purchased what I call “the hundred dollar camera” and have been carrying this in the bag I take to work every day, and sometimes – when I remember – in my pocket. My goal is to find and capture scenes that are simply impossible to capture on a phone, using a device that’s just as pocketable and super cheap.

On Friday morning, I was doing my usual walk down Wellington’s waterfront on a frankly gorgeous morning. The harbour was glassy and still – a state it doesn’t often achieve – and there were numerous people out enjoying it in vessels of different sizes.

SSV Robert C. Seamans is a 134-foot steel sailing brigantine operated by the Sea Education Association (SEA) for oceanographic research and sail training. She had been berthed at Wellington’s Queens Wharf the previous day, but on this particular morning, she was underway. (As it turned out, merely to another berth around the corner.) The sight of this beautiful tall ship on the glassy water with a grey overcast above was stirring enough that I decided I needed to capture the scene. I reached for my hundred dollar camera.

SSV Robert C. Seamans

SSV Robert C. Seamans

This photo was at an equivalent focal length of 106mm – almost twice that possible with the latest technology in the iPhone 7 Plus. As shown above, it is a very slight crop, colour corrected, and with some noise removal applied, which really only seemed to affect the foliage on the hill (Mount Victoria) behind.

Viewed at full scale, the quality of the image is terrible, but it looks fantastic on my iPhone 6 Plus screen. Easily the equal of good photos taken on the phone itself. But of course, if taken with the iPhone, it would have to have been a major crop and the quality issues on iPhone photos would become apparent – certainly if taken with the 28mm equivalent standard lens.

So, you might get something approaching that quality with an iPhone 7 Plus. But you wouldn’t have a chance of getting this shot at 172mm equivalent.

SSV Robert C. Seamans

SSV Robert C. Seamans

That’s a hair over three times the focal length of the iPhone 7 Plus and still comfortably inside the optical zoom range of the hundred dollar camera. The same types of processing have been applied as above and once again, it looks fantastic on my iPhone screen. In fact, it looks pretty darned good on my computer screen, too, if not at full zoom.

An iPhone shot would show a boat in a harbour. This shot shows people on a boat. This is a perfect example of my characterisation of “objects you can’t touch” which the iPhone camera is simply incapable of capturing well.

I’m not giving up my DSLR any time soon, even though I concede it is a bulky item to carry. I have carried my DSLR on my commute on a number of occasions, but it’s a little too heavy and bulky to be a regular practice. Or is it? As I wrote that sentence, it occurred to me the biggest pain with carrying the DSLR is the size of it in my laptop bag which is not designed to carry it. With some thought, I may be able to solve that.

But aside from issues of bulk with a DSLR, this tiny camera, which I can carry in the same pocket as my iPhone 6 Plus at the same time, clearly outperforms any model of iPhone for less money than you’ll spend upping the storage size on your next iPhone.

The “hundred dollar camera” is a Canon IXUS 160, which cost me NZD$110 in 2016.

Categories: Tech


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