They happen a lot -- those Kodak (EK) moments you have to pass up because you've left your camera at home. But chances are you didn't forget your cell phone: It's one gadget that's always with you, tucked away in a pocket or purse. These days, with more cell phones sporting built-in digital cameras, you no longer have an excuse to miss a great shot. That's especially true now that U.S. wireless carriers have started offering phones with one-megapixel cameras. Old hat in much of the world, these phones have more than three times the picture resolution of older models, and they can produce high-quality prints rather than grainy, washed-out images that are suitable only for e-mail.
Last month I got my hands on five one-megapixel camera phones that are on the market now or will be shortly -- from Audiovox (VOXX), Motorola (MOT), Nokia (NOK), Samsung, and Sony Ericsson (SNE). To get an idea of picture quality, I took pretty much the same photos on each and made 4x6 prints at a Kodak kiosk in a CVS drugstore in Los Angeles. Just for comparison, I also shot with a couple of phones that use so-called VGA cameras, which capture only 300,000 pixels instead of 1 million.
Generally, I found cell-phone cameras not as versatile (or as complicated) as good digital cameras. It can also be more difficult to get your images out of the phone and into a place where you can store or print them. But many of the megapixel prints I made were photo-album quality, with the best ones from the Nokia phone, closely followed by those shot on the Sony Ericsson model.
The most surprising thing I discovered was that I could get acceptable prints from the VGA phones, as long as I printed them a little smaller. At dotPhoto.com, you can order 4x3 "cell prints" for 11 cents each. The company printed my first batch incorrectly as vertical prints instead of horizontal. When contacted, it replaced the order overnight.
Camera phones let you do a lot more than just make prints. You can link photos of your friends to their phone numbers so their picture pops up on the screen when they call you. You can personalize your phone with your own photos as wallpaper. Or by subscribing to a mobile photo service ($2 to $4 a month) such as dotPhoto's Pictavision, Kodak Mobile, or Snapfish Mobile you can transfer pictures taken on your digital camera to your phone, to show off snapshots you now carry in your wallet.
But the whole point of boosting the picture quality in camera phones is to get printable snapshots. So you don't repeat my mistakes, here are some tips.
Get close. These cameras tend to lose the details in vast panoramic shots but are great for close-ups, where the subject fills the entire frame.
Turn on the lights. Camera phones work best outdoors in bright light. Indoors, make sure there's enough light to illuminate your subject. If your phone has a flash, use it, but it's not effective more than a couple of feet away.
Use the white balance settings. Different types of light can alter the colors in your snapshot, making it too red or too green. You can adjust newer camera phones for sunny or cloudy days, and for fluorescent or incandescent lights.
Keep still. Your natural inclination is to hold your phone in one hand. You can keep it steadier if you use two. Or try stabilizing your hand by resting it on something while you push the shutter button.
A word about wireless costs. If you never send a picture from your phone, you'll incur no extra charges. Many one-megapixel phones, such as the ones I used from Motorola, Nokia, and Sony Ericsson, have slots for removable memory cards, so you can transfer your snapshots to your computer, printer, or a retail print kiosk. Some phones have a built-in infrared or Bluetooth link so you can beam them to a similarly equipped device.
Otherwise, you'll have to e-mail the images to yourself, and the wireless carriers will bill you. The best bet for confirmed shutterbugs is Sprint, which charges $15 a month for unlimited picture mail. T-Mobile has a good deal for casual photographers: $2.99 per month for the first 20 pictures and 10 cents apiece after that. (Cingular has a similar plan, but charges 25 cents for additional shots.) Other carriers are more expensive, ranging from 25 cents (Verizon) (VZ) to 40 cents (AT&T) (T) each.
Don't get rid of your digital camera just yet. But play around with the camera in your cell phone. If you're like me, you'll find it's even more fun than a digital camera -- and a lot more convenient.
By Larry Armstrong