Category Archives: Uncategorized

Why I take so many photos of herons

My fiancée has seen a lot of my photographs, and she has noticed that many of them involve birds that wade in shallow water and catch the fish that swim by.

More scientifically, she has noticed a lot of photos of birds in the genus Ardeawhich includes two species that I see a lot of here in Central Indiana.

Great blue heron
Ardea herodias, commonly known as the great blue heron
Great egret
Ardea alba, commonly known as the great egret or great white heron.

One time she asked me, “Is that your favorite animal?”

I don’t know that I have a favorite animal per se (with the possible exception of my pet cat Bandit). But here’s what I do know:

  • They’re beautiful, graceful birds. In a pond full of ducks and geese, a heron is the belle of the ball. If you see one in flight, it is a special treat.  Because they are skittish about humans, you might inadvertently cause it to take flight if you get too close.
Great egret water landing
The great egret comes in for a water landing.
  • They are nearby. Both of the photos above were taken at a park less than five miles from where we live. I usually find myself at this park at least once a week. So I expect to see either a great blue heron or a great egret when I go there…and I often bring my camera gear with me. My desk at work also overlooks a retention pond, and herons frequent that pond. So, I get lots of opportunities to photograph them.
Great blue heron
I shot this photo of a great blue heron through the window right behind my desk at work…on a Nexus 5 smartphone. As the saying goes, “the best camera is the one you have with you.”
  • They’re challenging to photograph well with my equipment. My “good” camera gear is more advanced than a typical point-and-shoot camera (and certainly more advanced than the camera on my smartphone), but it’s not the kind of camera or lens you would expect a professional wildlife photographer to use. I simply don’t have the budget for that since no one is paying me for these photos. So there are inevitably some compromises. Most significantly, I have a telephoto lens but not a supertelephoto lens, so my reach is limited. That makes it harder to extract fine feather details when the bird is out in the water, even after a lot of cropping. The other challenge is tracking them while in flight, as my camera and lens do not excel with autofocus tracking for fast-moving subjects. So, I can always see room for improvement in my photos…and since I’m photographing basically the same subject matter, I can easily see the impact of each setting I change or any other photographic decisions I make.

Disclaimer: Photos are copyrighted. Do not use without permission from the author.

 

TV manufacturers need to throw a lifeline to PC users

Dear TV manufacturers:

It’s time we talked about overscan.

Yes, I know why you do it. Yes, I even know why it’s necessary. But I need to be able to turn it off sometimes.

One of the early promises of HDTVs was the ability to connect a PC and use the TV just like you would use a monitor for your computer. If you bought a really big TV, you could use it as a really big monitor too.

All you had to do was connect your PC to the TV via a VGA/D-Sub input, and voilà! Your PC’s screen appeared on your TV. (You also needed an audio cable.)

But VGA is an analog signal, and it does not carry HDCP (high-definition copy protection) the way digital signals like HDMI and DVI do. And, of course, the picture quality from HDMI and DVI tends to be vastly superior to VGA. Many laptops today — including the one I own — don’t even have VGA ports anymore.

So if we’re connecting our PCs to TVs, we’re doing it via HDMI. We want to send 1080p or even 4K video output from our PCs to our televisions, but our televisions betray us with overscan. And most TV manufacturers won’t let us do anything about it.

So we’re stuck tweaking our PC settings to slightly lower resolutions to fit on the TV screen, and that often means text gets a little distorted…and thus a little hard to read.

There are a few exceptions. Sharp has a “Dot-by-Dot” mode on its TVs, and Samsung has a “Screen Fit” mode as well. But most manufacturers don’t have anything like this built into their TV sets, and it’s difficult to understand why that’s not standard on every TV manufactured today.

For the rest of you, please get on with it. And, for good measure, a firmware update for your existing sets wouldn’t hurt either.

Regards,

Daniel

 

Pope Francis gets it (mostly) wrong on families

I will end my visit to your country in Philadelphia, where I will take part in the World Meeting of Families. It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme. How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.

In particular, I would like to call attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young. For many of them, a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair. Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions. At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.

Pope Francis, address to Congress, 9/24/2015

Many liberals adore Pope Francis. I can certainly describe him as a significant improvement over some of his predecessors.

But that’s faint praise considering what some of his predecessors did. Gregory IX started the Inquisition, and Sixtus IV instituted the infamous Spanish Inquisition. Leo X’s sale of indulgences led to the Protestant Reformation, which led to decades of extremely bloody wars. Pius XII was a Nazi sympathizer, whose silence on the Holocaust enabled Hitler to go unchecked.  John Paul II sought to contain much of the progress the church achieved with Vatican II.  His doctrinaire enforcer, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, succeeded him as Benedict XVI. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI (to say nothing of popes before them) looked the other way on pedophile priests at the same time they staunchly condemned homosexuality as “an intrinsic moral evil.”

Returning to Pope Francis, while his statements about immigration, climate change, and economic inequality are music to my progressive ears, I cringed when he started talking about the family. Because he sounded an awful lot like his immediate predecessors.

There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family. Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law.

Pope John Paul II, 2003

Education needs settings. Among these, pride of place goes to the family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman. This is not a simple social convention, but rather the fundamental cell of every society. Consequently, policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself.

Pope Benedict XVI, 2012

Now, perhaps Francis, with his “Who am I to judge?” attitude has gone about as far to the left as he can realistically go on this issue, but to imply that same-sex marriage is a threat to “the very basis of marriage and family” makes him part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

A little bit right

When Francis said, “At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future,” I was right there with him.

In agrarian societies, procreation was a means to wealth. The more children, the more laborers available for the farm. But today, a large family is typically a financial liability rather than an asset. Kids are expensive, and they go to school when kids from generations before them were out working in the fields. Industrialization, child labor laws, and free, mandatory public education changed the equation dramatically.

There are, of course, people who desire to have families — even large families — but they cannot do so because they cannot afford it. Francis was sensitive to their concerns, and so am I. The cry “If you can’t afford kids, don’t have them” seems like it could be a real problem for conservatives who claim to be so interested in protecting families.

Wrong again

You might say that my less-than-ideal financial situation has dissuaded me from starting a family, and that would certainly be one reason. But it’s not even the primary reason. I just don’t want the responsibility of being a parent.

Francis’s reasoning here suggests that it’s ideal for everyone to start a family (that is, marry someone of the opposite sex and procreate with that person), and other “options” are somehow a negative thing.

Considering the pope’s views on climate change, how can he also say that these other options (like contraception) are a negative thing? The more people we make, the more energy we use and the more damage we do to the planet. If Pope Francis is really concerned about climate change, perhaps he should revisit the church’s position on contraception and recognize that being childless is a legitimate option.

An olive branch — and some stern advice — to religious moderates

Moderates provide cover for the fundamentalists.

Sam Harris

Are all or even most religious people wacky and dangerous fundamentalists? No. I have never thought this to be the case. Some people have assumed that I thought this, but they assumed incorrectly. So let me set the record straight on that.

But, like Sam Harris said, religious moderates can be dangerous in a subtler and probably unintended way.

For example, I posted a news article about Pat Robertson blaming the recent downturn in the stock market on God’s judgment for same-sex marriage and Planned Parenthood. This is obviously a dangerous notion, particularly for a man with a TV audience of about 1 million people each day. Here’s the actual footage from his program, The 700 Club.

This was the first comment on my post (edited for grammar only).

Yeah. Crazy. I get it. But people in this world abuse anything. Sex. Drugs. Marriage. You name it. But I think you want to transpose Pat Roberts, Creflo Dollar, et al to your own disdain for God and religion. Look around you. See the wonder of this world. The complexity of life wasn’t accidentally contained in the “Big Bang.” Yes, I don’t know why we are in a world w/such atrocities and inequality, but I also know the vast, vast majority of the people in this world are good. My wish for you is that you’ll stop celebrating the “fringe” and realize there ‘s a God who loves us.

And it’s an understandable response. Religious moderates tend to be peacemakers, and that’s a quality that I admire. But what responses like that do is insulate the real extremists like Pat Robertson from any kind of criticism. They say, “You shouldn’t talk about this.”

But, for you religious moderates out there, I think that’s a misguided approach. These people are making your entire faith look very bad…and if anyone should be calling them out loudly, it’s you. Because when you fail to do this, you’re leaving it up to outsiders like me who don’t really have a vested interest in drawing such fine distinctions.

In the NFL, commissioner Roger Goodell has made a point about the importance of “protecting the shield” (the NFL logo). You can decide for yourself if he has lived up to that standard, but that idea was an excellent justification for stronger policing of the league that he runs. When he comes down hard on players and even owners within the league for bad behavior, he sends a signal to the world that this behavior doesn’t represent the NFL shield. (And when he fails to do so adequately, as he did with the Ray Rice situation, he sends the opposite message to the world.)

To make matters worse for you, it’s the fundamentalists who are the most visible ambassadors for your faith. They’re the ones who make the news or have television shows. (Pope Francis is a notable exception to this, but even he is still somewhat homophobic.) If you want others to see that you’re “not all like that,” get out there forcefully and declare it. Isolate the fundamentalists. There’s nothing wrong with being vocal and forceful, even though moderates are probably less naturally inclined to do so.

This is not just true of Christianity…the image much of the world sees of Islam is ISIS, which is an unfortunate representation of a religion covering approximately 1 billion people in virtually every nation on earth.

It’s just human nature to paint groups of people with a broad brush, especially when we don’t regularly interact with them on an individual basis. I’m certainly not immune from this tendency, but I do consciously work on it. Police officers profile African-Americans, and now African-Americans are profiling police officers.

Should you really buy a Christmas gift for your second cousin twice removed?

When it comes to gift giving, it’s the thought that counts, right?

Maybe, maybe not.

Don’t get me wrong: I really love giving gifts around the holidays and at other times (usually birthdays), and I naturally love receiving them as well. At least certain gifts.

When a gift is something that someone really wants or needs — or if you have a true burst of inspiration, it’s a wonderful, exciting feeling for the giver and the recipient. It’s not about how much money you spend, it truly is the thought that counts. Usually these are gifts for people we know very well…our immediate families, significant others, and an inner circle of friends. I have gotten some really great gifts over the years, usually from people who know me very well and often from those who have asked what I wanted to get.

But then there are the gifts we give to people who don’t really meet that criteria. You buy a token gift for the mail carrier, another token gift for your second cousin twice removed, and a third token gift just to prevent an unanticipated gift-giving emergency faux pas. It’s often considered to be more polite to buy a bad gift than no gift at all. I’ve certainly done it many times, so I’m just as guilty as anyone.

Even for the people we know best, we sometimes buy filler gifts. In addition to the nice, thoughtful gifts you have bought, you buy more little token gifts as stocking stuffers. Sometimes these are cute and good for a brief laugh or a small indulgence like candy. Sometimes there are some legitimate big-ticket gifts that just happen to be small enough to fit inside of a stocking. Jewelry comes to mind. But, most of the time it’s just filler. (Even the phrase stocking stuffers literally says that the gifts are purchased for the sole purpose of taking up space.)

We all get things that we don’t particularly like, and we all give things that we don’t really have high hopes for the recipient liking because we don’t really know most of them very well. But we do it just to be polite because, well, it’s the thought that counts. We feel guilty or awkward if we overlook someone, especially if we are going to see them in person, and advertisers prey on this.

It’s actually a substantial economic problem, and University of Pennsylvania economist Joel Waldfogel has been on a mission to help us fix it. His book, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays, explains that holiday gift-giving is actually quite wasteful.

What’s distinctive about all of this [holiday] spending is that, except for the prearranged gifts for teenagers, the choices are not made by the ultimate consumers. For the rest of the year, the people who will ultimately use the stuff choose what they buy. As a result, buyers normally choose things they correctly expect to enjoy using. But not at Christmas. As a result, the massive holiday spending has the potential to do a terrible job matching products with users. Throughout the year, we shop meticulously for ourselves, looking at scores of items before choosing those that warrant spending our own money. The process at Christmas, by contrast, has givers shooting in the dark about what you like, recalling the way the imaginary red tornado distributes gifts.

Joel Waldfogel, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays

Every year, the media talks about the importance of the holiday shopping season as an indicator of the nation’s economic health. The logic goes that more consumer spending is a cause for optimism. But do they ever stop and ask if consumers are spending their money wisely? Do they stop and ask how much credit card debt they are in come January? According to Waldfogel, Americans waste about $85 billion each winter on gifts that people don’t even want.

Unfortunately, when people cut back on holiday spending in tougher economic times, they might still buy just as many gifts for just as many people but just buy less expensive or token gifts (again, just due to social pressures).

It’s not just a matter of money, it’s also a matter of time. Shopping is time-consuming, and homemade gifts are even more so. Aside from the financial drain, so many people feel overstressed and overcommitted during the holidays. They have too many people to shop for, and they often wander about aimlessly in search of inspiration they will probably not find…so they settle for just giving something in order to be expedient. Really, if it’s the thought that counts, how much thought was involved in buying a candle for ten different people on your list? These social pressures actually suck the joy out of gift giving and even gift making.

As a gift recipient, I’d prefer that the same amount of money be spent on fewer, bigger-ticket gifts — or even on necessities for people who are less fortunate than I am. I’d rather not feel obligated to give a bad gift to someone I don’t know that well and give better gifts to the people I do know well.

Wouldn’t you? So let’s put an end to the social pressures of obligatory filler gifts. Doesn’t your mail carrier have enough returns to deal with as it is?

The Internet might just make rabbit ears obsolete for local television

Have you ever had to use rabbit ears to pick up a local TV signal? I have, and I’d say most of us have as well at some point in our lives.

Quite frankly, it sucks.

Last year, I embarked on a cord-cutting experiment in order to save the money I had been spending on cable television. It is easier now than ever with online services like Netflix to provide affordable content and DTV broadcasts.

Digital Television (DTV) is an advanced broadcasting technology that has transformed the television viewing experience. DTV enables broadcasters to offer television with better picture and sound quality, and multiple channels of programming. Since June 13, 2009, full-power television stations nationwide have been required to broadcast exclusively in a digital format.

Federal Communications Commission

Despite these technological advancements and my modern flat-panel HDTV purchased new in 2010, my experiment failed miserably.

Apart from missing the programming from certain cable channels that could not be substituted online (I’m looking at you, ESPN), the most annoying thing was having to constantly adjust my antenna to get a good picture only to have it flake out on me a minute or two later. An omnidirectional antenna was still just as flaky, and I couldn’t even adjust it.

I live in the city — within 10 miles of all the local broadcast transmitters, in fact — so it wasn’t a matter of distance. I bought a newer amplified antenna that was a step above the basic, so there was no good reason why I should have trouble. Of course, in the city, there are a lot of tall buildings around that can interfere, but there is nothing especially tall between my apartment and any of the transmitters. I even contacted one of the local broadcast stations and told the engineer where I lived — he said something to the effect of “From where you are, you should be able to get a clear picture with a paper clip.”

Very frustrating. So frustrating, in fact, that I decided to pony up the cash and reinstate my cable TV subscription. There just seemed to be an inevitability about paying for television, and to me that payment was worth avoiding a lot of frustration.

Since that time, a few things have happened that lead me to believe this won’t be so inevitable for long.

  • Broadcaster/network/provider contract disputes. This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, but it’s definitely intensifying. Here in Indianapolis, the parent company of local CBS affiliate WISH-TV refused to pay the CBS Network more money for broadcasting rights to network programming, so CBS just found another local station (WTTV-TV) whose parent company was willing to pony up. On a related note, our local NBC affiliate (WTHR-TV) got involved in a contract dispute with DirecTV that led to a brief discontinuation of NBC programming for DirecTV subscribers. The dispute was resolved, presumably with DirecTV paying WTHR more money…and those subscribers ultimately paying higher bills for the privilege. Presumably the pressure from WTHR to insist on more money came from having to pay higher broadcasting rights fees to NBC. And the pressure on both the NBC and CBS networks to charge the affiliates higher rates is coming largely from sports — especially the NFL. It was no coincidence that DirecTV and WTHR resolved the dispute just in time to get an important Sunday Night Football game involving the Indianapolis Colts back on the air.
  • Broadcast networks offering online subscriptions. In addition to Netflix, television networks have increasingly begun to post programming online…it’s a good way to catch up on missed episodes and the like. But CBS recently made a much bolder move: offering online-only paid subscriptions to live television and archived episodes. If the other major broadcast networks follow suit, then that will enable them to completely bypass the local affiliates and go directly to viewers.
  • Local news online. Those affiliates are even beginning to broadcast their local news shows on a live online stream as an alternative to over-the-air or cable/satellite.
  • Easier ways to get online programming onto the TV screen. One of my favorite gadgets is Google’s Chromecast. It’s small, it only costs $35, and it can use your WiFi connection to beam whatever is on your smart phone, tablet or on the Chrome browser on your PC to your TV with the touch of a button. I have one plugged into one of my TV’s HDMI ports, and I use it frequently. Now that the Chromecast device has been out for over a year, it has dramatically improved in terms of app support and full-screen casting. Dead simple. And even local affiliate stations are coming out with their own apps.

So, that begs the question, why do we need to broadcast television over the air at all anymore? The obstacles are more on the business side than the technology side. Here’s where the FCC needs to be bold (but probably won’t be).

  • Preserve net neutrality. Video content takes up a large amount of bandwidth (especially high-definition and 4K video), so it’s important not to have the telecom companies create slow and fast lanes. After all, the concepts that I’m talking about that could save costs for consumers are a major threat to their cash cow business. Right now, the FCC is taking public comments on this issue — so make your voice heard!
  • Mandate live, free Internet streaming for all over-the-air broadcasts. By law, television stations are supposed to be operating in the public’s interest. As a condition of having a broadcast frequency, the FCC could also mandate that the affiliates provide the same content over the Internet. At the very least, they should have to stream the locally produced content like the local news. This should not be too difficult a hurdle because a lot of stations are already doing this. Now that we have made the full transition to DTV, all of the video content is already digital anyway. But ideally they should also have to stream the network content too for people within their broadcasting area. The programming is free by antenna, so why shouldn’t it be free online?
  • Complete the National Broadband Plan. The FCC is already hard at work implementing the National Broadband Plan, which should dramatically expand high-speed Internet access across the nation. Now that the DTV transition is complete, the older analog television frequencies have gone to emergency response, and the remainder will be auctioned off — presumably to telecommunications companies. The FCC estimates that there are about 7 million households currently without any access to broadband Internet at any price because they are located in sparsely populated areas where telecommunications companies could not expect much of a return on their infrastructure investments. Of course, having broadband access available for a price does not equate to actually having broadband access.
  • Auction off the DTV spectrum. Just as the FCC is auctioning off the portion of the analog TV spectrum not being used by emergency responders, it could also raise funds by auctioning off the DTV spectrum and using those funds to help subsidize broadband Internet access for those who cannot afford to pay for it. Ideally, this would be revenue-neutral, just like the National Broadband Plan is. With a mandate already in place to live stream all broadcast content, local TV stations would not need to change much.

Hopefully by this point in time — let’s say 10 to 15 years into the future — almost no one would still be using a TV without at least an HDMI port. And we already have lots of cheap Internet-based devices today like the Chromecast or Roku that could simply have buttons for local channels right next to their Netflix buttons. It would not be a huge leap. Much like the FCC created a coupon program for DTV converters, they could create something similar for an Internet-based device like this.

Television stations, of course, make their money from advertising, and the amount advertisers are willing to pay is driven by Nielsen ratings. But even Nielsen has said that Internet-based devices have reduced overall television viewership. Of course, you can still measure the number of hits a video receives (see everything on YouTube), and online video advertising is quite common these days. Getting the type of demographic information that Nielsen measures is a little harder than that, but having users complete a web-based questionnaire is a lot easier than having Nielsen install boxes in people’s homes. The Internet provides a far larger sample size to measure all the hits — not just a select few to extrapolate from.

What do you think? What other obstacles might there be to permanently throwing away the rabbit ears and the huge rooftop antennas?

The key to the smartphone camera revolution: Fewer, bigger pixels

Apple has exactly the right idea when it comes to smartphone cameras.

When it introduced the iPhone 5s, Apple increased the sensor size by 15 percent but left the resolution at a relatively paltry 8 megapixels. As I explained in my previous post, 8 megapixels is still enough to make an excellent-quality 8″ x 12″ print…which is more than enough for most consumers, especially those taking photos with smartphones. And even a 1080p television or monitor can only display about 2 megapixels full screen.

A comparison of various sensor sizes. The dark orange square represents a 35mm "full frame" camera. The light orange square represents the 1.6X crop APS-C sensor found in Canon's entry-level camera line, and the light green square represents Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds. Meanwhile, the smaller sensors are what you would find in point-and-shoot cameras and, at the smallest point (the dark blue), the cameras in smart phones. Image courtesy of http://www.macrumors.com/2014/07/17/iphone6-sony-13-megapixel-imx220-sensor/
A comparison of various sensor sizes. The dark orange square represents a 35mm “full frame” camera. The light orange square represents the 1.6X crop APS-C sensor found in Canon’s entry-level camera line, and the light green square represents Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds. Meanwhile, the smaller sensors are what you would find in point-and-shoot cameras and, at the smallest point (the dark blue), the cameras in smart phones. Image courtesy of MacRumors.

The advantage of this approach is that the individual pixels are larger (1.5 microns), and that means more light and better image quality.

A missed opportunity

Unfortunately, most smartphone manufacturers are moving in the opposite direction by increasing megapixel counts. For example, the Sony Xperia Z1 has 20 megapixels. Although the Sony’s sensor is a bit larger (matching many point-and-shoot cameras at 1/2.3″), the individual pixels are just 1.1 microns…and that means less light per pixel and reduced image quality. It also means larger file sizes — which is a major challenge given the relatively limited storage space on smartphones and the increasing trend to move away from card-based storage in smartphones. Even if users back up their photos regularly onto computer hard drives or cloud services, even those have limited storage space.

Just who is making 12″ x 18″ “high-quality” prints from a smartphone camera anyway? And would any photo from a camera with such small pixels be worth printing at this size anyway?

For too long, digital camera manufacturers have leapfrogged each other on megapixel counts as a selling feature for consumers, and this has carried over into smartphones. As a result, the real technological improvements in camera sensors for image quality and high-ISO performance have been stymied by smaller and smaller pixels. But the people who really need higher megapixel counts are professional photographers, not consumers. Yet the professional Nikon D4S with a full-frame sensor only prints 16.2-megapixel photos…because that’s all they need. But because of the larger sensor, the D4S has a pixel size of 7.3 microns — massive compared to even the best smartphone.

So why not just add bigger and bigger sensors to smartphones? Why not a full-frame sensor?

Certainly moving from 1/3.2″ on the iPhone 5 to 1/3″ on the iPhone 5S was a reasonable improvement, and the relatively obscure Nokia 808 Pureview offered a whopping 1/1.2″ sensor. But larger sensors cost significantly more in terms of manufacturing and require larger and larger lenses. That means more bulk. Not exactly something you want to slide into your pants pocket or replace when your 2-year wireless contract ends. Without a major revolution in lens design (which is dependent on the laws of physics), we can only realistically go so big with smartphone sensors.

Polka Boy performs at the biergarten at the historic Rathskeller restaurant in downtown Indianapolis. Shot with LG Google Nexus 5 smartphone. f2.52; 1/20 shutter; ISO 1531.
Polka Boy performs at the biergarten at the historic Rathskeller restaurant in downtown Indianapolis. Shot with LG Google Nexus 5 smartphone. f2.52; 1/20 shutter; ISO 1531; pixel size 1.3 microns.

Fuzzy (literally) math

So imagine if Sony had opted to go for 8 megapixels instead of 20 on the Xperia Z1 with its 1/2.3″ image sensor.

  1. A 1/2.3″ sensor measures 6.16 mm wide x 4.62 mm high.
  2. An 8-megapixel image measures 3,456 pixels wide x 2,304 pixels high.
  3. Divide 6.16 mm by 3,456 pixels to get 0.0018 mm per pixel.
  4. One micron is equivalent to 1/1,000 of a millimeter, so multiply by 1,000 to get 1.8 microns per pixel. That’s significantly larger than the iPhone 5S, and that would mean significantly better image quality.

As good as that is, what if the Nokia 808 Pureview only had 8 megapixels of resolution instead of 41? Let’s do the math again.

  1. A 1/1.2″ sensor measures 10.67 mm wide x 8 mm high.
  2. An 8-megapixel image measures 3,456 pixels wide x 2,304 pixels high.
  3. Divide 10.67 mm by 3,456 pixels to get 0.0031 mm per pixel.
  4. Multiply by 1,000 to convert millimeters to microns, and you get 3.1 microns per pixel.

That’s substantially larger than the pixel size of the Sony RX100 (2.4 microns per pixel), which is an award-winning, high-end compact camera with 20.2 megapixels of resolution.

Other tradeoffs – cropping and digital zoom

So part of the appeal of the 1/1.2″ Nokia 808 Pureview and its smaller 1/1.5″ sensor successor the Nokia Lumia 1020, was the 41-megapixel resolution that enabled “reinvented zoom.”

What the cameras in these phones are really doing when they “zoom” is cropping the image to a more reasonable 5 megapixels without any loss in image quality. This is quite useful for smartphones, most of which don’t have optical zoom lenses. But when the pixels are small to begin with (1.4 microns on the 808 and 1.1 microns on the 1020), “lossless” doesn’t mean a whole lot in terms of image quality.

But, as someone who regularly crops photos, if the full photo drops to 8 megapixels, then my crops could take them down even smaller. It leaves less flexibility…but even if I crop all the way in to 2 megapixels, that’s still 1080p resolution…great for displaying on screen (or Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) or making 4″ x 6″ prints. The addition of a real optical zoom lens on a smartphone minimizes the need for digital zoom or cropping in the first place.

What does the future hold?

I don’t know if we’ll ever get to DSLR image quality or lens quality with our smartphones, but considering the rapid pace of advancements the industry has already made, I would also not rule it out. As it stands today, the best smartphones can go toe to toe with point-and-shoot cameras in terms of image quality, although the new generation of bridge cameras like the Olympus Stylus 1, Sony RX10, RX100 and Panasonic FZ1000 are raising the bar higher than ever for what a point-and-shoot camera can offer. There are only a handful of smartphone cameras that offer optical zoom at all (the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom is basically a point-and-shoot camera first and a smartphone second, so it’s a bit awkward as a phone), but massive efforts are underway to bring real zoom lenses to smartphones while still allowing them to fit comfortably in your pocket.

The smartphone and camera industries just need to focus their energies in the right areas…and Apple has certainly set the precedent for that. As advancing sensor technology continues to squeeze more and more out of every pixel, then we can start to talk about larger and larger print sizes with more and more megapixels.