I was recently looking through my shots from a year experimenting with mobile-phone photography. As something of a photo snob I'm surprised at how quickly it is becoming "good enough" for many snapshots. Duncan Davidson has a fantastic example that illustrates that pros and cons of this trend. (Or, more humorously The Onion captures the zeitgeist perfectly with their report about 40,000 insipid party pics of a dorm fire.)
- The mobile camera is one that is always with you. Try as I might I'm not often disciplined enough of a photographer to have a better camera on me and want to dig it out. Having a camera at the ready is certainly critical to capturing a shot (as Phil Greenspun describes well on the benefits of points-and-shoots) that may only last for a moment.
- Mobile phones are already on the network, so it is relatively simple to share. The time between snapping a picture on my iPhone and sharing it with friends is measured in seconds. Compare that to the slow pace of taking the SD card out of my 50d, importing onto my computer and then uploading. This can take between hours and days. There is real value to the immediacy of sharing a moment with friends and family. Products like the fantastic Eye-Fi are an improvement for traditional point-and-shoots but they are playing catch up in this arena.
- This likely only appeals to nerds, but I love that my iPhone can provide geolocation information in the EXIF data. I really enjoy having a record of where my pictures were taken, but this may not be of mass appeal. Again, the Eye-Fi improves this for point-and-shoot cameras but lags the capabilities of my iPhone.
- The lens leaves a lot to be desired, as Duncan's comparison shows. The iPhone 3GS "tap-to-focus" and 3MP image are a step up, but shooting in low light conditions mostly yields poor results. Perhaps good enough to share with a friend, but likely to be blurry. Of course mobile cameras won't likely be ever used for fine art, but there is value to even technically flawed images.
Like the mobile phone itself, the mobile phone camera is often worse than the traditional alternatives but has a few killer features. It seems similar to the appeal of the instant Polaroid picture for a prior generation. And next up is video.