Professional and avid amateur photographers alike spend a lot of time and money obtaining the best cameras possible, often constrained only by the limits of their financial resources. I have seen more than one amateur photographer traveling with a huge bag stuffed with cameras, lenses, strobe flash devices, tripods, and more. However, my impression is that the more items you carry, the greater the likelihood of missing the best shots. By the time the photographer removes the needed equipment from the camera bag, connects everything together, and fiddles with the settings, the “spur of the moment” shot has passed. More than one “Kodak moment” has been missed because of the complexity of the camera equipment being used.
Of course, there is another problem: are you going to carry that heavy camera bag full of gadgets with you everywhere you go? Sure, you will carry it when you expect opportunities to arise, but what about those unexpected opportunities? Will you carry that camera bag to the grocery store? To the gas station? You never know when a picture opportunity will appear in front of you. Wildlife crossing the road, children at play, a beautiful sunset, an auto accident, and other “picture opportunities” will not wait until you can get your camera and accessories set up.
In fact, you probably have a very good camera, and there is a high probability that you are already carrying it with you everywhere. In fact, it is probably a better camera than anything you were using a few years ago.
Today’s smartphones not only take very good photographs, but they also capture video and will even record audio. Not bad for a tiny device that is almost always on your belt, in your pocket, or in your purse!
The camera that is built into the modern smartphone has many uses that a genealogist will find both helpful and convenient. You can use it to take digital photographs of original records when visiting a local county courthouse. You can also take pictures of pages in a book while at the library. Even better, you can find several OCR (optical character recognition) apps for iPhone and Android phones that will convert the text in those images into computer-readable text.
The same smartphone also will help you find courthouses or your great-grandparents’ homestead by using its internal GPS and a mapping program. You can even carry your entire genealogy database, including pictures and notes about source citations, with you at all times.
Of course, you can also use the same mobile device for dozens of other tasks: keep your agenda in a digital calendar, read and write email, surf the web for all sorts of purposes, measure your heart rate, keep your shopping list, keep your spouse’s clothing sizes for reference when buying gifts, check for lower prices of items you find in a store (by scanning the UPC code), manage your finances, avoid speed traps, store business cards, store important documents, record notes (either as text or as recorded audio notes), play music, watch movies, store recipes, set an alarm clock, scan a receipt for tax purposes, translate foreign language text, find nearby restaurants, stores, gas stations, and ATMs, tune a guitar, and play games. There are apps available for all these activities and many more.
Oh yes, your smartphone can also make telephone calls.
How good a camera is in your smartphone? Internal cameras in smartphones vary widely, but most of today’s units can take 8-megapixel pictures or better. If you wish to print photos, keep in mind that 300 pixels per inch (PPI) is widely accepted to be as sharp as the eye can see for photo prints. A 5×7-inch photo at 300 PPI weighs in at 3 megapixels while an 8-by-10-inch photo requires about 8 megapixels for good-looking prints.
In addition to the size and quality of the lens and sensor, there’s also the image processor to consider. However, the quality of image processing is much more difficult to measure. Most modern, high-end smartphones have dedicated graphics processors built into the processor chip. Since these processors are hardware-accelerated and not just software-dependent, they can quickly render images like photos, videos, and games without overtaxing the main application processor.
While the camera in your phone suffices for everyday pictures, you can get SLR-quality photos with the purchase of add-on adapters. Some companies offer adapters that let you use your camera lenses on the iPhone, and others offer their own lenses.
Of course, you are not limited to still photography. There are many ways to take advantage of your phone’s video and audio capabilities as well. A 20- or 30-second clip of a child blowing out birthday candles can be a priceless video to be shared for generations. Want to interview an older relative about his or her life and about long-deceased relatives they remember? Use the audio recording capabilities built into your phone. You may need an audio recording app, but dozens of those are available free or at very low cost in your phone’s app store. One of my favorites, the free Evernote app will record up to 2 hours in an audio note for free accounts and up to 4 hours for premium accounts.
In short, a smartphone is one of the best tools available for genealogists and millions of others alike. Best of all, this small package is normally close by, wherever you are.
If you are thinking of purchasing a new digital camera, I would suggest that you might instead invest in a higher quality smartphone than what you already have. The most expensive smartphones of today will usually cost less than the combination of a cheap cell phone and a good camera. With a good quality smartphone, you have all sorts of other applications available as well!
If you haven’t done so already, invest in a car charging kit to help make sure your phone is ready when you want to use it. These chargers cost ten to twenty dollars each and are available in thousands of retail outlets. A charger that plugs into your auto’s dashboard power connector is also great insurance for extended power outages, such as hurricanes, blizzards, and other disasters that can rip power lines and telephone lines off the street-side poles. An automobile battery can keep a cell phone powered on and operational for weeks, even when standard telephones are useless. I leave a charger cord in my automobile’s glove box all the time.
Besides the ability to make telephone calls whenever needed, a good smartphone ensures that you will always be ready to capture your family history as it’s being made.