Five Ways the Cell Phone Camera Has Changed the Way We Live

When I was a kid, I used to follow my dad around with a Kodak Instamatic he got me from a drugstore. He was the pro in the family, shooting photos for magazines and for himself. Like most shutterbugs, he had an ample collection of lenses and camera bodies. When I turned 12, he bought me my first real 35mm camera, a Nikon EM. I caught the bug like he did and soon I was shooting as much as him and improving by the day.

When digital photography arrived, I got a portable digital camera and went to work. The quality of the images was rather poor, but I loved the convenience. Eventually, I moved up to better cameras and found myself shooting hundreds of photos, some for money -- including quite a few for this publication -- and others for fun.

But, nothing has affected my photography the way that first Nikon did like the cellphone. And I say this with all seriousness, not just in passing. The sophistication of the cell phone camera is incredible and the convenience is undeniable. I will never give up pro cameras in favor of the cell phone, but my iPhone has become a part of my camera bag, just as my dad used to carry around an Olympus point and shoot film camera for times when lugging out the Nikon FG and a handful of lenses was a pain.

What's even more remarkable is how the sophistication and proliferation of the phone camera -- never mind all the apps that are out there to enhance the photos once they are taken -- has changed not only photography, but the way we live our daily lives.

5. Search by photos.

It used to be that when seeing a photo of something, unless there was a written description on the back or someone could tell you about it firsthand, the content of the photo was forever unknown. While that still may be mostly true of photos of people (facial recognition is even curing that problem to a degree), landmarks are easily identifiable through Google. Functions like Google Goggles which allow you to point your camera phone at, for example, the Statue of Liberty, and have it return all sorts of information about it as well as Google's "search by photo" function which will seek out any identical or similar photos to one you upload and solving the mystery photo problem for everyone.

4. Sharing our photos with others.

I remember when my parents would get back from a trip, there would be a long, arduous slide show that we all got to watch. Unfortunately, I was too young for alcohol or those may have gone more quickly. The dreaded family slide show is a thing of legend as were the litany of children and pet photos filling wallets and purses. Fortunately, with photo sharing websites like Flickr, apps like Instagram and photo galleries on Facebook, your friends can look through your photos at their leisure instead of yours. You still might have to avoid a friend swiping through her hundred photos of her tiny puppy at a bar, but that's on you.

3. Turning amateurs into pros, pros into amateurs.

I'll be the first to admit that I was always rather queazy about the use of filtered images. First, there were just the dreary self-portraits taken with old school film cameras that seemed to proliferate on Flickr and Polaroids of naked girls covered in chocolate that passed for art. Then, there was Hipstamatic and Instagram, the apps that turn your digital images into dirty-looking shots that appear as if they were birthed from a Holga found in someone's grandmother's attic. But, the filters are used less as the fad has faded and more and more people are using these apps to take really fantastic photos and treat them creatively. And pros are using these toy apps to expand upon their artistic repertoire. In truth, these are the same kind of creative tools pros used to use in darkrooms. They are just more easily accessible and that's a good thing.

2. Documenting our daily lives.

This might be the most fascinating aspect of having a camera in one's possession every day is the ability to document everything that happens. Sometimes, it can be inane and ridiculous, but in the hands of someone with an idea or creative spark, it can turn into something fascinating. As the video above (though that was taken with a webcam) illustrates, when a camera is available all the time, interesting things can happen and it can serve as a peek into the daily lives of ourselves in years gone by, which is a thousand times better and more convenient than a photo album.

1. Citizen journalism.

The first photos of US Airways flight 1549 that crash landed in the Hudson came from people with cell phones on a passing ferry, not from CNN or Reuters or some local news helicopter. While the beating of Rodney King may have been caught using a digital video camera, dozens of other photos and videos of violence -- some fascinating and poignant, others ridiculous and pointless -- litter the web and inform us of things we wouldn't see otherwise. As badly as the credibility of journalism has been damaged by biased news networks, self-promoting blogs and just plain bad reporting, everyday people are proving that a picture does say a thousand words and giving all of us an opportunity to shed light on the truth.

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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke