Objects in photo are smaller than they appearOne of the more ubiquitous examples of our advancing technology is the digital camera. The tiny light-gathering chips and associated circuitry have become so inexpensive that it's no longer a question of how much the consumer is willing to pay for a camera that's imbedded in some other electronic device, like a cell phone. Now, the question has more to do with the consumer's willingness to even consider a phone that is, for all practical purposes, stone blind.

The ability to capture images of our surroundings—of our lives, really—isn't a latent fascination, of course. It's just that the bulky film cameras used by our forefathers and foremothers to capture birthday parties and family vacations have morphed into sleek, pocketable digital cameras and camcorders, and their even sleeker phone-cam counterparts. Not that tiny cameras with tiny lenses represent the state of the art when it comes to image quality, but the tradeoff seems worthwhile because it eliminates the familiar you never have a camera when you need one whine. After all, it's pretty easy to stow a small, slim camera in a pocket, and the probability of Citizen X without his or her cell phone is statistically moot.

Unfortunately, the tinycam tradeoff isn't without its dark side. While resolution continues to improve, the fact remains that there's only so much you can do with a square inch of available real estate on a cell phone, or the similarly cramped dimensions of a pocket camera, especially when the overriding imperative is a competitive retail price. The combination of inexpensive optics—particularly when the focal length is fixed somewhere between wide-angle and fisheye—and miniature focal plane means that spectacular vista you snapped on your recent road trip may seem considerably less dramatic when viewed on the computer screen, or printed on paper. Worse, those candid portraits of yourself taken while holding the tinycam at arm's length may trigger bouts of melancholy over the bargelike dimensions of your own nose, as captured by that distortion-inducing wide lens.

Adolescence is tough already. Add the often unflattering effects of substandard optics combined with a lack of understanding about lens-induced perspective distortion, and those spontaneous glamour shots become catalysts of self-loathing, and the sudden desire for cosmetic surgery. When I received the following e-mail from my teenage daughter, I didn't even have to look at the attached photo to know there was impulsive close-up photography involved, with the zoom set wide.

Ok, this doesn't even look like me! AGH! Lol plus my eyes are all X-files.

She was right. It didn't look much like her, but that was because . . . well, you already know why. And yeah, the eyes were interesting, as they so often are when the pupils are wide open in a dimly lit room. Lol indeed. It's too late for this year's gift-giving, but I think the inexpensive cameras ought to carry warning labels about photographed objects being smaller, and far less distorted, than they appear. Or words to that effect.


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