Sony Ericsson K800i mobile phone v Canon 350D v Canon 5D Mark II
[published july 2006]

Everyone needs a day off. What better to refresh a palette jaded by the testing of $2000 optical exotica than to put a free camera phone through its paces.

Seriously, though, the 3.2MP Sony Ericsson K800i is a breakthrough gadget that could – indeed, should – impact on the low-end point-and-shoot market like a brick on a greenhouse.

For some time many have questioned the folly of the megapixel wars: boffins lament the lack of attention to dynamic range and adequate flash performance; others highlight the importance of ‘per-pixel sharpness’. My objections have been pragmatic and summable with one question: how big do you need the print?

In response, most pro’s will regale you with a billboard tale; everyone else will point you to an framed A3 on the wall – at best.

Today, the vast majority of captured images never make it to hard copy. I’m not going to get sidetracked into debate over whether or not this is a Tragedy, but I’d lay short odds that somewhere in your house there is a box or drawer stuffed with cherished prints – little, photographic memories. And I’d lay even shorter odds that very few of them are bigger than 7×5 inches.

For amateurs and professionals alike, usage patterns haven’t changed for a century: if you’re serious about the shot, you capture it with the best gear you can use, afford, or carry. But when the purpose of your journey is more than merely taking pictures, you tote the most Convenient Tool. And once in a while, almost accidentally, you capture something special with your Convenient Tool – and you enlarge the print and you put it on the wall and everyone marvels at how great it looks considering you didn’t shoot it with a ‘proper’ camera.

From 2006 onward – specifically, from this phone on – I submit that the mobile phone is at last a credible candidate for the title of Most Convenient Tool for image capture.

Remember this? In July 2001, the Canon EOS 1D was a hot camera. Every image captured in its beautifully sculpted body measured a giddy 2464 x 1648 pixels. There was a preview screen on the back that crammed 120,000 pixels into two inches so you could see what you’d shot (almost) straight away. And you could change ISO from shot-to-shot – imagine that! At the time, Luminous Landscape was probably quite right to exclaim: “There’s no doubt that the 1D is worth . . . $5,500”.

In July 2006, a Sony Ericsson K800i dropped through my letterbox. It shoots images of 2048 x 1365 pixels, and has a 2 inch live preview TFT screen – with 262,000 pixels. It has a 35mm f2.8 prime lens, autofocus, internal storage for 80 images, a Xenon flash and IS (Image Stabilising). And it was free.

The fact that it shoots video; presents films; receives FM; marshalls a library of 300 MP3s; plays games; accesses the web; retrieves email; runs Java; vibrates; is a calendar, stopwatch, organiser, alarm clock, calculator, database, jukebox – and phone – is a bonus in something that weighs less than a pancake lens.

At the time of writing (at least until the Nokia N93, with its Zeiss zoom lens, becomes available), this is pretty much the best camera phone money can buy – or, in my case, not: because it was free with my 02 contract. If you really want to know all about it, here’s Sony’s developer white paper.

Up against it in this comparative test are the 8MP Canon 350D with the 18-55mm kit lens, and the 13MP full frame Canon 5D with the excellent Tamron 28-75mm f2.8.

The aim of the game here is to produce the best possible 7×5 inch print from each camera, with corresponding framing and depth of field. In the case of the K800i that meant shooting at f2.8; the grown-ups were at f8. To retain the bigger sensors’ advantage, colour correction and sharpening were performed on the highest resolution captures, then downsampled using Photoshop Bicubic Sharper for maximum quality.

To reiterate: for 90% of all the photographs ever taken, the production of a 7×5″ print is the only meaningful assessment made of a camera’s imaging performance.

This, then, is how they compare . . . .