Take your best shot

Ready, aim, fire with your phone

A pro packs only his BlackBerry Pearl and finds it shines at getting photos on the road

The antique truck was shot in the late afternoon on a rainy day.
The antique truck was shot in the late afternoon on a rainy day. (John Tlumacki / Globe Staff Photo)
Email|Print| Text size + By John Tlumacki
Globe Staff / November 25, 2007

On a recent weekend getaway I did something a photographer almost never does: I left my cameras at home.

The 35mm digital cameras I use for work weigh about five pounds each. Add a camera bag and that's another 10 pounds of gear. I wanted to be free of all that. I didn't even bring my small point-and-shoot camera.

Instead, as an experiment, I took my wireless handheld device, a BlackBerry Pearl, with its built-in camera. Its lens is the size of my parakeet's eyeball. Would this give me the quality shots I get from my other cameras?

My wife, Debee, and I headed for the quaint town of Brandon, Vt., about 15 miles east of Lake Champlain and 15 miles south of Middlebury. Scenic Route 7 passes through Brandon, and the Long Trail, the state's end-to-end hiking trail, is nearby at the Brandon Gap.

We stopped at the Falls of Lana off Route 53 near Lake Dunmore. This place is spectacular, with cascading falls, pools of churning water, and tree-lined cliffs. One look at the 100-foot waterfall brought out the cellphone. I worried about it slipping from my grip. The BlackBerry is small, only 3 1/2 inches tall and 2 inches wide. It doesn't have a strap and it can be slippery.

I liked the way the camera allowed me to look at a "live"

image on the 1 1/2-inch-square screen and compose the shot without looking through a viewfinder. Pretty soon I got used to pressing the shutter with my thumb, since the trackball in the middle of the keypad serves as the shutter release. I could hold the camera and take a photo easily with either hand and even hold it at arm's length over my head to get an aerial view.

Because I was so close to the edge of a cliff, I held onto a tree and framed the waterfall and cliffs by holding the phone about 3 feet in front of me. I positioned it upside-down, so that it touched the ground for a low-angle shot. I even put it close to the water using this method.

The BlackBerry's memory stores 100 photos taken at the superfine setting. An optional memory card holds even more.

The first night we ate at the Watershed Tavern in Brandon, where a waterfall formed the backdrop for our window view. I took a photo of the waterfall at dusk and another when it was dark, with very different results. The camera has an automatic shutter speed, and the lower the light the slower the image appears on the screen. You can see a slow-motion effect on the screen when you move the camera around. In daylight or under bright lights, this lag is hardly noticeable.

That slow-motion effect gave the waterfall a nice appearance of motion, similar to that achieved by a slow shutter speed on a regular camera. The nighttime photo was a bit artsy, or that's what I told myself after seeing the photo of Debee that I took using the camera's built-in flash. I would hardly call it a typical flash, though. A lighter would give off more light. Whether it's art or a disaster, I like the photo, and the more I blow it up on the screen, the more I see the mosaic pixels that compose it.

That's something to be concerned about with a cellphone camera. Results are not very good under low-light conditions, even if you use the flash. The images are grainy and barely usable. The camera must be held very still during the exposure. But I found that you can make some interesting blurred-motion photos by moving the camera side to side as you press the shutter. Also when it's dark, try pushing and pulling the cellphone with your arm hand during exposure. This creates another zoom effect.

The lens on the BlackBerry is sharp, with a large depth of field, which is the area of focus in photo-talk. I measured the area to be about 6 inches to infinity, amazing for a lens about equal to a 20mm lens on a 35mm camera, a wider angle lens than on any point-and-shoot camera. This depth of field means the user doesn't have to worry about focusing on the subject.

Under good lighting conditions, the color reproduction was close to real life. On a drive to Weston to visit The Vermont Country Store, the drab rainy day didn't diminish the colors of an antique pickup truck next to a red barn. I pulled out my BlackBerry and snapped the photo before the professional-looking photographer next to me had time to set the legs on his tripod. When we were inside sampling cheese while he was still making adjustments to his camera, I knew this camera phone thing was going to work.

Remember to take advantage of the BlackBerry's technology. When I had photos that I liked, I e-mailed them to my home computer. It's one thing to look at the small screen and try to judge the quality of your photos, but the true test would come later.

Back home, I opened the photos in Photoshop and resized the images. The originals were 3.75 megabytes at 72 dpi (dots per inch). That would have been the norm for 35mm digital cameras 10 years ago. I resized the images to 254 dpi, which gave me 8-by-10-inch photos at 14 megabytes. This technical stuff is good to know if you do your own printing.

The photos can also be burned to a CD and printed at a camera store.

The photos looked good on the computer screen. I did a little work on them in Photoshop, adding a bit of saturation and adjusting the color balance. Considering the BlackBerry Pearl has a 1.3-megapixel camera, and most point-and-shoot cameras average 6-to-7 megapixels, the results were quite good. The photos were sharp, and it wasn't until I enlarged them on the screen that the pixels began to show.

The ultimate test was making a print. Using my Epson printer, I made some full-frame, 8-by-10 prints. Some looked as if they were taken with my work cameras.

Now I know I can comfortably take my cellphone camera wherever I go and get pleasing results.

John Tlumacki can be reached at

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