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Johnny Wilson
  • Johnny Wilson

Playing around with the camera on an old feature phone

Updated: Jan 14, 2021

Nowadays if you carrying around a Smartphone in your pocket, chances are you also carrying a highly powerful, very capable compact camera. Certain reviews are even going as far as to claim the latest iPhone, the iPhone X, is on par with a DSLR! Personally I wouldn't quite go that far... but technology is racing faster and faster and dual lens cameras are the latest innovation on Smartphones and are becoming more common place in recent times, allowing the user to switch between 2 different focal lengths, or introduce a faux digital bokeh effect to images. Huawei has an established partnership with Leica and their latest flagship phone at time of writing: the P20 Pro has a stunning Leica lens reinforced camera. In 2018 Smartphone manufacturers are putting real pressure on compact camera manufacturers to offer something that makes them worth buying in addition to owning a Smartphone...But that wasn't always the case!

My brother recently had a clear out and was going to get rid of this, his old phone: a Sony Ericsson w200i. That's a photo of it above. I could pivot to a tech blog for the moment and give a brief history of the Sony Ericsson partnership but I'll save that for another occasion! I said I'd have it if he was going to throw it away to experience that nostalgia of playing around with very early feature phone camera technology! I'm old enough to remember the golden age of Nokia, one of my first phones was a Nokia 3330, and cameras didn't really start featuring on the backs of phones until well after the millennium. The first phone I had with a camera was a Sagem MyX-7 back in 2006 and having a camera on the back of your phone was a real novelty. For a lot of kids my age it would have been our first experience at carrying around and using a camera. The w200i came much later, in 2009, but was a budget model for it's time and it has a 0.3 megapixel VGA camera that captures photos at 640x480 pixel resolution with a 4x digital zoom. It also captures video in 3GP format at 176x144 pixels. Nowadays it's obviously antiquated; I have an Alcatel Pixi 3 which literally cost me 79p brand new, off the shelf, and even that came with a 5 megapixel camera and recorded 720p video! (Maybe I'll blog about that one day?) But I thought it would be fun to see what an old budget feature phone was capable of in retrospect to today's technology. I carried it around for about 2 weeks and took some photos and recorded some video to get a gauge of how it performed. All of the images below have not been resized or edited in any way. I took all of these photos on the "Fine" picture quality setting at "Large" picture size which is 640 x 480 pixels. None of them used the digital zoom function.

So how did it handle things? Well not bad actually! Certainly better quality photos than the ones I took with the tiny Praktica Micropix which was produced about 4 years earlier. It's not great by any stretch of the imagination, there is a high degree of digital grain in every photo which I attribute to the tiny sensor, and high level detail gets lost in a blurry mess (like the licence plate of the ice cream van above) but again, small resolution sensor. Using the phone camera at night was out of the question, as there was no built in flash (I don't know if they were common place in higher end models in 2009?), and any kind of real low light just resulted in a grainy, incomprehensible mess, but using it indoors produced a reasonably good photo. That being said it doesn't like extremely bright sun light at all. I took this Burger King sign photo at the height of midday and the high light levels have really messed with the exposure on the image.

Other photos I took that I deleted were just white blurry messes if there was a degree of very strong light in the photo. The colour balance is also slightly off, but only slightly and generally speaking the reproduction of colours is pretty decent. Except in the image above obviously! Saturation however is very muted, even in bright light it feels muted. Exposure to strong sunlight also threw the contrast slightly off which is a bit more evident in the next few photos below but again, small sensor syndrome. It was worse if there was a very bright area in your photo, and a strong light source in front of the lens destroyed any exposure completely, just flooding it with white light.

But for all it's faults, actually carrying it around and using it from day to day was a very hassle free experience. The compact nature of the phone meant it slipped into pockets easily, even that little pocket within the pocket you get with denim jeans and stuff, and it was so lightweight it could be stuffed away and forgotten about quite easily. The lens was super wide angle, I don't know the equivalent focal length exactly but it was comparable to the 28mm focal length of my Olympus Pen EE-3, so I would put it somewhere around the 28mm focal length with a degree of adjustment on either side to be cautious. Certainly if you pointed it at something you were going to get most of that object in frame, and even though the front LCD is tiny, you can just about make out your composition on the screen providing you aren't in an area with very high sunlight glaring off the screen.

It is never going to function as a replacement to your compact camera, even at the time of it's release in 2009, but if you wanted the convenience of having this tiny little telephone in your pocket that also had a camera to take a recognizable photo of something you could send to somebody, it could do that for you. By 2009 cameras on phones were more common place, and the w200i was what we would probably call an entry level budget phone in nowadays jargon. It didn't boast the most powerful camera that Sony Ericcson was packing in it's phones of the era but it was certainly there and certainly capable of taking a photo at a good sized resolution during daytime hours that you could practically use for something.

I also played around with the video recorder, and as mentioned earlier the w200i records video in .3gp format at 176x144 pixels so when extracting it from the phone and rendering it in a modern, friendly format I took great care when converting to stick to the original quality and frame rate. The montage video below was comprised of clips converted to .mp4 format retaining the 176x144 resolution and 9fps of the original .3gp videos. The montage video was then rendered using the same perimeters so this is as absolutely close to the original video recordings as I could get it. All of that being said, in order to display it to you, I've had to host it on Youtube, and the frame has been resized, most likely to YouTube's minimum requirements, so there is a degree of stretching and blurring in the below example:

The above accounted for, I cannot sugarcoat the video camera... the quality is awful. The Youtube hosted video has been upscaled slightly, but even in my original video, It's sometimes difficult to even distinguish what is actually being recorded, and any kind of troubling condition: low light levels, high light levels, fast moving objects, is going to cause you problems. The microphone is also very basic so sound is very low quality, very tinny and not much use at all. It's obvious that video recording on phones was in it's infancy at this point, and I understand that having the ability to capture any kind of moving image with accompanying sound was a groundbreaking development at the time, but the quality of the recording was just not in a fashion that would make it usable, or practical for any application. Short of recording little clips as memories there wasn't much else you could do. And I wouldn't recommend that to be honest. In my montage above you can barely recognize anything happening on the street or around the water fountain! And the loud chimes of the bell messed with the phones internal microphone slightly.

So the w200i is not for recording video, but so long as you avoid high levels of light exposure, and don't take it out at night, you can certainly get photos with it that will at least be detailed enough to comprehend what it is you were trying to photograph. Photos that have a certain low quality, low fi charm to them (for some people!) that you got with early digital camera technology. Since typing this review I found an option to apply effects to both photos and videos so I plan on toying with it some more to see what other awful low resolution masterpieces I can create with it!

2009 was a simpler time, we didn't have Snapchat or Instagram, there wasn't any front facing cameras or built in... well anything! But there was a certain kind of magic in carrying around a small compact camera in your pocket at all times that you could use for any occasion to snap a quick photo to share with friends. And I have no doubt that this early technology paved the way for the aforementioned photo sharing websites and the convenience of having a camera on you at all times opened up the art of photography to a whole new audience. And whether or not you agree on if that is a good thing or not, there is no argument that putting a camera on a phone back then made photography a whole lot more accessible to more people and Photography as an art is now enjoying the benefits of that with the film resurgence going strong and more and more innovative ways to share photos online becoming more commonplace.

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