Selfie delusions – the quest for good front-facing cameras on cell phones

Figure 1 - IPhone 4S image taken with the low resolution front-facing camera. (c) DE Wolf 2014.

Figure 1 – IPhone 4S image taken with the low resolution front-facing camera. (c) DE Wolf 2014.

Why does the Nokia Lumina cellphone offer a honking 41 mega pixel camera on the back and only a 1.2 megapixel front facing camera.  That’s the one you use for all those important selfies.  Remember that the selfie is the new self-expression medium.  So this is important people.  And why is this what all the cell phone companies do?  Well you’re not going to get an answer.  It has become one of those great rhetorical questions like: what is the meaning of life and why is there air?

Fortunately, New York Times reporter Molly Wood has posted a very entertaining and informative video “Your Best Selfie” to answer the next best question: what cellphone gives you the best selfie?  And since she’s done a nice side by side, apples and apples comparison you can weigh in with your own opinion.  Ms. Wood compares the IPhone 5S with its 1.2 megapixel camera, the Nokia Lumina also 1.2 megapixels the Samsung Galaxy S4 at 2 megapixels, and the HTC One with its 2.1 megapixels.


Figure 2 – IPhone image taken with higher resolution rear-facing camera. (c) DE Wolf 2014

Ms. Wood correctly points out that it’s not all about the number of megapixels.  This agrees with all that we have said here about image sharpness.  There’s also optics and sensor quality as well as focusing accuracy.  For my mind there’s also the ability of the camera to accurately judge the white balance.  I mean you can do it yourself, but who wants to do that.  I find that warm orange glow of incandescent light kind of soporific and yucky.

Ms. Wood disses the consistency of the IPhone 5S.  I’m not so hard on it.  But her winner for the best selfie sharpness and color is the HTC One, with the Nokia Lumina being the runner up.  Look at the pictures that she shows and I think that you will agree.

I also decided to do a little testing myself.  Figure 1 was taken with my IPhone 4S’s low resolution front-facing camera – not so great.  Figure 2 was taken with the rear-facing 8 megapixel camera – better but still less than I like.  I decided to leave the glare in the pictures.  It’s a common problem with my IPhone.  Yes, it’s due to the overhead lighting, but my Canon T2i would do a much netter job dealing with it.  And ultimately that’s why we sepend big bagels on cameras.  Both of these selfies could use a lot of improvement.  I have not yet tried out the newer versions of the IPhone or other cellphone cameras myself yet.  But Molly Wood does a pretty nice job in her video.

The thing is that a cellphone is becoming much more than a wireless on the go telephone. People use it to surf the web and take pictures.  A selfie photography with the front facing camera is becoming more and more a popular sport.  So the important question, of course, is when will the industry respond to the user.  I mean cellphones are already growing in size suggesting that two points: first that the initial read about the market that smaller and smaller would always be better and second that people just don’t like squinting at their cellphones.  Makes one wonder if we will retro-evolve (retrovolve?) back to the Maxwell Smart shoe-phone size cellphone all the way back to “Hey why don’t we put this baby on the desk?”

This entry was posted in Technical Aspects of Photography.


  1. Carmen Danforth February 13, 2014 at 3:10 am #

    Phew! It’s good that the tendency (of taking pics of oneself) has finally acquired a name. I was doing it for while just did not think it meant anything. Is it because of…? Maybe ’cause we’re visual people and written diaries are just not sufficient any longer, or….

    • David Wolf February 13, 2014 at 12:17 pm #

      Carmen, I think the why is a pretty profound question. New media, I believe, ups the ante and expands our ability to express ourselves. It also enables wider and more rapid dissemination of the message – whatever that is. What gets really interesting is the question of longevity. We have this false sense that posting something or creating a digital record is some how permanent. And compared to a single paper copy of say a journal maybe it is. But it can be erased forever in an instant. Additionally printing on paper has survived for 500 years, writing for millennia. We can pick up a five hundred year old manuscript and read it as if it were written yesterday. In contrast, last year I dumped all of these 8 inch floppy disks that I had because I have no way of reading them. Punch cards, paper tape, magnetic tape, floppy disks, zip drives, CD’s; the rate of media change is astounding. And the permanence of all of them is highly questionable. I heard a lecture once from a curator at the Smithsonian. It is a serious question how to preserve our digital records: images and texts, for posterity. Still I do believe that in years to come there will be people who collect the selfies of the present, because what medium better expresses how we see to want to see ourselves. David