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Friday, December 22, 2006

$10 Digital Camera—How Does It Perform?

by Ctein

Two posts ago I showed you the innards of this cheapo wonder. So can it make pictures?!

Well, yes, after a fashion. But first, some warnings.

• There's not enough smarts in this camera for it to look like a regular USB storage device, so you need special drivers to download the photos into your computer. The camera only comes with drivers that support recent flavors of Windows. Mac users are likely out of luck. I've had erratic results under Virtual PC. You ought to be able to use a Macintel that's booted into Windows.

• Photos are stored in 2 MB of SDRAM, which requires constant power. If anything interrupts the power to the camera, your photos are trashed. The RAM sucks down the AAA battery even when the camera's off. A fresh alkaline battery lasts at most three days, sometimes considerably less. Once it dies, forget about retrieving your photographs. I lost a helluva lot of photographs before I figured that out. I finally started getting reliable results when I got to the habit of downloading the photographs as soon as I got home after making the photographs, preferably the same day.

Remember to take the battery out of the camera as soon as you've successfully downloaded the photographs. Otherwise, it won't be very long before you've spent more on replacement batteries than the camera cost!

OK, finally we get to the photographs! I can't decide if they're really lousy or surprisingly good. Whatever, it's fun. My friends get a real kick out of seeing me with this. As I joke, "Yes, it looks just like a camera...only smaller."

You'll get best results with subjects that don't have a lot of important fine detail; a bit of sharpening can really help.

Pictures from the $10 digicam are helped by a bit of sharpening. On the left is the straight photograph; on the right it's been sharpened with Focus Magic. All the other photos in this column were sharpened using Focus Magic.

There are only 288 x 352 pixels to work with, and that ƒ/2.8 lens quality isn't going to cause Zeiss to lose any sleep, especially at the edges:

Fine detail is not this camera's forte, especially outside of the center of the field of view. Observe how smeared the Christmas lights are.

Photos taken in moderately bright light are pretty clean...

In medium bright light the $10 digicam does pretty well!

...although the sensor tends to blow out in direct sunlight. The camera does amazingly well under dim indoor light; the on-board circuitry just keeps upping the gain until you get a usable, albeit very noisy, image. I've had a lot of fun figuring out tricks for cleaning up those low-light photos.

I made this photo at a dimly-lit Christmas party. The $10 digicam amplified the signal enough to produce a decent exposure, but image noise went right through the roof and the color's awful (upper left). Figuring out how to clean up this photo was fun! First I upsampled it by 2X and ran it through Neat Image, which did an amazing job of eliminating the noise (upper right). Next I applied Digital ROC (lower right) to restore the color. Finally I used Focus Magic to restore the fine detail that Neat Image had smeared out (lower left). A masterpiece, no?

What's on my wish list for the next generation? How about non-volatile storage and a little LCD on the back so you can get some idea of what the picture looks like, since the camera's viewfinder is nearly nonfunctional?

The $10 digicam has a nearly-nonfunctional view finder. Composition is hit-or-miss; this one came out pretty close. It's really a shame there's no way to see what you're actually photographing until you get the camera home and plugged into the computer.

Happy holidays, and maybe you'll find of these little wonders stuffing your stocking!

Posted by CTEIN


Blogger Matt S said...

Fun maybe. But cost-effective? I don't think so. OK - so you bought a $10 camera, spent a few bucks more on batteries, then add in all of the software tools required to make the images presentable. I think you're into it for much more than $10.

8:08 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Quality looks very similar to what my camera phone is currently turning out. Wouldn't be too surprised if thats a similar sensor in there and about as good a lens.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Bruce M said...

As the comments in the previous article mentioned, this camera does not work with OS X.

For those looking for a camera like this that works in OS X, may I suggest Aiptek at They have a mini Pencam 1.3 for $10.00 and a Pencam Mega 1.3 for even less. These are 1.3 megapixel, manual focus cameras and they are very small, not much bigger than the Walgreen's camera.

I had the mini and it worked with macam software, which is free and easily findable on the web. Note that I gave the camera away and haven't tried this in a while, but it should still work. Also, Aiptek sells a lot of little cameras with only 640x480 resolution, be sure to pass those by and get the best! :-)

11:03 AM  
Blogger Brambor said...

Looks like Holga is still the undisputed champ.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Player said...

Happy Holidays to you Ctein!

It looks like you had fun with that little camera. I wasn't aware those cameras existed, so thanks for the heads up, too.

3:00 PM  
Blogger robert e said...

Does Pencam work as a standard USB drive? I found a Pencam gallery here:

8:50 PM  
Blogger Gary Gardiner said...

I've played with 352x288 cameras for several years. Been through several brand iterations but require that it always be this resolution. Went about six months where none existed at any of the discount store although I found two at CES on the final day. Since then they have become more common although the norm now seems to be higher resolutions for about the same amount of money.

7:49 PM  
Blogger Gary Gardiner said...

Just for the fun of it, I started a flickr group for this low-res camera. Let's see the work.

7:57 AM