When the first camera phones were introduced two years ago, I tried one. It's a joke, I thought, noting the fuzzy images on the handset screen. I figured few people would bother...

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When the first camera phones were introduced two years ago, I tried one.

It’s a joke, I thought, noting the fuzzy images on the handset screen. I figured few people would bother with such poor-quality photos, even if they could be sent directly to another camera phone, e-mail address or Web site. The public wouldn’t fall for such a lame camera.

Wow, was I wrong!

Customers bought 84 million camera phones last year, and Nokia predicts the number will more than double in 2004. This year, Sprint PCS customers alone sent 170 million photos in six months.

Camera-phone images have improved, though still characterized by their “soft focus.” Even so, numerous enthusiasts have launched Web sites to display phonecam images, and the little pictures have inspired a new photographic art form.

The principle behind phonecam art is that since the very low-resolution images can’t compete with standard camera images in technical quality, they don’t try.

Instead, phonecam photographers go for subject matter that evokes feelings, creates a mood, or illustrates the essence of a subject. They view soft focus as a means of expression rather than a flaw, and they take pictures on the fly, often grabbing fleeting images an ordinary camera can’t manage.

Sometimes they do try for sharp portrayal and sometimes they succeed, but mostly the results look like watercolor paintings rather than photographic records. So what’s bad about that?

Well, I’ve gotten used to it, and since I started using an Audiovox PM-8920 handset with a 1.3 megapixel camera from Sprint PCS, I’ve been attempting to create camera-phone art of my own. It’s an intriguing challenge.

The number of megapixels in a camera phone is increasing (1.3 megapixels is tops now, though 2 megapixels is in sight) so sharper photos will become possible, and we’ll see how that affects the developing art form.

Already one art gallery, Sixspace in Los Angeles, has recognized the artistic possibilities of phonecam images and hosted two exhibits since last July. To see them, go to www.sixspace.com. The gallery also maintains a rotating collection of publicly submitted phonecam images (www.sentonline.com/images.html).

Increasingly, people are sharing their phonecam photography through personal or public moblogs (short for mobile blogs, and blogs is short for Web logs).

At TextAmerica.com and Fotolog.net, for example, anyone can join for free and maintain a personal moblog as well as submit images for display on the welcome page.

Camera-phone photography has become so popular there’s even a book about it: “The Camera Phone Obsession,” by Peter Aitken (Paraglyph, $19.99). The book describes the current fascination with camera phones and offers Web sites and other specifics for readers who want to become involved.

Now, I ask you, are you one of the obsessed? Aitken suggests you may be if, for example, you’re halfway to a destination, realize you forgot your camera phone and turn around to get it — not because you don’t want to miss a call, but because you don’t want to miss a good photo.

A camera phone permits you to turn off all sounds and shoot secretly. That, of course, could get you in trouble, but it also may enable you to shoot without distracting the subject. If the phonecam’s always on and handy, you might even be able to catch shoplifters, vandals or other offenders in the act and report them with visual evidence.

Besides that, there are plenty of practical uses for an always handy phonecam, including taking pictures of items you want for Christmas and showing them to likely givers so there will be no mistake.

The major advantage of a camera phone is its capability to send pictures from the handset to any e-mail address, Web site or camera phone. You do have to pay the cellphone-service provider a little for each picture sent, or for a monthly service that covers photo sharing specifically, or general data transfer that includes text messaging, accessing the Internet, e-mail and other services.

You also can send photos to your computer for editing and printing, and some carriers enable you to order prints directly from the handset.

If you don’t want to send photos or pay for any extra service, you can save the pictures in the handset’s gallery to show others as an electronic brag book. In addition, you can assign a photo to be the phone’s screen saver and also assign photos to people in the phonebook, so when one of them calls, the assigned picture flashes on the screen.

Most camera-phone models include the ability to add text or voice captions to the pictures and some include flash, zoom and video capabilities. There are also differences in the quality of camera lenses and sensors.

If you’re interested, look carefully at the camera phones offered by your service provider before selecting the right one for you, or someone else this holiday season.

Write Linda Knapp at lknapp@seattletimes.com; to read other Getting Started columns, go to: www.seattletimes.com/gettingstarted.