Your smartphone camera can be a practical tool

This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

Everywhere I go I see people using their cellphones to take pictures of themselves, people around them or interesting things that they encounter. But your phone’s camera can also be a practical tool. I use my smartphone camera for all sorts of things that no one would ever consider a “Kodak moment.”

For example, I have a tendency to lose receipts — especially for small items like a tax deductible or reimbursable taxi ride or a meal. Now instead of stuffing a receipt into my wallet, I take a picture of it with my phone and email it to myself as a reminder to submit it later for reimbursement or copy into my tax records. There are apps for photographing, sorting and tracking receipts like OneReceipt, Shoeboxed and SmartReceipt, but I just stick to emailing them to myself.

I also photograph my airline boarding passes, which I’ve occasionally had to submit to get frequent flier credit. Just snap a picture of the boarding pass before takeoff and you’re all set in case you need to email it to the airline.

I also do this with claim checks for luggage or parking. Rather than take a chance of not finding them, I snap a picture and leave it in my phone for later retrieval.

And I use my phone sometimes to record where I park by taking a picture of street signs at a nearby intersection. When I rent a car, I take a picture of its license plate or maybe the car itself, so I can find it later, lest I forget what I’m driving that day.

A couple of years ago I visited Moscow, where everything, including the names of subway stations, is written in Cyrillic script, making it hard for foreigners like me to distinguish one sign from another. As I boarded the train near my hotel, I was afraid I’d have no idea what station to return to. So I snapped a picture of the sign and, sure enough, had to show it to a helpful local, who was kind enough to tell me how to get back there from Red Square.

The other day I helped my wife pick out a pair of eyeglasses. She’s nearly blind without them so when trying out frames with no prescription lenses, she had no way to see how she looked in them. So I snapped her picture with her phone and showed her how she looked. After a few minutes, she narrowed her choice down to a few pairs, but still couldn’t decide, so she emailed the finalists to friends and family members, who helped her make the final decision. A few years ago, I let my Facebook friends vote on which eyeglasses to buy and wound up with some good advice.

I also use the phone to help with home improvement projects. I once took a picture of my kitchen to send to a contractor so he could put some thought into a remodeling project before he got here. We’re thinking about replacing our driveway with pavers and when we see a driveway we like, we snap a picture.

A phone can also help when it comes to health care. A few years ago my wife developed an odd looking rash as we were traveling in Europe. I snapped a picture of it and sent it to a physician friend in San Francisco, who diagnosed it and recommended an over-the-counter cream that took care if it. Just last month, my son complained about a strange looking mark on his hand and sent me a picture. As it happened I had a dermatologist appointment that day and got a twofer. After she took care of my problem, I showed the doctor the picture of my son’s hand and she correctly told me that it was nothing to worry about. Not all doctors, by the way, would be willing to give medical advice based on pictures due to their own hesitations, licensing issues and rules established by the clinics and hospitals they are affiliated with.

A phone can even help you avoid legal trouble. When I was in New Orleans, I was approached by a person who claimed I backed into his car and demanded payment for damages to his front grill. I knew he was lying, so I got out my camera phone and took pictures of his car and the back of my rental car, which had no blemishes at all, making it obvious that I couldn’t have backed into him. He walked away and never followed up with a claim.

My phone also came in handy after a real, but thankfully, minor car accident. I used it to take a picture of the other person’s driver’s license and insurance card and to document the damage to both cars. I also emailed him a picture of my driver’s license. The pictures didn’t get the dents out of the cars, but they did help take the wrinkles out of setting our insurance claims.