Compact Cameras and the Threat of Camera Phones

Discussion in 'Open Gear Talk' started by ZDP-189, Apr 18, 2011.

  1. ZDP-189

    ZDP-189 Twitter: <a href="http://twitter.com/#!/ZDP189">@Z

    64
    Apr 18, 2011
    I am a great lover of compact cameras. There is no better camera than the one you are carrying in that fleeting photographic moment. Whereas only the truly hardcore photographer would go about his daily life with a large camera hanging about his neck, anyone can carry a compact camera that produces images of a comparable quality. However, today this role is being usurped by the mobile phone. The ubiquitous iPhone has taken over as the most popular phone on Flickr, and compact cameras are contributing less and less images. Every industry pundit and his dog have piled on the bandwagon spouting quotes like “The point & shoot commits seppuku”.

    I think that’s short-sighted and unimaginative. From a compact cameras fan’s perspective, the future is dazzlingly bright. Compact cameras are not heading to extinction, they are simply evolving. In any population with no challenges, the constituents get fat and lazy. Predatory pressure from the pack of iPhone wolves improves the stock by bumping off the sick and elderly and forcing the herd to improve and diversify. So while we may soon see the demise of the generic entry level small sensor camera, we’re also seeing a flourish of exciting camera developments.

    Premium digital compacts with fast zoom lenses and generous 1/1.7” sensors, like the Lumix LX series and the PowerShot G, first caught the attention of pros and enthusiasts, and now it seems every well heeled amateur carries one to their kids’ birthday parties and school event. The segment has gone from strength to strength and today has strong competition from all the major brands. Capabilities and feature sets are getting better at an astonishing pace. There is no way that these cameras will be challenged by mobile phones. A mobile phone has many components on common with a camera, but a large sensor, fast zoom lens and reasonably powerful flash take up so much room that the phone would be almost unpocketable. Take the G12 and P7000 for example. Many people resort to neck strap carry as it is.

    What gets me all jiggly with enthusiasm are the new super prime compacts. These are cameras with DSLR-sized sensors and fixed prime lenses. First there was the Sigma DP1, then the Leica X1 and now the FinePix X100. These cameras seriously challenge consumer DSLRs for quality and beat some pro level DSLRs of only a generation or so ago. Their controls and shooting style is more suited to a seasoned old-school photographer than the G12’s of this world which, let’s be honest, are shot predominantly in full auto mode. Another interesting trend is none these cameras use an anti-aliasing filter and so out-resolve cameras that do. Of course, they cost more than Steve Jobs’ liver and few people own them, but competition and progress will eventually bring the price of super prime compacts down to attainable, if perhaps not affordable, levels.

    The other disadvantage to the super prime compacts is they’re now no longer compact. They’ve reached the size of a 70’s rangefinder and they’re bigger than some mirrorless cameras. I can live with that. My X100 still fits in my jeans pocket and beats every camera I own bar the ungainly 5D Mark II. I can also live without interchangeable lenses which are largely a waste of time and pocket space. I can certainly live without the myriad of adapters that turn legendary film lenses into blurry teles.

    Besides this trend to bigger sensors, we’re going to see a lot more niche compact cameras. There’ll be more offering stereo, high speed video, projectors and the special-effect du jour. As long manufacturers struggle to differentiate a product, they’ll be made, and as long as they don’t cost too much or take up too much room in the dry cabinet, they’ll sell.

    Instead, what manufacturers should be doing is simplifying and stripping. They should make cameras that give control back to the user. Not controls buried neck deep in animated touch screen menus, not nostalgic looking but dysfunctional lens barrel control rings, but real, directly coupled buttons, knobs and dials. Open source firmware and user-settings that can be saved on SD cards would be the answer to many prayers. Imagine a digital Canonet, Olympus XA or Rollei 35, etc. and a pocket full of cards marked “Kodachrome 200”, “Velvia 50 (ISO 400)” and “Super Presto push +2”. Retro styling is strictly optional but inevitable.

    In the mainstream, we can expect convergence and connectivity. I have long wished for a worthy compact camera with a phone feature, as opposed to a phone with a camera feature. Yes, Sony, Nokia and iPhone make fine daylight pictures and the new Pentax LG L-03C certainly looks the business, but these camera phones only stack up well against other phones. We have yet to see a model that excels in the company of 1/1.7” luxury compacts. I can live without pointless apps; I cannot live without a decent lens and sensor.

    This doesn’t mean that a connected camera would necessarily make a good camera. A phone, especially one that facilitates image upload to social networking sites, needs not only number buttons but a keyboard or a big fat touch screen and that’s a big shift in priority away from the camera’s function. It also doesn’t mean that good cameras need to have a phone built in to achieve connectivity. Eye-Fi cards have already added some degree of connectivity, but it really wouldn’t take much for cameras to add Bluetooth connectivity and a remote control and sync-app for the phone. Some cameras already do this, but none that I am aware of are good cameras. For now we ‘serious’ photographers can make do with swapping a memory card over or waiting till we get to a computer.

    If high quality camera phones really are the future, I am sure we can expect to pay a premium. I remember the original iPhone launch when Steve revealed the pricing calculation was that the new iPhone should be equal to the price of a iPod, plus a phone, plus a PDA. It needn’t be that way if they would just abandon their megapixel wars. Most internet forums and social media limit pictures to 600-640 pixels on the longest side. Flickr’s medium format is 640 pixels on the longest side. Nobody want to upload or download big images. Why not just limit the resolution to a reasonable number? A typical tiny camera phone sensor is 1/2.5”. To give an extreme example, a 640x480 resolution would give a pixel pitch of twice the area of the 5D Mark II. You could wave good bye to diffraction limits and noise. You could add a stunning 28mm or 35mm F/1.4 prime lens without it being too big. The near limit of hyperfocal focusing at a wide open aperture would be as close as six feet away. Best of all, it would be cheap to make.

    It sounds like my vision of the future of compacts and camera phones has no clear direction and that’s the point of this article. We’re going to see a complete spectrum of products, with every degree of connectivity and capability, to suit every pocket in size and price. We will be spoilt for choice. The future of compact cameras remains brighter than ever.

    Dan​


    _____________________

    Dan has been a lifelong avid photographer and is a long-term small camera enthusiast. I follow Dan's daily insightful and entertaining Twitter coverage of all things photography and photo-gear related. You can find Dan on Twitter: @ZDP189. -Amin
     
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  2. Unregistered

    Unregistered Guest

    Thought-provoking article, Dan. It's interesting that the mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras are mostly menu-driven catering to the mass market (eg, NEX, GF2), while the fixed-lens options - what you call super prime compacts - are more tailored to the enthusiast (knobs, dials, direct controls).
     
  3. linkedit

    linkedit SC Rookie

    19
    Nov 7, 2010
    Morris County, NJ
    The days of the low end point and shoot digital camera are numbered. It has been replaced by the camera phone. Especially now since the "standard" price for a smart phone has become $199.

    I was recently at my kid's little league opening day, there were about 2 or 3000 people there. I saw more people shooting with their iPhones, Droid X's, Incredibles, etc. than I saw point and shoots.
     
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  4. Well my phone has a camera in it and it is a crap camera. I won't be happy with the cameras in phones until they are of a similar quality of my Olympus E-P1 or Nikon D90.
     
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  5. ajramirez

    ajramirez SC All-Pro

    Jul 9, 2010
    Caguas, Puerto Rico
    Antonio
    I fully agree. I recently attended my son´s pin ceremony at his school, and I would say people taking pictures with their phones outnumbered camera users by at least 20 to 1. Out of the at least 200 parents in attendance, I was the only one shooting with a DSLR. Mind you, the hall was large and not very well lit, which is not the ideal setting for camera phone, or even low end point and shoot camera usage.

    I think ease of uploading photos to the internet is the key factor for the popularity of camera phones. Most non-enthusiasts are unwilling to go through the trouble of downloading their photos to their computer at the end of the day, and then upload them to their favorite social site, for a bit better picture quality.

    Regards,

    Antonio
     
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  6. Pelao

    Pelao SC All-Pro

    Jul 11, 2010
    Ontario, Canada
    Stephen
    It's may be worth considering the nature of the photographs being made with phones.

    In my experience, most of these images are snapshots: family, social occasions are something attractive people want to capture. As always, they want to share those images with friends and family. It's truly wonderful that we can now take shots of reasonable quality and share them right away: they can be sent individually, uploaded to an album or shared via social media. Sharing life as it happens. And the latest phones have a quality that is 'good enough' for most such uses.

    The other observation I would make is that I have never before seen so many very capable cameras on the loose. Basic DSLRs, with kit lenses, are at price points close to that of compacts 6 or 7 years ago. Whether or not these cameras are being used 'properly', or in anything other than Auto, are questions that may be beside the point.

    Many people have increasingly good communications / camera devices available all the time. Quite a few also have DSLRs or advanced compacts. Most have some sort of electronic communication. To my minds this means more photographs with meaning for someone, being shared with others, than ever before. Very cool.

    I don't think this has any negative impact on those who photograph professionally or as an enthusiast.
     
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  7. ajramirez

    ajramirez SC All-Pro

    Jul 9, 2010
    Caguas, Puerto Rico
    Antonio
    As a post script to my post above, the pin ceremony took place last Friday morning. My wife (who is a very competent photographer) also took pictures with her iPhone. She immediately uploaded her best shots to Facebook, for grandparents and other friends and relatives to enjoy. Meanwhile, I have yet to even download my shots to the computer, much less begun any PP work. Grandparents appreciate not having to wait days (or even weeks as in my case) to see pictures of their grandchildren's significant moments. :smile:
     
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  8. Andrewteee

    Andrewteee SC All-Pro

    Jul 8, 2010
    At least in the realm of the smart phones the photography apps are really fun. A few cameras have such filters, but nothing as creative and interesting as the smart phone apps (in my case an iPhone). The iPhone is my business travel journal camera. I can take pictures along the way and share them as I go (and it's a great way to unwind when on the road for work).
     
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  9. ZDP-189

    ZDP-189 Twitter: <a href="http://twitter.com/#!/ZDP189">@Z

    64
    Apr 18, 2011
    Hi, I'm Dan, the OP. Amin approached me on Twitter and I agreed to write a series of thought provoking articles on compacts and photography.

    Thanks everybody for the welcome and comments. I agree that whether a camera phone can replace a compact camera in your pocket depends on your requirements and workflow. Sharing daily happenings and creating art are very different tasks.

    On topic but barely ... a mother of my kid's classmate complained to me at the PTA ball that she hated being photographed as cameraphones made her look like a hag, but their ubiquity left her with nowhere to hide. First I told her the trick - gently shake your head if the light is low and your face becomes an unrecognisable blur. Then I showed her my candid taken with a 'proper' camera that caught her at the right angle, well lit with a natural expression and she was delighted. The secret of the photo was not with the camera, nor necessarily the photographer, but the self conscious expression and unflattering pose that she presented the camera whenever she was threatened with a photo. Of course she ascribed it all to the camera and declared she was going shopping for one like mine the next day!
     
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  10. Andrewteee

    Andrewteee SC All-Pro

    Jul 8, 2010
    Dan, Great article and thanks for sharing your perspectives. For some people the distinction above may hold true, but for many serious amateur photographers I'd bet daily life and art converge. At least for me that holds true. Though I have my more serious art projects most of my photography time is family oriented since we have young kids and I have little free time. So "artfully" capturing the daily lives of our family is a main goal of mine. And isn't most documentary photography about "artfully" capturing daily life within the context of a theme or topic?

    That said, at my kids birthday parties the wife just wants a bunch of pictures of them and the guests. So while I try to capture more interesting shots most pictures are simply taken to capture the moments, art or not.

    I'm just curious why you draw a line between daily happenings and an artistic vision?
     
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  11. BBW

    BBW Administrator Emeritus

    Jul 7, 2010
    betwixt and between
    BB
    Dan, I'm sitting here smiling and chuckling with recognition at the comment from the woman who complained that the camera phones' photos "made her look like a hag" because I've said that myself - and very recently!:eek: I can't blame the photo of myself that was hag-like on a camera phone, alas, but I can blame it on lighting.:biggrin:

    I really enjoyed reading your take on the "threat" of camera phones and your excitement about the new ground that has been and is being broken.
    Though I haven't owned or tried the Sigma, I've always been swept away by many of photographs I've seen with this camera and the DP2 in the hands of a number of photographers... I did have the Leica X1 and am waiting, breathlessly, for the long awaited arrival of my own Fuji X100. My interests in these cameras is exactly for the reasons you've enumerated - I don't want to dive into menus, push, push and click and whirl dials! Give me simplicity or give me death - well so to speak - but I know you know what I mean because I read your piece and got a big smile on my face as I did.
    And then there's the camera with a phone concept which is, no doubt, in our future. As you said, the future is very bright and we'll end up with so many choices that our heads may spin! I'd say there are already crowds of spinning heads out there.

    I finally bit the bullet and bought a "smart phone", I chose the iPhone since I'm ensconced in Mac world...and I do have to admit to enjoying the little camera. I've been having some fun with some of the hipstamatic effects, I must admit. It kind of reminds me of my old, long lost, Diana.

    You're right, the future is bright and filled with possibilities. I'm glad to read your thoughts and look forward to reading more, Dan. Thanks so much for coming on to Serious Compacts!

    P.S. Andrew, I'm sorry I missed your remarks before I wrote this in response to Dan's first post. I think you must know that I agree with you about finding art and daily life enmeshed in images.
     
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  12. soundimageplus

    soundimageplus SC Top Veteran

    578
    Jul 6, 2010
    I enjoyed the piece too. Thinking about it, I think the camera phone issue has a good and bad side. On the good side, the photographic industry may stop this crazy proliferation of models at all price points and concentrate on fewer products with better quality. The downside of course is if people use their improving phone cameras more and more, the manufacturers who don't have the tie-ins with the phone companies will loose sales and therefore we may not get the innovation and product range at the level we would like.

    Its often said that Nikon, Canon & Sony and I presume most of the others make most of their money from the compact end of the market. If this income goes, then just how much will a DSLR end up costing? Though other factors could stop this getting ridiculous - different materials, cheaper components etc.

    There's probably not a lot we can do about it, but it is encouraging to see picture-taking and picture-sharing becoming such a part of daily life. In a way though, I don't want things to get too easy and people to get too good at it, otherwise I'm out of a job!!
     
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  13. ZDP-189

    ZDP-189 Twitter: <a href="http://twitter.com/#!/ZDP189">@Z

    64
    Apr 18, 2011
    I owned a Sigma SD9, but it was too primitive; I was too early an adopter. The 2nd/ 3rd generation DP’s are great. I also very much like the images I have seen, at least as displayed on the web. Web images don’t require much resolution or sharpness and these attributes are trumped by colour and contrast, which the Foveon X3 excels at. I have yet to see galley-sized DP prints against an X1 or X100, but maybe that’s not an appropriate test. Certainly, the DP’s produce colours that remind me of Kodachrome.

    I tried the X1 and wasn’t much impressed. I even had the chance to buy an X1 for substantially less than I paid for the X100, but the choice was obvious. I have written a detailed review of the X100 posted on photorumors.com and ricohforum.com. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best all round compact camera to date.

    I’ve heard this so many times in discussions among pros and their photofinishers. The golden era where photography was easy but economically unattainable is passed. It’s really a combination of three factors: (1) yes, digital photography has become easy and cheap, democratising and commoditising it; but also (2) the internet has facilitated both piracy and selling of materials to the masses; so (3) attitudes towards royalty pricing have changed.

    Event photographers and stock photographers were hit, but mostly those who served people who couldn’t or didn’t want to pay for quality, but had no choice. Many budget weddings are now shot exclusively by friends of the couple, or by ‘pro’ photogs who are little more than an amateurs who think they are pro-level. However, couples that know, care and have the budget still pay for quality, they still shop by word of mouth or by recommendation by a planner and they do look at portfolios with a critical eye. Stock photogs who shot willy-nilly have seen their incomes drain, as generic stock royalties go for pennies, but those that shoot well set up images marketed at big commercial clients are growing their business yearly.

    In short, again the devil has taken the hindmost, but I am sure you’ll prosper. It’s just a matter of finding a way to target one’s business at people who will pay and then do something unique.

    That’s a good point. I should shoot less and focus on quality.
     
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  14. LisaO

    LisaO SC Regular

    123
    Jul 11, 2010
    If point & shoots want to compete with smart phones they need to start offering more than just pictures. They need to offer GPS, WiFi, apps, social networking, it needs to be easy, it need to be cheap.
     
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  15. ZDP-189

    ZDP-189 Twitter: <a href="http://twitter.com/#!/ZDP189">@Z

    64
    Apr 18, 2011
    That reminds me, I had a Nikon Coolpix P6000, one of the first compacts GPS and LAN upload facility. I think it remains the only serious compact to have had these features. The GPS was spotty and burned batteries; battery life was already weak. It was a bit of a gimmick really. When I wanted to let it go, I found it was worth barely a hundred and something dollars mint, in the box. I ended up giving it away. It took glorious daylight pictures and had great flash, supporting Nikon Speedlights. The main difference from the G10 or DMX_LX3 was it was slightly behind in high ISO performance, so it was never a darling of the reviewers and didn't sell well. It's one of the unsung heroes of the recent serious compacts.
     
  16. soundimageplus

    soundimageplus SC Top Veteran

    578
    Jul 6, 2010
    My original comment was somewhat flippant, since the profileration of quality cheap digital camera equipment and the rise of the internet marketplace, has increased rather than diminished my income. As we all know the attitude of "Thats a great picture, you must have a good camera" has little basis in reality.

    Though there are many stock agencies that will accept and market images taken on both compact cameras and the best camera phones, the emphasis has always been and always will be on whats actually in the frame. We don't (yet) have cameras that will go out and take masterpieces for us by themselves, so the role of the photographer is always going to be an important one.

    There are also two additional points worth making. Firstly just how far do the users of camera phones want them to become better cameras?. At the moment the camera integrates quite nicely into the handset, but the more you add the more cumbersome it becomes. I looked with some amusement at the Rollie zoom lens for the iPhone. RCP-Technik releases Rollei 8x zoom lens for iPhone 4: Digital Photography Review If you're serious enough to want to produce images that require something like that, then a camera is surely the better option.

    This leads on to the second point, which is as camera phones and indeed compact cameras continue to improve, then so does everything else. There's an attitude thats forming that goes something like - Do we need all these fancy cameras? Do we need more MP's? Everything happens via the web these days doesn't it? Surely all we need is something that gives us the quality to upload to our social networking site or send some snapshots to relatives.

    However, that attitude presupposes that everything will stay as it is, and also presupposes that most people are only looking for a fairly low level of performance. The screen on a mobile phone may be fine if you're out and about, but is that how we all want to view our photos and videos? As TV's and computer monitors get better and better, and devices like the iPad allow serious zooming into pictures, I can see people becoming more and more dissatisfied with what their phone or indeed their cheap compact can produce. A "serious" compact or a DSLR (or whatever the future equivalent of that might be) will always have an advantage over what any (reasonably sized) phone can produce. That "differential" is always likely to remain.

    To me the important element is less the improvement in the recording device, the camera, and more to do with improvements in viewing devices. The better these become, the more people will become dissatisfied with what their phones or point and shoots are producing. Once you take the three elements that do deter people out of the equation, complexity, size and cost, people will be only too willing to look for higher quality alternatives.

    Its been said that Panasonic, with the GF2, are actively pursuing exactly this market. By making a camera thats bag and pocket friendly and yet capable of both shooting a front cover for Vogue and producing a broadcast quality video.

    Ultimately we may get to a situation where size doesn't matter (at least in terms of cameras!) and the preconception that quality = bulk is slowly being eroded, but camera phones will always be constrained by the lens issue. I suppose we could get to a situation that a sensor is so good that a digital zoom becomes a quality option, but thats some way off yet. The camera, in whatever shape or form, is still a desirable artefact and it was interesting to see that despite a global recession camera sales still rose by 10% in 2010.
    43 Rumors | Blog | Worldwide camera market share in 2010. Panasonic and Olympus holding their ground.
     
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  17. Djarum

    Djarum SC All-Pro

    Jul 10, 2010
    Huntsville, AL
    Jason
    My take on this is similar to mp3 players and the ability to buy just mp3's on the web. People aren't buying CD's as much any more. What they do is get the song they want and pay for it. Its usually around a dollar, and is a 128kbs mp3 file. For many people, the quality is just fine. For me personally, I prefer 192kbps VBR or better. Even in a reasonable mp3 player with decent headphones, one can tell the difference in quality. The mass market prefers mobility over quality. It used to be that storage was the issue, but hard drives and flash are becoming extremly cheap.

    Now lets look at camera phones. My girlfriend would personally rather use it than her 7mp camera. She can send photos around, upload to facebook and take spur of the moment shots without having to carry two things. She would prefer that the quality of the images were better. The Iphone and the Droid X produce decent quality images, I'd say up to say 3 or 4 years ago compact camera tech equivalent. Many people would use their camera phone over a 200 dollar P&S. If people are anly printing 4x6s or doing stuff on the web, its not a bad solution. Sony and other CCD/CMOS vendors are trying to make the smaller sensors better. Looking at the S95, I could see no reason why a camera phone the size of the Droid X and thickness of the S95 couldn't be produced, with a decent quality zoom lens. Why not?

    There always be high end cameras, however. People like me and others will want the best cameras, and like many multipurpose devices, usually there are too many compromises. Same with mp3 players and compressed file formats.
     
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  18. linkedit

    linkedit SC Rookie

    19
    Nov 7, 2010
    Morris County, NJ
    Because no one will buy it. There was a phone that the back side looked like the front of a point and shoot camera - same big lens. I can't remember who made it but it bombed.

    I think the other reason why a phone like that will never come out is because the market segment of consumers that would buy that phone is tiny compared to the rest of the people that are happy with the type of camera that's in an iphone.
     
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  19. AzPete

    AzPete SC Veteran

    404
    Dec 24, 2010
    My thought exactly. I cant believe I read this whole thread, I normally stay away from though provoking and mind thinking stuff.... as simple as I am. But I have enjoyed the cell phone cam like others for its convienence and somewhat good quality. I have gone past the techie stage in my life and currently dont shoot for show but only shoot for me and those close around me (this place included). My needs are small and my eqipment varies as the sands on the beach.

    But for me: I personaly am waiting for the ultimate cellphone/camera/scanner/printer/thingamabob that will fit in my shirt pocket. It will come. Whether you buy it or not, who knows but its coming. Some of my funniest, and most satisfactory shoots Ive had is with my last droid cam and one of the apps I picked up.... you be the judge.
    Thanks all and cheers,
    Pete

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  20. ZDP-189

    ZDP-189 Twitter: <a href="http://twitter.com/#!/ZDP189">@Z

    64
    Apr 18, 2011
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