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Disruptive Technology: Have Smartphones killed Cameras?

Kim Brebach - Monday, January 18, 2016

Disruptive Technology: Have Smartphones killed Cameras?

Or was it the camera industry’s failure to innovate?

‘The best camera is the one you have with you,’ is an old familiar saying in the photo industry, so how did camera makers miss the emerging threat posed by smartphones? How could it not see the attraction of pointing and shooting, viewing, editing, sharing with friends or posting to Instagram, all on a mobile phone you carried with you all the time.

Kodak, a pioneer in the business of photography, announced that it was closing down its camera business in 2012. In 2014 global camera shipments from Japanese manufacturers dropped by a third. The biggest drop saw fixed-lens cameras – compacts or point-and-shoot cameras – fall 38% year on year. Even the more serious DSLR cameras took a hit, with shipments falling 24%. The only devices that bucked the deadly trend were mirrorless or compact system cameras, which saw sales rise 10%.

How did camera makers not see it coming?

Camera makers saw what digital cameras did to film technology early this decade, and they should’ve known that consumers value ease of use and convenience above all else. The image quality of early point-and-shoot cameras was woeful, autofocus happened at snail’s pace, and it took ages to get ready for the next shot. Why did consumers put up with that? Because digicams allowed them to download photos to their PCs and view them, process them and share them via email. That was a whole lot more convenient than taking rolls of film to their local photo shop.

Perhaps camera makers were flat out making the new digital technology work better, and failed to grasp the wider implications. In the first decade of the new millennium, they sold more cameras than ever before and were too busy making big profits to pay attention to the growing threat posed by smartphones. Sure the early ones produced awful photos, but consumers loved the ease of sharing their photos on social websites. Once more, convenience was king and image quality took a back seat.

Smartphones Sales are Slowing

Global smartphone sales in Q4 2015 experienced their slowest growth rate since 2008, according to Gartner’s latest market report. The markets in western countries are saturated, so the remaining growth will be from sales of cheaper smartphones in developing countries. In advanced countries, it’s likely that smart watches and similar devices will start the next cycle of innovation.

Either way, the point-and-shoot camera market is dead. ‘Phablets’ like the Samsung Galaxy 7s, the iPhone 6S Plus and the Google Nexus have created a new product category. The only good news for camera makers is that people are taking more photos and videos than ever, so they’re hoping and praying that some of the phablet users will become more demanding and become frustrated by the limitations of their smartphones.

Where to Next?

‘No camera maker has gone back to a blank piece of paper,’ is a strong point made by DP Review, ‘to work out how a digital camera could work, rather than how to make a digital camera that works like their film era cameras did.’ It’s true: we’ve seen little innovation at the serious end of the camera market, where DLSRs have ruled since the eighties. Bigger sensors, better low-light performance, video and many more features, sharper prices - the usual signs of evolution.

Evolution in the wrong direction, perhaps. As these cameras have become more capable, their feature sets and options menus have grown to ludicrous lengths while their user manuals have come to resemble aircraft maintenance manuals. The addition of touch screens hasn’t really helped navigate your way through the maze of settings on offer. Innovation is badly missing here.

New ideas have come from elsewhere, such as the Lytro Light Field Camera and the Light L16 – ‘the camera that will change the world.’ Both technologies rely on numerous tiny lenses capturing a host of digital information that is processed and optimised by the camera or user after the event, using various computing algorithms. Lytro made a big splash several years ago, and the Light L16’s makers are saying Nikon and Canon are toast even before their product is released. For now there’s the GoPro device that promises 360 degree video but we suspect it’s a passing fad – more HERE.

The Quest for the Perfect Travel Camera

One group of cameras which has seen rapid development is that of pocket cameras offering long zoom pop-out lenses with up to 30x magnification. Since the compact lens and camera size is only made possible by the tiny digicam sensors, the image quality still leaves a lot to be desired despite optimised in-camera processing firmware and clever lens design. More Here.

Source: the online photographer

The bigger the camera sensor, the better the image quality when all other factors are equal, and digicams tend to use sensors the size of those on the bottom row of the diagram. Sadly, the bigger the sensor, the bigger the lenses and supporting camera body have to be. DSLR style cameras add extra bulk to accommodate the mirrors that let you see through the lens.

In 2008, Olympus and Panasonic joined forces to create a new standard: the Micro Four Thirds system for mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. They settled on the sensor size shown on the second row of the diagram above, which is 5 – 6 times larger than the tiny point-and-shoot sensors. Meanwhile Sony decided to build its own mirrorless range around the even bigger APS-C sensor, while Nikon and Canon sat back and watched their market shares shrink.

The Quest Continues

Sony’s APS-C sensor is 50% bigger than the MFT (Micro Four Thirds) sensor at the heart of Olympus and Panasonic cameras, as you can see clearly from the lens sizes in the image below. By the time the mirrorless makers added electronic viewfinders to their cameras, the size advantage of this new format was slipping away as well. Smaller they were, but pocketable they were not.

Source: cameras.reviewed.com

If the flexibility you gain from interchangeable lenses doesn’t excite you, and the extra degree of image quality offered by a larger sensor is not a deal breaker, there are more elegant choices. Sony pioneered a compact format that uses a 1” sensor (it’s not 1” at all but the reason for its name is a long story).

Sony has developed the RX100 into a fine instrument, and the current RX100 IV is about as good as it gets for a pocket camera that takes great photos, great video and features a bright 24 – 70 zoom. lens. The downside is a price tag of $1300, but the older RX100 III is still selling for less than A$900.

A good alternative is Canon’s G7X Mark II, which uses the same sensor as the Sony but offers a lens with longer reach. Somewhere in between fits the new Nikon DL, which seems to be an inbuilt lens version of the Nikon 1 mirrorless camera that is designed to compete with the Sony RX100. It also uses the same sensor. Both Canon and Nikon cameras cost less than $1000, but the Nikon is still listed as ‘pre-order’.

Panasonic takes the Prize

In 2013 Panasonic engineers came up with a new mirrorless model sporting a tiny body and a special zoom lens design that at last delivered on the promise of the Micro Four Thirds system: the Panasonic Lumix GM1. The GM1’s body is actually smaller than the Canon point-and-shoot on its left, even if its zoom lens doesn’t collapse into the body like the Canon’s.

There’s no viewfinder and no hot shoe, the flash is feeble and so is the battery life at 230 shots. The good news is that the Lumix GM1 with its spy camera looks weighs just 270g with the lens screwed on. While the zoom is pretty limited at 2.6x (12 – 32mm or 24 - 64 in full frame terms), Olympus makes a 40 - $150mm telephoto zoom, which is also tiny, weighs just 190g and costs less than $200.

There are some obvious design compromises now at last one of the mirrorless makers has produced a high quality travel camera kit with a short zoom and telephoto lens that weighs less than 500g and costs less than a $1000. The GM1 has been replaced by the very similar GM5, which comes with a hot shoe mounted flash and an electronic viewfinder. It’s a fraction bigger as well but still tiny.

Summing Up

It has taken a long time for the middle of the market to be filled in with compact cameras that produce quality images and video. The established makers have focused largely on refinement, while a few radical new designs have either failed to make an impact as yet or haven’t reached production. I suspect that the Lytro Light Field Camera and the Light L16 have more appeal for gadget freaks and tech heads than ordinary folk or camera buffs. 

So where will camera technology find true innovation? Here’s a list of possibilities from the latest camera show in Tokyo, but there’s nothing truly revolutionary here yet. Meanwhile there’s an urgent need for cameras that are much easier to set up and use, otherwise most of us will just turn the dial to AUTO and let the chip inside the camera take care of business. How about voice control? Like: tell the camera what you want to do or where you are, and do away with all those fiddly menus. It’s just an idea.

Kim Brebach
Content Chief

Kim loves people and words. He is our lateral thinker, ideas guy and genius story teller. He can conjure engaging technology yarns out of thin air.

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