The Smartphone Camera, The New Point-And-Shoot

A “killer app” is something that defines change with innovation that offers a more superior technology or a better feature that gives it utility. An example of this would be the smartphone camera. It has disrupted the camera industry tremendously and this is now inevitable. More people have smartphones with a camera, so there is no more need to buy a separate point-and-shoot camera. They also have great quality compared to entry level digital cameras and the software provided by the smartphone’s operating system allow more creative image processing. That was something point-and-shoot cameras did not provide. The market for consumer digital cameras has shrunk as smartphone sales grew exponentially. People also bring their phones everywhere they go since it was originally a communications device used for calling and then texting other people. Now that smartphones come with a camera, it goes everywhere a user goes allowing a better user experience for taking photos while on the go. The last time point-and-shoot cameras actually had good sales was before 2010, but there was a pivotal moment that ushered in the new era in photography.

The original iPhone. It was not the first smartphone to have a camera, but it started the trend. (Source: Apple)

In June 29, 2007 the first generation iPhone was introduced by Apple as a “smartphone”. A device that combines many features like e-mail, text messaging, web browsing, voice calls and a 2 MP camera. The iPhone was very revolutionary indeed, that it had disrupted the telecommunications and computer industry and of course the camera industry as well. Later versions of the iPhone camera would get better and better, until we have the version that can shoot 12 MP (iPhone X). Most novice users will no longer need to buy a separate camera unless they are a hobbyist or were going into professional photography. The majority of users just want to take photos of their food, travel locations, friends and themselves. We now have a term coined for the latter .. the “selfie”. Smartphones were also more convenient to bring anywhere, minimizing the heavier point-and-shoot or DSLR camera. The iPhone would usher in a new generation of smartphones with cameras that can also shoot video. It was also more practical in many ways since a smartphone camera was easier to use, lighter and compact, allow simple editing and provides features to enhance or optimize an image.

There was another reason smartphone cameras became more significant than the point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras … that was social media. A new generation of apps for smartphones began to appear after 2007 that allowed instant sharing of photos and even disappearing videos. These apps do require a smartphone in order to use, so it was not ideal to shoot with another camera. Instagram was perhaps the killer app for photography, but it would be nothing if not for the smartphone. The same goes for Snapchat’s temporary or disappearing video feature which was built for the cameras in smartphones.

Once a photo or video is taken from the smartphone camera, it can be instantly shared on these social media platforms. The same can be done on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp and Tumblr just to name a few more platforms. If there were no smartphone camera, these apps would probably not exist. If they did, it would be more tedious for users. That would require taking the photo from a camera and then uploading from the camera to the Internet. There are more steps involved and not everyone is also that tech savvy. Many people will probably be too lazy to hook up their camera to a USB port and upload photos. Imagine if you had to do that every time you wanted to post something online that you wanted to share immediately. Then it becomes a hassle with all the steps involved in uploading photos. With smartphones it is integrated with the software, so it is as simple as opening the app and then choosing the photo you took from an album stored in your smartphone’s storage or a cloud drive. It was more user friendly and that attracts a larger market when it comes to sales.

Many people also do not seem to mind the image quality, since they just want to create photos to immediately share to their friends or followers. Shooting a simple selfie at the beach does not require a DSLR with 24 MP resolution. That would really be overkill for something simple, but let’s say it was for a commercial shoot like an advertisement. In this case the DSLR or larger format camera is the better choice. It just so happens that social media is just about sharing photos. Businesses did notice that they can monetize on this when a social media user has many followers, so thank the smartphone camera for making that possible.

The popularity of social media goes hand in hand with the adoption of smartphones. Some apps like instagram and snapchat require a smartphone camera in order to use.

Traditional photographers have a different view, but for the most part have accepted that the smartphone camera is here. Platforms like Instagram were meant to show a person’s life in photos, but is not necessarily professional photography. A smartphone camera might be superior to a point-and-shoot camera, but not to a high-end DSLR or mirrorless camera. Those cameras have larger sensors which can capture more light. Thus a smartphone camera and DSLR may have the same resolution, but the DSLR has the larger sensor size. The DSLR will have better overall quality when it comes to the image output. Another reason a DSLR is more superior are the lenses. Various manufacturers develop different types of lenses for DSLR cameras. These lenses are measured in terms of their focal length (in mm or millimeters) which determines the type of image a photographer wants to create. There are portrait lenses (50mm), wide angle macro lenses (15mm), telephoto lenses (>100mm), fish-eye lenses for ultra wide angles (8mm) and basic lenses for general purpose uses (18mm-55mm).

Professional camera sensors can also be cropped or full-frame format, which are determined by size. The larger full-frame format sensors have the better quality with more light and less noise. There are also medium-format cameras that have even larger sensors, so when it comes to creating images it is the sensor size that really determines resolution quality while the lenses allow the photographer to capture the image in different ways. The advantage of smartphone cameras are the angles you can take since they are smaller and can be shot from the hip. Smartphone cameras do not have the high quality glass lenses on DSLR, but it makes up for this using software based image processing. For example a smartphone camera can create bokeh effects with sharp focus on a subject with a blurry background using software with 2 lenses. Other smartphones use what is called dual-pixel processing like on the Pixel 2, which only uses 1 lens but optimizes the image in software. Now there are the more classically trained photographers who shoot with film, so that also creates a different image style. It has a more authentic look and mood with the output using chemical dyes to produce the image. However, these film effects can also be created using smartphone camera software filters.

The Huawei smartphone camera is one of the best in the market today according to DxOMark. (Source: Huawei)

The smartphone camera continues to evolve. It provides users a feature that is integrated with their phone, for convenience and ease of use. Taking shots with the use of one hand is also more ideal in this day and age of instant photo sharing. No more need for holding a camera and looking through the viewfinder and using a focus ring to get an image sharp and clear. The software in the smartphone can perform all the focusing using what is called “image stabilization”. This prevents users from taking blurry or out of focus images. There are two types, the first is called Optical Image Stabilization or OIS. This stabilizes the image by adjusting the path to the sensor to compensate for camera shake. It does this by using lens shift and module tilt, so these are implemented mechanically. The other is Electronic Image Stabilization or EIS, which uses complex algorithms in processing the image while it is being taken. In order to produce the image, EIS needs to crop the image in order to present the best looking shot. Most smartphone cameras use one of these techniques in order to provide users with clear and sharper looking photos.

Another important feature that are appearing in smartphone cameras are the use of AI. Machine learning techniques are helping smartphone cameras take better photos. Based on samples of perhaps millions or more photographs taken, AI can be used with image signal processors to take amazing photos by adjusting the composition, exposure, white balance and aperture of the camera. It is also done automatically without the user making any changes to the settings. All a user does is point the camera where they want to shoot and press a button to take the shot.

There is very clear evidence, not just from what we see on the streets, but from data to show that camera sales dropped due to smartphones. The following graph used data taken from CIPA reports.

Data from 2012 showing how DSLR and mirrorless camera sales are doing. While DSLR are declining, there is a slight increase in mirrorless. Overall digital camera sales have not increased as of 2012. (Source CIPA)

While DSLR cameras have decreased, mirrorless cameras are beginning to emerge. This showed a big decline since 2012 when it comes to camera sales. When compared to smartphone sales, it is a no contest. Smartphones outsell any type of digital camera or DSC significantly.

With billions of units shipped, there is more access to a camera from a smartphone. (Source: IDC)

The professional photography market is more niche, even more so with film photographers. The DSLR is likely to stick around but continue its decline as mirrorless cameras become a more superior choice for photographers. Smartphone cameras are also expected to get even better as there are new offerings. One example is the RED camera smartphone. It has modular design that allows external lenses to be attached. These type of smartphones offer more flexibility with professional camera features, which should attract more users if these devices do deliver on image quality. It is also more common to see social influencers, who once used DSLRs, turn to their smartphones more for street photography. It is much simpler to use and of course the photos can be instantly shared.

Will camera vendors start making DSLR with LTE to allow instant photo sharing? There are apps for smartphones that do allow a DSLR to share its photos, but most casual shooters will stick with their smartphone rather than have to buy a separate camera. Another thing established camera vendors like Canon and Nikon are trying to do to remain relevant in the market is incorporating AI features into their new generation of cameras. Perhaps this will bring new features to DSLR cameras, but if it is already available in smartphones it doesn’t exactly mean everybody is going to buy DSLRs again. For nostalgia’s sake, film will still be around for its classic appeal. What digital cameras did to film cameras, smartphone cameras are doing to digital cameras. As for photography in general, it is really up to the photographer how they want to create their images. Everyone can choose whatever they want so long as they get the result they need. Everyone has a certain look they go for when capturing images. It is a matter of perspective and philosophy.

For the best image quality for commercial, artistic and other professional uses, the DSLR, mirrorless and large formats are still better than smartphone cameras at the moment. This is the prosumer market who will still require digital cameras for their line of work. They have the larger sensors which offer the best quality in terms of capturing the light and reducing noise in images. Smartphone cameras can offer software processing to mimic what other digital cameras can do, but it does not have the same sensor size and quality as the high-end brands at the moment. However, the general public are using smartphone cameras because of their convenience (pocket friendly), features and ease of use. You not only take photos with your smartphone, you can also instantly share them on social media. The majority of people are just casual shooters who don’t mind the resolution. It is more about capturing the moments in their lives, whether it is eating food, going to the beach, get together with family and friends, etc. The smartphone is the killer app in this regard because it makes photos easier to capture and share, and that is what the new generation want to use their cameras for.

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