Tuesday, 25 October 2016

have phones killed digital cameras?

Recently a site put together an article on this subject (here) and published a thought provoking graph:

which perhaps may even have been presented specifically to make their own thesis more QED.

None the less I thought it was a reasonable question and as one who has a number of digital cameras (and a phone with a decent digital camera too) I thought it was an interesting question.

First off the bat, to me digital cameras do need to be classified entirely differently in my view, the author of the Statista article doesn't seem to draw as hard a line as me (which is perhaps fair enough in some ways), but then perhaps he's not a photographer.

Skipping my definitions for a moment I think that this graph shows something which I've discussed for some time now; and that is that since about 2009 the digital cameras in mobile phones (lets just call them phones from now on) have overtaken and totally decimated the capacity of the category of digital camera called "compact" ... hell even the old term Prosumer (professional level consumer camera) died out years ago with only a few dinosaurs (hello Canon) valiantly trying to keep that market segment alive with cameras like their PowerShot G series.

Don't get me wrong, back in 2006 I was right down this path, when DSLR cameras were good but not compact and not cheap. I used cameras like the Nikon Coolpix 5000 (which was about the first prosumer camera to include a cludgy RAW).

After about 2006 there was little doubt in anyones mind that a DSLR exceeded a prosumer (although until then it had been close) for image quality. While there were a few notable good efforts (like the Canon G series and indeed cameras like the Panasonic FX series) DSLR's were the pinnacle of image quality.

quick history lesson

Even the term DSLR had become a pointless term, with DSLR being Digital Single Lens Reflex. The idea of a Single Lens camera comes from the days when (of course) all cameras were single lens.  People wished to see what they were focusing on and (I believe it was Rolleiflex) invented a camera with two lenses (one for focus and one for taking) mounted together and the Twin Lens Reflex camera was born. It had a second lens (for the viewfinder system) mounted along side of the taking lens and a mirror (thus reflex) to allow you to look at the image you were taking. Eventually the idea was extended to include the mirror behind the actual taking lens, which flipped up during image capture or "exposure meaning it only needed a Single Lens making the entire system more compact.

Thus the SLR was born.

Eventually film replaced digital and so where there was once film there became a sensor and the DSLR was born.

In 2008 something changed in the DSLR area and Panasonic did what compact digital cameras had been doing all along - live view on the rear screen plus an electronic view finder of very high quality. This allowed them to take the R out of that making the first fully Digital Single Lens camera, which was still an interchangable lens system, called micro four thirds (m43).

These cameras slowly grew in acceptance as the (incredibly poor) understanding of the general public grew to understand just how good these cameras were (and why). I would argue that to this day most don't grasp the difference between APS-C DSLR and (what is now called) mirrorless cameras VS the "prosumer" cameras like the Canon G series. All most people can grasp is the simple number of "megapixels".

Phones on the uptake

I would say that 2009 is an important year on that graph, as it marks the year that phones got decent cameras (and probably also large screens helped). Phones like the iPhone (and then the Android revolution which followed) is probably the biggest factor in popularising phones as digital cameras, as their big screens allowed people to see their digital images better than before (often needing to wait till back at a computer to really see them), and perhaps most importantly to share these images quickly and easily.

Back in 2009 Nokia released the E-72 phone, and I had one. I was impressed just how good the camera was on this phone, it was better than the iPhone of the day and compared it to a low end compact camera as late as 2012 (here) finding it giving better image detail than a compact.
(sample from that post, Nokia on left Panasonic compact on right)

The caveat to the above statement is that this only applies to "wide angle" as phones (in the main) lacked "optical zoom" and so essentially any "zooming" degraded image quality. So pulling in pictures with telephoto is really the only place where the compact had any advantage.

But in the main people seem quite fine (me included) with a slightly more wide angle of view, its somehow more handy for scenery, pictures of friends and almost all "daily" photographic tasks. Indeed one of the most successful film cameras ever made was the Olympus Trip 35, which had a fixed (non zoom) wide angle lens (in fact a 35mm focal length nearly that of my Nokia above).

My Nokia E-72 has been the "camera I have with me" for some years now, and has taken some great shots. I didn't mind that it was slightly inferior to my m43 camera because it was compact, always in my pocket and pretty darn good. In fact since I've owned it I've not even used a compact digital camera since.

I've used that phone for snaps, photographs for eBay ads, pictures of items to send to technicians ... general run of the mill documentation. It means that I don't really pull out my compact camera camera as much as I once did, which was also less soon after I got my m43 camera (cos it was compact as well as higher quality).

The general population has generally discovered this too, and have therefore left their compact ditigal cameras at home and just taken their phones.

So its little wonder that the graph above shows a sharp decline in the Blue (compact camera) sales, with prices of high quality phone cameras coming down from 2011 onwards (and well just massive penetration of high quality phones) its hardly a surprise really ... unless you live on an island somewhere.

So what's my point then?

Well if we remove the Blue bar and just show the Red bar we get an interesting picture, the interchangable lens camera market has just continued to grow. this is obvious in the first part of the graph, but if you just slice out the Blue you can really see it more clearly that there was actual continual growth in the interchangable lens camera market which peaked in about 2012.

I have doubled the 2016 bar as the data does not represent a year (their own note). The data seems to have had a strong peak at about 2012, but at worst seems to be quite steady after that (perhaps market saturation?).

Perhaps an alternative view (to phones killing digital cameras) is that phones introduced more people to the benefits of a camera with an interchangable lens and they started buying them too. To me this indicates an abandonment of compacts and an adoption of phones for those photographers who don't need telephoto lenses (and to me that's really a smaller market anyway). Perhaps using their phones more made some people actually take more pictures and then discover (like a friend of mine) that they want a better camera for stuff kids school sporting events. So interchangable lens cameras appeal to folks who enjoy wildlife (birds) and sporting (soccer mum's n dads) photography as well as those just bitten by the photography bug.

Indeed my current phone does so well that at wide angles in daylight its almost impossible to tell which was which (see here) in terms of image. Actually I wish that I'd had a digital camera as good as even my 2009 Nokia E-72 back when I lived in Japan in 2000, as back then digital cameras were rudimentary (and scanning film just as rudimentary).

where to?

Well some of the camera makers are really now becoming suppliers of camera modules for use in the manufacture of phones (Sony and even Leica getting their name in there again), and those makers still holding a candle for compact digital camera I think the news will only be grim (and can you believe Kodak has tried to get into the game late again with a "phone cam" which is hardly as good as my Oppo which cost half that).

Myself (as a photographer) I really love the capacity to include quite satisfactory camera into my phone as well as key features like RAW recording (capturing the full sensor data) and allowing me to edit that in a device that is a quad core computer with a substantial screen.

Paired with RAW development software and (basically free) high quality editing software enables me to use my pone capture and produce clean or edited images which I can distribute on social media or print if I wish.

Even this image (taken with my Nokia) benefited more from the on phone image processing to make it more what I saw:

.. and yes I side loaded it onto my Oppo and used snapseed as I took it with my Nokia in 2013.

Then I've got my m43 camera which I can use specialist lenses that are unavailable to phones (like shallow depth of field normals, ultra wide angle or telephoto) to achieve the looks I want to get that a smaller sensor phone just can't do.

Where telephoto can bring its advantages of getting you in closer ...

or just to provide subject isolation with shallow Depth of Field both in foreground with a less agressive telephoto:

and background

even in challenging lighting.

So the demise of "digital cameras" is in my view much exaggerated, but the demise of compacts for the rise of phones is very much the case. Especially given how compacts became larger (attempting to give more telephoto) making the case for cameras like the micro43 even stronger; or became smaller to fit in your pocked (with even smaller sensors) making the case even stronger for phones.

So no, smart phones aren't killing digital cameras, only sweeping the floor of a format which is past its due date (compacts), and perhaps even helped along the mirrorless (like micro43 cameras such as my GF-1 with its 20mm f1.7) which are increasingly as compact as compacts were.

To allow me to have a camera with me all the time, and also have a small but powerful photographic tool that's a pleasure to use and allows me to capture great moments on special occasions or just portraits of my friends doing stuff they enjoy

Something I could never get with a compact nor my phone...

Win Win I say


gnarlydog said...

Once a personal acquires a phone with a camera (pretty much any current offering) he/she becomes a photographer. I don't know anybody that has not taken an image on their phone, or others', myself included (I regard phones as phones, not as cameras!).
Then comes the difference: are we just happy recording and sharing or are we driven by the desire to create unique art, with little to no intention to record an event/place for memory sake?
I think the latter might be better served by a tool that is dedicated to create images versus a multitasking tool that acts primarily as a mobile phone and happens to have a lens in-built too. While incredible (yes, I use the right word: hard to believe) work has been created on the iPhone (great marketing from them) I just can't bring myself to get in the frame of mind to create something photographically that doesn't make me wish I had a better tool. Documenting is no longer my priority...

obakesan said...

Gnarly, if I see your point correctly I think that you're saying that for you having the right tool helps you get creative.

have I distilled that correctly?

For myself I started to make extensive use of digital cameras in Japan, where previously I'd used 35mm and other film cameras. I initially sought something to suppliment my "proper" camera and picked up a basic model to take shots.

Consequentially for me at least I feel quite happy using a phone as a camera and am not limited or intruded upon by the format or the fact that it has other functions.

Where I choose to use (and prefer) my m43 camera (or any of my others) is only when I feel that I can't make what I "see" as a vision with the phone camera.

To me all cameras are helpful for the task of recording or documenting, but having a camera in your hands (to me) does not make you a photographer, its the desire to attain a creative an outcome that makes you a photographer.

gnarlydog said...

semantically anybody that makes images is a photographer but I know what you mean. I distinguish between mere recording and conscious drive and passion to create an image. Occasionally I am just recording but it doesn't feel right; I am more in tune with myself when I "create".
Any camera however is just a tool, although the line blurs sometimes when I hear people defending their choices like it's religion ;-)
So, if it's a tool, I view the phone as a multi-tool affair with screwdriver, pliers, wrench cutting blade and god-know-what else in one. A dedicated camera (ideally with interchangeable lenses) is to me a finely tuned job-specific tool. I know which one I prefer if I find pleasure and satisfaction in doing the task.

obakesan said...


>I distinguish between mere recording and conscious drive and passion to create an image.

yep ... that wording works for me.

As to tools, well I like my LF camera (which is much more unweildy) as well as my m43rds as well as my phone.

Each are different, each do the tasks differently. I would not want to be shooting an PR event with my Phone nor with my LF camera. Equally there are things that my m43rds can't do that my LF camera can ... equally the phone has its advantages to me, in that its always in my pocket.

I'm not trying to make a case for which is a better tool ... just that I do use a leatherman as well as all the tools in my shed

obakesan said...

(which I don't have now, cos I sold my hose and all my tools are in boxes at a mates shed)

Yu-Lin Chan said...

Great analysis. I think it's true that most people misinterpret the fall of digital cameras by lumping ALL digital cameras as in the same declining rate. As you have demonstrated, the demand of "serious" digital cameras stays pretty consistent at the rate of the fall, not dramatic as the point and shoots.