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If Mirrorless Is the Future of the Camera, then the Smartphone Is the Future of Photography

Mirrorless hasn't only won the battle, it's won the war. Last year — 2020 — was a landmark as more mirrorless cameras were shipped than DSLRs. It is the primary design choice for manufacturers and is therefore the future of the camera. However, the future of photography undoubtedly lies with the smartphone.

It appears so obvious looking back over the last ten years, that it seems inconceivable that mirrorless wasn't considered the future of camera design when it first appeared. However, the vested interests of CaNikon kept the DSLR dream alive — along with their income streams — which let other manufacturers dabble to see what the market was interested in. And dabble they did after Olympus and Panasonic debuted Micro Four Thirds, with Sony, Nikon, Pentax, Canon, Fuji, and Leica all introducing new systems. This has to be viewed within the context of global camera shipments which peaked at 121 million units (¥1643 million) in 2010. OK, of these some 109 million were integrated cameras — high quantity, low value — but it did generate significant income and profit for manufacturers which in part funded the system development. But as soon as that spike in income had arrived, it rapidly began to disappear with 2020 marking a new low point of 9 million units shipped (¥420 million).

The following year, 2011, also saw mirrorless make their first appearance in CIPA data (below) which showed 4 million units shipping, meaning that uptake was rapid by consumers and principally focused around Panasonic, Olympus, and Sony. While DSLR shipments imploded, mirrorless has remained flat in a falling market meaning that they made up an increasingly larger share. 2020 was a landmark year in that more mirrorless cameras were shipped than DSLR; 33%, as opposed to 27%, of total shipments.

This is important enough in itself, however, it is the financials that are more impressive. Mirrorless was close to DSLR shipment values by 2018 and exceeded them in 2019. By 2020 they made up 54% of all camera shipments, compared to DSLR's 25%. Of course, by this point, both Canon and Nikon had released their own mirrorless systems and essentially stopped further DSLR development while reducing production. While it's true that consumers wanted to buy mirrorless systems, manufacturers also stopped making them in volume.

Will manufacturers stop making DSLRs? Of course not. As long as there are a minimum viable number of customers, then someone will plug that gap. Apparently, that's Pentax at the moment. Not only that, but there will continue to be a large number of active DSLR shooters who will want to buy lenses and accessories. You wouldn't necessarily say that mirrorless won a decisive battle in one-up-manship, but rather slowly chipped away at that seemingly impenetrable DSLR exterior. The biggest slug came with Sony's a7 in 2013 showing that a mirrorless full frame model was viable; in fact not one model, but three. The battle was won by 2016 at the latest as Canon and Nikon pivoted into developing their own systems. Was it that cameras were smaller and lighter? Or those significant improvements in on-chip focusing brought significant advantages? Or that shorter flange distances allowed a range of interesting lens designs and the adaptation of existing lenses? Or maybe high burst rates? Or perhaps it was just because it was a new system. Either way, the traction is now there and DSLRs have become niche.

Mirrorless is the future of camera design.

Long Live the Smartphone

Mirrorless cameras are only half of the photography equation. That dramatic drop in CIPA camera shipments from 121 million in 2010 doesn't mean there are fewer cameras shipping. Far from it, as in 2019 some 1,500 million smartphones shipped, depending upon whose figures you believe. Every single one of those had a camera in it. It's perhaps self-evident that the smartphone has all but killed the camera industry, but the scale and enormity of putting a camera in the hands of 7.5 billion people or about 96% of the global population is truly astonishing. We are genuinely at a point where virtually everybody takes a photo; no wonder Google stopped unlimited free photo storage!

Now obviously smartphones do far more than take photos, but this remains an important component of any phone design to the point that there has been a continual arms race since the original iPhone which shows no sign of abating. Talking of Apple, they held a 14.5% market share in 2019, lagging behind Huawei (17.6%), and Samsung (21.8%). Does that sound familiar? Yes, three companies control some 54% of the smartphone market so what they do with their cameras is critical not just to other smartphone manufacturers but also to camera manufacturers. In fact, while we see some inroads in partnerships between smartphone and camera manufacturers, it's surprising this isn't more widespread and, indeed, that the partnerships don't work in both directions. Hasselblad recently partnered with OnePlus, but we have seen Leica and Huawei, Zeiss with Sony (and a number of others), and possibly Samsung with Olympus.

What's interesting is that the developments we are seeing at the moment in some ways mirror the introduction of the Kodak Brownie in 1900. Up to this point, technological development had been rapid but largely focused on gradual improvements to the large format camera. Photography was an expensive undertaking and the Brownie democratized it to the extent that, while not trivial in cost, anyone could afford it (it was $1 at release, equivalent to $31 today). For example, it was targeted at soldiers and even children. The Brownie grew out of the development of roll film and the realization that everything for photo taking could be included in the (cardboard) box and then sent back to the manufacturer for processing. This then led to making a loss on the sale of the camera but a profit on the film and processing. Two strands of photography were subsequently developed based around large format cameras and low-cost roll film cameras. In some ways, those strands were at least partly re-unified with the release of the Leica 1 in 1924 when 35mm roll film was partnered with technologically innovative development.

Are we seeing the same with the smartphone? Two drivers are at play here: firstly the need for eye-popping images that look great on social media and secondly tight design requirements. The latter involves low-cost, small, devices that have fixed lenses. Smartphone manufacturers are aware that to get better images they can — to a certain extent — compute their way out of the problem, a charge that has been led by Google. However, they are inevitably restricted by the hardware they have at their disposal. Involving camera manufacturers is, therefore, a sensible decision.

The different design criteria have led to a divergent focus for camera development, one that is arguably now the direction that photography is taking. Smartphone manufacturers are incorporating new and creative hardware designs to work alongside their software implementations. What we are not seeing is camera manufacturers developing innovative standalone cameras. Computational photography has been a core aspect of photography in smartphones for a decade, yet we have seen limited implementations by camera manufacturers and certainly nothing that rivals the likes of Apple or Google. This is now becoming a yawning gap that has the potential to make camera manufacturers irrelevant or even allow a new manufacturer to enter the marketplace.

We will always need high-end cameras for high-end photography commissions, but the gap between the smartphone and camera has shrunk considerably to the point where it is indistinguishable for many applications, something that Ben Von Wong pushed with his commission for the Huawei P8.

Lead image courtesy Pexels via Pixabay, used under Creative Commons.

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110 Comments

Mutley Dastardly's picture

A smartphone for all photography isn't a good solution. smartphones will become more capable - but they'll never replace the camera's with bigger sensors. Physics are what they are.

Brian Cover's picture

For the masses, the smartphone is all they need, or want. Unfortunately, the hobby of photography is losing participants who want or who will pay for a dedicated camera. The majority of people use a smartphone and consider themselves photographers. The manufacturers need to develop a business plan/ model where they can be profitable with less than half of the current number of customers and even fewer units sold. That means streamlining their product offerings. It is not physics that drives the market, it is the consumer's dollars.

sam dasso's picture

Smartphones replaced cheap point and shoot cameras. Majority of people used to use pocket 110 for film cameras then they used cheap digital point and shoot and called themselves photographers. Now they use smartphones. Nothing changed. People who use mirrorless or SLR cameras for a hobby will continue to do so. And you will never see wedding photographer doing wedding with smartphone.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Bingo, I am in total agreement. We are right where we were before the DSLR boom, the wave is gone. 110, 128, disk, aps, polaroid and throw away 35mm cameras have been the brownies of modern days and people would use them when they needed very cost effectively. Now we have billions of pictures taken each day, but we have over 6 billion phones in service out there. The cost of an image, considering the yearly cost of a phone, is way, way higher than what it would cost the average individual to process his/her annual number of film rolls in the past.

Sam Sims's picture

Don't forget the monthly cost of a smartphone isn’t just for taking pictures. It’s much more than that. I would assume for most people, taking photos is just a welcome bonus.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Yes, that's real world use of phones VS what ever these comparative articles attempt to achieve.

Henry Case's picture

The experience of photography has nothing to do with the amount of megapixels or lenses with absurd sharpness.
If it were, we wouldn't have so many people having so much fun and making great pictures with cameras from more than 50 years ago.
The technological need is an imposition of the manufacturers of cell phones and dedicated cameras.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Correct, I haven't purchased a camera in many years so I'm glad you didn't even mention mirrorless. My phone does great quick snaps of product or prices at the store and I use it at shoots where we have to move things and place them back later. None of it gets archived.

Justin Sharp's picture

As someone who uses 125 year old technology to take photos, the future of my photography is content. I’ll let all of you young people worry about the rest of it.

Justin Sharp's picture

Couldn’t agree more.

jim hughes's picture

The future of photography belongs to - crappy little cameras that you have to hold at arms length while using thumbs on a touch screen that you can't even see in the daylight? Not even funny.

Michael Krueger's picture

While I prefer to use a camera over a smart phone I can see my screen in daylight, I certainly don't hold my phone at arms length to take a photo, nor am I required to touch the screen to take a photo.

jim hughes's picture

A Power User! But wait until you need reading glasses....

David Illig's picture

Perhaps not funny, but true. Do you believe that smartphone camera development is at an end, with no further improvements? You can’t begin to imagine what smartphone cameras will be like in 10 years.

jim hughes's picture

Hopefully in 10 years we no longer even call them "smartphones" and we have a range of devices and form factors to choose from.

David Illig's picture

Concerning form factor, if this future device is to retain the portability that today’s smartphone has—pockets and purses—then it will have the same form factor as today's smartphone; the choices are strictly constrained. It may be thinner or foldable, but it will still be flat and rectangular. It won’t be a cube like the GoPro and it won’t be a sphere like my Orange Micro iBOT FireWire webcam. Eliminate tori and various odd polyhedrons, and you are left with the iPhone form factor.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Personally, I don't think either is the future of photography. The smartphone is the communications device of the now. but I really don't think it has a long future ahead of it either. I think once we figure out how to project a HUD directly into your vision (whether it be some sort of implant or contact lens) that the smartphone will be all but gone so long as we can interface with that device by thought. At which point the camera question changes quite a bit because said implant or contact won't have a camera sensor in it which means that perhaps the future of photography is some sort of wearable like those new Facebook Ray-Bans? I'm not sure. It could also be some sort of floating device that captures everything and you worry about framing later. The future is hard to predict but whatever it is, I guarantee that any device that requires storing in a pocket or bag will eventually be deprecated as well and the eventually isn't as far off as you may think.

Henry Case's picture

The wearables will kill the smartphones first 🥇

Chris Rogers's picture

Some one needs to make an IRL mobi glass.

Stuart C's picture

Says the person with over 50 largely negative comments that amount to nothing more than nonsensical rants in most cases.

Stuart C's picture

“ We will always need high-end cameras for high-end photography commissions, but the gap between the smartphone and camera has shrunk considerably to the point where it is indistinguishable for many applications, something that Ben Von Wong pushed with his commission for the Huawei P8.”

This is the last line of the article, your rant above was based purely on reading the title and that’s it, if you had actually read the article you would have seen this. It’s classic internet 101 whereby people post overly emotional comments based on the headline of the content without actually consuming said content.

And on your last line, if you’re such an expert, why don’t you offer to write some content for the website? Or is it easier to just sign up anonymously and post bile on the content provided by others?

Stuart C's picture

The only demented thing I can see is someone creating an account on a photography website purely to just pour scorn on people’s articles, as evidenced by your comment history.

You’re rude and undesirable, that much I can assume, by the nature of your pathetic, obnoxious comments.

Stuart C's picture

No, you get a kick out of trying to be the big man on the internet, look back through your comment history and perhaps reflect on the tone and language you are using to people.

You may think its big and clever to post this stuff but it isn't, combined with your overuse of childish emojis you are coming across as nothing but undesirable.

I only have to look at Ivors article from yesterday to find you being rude and obtrusive to someone, calling their photo rubbish, seeing the ones you posted in return, you're not really in a position to be so arrogant to others about their work.

Thats just me offering some criticism of course, seeing as that's how you exempt yourself from judgement by calling it that.

Bruce Grant's picture

The point isn't that people are choosing a smartphone over a camera body, it's that the majority of cellphone users are shooting with the best camera they have and those photos when looked at on IG are good enough and are hardly discernable from DSLR or mirrorless.

Stuart C's picture

Yes and that’s the only part you read, clearly.

David Illig's picture

“…hobbiests…”

Hobby, hobbier, hobbiest?

Lee L's picture

Stop and look at what is going on around you in every industry. It's called "Good Enough". I have seen it in every industry from audio to photography.

The TV industry has gone from high end broadcast gear to streaming with a laptop.What use to take a truck full of gear is now being produced on a desktop. If you were not recording with high end $30,000+ ikegami cameras then you were cable access quality. But guess what, now web cams and dslr's or micro 4/3 cameras are "Good Enough".

The recording industry had specialized studios with high end recorders with high sample rates and racks full of gear. And produced an uncompressed high bit rate files used for mastering. Now this is being done in a closet and spitting out a mediocre compressed MP3. That are "Good Enough".

The same thing is happening to photography. Hell no one even prints anymore, everything is posted and guess what, its "Good Enough". And if content was the only goal, then I have seen smartphone images that blow away the work of 90% of the photographers with full frame cameras.

And for those of you who are all about the quality, then 35mm is totally inferior to Medium Format. It wasn't that long ago that 35mm was only used by photojournalist who need small light weight cameras because the image quality was "Good Enough".

If you were shooting Medium Format, 4x5 or 8x10 you were a newbie. But now guess what, full frame 35mm is "Good Enough".

We have gone from a group of advanced amateurs to the entire population running around with better cameras in their pockets than we had 5-8 years ago. I would take my iphone over the Nikon D70 I purchased in 2004 any day.

So for those of who think the future will always be things are the way they are now. Take a little history lesson and look at everything from the Railroad to Telecommunications industries and you will understand why this article is 100% accurate.

Wake up and smell the coffee. Smartphone photography has already destroyed the point and shoot market and will continue to move up the photography ladder.

Like or Not, the world has already adopted the its "Good Enough" mentality,

Eric Robinson's picture

What you say is true up to a point. It describes very well the recent past and the present but not the future. What is happening now gives only minor clues as to what is down the road. Which is why this piece is far from accurate.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I look at those tv screens that get larger every year, the massive number of people driving big suvs or big trucks they use only to commute and shop at the supermarket and wonder if a regular sedan would be good enough, but I realize that good enough is clearly not on their agenda.

George Malczynski's picture

I think this is right on the money. I think the only thing to add is convenience. If the medium is convenient to use and has “good enough” quality, the less people will chose it over specialized equipment.

Eric Robinson's picture

So you say.
Making predictions regarding the ‘future’ of anything is a fool’s errand.
Recent history is strewn with those who have confidently made predictions about the future of X only to see their future vision thwarted by some out of left field tech innovation..
The technological time scale appears to be decreasing. VHS DVD Blueray all have come and gone to be replaced by ‘nothing’. Nothing that is that needs shelving.
The problem with making such predictions is that no one can really see what the knock on effects will be of some left field tech breakthrough.
I would say your prediction is naive at best based on no more than a very limited and predetermined view of what info you have chosen to read. It almost looks as though you came to your conclusion first then looked for some data to back it up!

Sam Sims's picture

DVD and Blueray haven’t gone just yet. You can still buy plenty of movies on these formats and find films not available on any streaming platforms.

Eric Robinson's picture

Antiques are still readily available!

Wouter du Toit's picture

I think what Facebook and Rayban has just done with glasses (and camera) is going to have us keep our phones in our pockets more, and that it's the start of becoming the future of photography. Now I know quality isn't there yet, and sure, a 30 second video isn't going to cut it. But that's present, and Apple and whoever else will soon jump on it and make it something worth investing in. And when that happens, taking photos with your phone will almost be what film photography is today.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I have already put these glasses in the same family as the Wii and other hot stuff that basically has some merit but will die due to the very issues it imposes on the user. Not sure how it will work for my eyes need or for people wearing contacts. Will people who don't need glasses want to carry glasses and carry a case for when they want to put them away anytime during the day? I have sat on my phone a few times in my car.

Kyle Amadio's picture

If you think holding a phone to take a quick photo and posting it to social media is photography then we are not talking the same language.

Think vinyl records versus CDs verses Spotify et al.

Photography is about more than quick snaps. I have an excellent Mobile Phone a Sony Xperia 1. Its camera is excellent. However I make images I love with my D850 and a bunch of lenses including a 15 old 300mm F4 that makes beautiful images or mt 24-70 F2.8 Nikkor zoom. Beautiful lens

Sam Sims's picture

Let’s face it, the majority of the masses using smartphone cameras aren’t particularly interested in photography and use the camera simply because it’s there to document moments, not potentially to take photos worthy of hanging in an art gallery. Besides, once you buy a smartphone, you have no control over the characteristics of the lens. At least for more serious photographers, they can choose from many different focal lengths and lenses with differing characteristics in order to create their own look to their photos.

David Illig's picture

Do you take it as a personal affront that smartphones can make gallery-quality prints, and that so many pros—who are not as snobbish as amateurs—are supplementing their DSLR’s with phone cameras?

Yan Pekar's picture

The title is a pure clickbyte and overall the title does not make sense, as the first part contradicts the second part. Absurd.

Andrew Rickinson's picture

I think a lot of people forget that it’s the end result that matters.

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