Cameras just aren't good enough at processing photos — witness the inexorable rise of the smartphone which leverages adequate hardware and clever software to produce images that look as good as those from a high-flying $2,000 camera. What can manufacturers do to remain relevant in today's market?
The basics of producing a photograph remain the same: mount a sensor in a light-tight box, put a lens in front of it to focus the light onto the backplane, then vary the diaphragm inside the lens to control the volume of light let in, moderated by the time allowed to collect that light. It's a simple enough design that is closing in on two centuries of evolution to where we are now with the digital camera. So what have been key changes over that period of time?
Firstly, the sensor evolved for the sake of convenience from plates to small roll film and finally to digital. This was then followed by a reduction in the size of the camera to something that was handheld and portable. The final piece of the jigsaw was systemic innovation to improve the technical quality of the image through better lens designs and the introduction of microelectronics. Perhaps what was surprising from the roll film era was that the quality of the "sensor" was dictated by the quality of the film you used. Sure the lens was critical to image quality but the evolution of the 35mm SLR is a testament to how much image you can squeeze out of modestly priced hardware.
The Rise of the Digital Machine
The digital revolution turned this on its head and it has taken the best part of 30 years to achieve something that is closing in on parity with the film era. If you wanted to play with the big boys at the digital party, then sensor quality was critical. It's the reason that Nikon introduced the DSLR in the form of the D1, at the same time providing an upgrade path for all its film shooters. You only have to look at the output from the first fully digital camera (the Fuji DS-1P released in 1988) or the first camera phone (the Sharp J-SH04 released in 2000) to appreciate that these images were poor. Their USP was convenience, not quality. It was another decade before the release of the first-generation iPhone, where Apple realized the importance of incorporating a better quality camera. The difference now was that hardware had reached a point where it could produce a pleasing image with some post-production. As these images were often sent between phones, the critical quality of the image was of less importance than looking satisfactory on a small screen.
It didn't take long for post-production to go beyond the standardized image profiles that camera manufacturers used to stylize their output. Multi-shot post-production first made an appearance on the iPhone with EyeApps ProHDR and it's been on a roll since then. Multi-shot processing is not a new phenomenon; photographers have been using it since cameras were invented however the combination of digital imagery and a generalized computing platform enabled real-time photo processing. This is an immensely powerful combination as it enables you to leverage the full benefits of multi-shot which include panoramas, noise reduction, long exposure, night shooting, depth mapping (and multi-shot bokeh), time-lapse, and hyper-lapse amongst others. Smartphone manufacturers have been rapid to innovate in this space producing imagery that belies the relatively humble cameras inside their hardware.
Camera manufacturers weren't exactly idle during this period, placing digital fully and firmly center stage, settling on mirrorless as the platform of choice, and making technical innovations (such as image stabilization and improved lens designs) to significantly improve the quality of image output. However, what the smartphone has shown is that people want instant gratification through social media and photos are the communication medium of choice. The market required photos — a lot of them — just not from standalone cameras.
The implosion of the camera market is well documented but has nothing to do with the quality of the product. Rather it was the needs of the consumer; people needed good enough photos and the smartphone was able to supply these. The pool of photographers who require great images from the best hardware is much smaller and it's this sector that camera manufacturers now find themselves servicing.
What can camera manufacturers do to increase the utility of existing cameras?
The Post-Production Conundrum
How can camera manufacturers compete with the smartphone? Post-production is an obvious area and there are two potential options. Before looking at those it's pertinent to state that image sharing is probably the single most important outcome and so a key assumption is that the smartphone will be tethered, in the same way you would tether your smartwatch or Bluetooth headphones.
One solution open to manufacturers is to offload images in real-time, pushing all the processing to the smartphone, making the camera a dumb device. For this to be a practical option fast data transfer is needed, perhaps via WiFi Direct, and it needs to be seamless. You take the photo and the smartphone does all the clever processing for you. In essence, marry the quality of the sensor and lens, with the processing of the smartphone. This has been tried before with devices such as the Sony QX1 and hit two problems. Firstly consumers want to use the smartphone to view the image in real-time and edit it, which means you somehow need to affix the sensor-lens combo to it; an ergonomic nightmare if ever there was one. The second is even more problematic in that you need to be able to ensure operability with iOS and all the different flavors of Android. In short, it's not going to happen.
That leaves the second option which is to move all the clever processing onto entirely autonomous cameras that can stream the images in real-time to a smartphone. That solves both of the problems noted above, but means you need to roll a full generalized processing platform into camera firmware. That's no small feat to accomplish and so manufacturers have taken the easier option of shoehorning Android into their cameras; this isn't a match made in heaven and if anyone could do it then it would have been Samsung with the Galaxy NX. It didn't last long. Nikon tried with the CoolPix S800c and more recently there has been the Zeiss Z1.
Those three products probably say everything that needs to be said about the Android camera. What we really need is a manufacturer to develop their own fully-fledged multi-shot post-production software that's fully integrated into their firmware. Sure there have been a few stabs at multi-shot integration through real-time long exposure and panoramas, but these are bespoke processing algorithms. What we really need is an open architecture where third-party plugins can be loaded onto the platform and directly access camera hardware via APIs to help kick start the sort of innovation we are seeing on iOS and Android. This could be night shots, HDR, long exposure, and time-lapse, through to frames, stickers, and automated retouching. Given smartphone tethering, you could have a built-in app store to purchase them, in much the same way that you can buy plugins for Photoshop.
Current versions of camera firmware are just far too restrictive with limited iterative upgrades having been bolted on over the years, regurgitating more of the same. We also shouldn't underestimate the technical challenge involved with software engineering, which could well see an increase in the price of hardware required to edit 40-megapixel raw files.
The professional photographer is not going anywhere: you will always need top-end shooters for top-end jobs. Where money is to be made is in being able to manufacture middle-tier cameras at scale, targeting the conspicuous consumer who has money to spend and can see value in a device that couples quality hardware with post-production. What manufacturers seem to be doing is chasing after a dwindling pool of high-end users with upgrades coming from doing the same thing better rather than an innovative step-change. Zeiss should be applauded for the Z1 as it indicates a direction of travel but let's not kid ourselves that it is anything other than a test product to see if it could be production manufactured and whether users would purchase it. We've been here before and it didn't work. Is there a manufacturer willing to step up and take the risk? One thing for sure, there isn't a huge amount of money being made in-camera sales at the moment but something needs to give. Let's hope it's innovation rather than implosion.