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What Must Camera Manufacturers Do to Challenge the Smartphone?

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 Future?

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.

Lead image courtesy wwwakalanithi765 via Pixabay, used under Creative Commons. Body images courtesy of Morio (used under Creative Commons) and copyright Zeiss.

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37 Comments

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Calm down, camera manufacturers are making plenty of money. Canon has almost already entirely replaced it's DSLR line.

John Keegan's picture

Agreed. I don't think mobile photos are as good as people make them out to be anyway, with all this post production that everyone is talking about they somehow still manage to oversharpen to the point of ugliness.

frank nazario's picture

wich sucks btw... I would prefer firmware upgrades to that body format than the ridiculous mirrorless crap.

Tom Reichner's picture

Hmmm. I'm not so sure about that. They are not making as much net profit as they did in the early 2000s. And the ultimate goal is to keep increasing net profits, not to settle for less. If I owned a significant amount of stock in Canon or Nikon, I wouldn't be satisfied with the current profit levels.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Back, up to about late 2005, Dslrs were almost exclusively APS-C. It's only around 2010-11 that the market reached it's peak and started dropping. Early 2000 were not the booming years selling Dslrs and lenses. Today mirrorless contribute to selling a lot of new more expensive lenses. The cameras are smaller with less moving parts yet cost more than ever. R&D can't be the same as the early 2000s, manufacturers have gained so much knowledge. Comparatively, phone companies master AI to make something crappy from tiny sensors look good but it didn't start that way.
I don't see their cost of production not getting cheaper. Fact is, no one beside manufacturers themselves knows where they loss or profit or even what their actual cost can be. Personally, I think that just like phone manufacturers heavily rely one their camera features to sell and advertise new models, camera manufacturers have gained a lot of buyers from the increased video capacities. I'm not sure that more than a tiny fraction of buyers actually use the video features frequently if ever, but manufacturers can keep the price up that way. The phone sales techniques are already there with video on Dslrs and mirror less and I see it being far more profitable than say a D30, 10D or any camera prior to the 5D that made full frame "affordable" for the first time. The 5D came out in short supply in October 2005 meaning that it really should be counted as a 2006 model and far from the early 2000s. Camera sales and profit are two but we have more models coming out each year now than we did back in the early days of Dslrs. The only thing that has dropped are the number of buyers and it's about back to where film camera volume was before the transition.

Tom Reichner's picture

When I say early 2000s I mean the first 10 or 12 years of the century. Just like when people say the early 1900s, they don't just mean 1900 to 1905.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Okay, we can look the time frame literally over a century, I get it.
To me in photography, the timeline is fragmented where the 90's was mostly a digital back era (regarding quality results), then 1999 to the 5D, 2006 to the peak (2010-2011) then the drop and the MR era.

Tom Reichner's picture

Any way we look at it, camera manufacturers, collectively, aren't making as much as they did 10 or 15 years ago. To me, that means they're not making enough. I don't think anyone should ever accept making less than they used to. We may have to endure it, but we should never think of it as acceptable.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

What ever they make, I see it as their problem. Only manufacturers themselves know the actual cost of their product and I don't expect them to share it. Same way, I don't see a $1200 phone costing them much more than a $600 phone to manufacture. I'd say, it's probably best to not know much about what it cost them to manufacture phones or cameras, that could upset many people.

Now lets compare
2004 - Canon 20d, 8mp - $1500.00
2021 - Canon T7, 24mp - $500.00

Clearly if a much improved low end camera can cost a third of what a similar model would cost 12 years ago, this is an indication that none of us should ever worry about those companies cost and profit is. Not saying the 20D didn't have a better build but still the difference in time and improvements should not add up to 2/3 decrease in price.

Daniel Lee's picture

I’d like to see cameras implement more computational features to their entry level cameras. So if you shoot JPEG only you’d have all the features of a smartphone but your image wouldn’t look bad on a big screen like a smartphone photo does.

Smartphone RAW files on iPhone at least generally fall apart, unless you use pro res Raw which is pretty much a heavily bracketed edited file and not a true raw.

Eric Segarra's picture

That would be a start with some much needed improvements, but it is much more than that. The whole idea of the traditional camera format for the everyday consumer market needs a total rethink. Travel anywhere in the world and what you see is consumers enamored of small sizes, pocketable cameras, automation simplifying their lives (time lapses, video, HDR, portrait modes, filters, etc., etc.). Push-button simplicity and quick editing software with AI embedded in it. Basically, cameras that can be immediately used while disembarking from a train, driving down the road, in a pub when someone wants to give a toast, and a myriad of other mundane human interactions. Quick, uncomplicated, socially connected, and back in your pocket. This will not be today's DSLRs or Mirrorless boxes, but something new, exciting, and cool for the younger consumers of today who will be around for a long time. Ignore them and they will ignore you while giving billions of dollars to the smartphone makers. In fact, they are already doing it.

kellymckeon's picture

The best way for manufacturers to compete with smartphones is simply, don't.

Unrelated to the particular article, but related to photography. I used to ask myself, how can I compete with others utilizing photoshop, my answer. Stop using it, lol.

frank nazario's picture

so your work is SOOC? right... of course you have a camera that has exposure contrast iso and shutter speed and shadow detail and highlight details and of course your style of photography nailed down on the camera.... please.
EVEN ANSEL ADAMS spent 6 moths of his every years in his darkroom editing his photos...

kellymckeon's picture

Frank, nice to meet ya. Wow. No discourse, just throw that right back at me as if I was not being humorous. I suppose our world reads to react, rather than read to understand.

There is plenty of photoshop in a lot of my photography. If you research any of my work and comments, you would hear my angst on the very topic of photoshop. My brain is not equipped for all the adjustments one could make— It's simply too many choices for me personally.

Since you and I share some genres, I'll offer my personal approach.

Event photography, yup, straight from the camera. Not going to retouch thousands of images. If I messed up during capture, it's eliminated immediately. Many times, that really sucks for me.

Editorial. Yup, straight from the camera because editorial is based on truth in article, journalism.

Interiors, yup, straight from the camera except to straighten what I got wonky or remove something incorrect, broken, ugly, etc.

Conceptual, glamour, and fun. Lots of Photoshop, paint, and 3d injected.

You can agree that images are perfectly okay without our intervention right?

In fact, much of my work has been critiqued for not utilizing post processes, and that is what brought me to Fstoppers, to perhaps learn from others, like yourself Frank, and perhaps see, discuss different way to strengthen my work.

Anyway Frank, the upper part of my comment I stand by. Camera manufacturers should not spend their time trying to compete with smart phone manufactures. If they do, they may as well jump full throttle into the engineering and learn to make their DSLR's into phones. This way, they will have one upped the phone companies with the very best of both worlds.

Last, Im a photographer and my interests are in creating with the camera, a superb engineered device, and less with software in which my brain cannot keep up, and I'm certainly not trying to emulate Ansel Adams. I'm trying to be me.

The beer is on me Frank, I like meeting fellow photographers.

tim Matthews's picture

I think the ability to load non-proprietary applications on to a camera to enhance its functionality is the best way forward - you can do this on some Sony cameras to a limited degree. I understand running an OS that supports this is battery hungry and / or requires on-chip capabilities which leads to expense, but there are phone capabilites that are truly amazing and money is now being poured in to phone lens and sensors to leverage the applications'abilities.
I think Nikon dabled with an Android capable camera at some stage (please correct if wrong), and I saw this as a way forward but it didnt gain traction.
I had a P30 Pro phone a couple of years ago and was blown away by its capabilities - handheld Milky Way shots with 15 second exposures - all movement dealt with within the camera application - as were 30+ minute star trail exposures. Sure, the image quality wasnt as per big cameras, but this is a function of the hardware. I could even do daytime long exposures without over exposure!
As a D850 user, I dream of such in-camera software capabilities.

A decent 'big'camera with an open platform - how does this not already exist?

frank nazario's picture

samsung had a compact camera that was AWESOME and it behaved like a smartphone... never caught on...amazing image quality great functionality but people thought they where buying and android phone with a big lens.

David Pavlich's picture

It would be difficult at best because the vast majority those that use phone cameras only are happy with the results and are willing to deal with the limitations of a phone camera. The only way to change that is to get these people more interested in photography beyond snapshots. They have to want better results and want more options to get those results.

frank nazario's picture

exactly. when you grab a 45 megapixel photo edited to your heart content and then drop it in the web to be viewed in a 5.7 inch screen ... well, you get the picture its a total overkill.

David Pavlich's picture

True that. And if that's all one does with their images, then having uber expensive, high end gear becomes questionable.

Charles Torrealba's picture

I’m surprised a company like Phase One who makes great cameras and a fantastic processing software with Capture One isn’t jumping at the opportunity of creating something unique with camera and in camera processing for a mid tier market.

As an UX designer I could see this working.

Tony Northrup's picture

First, they need to go back and ask this question in 2008. In 2021, they've probably permanently lost the consumer camera market. They've broken that cycle of children growing up seeing their parents using "real cameras" and then buying one themselves.

Without the consumer camera market, it's going to be impossible to reach the volumes necessary to invest enough in R&D to compete at the pace of computational photography development led by Apple, Google, Samsung, and others. From a profit standpoint, it might be the right strategy to just keep doing what they've been doing, minimizing R&D costs while selling cameras and lenses to a continually shrinking demographic of professionals and older enthusiasts.

But I hope at least one big company an Android OS... not necessarily so you can run TikTok on your camera (though live streaming with high quality optics could look awesome) but just so their internal developers can use modern development tools and APIs. Cameras could connect to Google Drive (if you wanted) instead of just archaic FTP without even folder browsing. Developers could more rapidly develop computational photography techniques, such as image stacking, that allow me to take 10-second handheld photos of stars with my iPhone. They could integrate basic anti-theft technologies and reduce the number of photographers getting mugged in the streets.

I've been begging for this for a decade and it hasn't happened so it probably won't.

Tony Northrup's picture

(dupe)

Michael Krueger's picture

For the average person it doesn't matter what camera manufacturers do, they won't be bothered to carry another device around. The convenience of always having a camera with you because it's built into a device you already carry with you is hard to beat.

Simon Hartmann's picture

This topic is artificial bloat. Phones have grown but are still far from the IQ and experience/handling (!) and flexibility of proper Cameras. BUT: they offer convienence and connectivity, AND: they are available (you would have an iphone anyways most of the time, if it takes decent snapshots why buy an extra camera?) So its clear they would replace the point- & shoots (that has already happened). But they are for from ideal for actual WORK. So, for sophisticated users or pros, where speed & efficience plays even more of a role then just basic IQ its a non-option. Phones will prob. eventually offer the same IQ like higher end cams, so i will gladly use them for snapshots because i have with me all the time, but i would never go out & photograph or film with it (not on a pro gog anyway), because the style of controls and handling just isnt fast/efficient for pro-Work imo. Thats more then IQ…abd yeah, the IQ is still far, far off if we look deeper then just instagram.
I WOULD however love a camera that does what current sony a7s3/R5 do with an integrated smartphone interface and display (mostly the display tho) and much improved connectivity options (easy edit & share on the device, better wireless options…)

Tom Reichner's picture

I love that the author did not use a clickbait title for this article. Thanks so much for that! Because of that, you are earning my respect back.

Andy Kochendorfer's picture

I wish Apple would produce an full frame or APS-C interchangeable lens camera with a screen the size of a small iPhone to bring computational photography to a higher quality level. I enjoy being able to process images in the field while I am in the presence of the scene and can draw from it. Sadly, those iPhone pics don't print very large.

Tom Reichner's picture

Why connect the camera to a phone? Instead, just put everything that's in a phone into the camera.

I mean, why not put an Android operating system, a WIFI connection, a data/cell connection, a speaker, screen, and apps into the camera?

I like larger camera bodies that fit my hands comfortably (like my Canon 1D4 and 5D4), so a little bit of added size would actually be an advantage, not a disadvantage.

Ideally, I should be able to surf the internet, send texts, stream movies on Netflix, and make phone calls with my high end interchangeable lens camera. No reason on earth a camera shouldn't be able to do everything that my phone does, plus a whole lot more.

Matthew Hartman's picture

Yes, yes. But could it also brew coffee, make toast and have reminders that you're spending too much time with it and not your disenfranchised wife?

Mike Shwarts's picture

Why not do what is mentioned in some of the comments? Build a camera with a phone in it. Stick fairly close to form and size of phones, but start with what camera companies do best. The camera. Then build the phone around it. You now have a product that appeals to people who only carry a phone and those who carry both, but you get a good camera in it. You are taking some business from Apple, Samsung, Google etc.

With the extra income from the phone business, they could afford to bring some of the phone's AI features and other improvements to regular cameras. I think that is the only way to do it. A phone in an ILC is not going to work even with fairly small cameras. You can't stick it in a pocket and it is awkward to use as a phone or mini computer. Go for something like a Galaxy K Zoom, but with a 1" sensor and wider apertures.

Tom Reichner's picture

I was thinking more of a large, heavy, fully professional flagship camera with a fully functional Android device built into it. With plenty of size to harbor a beast of a battery to power it all. I would love that!

Matthew Hartman's picture

Cinematic mode! Nevermind the fact that I've been preaching for decades about how large heafty cameras with huge matteboxes land you more work. Now, with cinematic mode I can show up to a gig with all the things that I previously and adamantly argued against with my phone! And clients should be super confident because it even says cinematic on the box. Wow!

I love when my hypocrisy reveals my incognito salesmanship for my sponsors. Can't wait to early adopt the next big thing.

Midwest Photo64's picture

They can’t compete with a phone - full stop. Any parent with a bag of c&@% doesn’t want to add more c&@%. The real question is “Where do phones fall short?” What would make a person take something additional. Zoom/ long reach activities. Physics make sure phones will never fit that type of shooting. They need to put the pro level AF and response times in a super zoom body with a ridiculously good low light sensor for kid activities. And just make sure it connects easily to a phone. That is the only market segment that remains and replenishes itself.

I use a A7s II to basically do that, and it works fairly well but is still clunky. Phones can easily handle the small 12mp files and it just destroys in IQ to everyone else around me. If it works really well, then MP, sensor size, 4k etc doesn’t matter. If there was a killer low light 8mp-16mp sensor that could easily reach 600mm equivalent full frame, that could fit into a small bag, for about $1,000-$1,300, that would zip through the market. I used Nikon J1 with the 1” sensor and a 70-300mm and it was so close to that. With today’s AF and low light, if updated, that would be killer. Stop asking/pushing/thinking that camera manufacturers need to be more like phones and focus on what phones can’t do. You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole without cutting it down.

kellymckeon's picture

Mike, did you change the title of the article after posting it?
Several of us commented on the article based on the title, please correct me if wrong.

Tom Reichner's picture

I first saw this article a few days ago when it came out, and the title now is the same as I remember seeing it then.

"What Must Camera Manufacturers Do To Challenge The Smartphone"

I even commented a few days ago, thanking the author for (finally) not using a clickbaitish title. And that straightforward title has not changed.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Not sure why you'd be overly concerned about it, unless you're having seconds thoughts about what you've written.

And, no, the title hasn't changed. Here's a cached look at the Oct 7 version.

https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:BDK3nq1gPagJ:https...

kellymckeon's picture

Appreciate the replies and thanks for correcting me. I thought the titled included, "...compete with smartphones". No second guesses on my original comment. Thanks again Tom, and Black Z Eddie.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

He said that in the 1st sentence in the 9th paragraph, "How can camera manufacturers compete with the smartphone?" :D