Are Phones Making Cameras Extinct?

Camera sales are declining rapidly. There is seemingly nothing that we can do about it.

Some think that cameras will be extinct soon enough, while others argue that cameras will still have a place in the market, albeit not a large one. So, is the future dull for cameras or is it not? Let's find out. A recent article discussed the future of the camera manufacturer. Of course, a mention of smartphones was made, which got me wondering: In what state is smartphone photography now, and how far has it evolved? Do smartphones have the potential to make cameras extinct? 

If you’re looking for a quick answer to the last question, the answer is yes. I believe there will come a time when smartphones have reached and even overtaken consumer cameras. I need to make an important distinction between professional and consumer cameras here. The professionals will always use a camera, and I don’t see phones replacing professional cameras. However, phones are already replacing many consumer cameras. For this article, we will differentiate professionals simply by their occupation: a professional photographer has photography as a significant stream of income, a non-professional doesn't.

Why Do Most People Buy Cameras?

In order to properly analyze the niche that smartphones filled, we need to take a step back and look at why people buy cameras in the first place. Historically, cameras were used to take holiday pictures and to capture fun memories. I reckon not as many people were interested in photography as an art as they were in a medium that allowed for easy capture of memories. The point and shoot market was designed for people who wanted to create memories. Cameras were the only option at that time. In a way, camera manufacturers had a monopoly over the “memory-making” business. The rise of phone cameras disrupted the market. By a lot.  

When phones were first introduced, they didn’t have the best cameras. Still, they were smaller and much more versatile than a dedicated camera. As technology rapidly evolved, iPhones started having better and better cameras capable of capturing great images. The "Shot on iPhone" campaign was the culmination of that. Once people realized that they don’t need an extra item to take photos of Uncle Bill and Aunt Maggie, they ditched the dedicated camera. 

In What State Is Smartphone Photography Now and How Far Did It Evolve?

At the moment, computer technologies are evolving faster than ever. If cars had evolved at the same rate, we would have a car that would do 0-60 in 0.0034 sec, have 660,764,192 hp, and cost under $5,000 (via Jalopnik). All this means simply that phones are more efficient at doing the job cameras did. What is more, smartphone photography is going further than just being efficient. 

Portrait Mode

Apple’s portrait mode, with a series of different lighting settings, is a prime example of that. They are trying to evolve smartphones to the point where they will be as good as cameras to the untrained eye. Sometimes, the differences are only noticeable at 100% crop. This suggests that cameras will be pushed even further. 

Off-Camera Flash

Smartphone photography is also getting its own lighting products, such as the Profoto C1 Plus or their AirX technology that was released in 2020. AirX allows one to sync flashes to phones. This virtually means a new era for smartphone photography, where anyone can use their phone instead of a camera. Phones are catching up to what cameras used to offer. 

Canon is throwing themselves under the bus here. While Profoto is bringing flash to smartphones, Canon is limiting creatives by removing the center pin in their hot-shoe mounts. The center pin is used for firing the off-camera flash. Essentially, that means you are limited to Canon's Speedlite range if you want off-camera flash for beginner cameras. 

Social Media

With the rise of social media, it became a lot easier to snap a pic on the phone and send it in the DM's. Taking a picture on a camera, putting the memory card in the computer, and then sending it to the phone is way too long for our current age of instant gratification. It almost feels like shooting on film, if you ask me. Although I prefer to admire most things rather than take a picture of them, when the Instagram story calls, I am getting my phone out because it's quicker, not my camera because it's better. Although camera manufacturers brought WiFi to their later models, they really need to up their game with social media integration in their cameras. Who knows, maybe the next Sony or Canon will have Instagram pre-installed? 

Do Smartphones Even Have the Potential To Make Cameras Extinct?

Smartphones are very powerful tools, and seeing how they have evolved in the past makes me wonder if they can really replace amateur cameras. I think yes, there will be a time when amateur cameras will be fully replaced by smartphones. However, before that is possible, technology has to evolve to the point of being able to accurately replicate the results that a camera would give. Moreover, if the lighting is to be added as an accurate feature in smartphones, the physics of light has to be interpreted well enough.

At the moment, iPhone’s portrait mode is rather useless when it comes to accurate lighting effects. When it comes to background blur, phones still get it wrong. It looks and feels rather fake. The way iPhones do it makes it look like the subject is perfectly in focus and standing against an inadequately blurred background. However, if the same effect were to be achieved with lenses and apertures, there would be a slightly different feel. While iPhone determines what the background is and blurs it, a lens loses sharpness as it moves further from the exact focus distance. Therefore, although the subject is acceptably sharp, it is still clear that there is a loss of clarity. That said, I would be excited to see AI-enabled photographic effects for phones. The technology has a lot to improve on before that happens, though. 

As of 2021, cameras are no longer being bought by families going to Florida or Hawaii. Point and shoot sales are in rapid decline. However, the number of photo enthusiasts seems to be ever-growing, meaning that the entry-level camera market is aimed at people interested in photography, not in need of photography. The professional market is as strong as it was, and it will remain that way. I don’t see phones ever being a replacement for full frame or medium format cameras. The biggest problem with phones for professionals is what makes them great for amateurs: size. Sensor size is one of the most crucial technical elements to high-end commercial photography. That is the reason digital medium format cameras can cost $60,000. Their sensor allows for unparalleled image quality as well as dynamic range. The physics of sensors is set in stone; no matter how good phones get, they will not replace professional cameras. 

Closing Thoughts 

Smartphone photography is one of the fastest-evolving genres. Social media is helping that rise tremendously. So, to answer the question I asked at the start: yes, smartphones have the potential to replace entry-level and amateur cameras completely. 

What do you think? Are smartphones going to make cameras extinct? Have you already upgraded to a smartphone? Are mirrorless cameras going to make the situation better and give camera companies new hope? Let me know in the comments.

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29 Comments

J.d. Davis's picture

"There is seemingly nothing that we can do about it."

Really??? -

BUY MORE CAMERAS!

Eric Segarra's picture

Sure, there's a lot the camera companies could do to fight this battle, but sadly, they don't seem to want to. The result will inevitably be that at the price point of smartphones, such market concessions by the main camera companies, will leave non-pro and prosumers customers with very little option but to buy those smartphone cameras with their ever-increasing capabilities. That the camera tech of such companies like Sony, Leica, and Hasselblad are continuously being introduced into phone optics, will only lead to the increase of their market share at the sub-$1,500 consumer market. If camera companies intend to fight for that camera segment, they better start putting on a fight, and soon. And if they claim that they are fighting it right now, then for some reason, not too many people are noticing. Time is not on their side.

J.d. Davis's picture

Here's a novel idea: One camera company that a really good camera and multiple 3rd party manufacturers that make seriously good lenses.

I find the 'adapters' to use legacy lenses laughable...

but hey, it's just my opinion

Sam Sims's picture

You say there’s a lot camera companies can do but don’t elaborate.

Mike Shwarts's picture

I'm not sure phones are more efficient. Maybe efficient in specific areas. It is easier to quickly share a photo online that is made with a phone. But today's cameras can send a photo to the phone. If camera companies made that process easier, it would make cameras more appealing to people who gave up cameras for phones.

Phones are not all that efficient in taking photos. No viewfinders (optical or electronic) and no flip up/down screens make phones a pain to use with the sun behind the photographer, or when the phone needs to be held significantly higher or lower than eye level. Their ergonomics suck. Hard to hold securely. Hard to hold relatively still when they are usually held at arm's length. Tapping the screen to take the photo adds to that. Sure you can add an app that lets you use the volume buttons for shutter release, but the buttons are towards the center of the edge of the phone. A hand has to cover part of the screen to reach those buttons. A dedicated shutter button on the near a corner would make more sense. More like a camera.

If I'm not carrying a large camera, I put the phone in one pocket and a RX100 in another pocket. A small dedicated camera is still better than a phone for many photo opportunities. And the time it takes to connect the phone to the camera's wifi and send a photo to the phone isn't that bad. Might be agonizing for today's kiddies, but I grew up with developing and printing my own film or sending out for somebody to do it. Then I had to get the prints in the hands of somebody else to share the image. A few extra minutes is nothing.

WestEndFoto .'s picture

The author is discounting the enthusiast market, which I am in. Even if it is only making memories, we want to do it really well. And if you are like me, you are motivated by many things, including making art.

I would break down the market as follows:

1.
Professional.
2.
Enthusiast - ten times bigger than the professional I would estimate. And frankly, many enthusiasts have more talent than many professionals.
3.
Entry level - this is effectively gone, though there is still a need for entry level cameras as many enthusiasts have small budgets. And a $1,000 kit, well chosen, can make better images than any phone (1) will ever make.

(1)
You can make a phone that is like a camera - say a D6, But who would want to use it as a phone? I will define a phone as roughly the size of the largest IPhone or smaller. A phone that fits in these parameters will never equal a D3500 with a kit lens in quality.

Marinos Herodotus's picture

I totally agree with you, especially on point '2'. I'm an enthusiast, I have owned a bunch of top of the line cameras, but I only shoot for myself. I've never entered a competition, never shot anything for money, but I've owned 13 bodies, from 3 different manufacturers, 25 lenses, from 4 different manufacturers, 5 tripods, 3 monopods, and a heap of accessories. I know several other enthusiasts who regularly upgrade like I do. I don't need to justify the expense with a business plan, I just have to want it and that's enough justification.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Regarding 2, every amateur says that until they turn pro.
Let me elaborate on this. I once was shooting a filtration system for a big plastic company. At the end of the day, the CEO who was present part of the day, tells me how lucky I was with such a job. Think about it, all my work ends up on a boss or CEO’s desk soon or late, how different is it really from their job? If I fail, I’m out. We have a lot of room for creativity and suggestions, but in the end the knife falls when the client decides and as photographers, we don’t have 2 hours to play around to figure it out. For what I charge I have to make them happy, not me happy but them happy. That’s the real world of pro photography and I enjoy it for the past 20+ years. If I can create what a client comes to me for and they come back, it’s very satisfying, at least to me. Having a great portfolio of images that most clients don’t need is fantastic, but doesn’t do anything. I’ve known photographers with just that, beautiful everything, perfect everything but despite appearing full time pros, they can’t get the work and have other incomes. What they want to do is either not a market or in an over saturated market and they can’t allow themselves to shoot anything other than what they know. I’m not mad at your comment but you really need to look at photography in someone else’s perspective otherwise you quickly fall in that trap where a mom learns you are a photographer therefore decides you are a wedding photographer.

Rhonald Rose's picture

I have seen it the other way around. They start with mobile, then they start seeing a need (focal range, etc for travel) and then they get a descent camera.

Smartphones took the market that was never for dedicated camera and it's okay. It made entry into photography simpler, and then the serious ones got into photography.

Alistair Bushby's picture

Spot on. When I started getting into photography a few years back my progression was phone; bridge camera; Nikon D5400;Nikon D7200; Nikon D850

M C's picture

Has anyone considered that maybe the decline in camera sales might be related to the fact that cameras are so good now that they meet the needs of most photographers? Why keep upgrading when your current camera fits the bill, especially with the continuously rising costs of the next gen body?

Leon Kolenda's picture

I agree, I have owned far too many Camera Kits, and now have settled for what my needs are and for the first time, I'm satisfied, both with my cameras and All my Glass. The only way I would upgrade to new bodies, would be, if the sensor was so good in dynamics that very little to No noise was discernable, and with todays Ai programs and plug-ins for noise reduction and enlargement, that sensor would have to be very, very good.

In regards to Smartphone cameras I hate using them, period! They are great for taking snap-shots of things for personal use, but not for creative, not for me anyway.

Kurt Hummel's picture

I don't ever see a phone replacing my R5 and 600 F4.

Peter Page's picture

My main camera is the SonyA7riii. Lens 24-70 GM . My failsafe in my pocket is the iphone12 pro .
The new iPhone has a RAW setting which I use and creates pics which only just about cause me to still prefer the 42mpix Sony to the iPhone 12 mpix .
Resolution still goes to Sony , of course .
But AI and algorithms in the IPhone make is so super user friendly and rewarding …. Until you start to enlarge .
Having said that , I find the iPhone can easily give a great print to A3 .
I reckon , 2 more generations of iPhone then it’ll be curtains for conventional cameras .

Daniel Lee's picture

Unless phones all of a sudden start using dedicated lenses or either APSC and FF sensors I see it being highly unlikely. Even the newest phones have very poor sensor performance when you shoot them in RAW/DNG and only get better performance from bracketing (Apple Proraw).

Benjamin Hines's picture

In my perspective, I don't see phones replacing cameras, not in the enthusiast-pro level anyway. Far too many facets & capabilities cameras still hold, the future is mirror less there.

Camera phones have come a long way, computational capabilities propelled the Pixel line to elite status. However, for professional shoots, landscape, cars, astro, real estate, my Z6/Z7 is always used. For the most part, even for travel shots.

My Pixel 4 XL, which is a great phone gets used for food overlays at times. It's a backup, and used for quick clips on social media.

Jason Savelsberg's picture

There is one thing that smartphone cannot and will not be able to do because of physics, and that is wildlife photography. So no, cameras will not go extinct. Not unless they magically figure out a way to match the image quality of a dedicated camera with a fast 300mm, 400mm or 500mm lens.

Ray Sweeting's picture

This topic is getting old hat and becoming click bait.

Lawrence Huber's picture

Younger people are rediscovering film SLRs.
They also will discover digital ILCs as well.
For the family trip there will be the indatmatic majority using cell phones. Then a good size group who still will use ILCs who appreciate the quality and this has not changed in many decades.
The camera will survive and thrive into the foreseeable future.
Just not in the huge numbers it had before but still big numbers.

JuiH Tan's picture

i think the author has omitted the fact, which is covered elsewhere, that smartphones, in particular the iPhone, have become very good at video. a few months ago i was doing casual video recording of a visit by relatives to our home and i found that the footage from the iPhone 11 was very acceptable compared to footage from my Canon EOS R shot in Clog and then colour graded. i think if i were more skilled at colour grading my Canon footage would turn out much better however the iPhone did something really good in holding the highlights with its HDR video.

Joe Bodego's picture

The answer is simple, as someone who's looking at over $50,000 in photography equipment in my basement everyday that would never be used ever again, the reason is we don't need the ability to take photos that would fit the size of a small family house. And with the high price of cameras, photography would be in the hands of the elite or those who can afford them. Imagine a $4,000 photography world?. I absolutely love the fact that a regular guy can create an awesome photo with his phone, the professionals with their $5,000 cameras and $7,000 lenses should be crying now.. I LOVE IT..

Benoit Pigeon's picture

This is wrong, that's not the way business works. First there is an absurd number of people who assume that camera gear IS photography. I have a stand that's worth over $10k that is super steady that I am using for a huge copy work project right now. We have 4 size samples, 3 of them copied from the stand vertically down. The stand has graduations and I can go back up and down any time the client gives me a new batch with different sample sizes and match previous groups. When they come back in a year, I have all the info to match lights and stand logged in a file backed up in the current job folder. That stand is 25 years old, it is just paying for itself this year again and using a tripod would be very unproductive, a nightmare.
Phones don't last, their life expectancy is about 2-3 years and if you want to stay on top, you have to replace yours each year. Camera life cycle right now can easily go 8 years, lenses .... 20+? Do the math a camera is an investment and at the end of the day a $1500.00 phone is a terrible investment for a photographer. I could not do my work with the best phone today, it would simply not work to make a living. This said, my old phone makes perfect back up details for repeat work or place things the way they were when I come to a shoot and need to put everything back in place. If your $50k investment has not produced anything that is not the gear that is the problem.

Chad L's picture

I think we should stop referring to them as phones... I don't know about anyone else's habits, but 95% of my usage has nothing to do with the phone aspect of my phone (web browsing, Netflix, shopping apps, etc). If not for text messaging, that number would be damn near 99%.

For me, I carry around a computer that can make occasional phone calls.

Is there a phone out there with a sensor comparable to a full frame DSLR? I'm assuming the answer is no but you never know what crazy proof of concept products companies will come out with... The problem with phones replacing cameras begins when you need lenses. I know there's a couple oddball add-on lenses for some phones but they're extremely niche and more of a novelty versus something a professional would use. As long as lenses are needed and utilized, there will always be a need for actual cameras.

Sam Sims's picture

Unfortunately, smartphones are brilliant at the many things they do but turning them into professional cameras has problems, not least the ergonomics and the way you take a picture, having to use the touchscreen for all controls instead of dedicated dials. Changing (fake) aperture on a smartphone is a very clunky experience and in no way better than a dial or aperture ring. Also how do you effectively recreate different lenses characteristics?

Trying to add more smartphone features into ILC’s is hugely problematic too as it’s easy to see the ergonomics and small LCD are less than ideal for touchscreen and internet features, not to mention the unnecessary extra battery drain. Also cameras already struggle with heat dissipation, thanks to advanced video specs.It would stand out as a second rate attempt at competing with smartphones.

I’ve not even touched on recreating the look of different sensor (film) sizes - FF/medium format/large format.

Tom Reichner's picture

Illya said,

"Some think that cameras will be extinct soon enough"

Actually, Illya, I have never heard anyone say that they think cameras will be extinct. Never read it anywhere. Never heard it anywhere. I don't think that anyone actually thinks that.

Is it possible that you created a "straw man" as the sole basis for this article?

Illya Ovchar's picture

Hi Tom, thanks for commenting. Point and shoot cameras aimed at tourists and travelers are the backbone of that statement.

Tom Reichner's picture

Well, yes, that one type of camera may well be discontinued from any further manufacturing, but that is a far cry from "going extinct".

I do suspect that perhaps someone is overstating their point, and not being entirely realistic and literal when they use the word "extinct" in such a context. Extinct means that something does not exist any more, that there are none to be found, anywhere in the universe.

I cannot imagine that will ever be the case with cameras. There are simply too many hundreds of millions of them in too many millions of places throughout the Earth, for them all to completely disappear or be permanently destroyed.

The old-fashioned typewriters that use ribbons are not extinct, as I see dozens of them at antique stores and flea markets every year. Rotary dial telephones are not extinct. Nor are 8 track tape players. So for anyone to think that cameras are going to become extinct anytime soon seems ridiculous to me.

Greg Conquest's picture

It’s disappointng that you didn’t mention periscope lenses. These are just being integrated into phones now, with maybe the iPhone 14 in 2022 being the first iPhone to have one. One of the two weak points for camera integration into a phone is that the thinness of the phone limits the lens elements, especially a zoom mechanism. Periscope lenses will take much of that advantage to dedicated cameras off the table.

The biggest weak point of dedicated cameras now, as I see it, is in their interface/software/other-device integration (“social media”, for the author). What I want in my next dedicated camera is the ability to shoot photos at will, saving RAW and jpeg/hevc to the camera and easily, hopefully automatically, transferring the jpeg/hevc to my iPad for editting in the field (and then sharing and archiving as well … and maybe having more rounds of computational photography automatically applied then). There is some software for some cameras for this, but forums are full of people who have problems getting this to work, and some cameras and their horrible apps just don’t have some functionality.

This one problem alone will cotinue to drive people toward smartphone cameras, and I think it is camera makers who are repeatedly dropping the ball on this.