Phone Cameras Are Stagnant: Is This Good News for Real Cameras?

Phone Cameras Are Stagnant: Is This Good News for Real Cameras?

The Google Pixel line pushed the limits of what a phone’s camera could do, but the Pixel 5 looks like just a refinement, not a leap forward. The rumored specs for the iPhone 12 are similarly boring, particularly for regular photography. Is this setting the stage for real cameras to rise like a phoenix?

Apple, Google, and Samsung have started to run into the hard challenges of physics. For a sensor and lens combo that can realistically fit into a phone, you can only gather a certain amount of light. Sure, Sony’s IMX363 is an impressive bit of semiconductor engineering, cramming 12 megapixels onto a 1/2.55” sensor. The stacking and backside illumination have further boosted its performance, but it’s telling that this sensor is a couple years old and still being used for devices — nothing better has really come along.

Now, the spin on this sensor reuse is that it’s allowed the software engineers to refine the algorithms that power all the camera’s computational imagery tricks, but I think that’s an implicit acknowledgment of the actual issue, that software improvements have to be relied on over hardware. Don’t get me wrong, the software that powers smart HDR functions and things like Night Sight/Night Mode is incredibly impressive, but as everyone knows, you can’t always save a photo via Photoshop.

iPhone 11 cameras

There's only so much hardware you can fit into that space

A parallel can be drawn to another area of the semiconductor industry, processors, where clock speeds and IPC gains generation over generation have diminished. In the case of processors, some incredible work by TSMC has breathed life back into the space via AMD’s Ryzen line. Before that point, however, it was thought that better written, more readily parallelized software would be left to pick up the flag of Moore’s law. 

This reliance on software to pick up the slack of hardware has been the same trend shaping the last year or two of camera phones. To my mind, the addition of a quality ultra-wide angle lens has been the last significant hardware change in cellphone cameras. The periscope telephoto options are of very limited use and quality, while the 3D/Lidar rumors seem to be AR, not photography focused. For a very unscientific example, find a non-photographer friend with a veteran Instagram presence: those grainy, yellow tinged photos from 2012 are a far cry from what you’d get in 2016, while 2016 to 2020 is a much smaller improvement.

The User

Bringing it back to cameras and photographers, consider how many more people have been inspired to get into photography via the accessibility of Instagram and camera phones. The number of photos taken in a year varies by source, but most put it in the trillions, a huge increase from just a few years ago. All of this has been happening at the same time that camera sales have cratered.

There’s a myriad of reasons why people would prefer to shoot with their cell phone over a compact, mirrorless, or DSLR camera, and for many of those reasons, a phone will still remain the best option. For even a small percentage of that population of new photographers, however, they might want more from their hobby. Whether it’s more resolution, more editing potential, more lens options, real depth of field control, or something else, it’s likely that only a “real” camera will offer it.

Whether or not camera companies are actually poised to capture (or is it recapture?) this market is an open question. If you’re used to the shoot and share convenience of a phone, shooting, pulling a memory card, importing it into software, exporting it back to your phone, and finally uploading to IG can seem archaic. Tighter integration with computers, editing software, and the ubiquitous phone wouldn’t just benefit those picking up a camera for the first time, but also existing photographers.

The old guard of the camera industry also faces challenges in getting the marketing pitch fine-tuned and in front of the potential customer. Consider the buzz that’ll be generated by the upcoming iPhone announcement. Watch the immediate connection even an inexperienced photographers can draw between the new features and their photos, as can be seen in that keynote announcing the iPhone 11.

I’m not saying it has to be a trendy SV presser, nor have the polish of a trillion-dollar company renowned for their marketing, but they can definitely do better than what they’ve been doing. Take this quote from Nikon’s Z 5 announcement, a full frame mirrorless camera that would be perfect for a burgeoning “influencer” to step up their Instagram game with:

The Z 5 is a full frame mirrorless camera basic model that inherits the superior power of expression and reliability of the Nikon Z 7 and Z 6, while also balancing high-cost performance. It enables the rich expression of a wide variety of scenes, with an FX-format sensor capable of superior image quality and rendering capabilities in dark or dimly lit situations, and support for NIKKOR Z lenses that allows users to take advantage of beautiful blur characteristics (bokeh) to achieve a three-dimensional appearance with their imaging. 

Is that going to make sense to anyone who isn’t already well versed in photography (and even Nikon’s existing camera lineup)? It’s a further five paragraphs before you even reach the singular line about Snapbridge, a potentially key feature for photographers tied to their phones.

It's not just Nikon either. The last focused marketing message for a camera in my mind would be something like the video of the 5D Mark II or the ISO supremacy of the D3. What contemporary camera marketing seems to lack is a clear picture of what problem their product actually solves. "This is a cheaper model of another camera we make" isn't going to connect in the same way that this camera delivers more creative possibilities with our 100+ compatible Nikkor lenses ranging from fisheyes to sideline-ready telephotos could.

The Future

Phone sales aren’t going anywhere. Analysts figure that the 5G rollout could spur a huge cycle of upgrades, while the prevailing pandemic conditions have really dampened the “boyfriend holding girlfriend’s hand on a beach” Instagram market. Instead, what this period should be is a final wakeup call for camera companies. As things return to normal, they have the opportunity to refine their message and reach a market segment that’s looking for something more than their increasingly stale camera phone. This won’t just happen by chance, though. Camera manufacturers need to make a deliberate effort to appeal to them, to potentially change up everything from their marketing to their software and hardware design considerations.

I, like many photographers, started out with just a compact camera. As my passion for the hobby grew, I found that I was running into the technical limits of my gear and upgraded from there. I believe the same opportunity exists for this massive group of photographers who got started with their iPhone, Galaxy, or Pixel; camera companies just have to seize it.

Lead image courtesy of Devano23 and Nate_Dumlao

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Deleted Account's picture

Phone cameras are real cameras... I hate this narrative that they're somehow not.

James Michael's picture

My car has a clock and it's a real clock but if someone asked if I had a clock, unless I was in the car, I wouldn't think of it. Perhaps he should have written, "dedicated camera" but then they'd get fewer clicks and we wouldn't be talking about it. :-)

Alex Coleman's picture

A phone camera can still produce good shots, but its capabilities are inherently constrained by the formfactor. Like James mentioned, if someone asked if I had a camera, I'd be thinking about my DSLR or mirrorless cameras, not a phone first.

Deleted Account's picture

I could say the same thing about a compact camera. Doesn't mean it's not a real camera.

Alex Coleman's picture

A typical compact is effectively on the same tier as a cellphone at this point, in regards to capabilities vs a DSLR/mirrorless (perhaps even worse off). “Real camera” is just a bit of shorthand for that group of cameras beyond cellphones and compacts.

Deleted Account's picture

What about a TLR like a Rolleiflex? Would you consider that a "real camera"?

Alex Coleman's picture

Film’s going to be a different group, but yes, I’d argue TLR and film compact cameras can be grouped together, separate from rangefinders/SLRs.

That’s not really relevant to this use of “real camera”, though, which is inherently connected to the market conditions and environment facing DSLR/mirrorless cameras as of 2020.

Deleted Account's picture

Film's going to be in a different group? Why? There are people still shooting film professionally today and there are still manufacturers producing new film cameras so why why would it randomly be in a different group? Is it "real cameras" vs. "unreal cameras" vs. "film cameras"? "Real" and "unreal" are kind of binary, don't you think?

My point is that the term "real camera" is a crappy shorthand term because it implies that things that do not fall into that term shouldn't count as "real cameras". It's kind of like a professional photographer looking at a beginner and telling them "you're not a real photographer". No. The words "camera" and "photographer" have actual meanings so use those words according to the definition we all understand rather than sowing confusion by creating your own arbitrary definition for it. If you want to qualify the word, that's what adjectives are for.

Honestly, I doubt that you actually have a set criteria for how you categorize "real cameras" as opposed to whatever the other category might be named (I assume "unreal" or "fake" cameras) because it's really just shorthand for "cameras I happen to take seriously" as opposed to cameras that you don't take seriously. If you are going to go off and use words in a different manner from their agreed upon meaning while trying to convey an idea, it's your job to provide the definition you're working under so that we can clearly understand what you're saying. So why don't you clarify the precise criteria for determining what falls under "real camera" as used in the article and what doesn't? Ideally it would have been in the article itself under the heading "What do I specifically mean when I say "real camera"?.

And yes, I know that I'm making a bigger deal out of this than it probably is, but this is just a pet peeve of mine because this tendency to use words that we all understand in ways contrary to their definition as a form of showing nothing more than one's own approval or disapproval seems be becoming more common and it's annoying as hell.

James Michael's picture

I just remembered an earlier conversation with you, where you questioned whether shooting a landscape scene with shallow depth of field could still be considered landscape. In this case you seem to be taking the opposite approach. No point ... I just thought it was kind of funny. :-)

Deleted Account's picture

It's certainly a similar discussion since both hinge on how terms are defined. I don't see much difference in my stance on the matter in either case. I suppose my approach in this one is a bit more aggressive, but that's mainly because I've pretty much hit a threshold with this stuff in other areas of my life where people seem to constantly make up their own definitions for words and use them without explaining what they're actually talking about while expecting everyone to just magically understand.

James Michael's picture

I meant, in the former discussion you argued for a narrow definition of Landscape Photography but here, for a broad definition of camera. Again, it just struck me as kind of funny.

Deleted Account's picture

Am I asking for a broad definition of camera? In what way is the camera on a phone not a camera?

camera1[ kam-er-uh, kam-ruh ]
1. a device for capturing a photographic image or recording a video, using film or digital memory.
2. (in a television transmitting apparatus) the device in which the picture to be televised is formed before it is changed into electric impulses.

No, it's not traditionally what someone may think of when people talk about cameras, but neither is a shoebox with a piece of photographic paper inside and a hole punched in it to let light in, but those are cameras nonetheless. If someone wants to propose a different definition, then I suppose they're free to and we'll see if it's something that people will agree on or not. It would be pretty difficult to develop a definition of "camera" that could be consistently applied to everything that we would consider to be cameras, but exclude the cameras found in mobile phones, though.

James Michael's picture

Again, I just thought it was kinda funny.

Mike Shwarts's picture

I disagree. I think today's compacts are a cut above phone cameras. They have real zooms as opposed to digital. They have changeable apertures. Some have the ability to mount external flashes. The one inch sensors are much bigger than those in a phones. Just to name a few differences.

Alex Coleman's picture

Phones can have optical zooms and aperture control, flashes like Profoto can sync with phones. Aperture itself is relatively unimportant at compact sensor sizes. The gains going to a 1 inch sensor are counterbalanced by the better processing pipeline on phones, to an extent.

Overall, I just don’t feel that the shooting experience is meaningfully different between a phone and compact, compared to a camera vs phone.

Mike Shwarts's picture

But when you can get separation between subject and background it is a natural optical separation. Not AI driven with the AI getting confused about what should and shouldn't be in focus. Especially true when using portrait mode for subjects the AI doesn't recognize (not people). The roll off from in focus to blurred is smoother. Maybe not a much as bigger sensors, but the compact fits in shirt pocket. With my phone, everything it thinks needs blurring appears to have the same about of blur added.

My Sony has a real viewfinder even if it is electronic and I don't have hold it at arm's length by its edges. A real shutter button instead of touch screen which has a few perks.

I admit that in low light, my Pixel's Night Sight is better, but no reason why something like that can't be put in a dedicated camera including compacts. I think with the right features, including a better pipeline from taking the photo to being able to share it, compacts could do better. You need the right mix of features from both dedicated camera and phone. Maybe base it around a Panasonic GM5 which is about the size of a Sony RX100, but with a collapsible, fixed zoom like the LX100. I'd live without the viewfinder just to get the bigger 4/3 sensor.

Paul Scharff's picture

The reason I want to see more from Google is because that's the only way we will get more from Apple. I don't believe we would ever have stacking or Night Mode* in Apple products had it not been for the Pixel. I'm hoping the iPhone 12 offers astrophotography to catch up to the 2019 Pixel.

Apple loves gimmicks like Live Photo, Animoji's, and Slowfies, but they do nothing to improve IQ and are of no interest to me.

* OT, but you have to believe that Apple cringed when the Pixel created the "Night Sight" moniker, leaving Apple with the ever-pedestrian leftover crumbs of "Night Mode."

Michael Krueger's picture

Samsung had night mode back in 2013 and got rid of it when they added pro mode in 2015.

Adam Palmer's picture

Apple and google might be phoning it in but Samsung, Huawei and a lot of other chinese brands are hitting it out of the park. Sensor sizes in phones are getting slightly larger each generation.

Jerry Suppan's picture

I think so too. I have Xiaomi's Mi 10 Pro and love it! #5 at DxOmark too. The main camera sensor Is 108 MP, f/1.7, (wide), 1/1.33" along with ultrawide. I read rumored that eventually, a 1" sensor is forthcoming to the smartphone. Also, 150MP to 200MP sensors down the pike as well. It's not like we need more megapixels, but one advantage it does offer is, having sufficient data for crop to zoom, mitigating the limited optical telephoto lengths that currently exist. Unfortunate for Google and Apple, they still don't see the 'light' in advancement and innovation.

Alex Coleman's picture

The challenge with that is going to be one of physics. Bigger sensors need bigger lenses and baring things like periscope lenses/diffractive optics, you just can't match the lens size of a dedicated camera in smartphone, particularly on the more extreme ends of the focal length range.

Michael Dougherty's picture

Uploading images from my iPhone 10 is a piece of cake. Pretty soon uploading video from a 5G enabled smart phone will be a piece of cake. Just imagine streaming a video from your smart phone to social media simultaneously. This may even render mirrorless video less impactful unless you are making a quality video for later viewing.

Alex Coleman's picture

Yup, even with iOS's rough implementation of share sheets, it's still way easier for a layperson to move files around than a dedicated camera.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I don't know, the top I will pay for a phone is $600 and that's only when my current one dies or they win and I can't make it run as fast as I would consider acceptable. Regarding build in camera, I could care less. Kodak moments for most of what I see. Instant gratitude, one time use of a "hot" new feature and back to basic set up. "Can't remember how to access that function, oh well".
Professionally, my phone camera is the tool to put everything back in the order it was before I moved everything to get to what the client want me to shoot. Nothing fancy.

Michael Krueger's picture

They hit a limit a few years ago, that's why they began cramming additional cameras in the phones and developing algorithms for computarional photography. Image quality from Samsung phones in day light haven't improved much since 2014. They just bumped low light quality, then added wide angle and telephoto lenses.

Malcolm Wright's picture

The degree of co-ordination between stand alone cameras and mobile or cell phones varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. You're quite right that manufacturers don't push this in their advertising though and it may be down to a few reasons.

1 - The camera user possibly gets more from the ability to control their camera from the phone, than the reverse.

2 - No matter how much better the image created on a dedicated camera may or may not be compared to that captured on the phone it will still be displayed on that devices tiny screen.

3 - Most of the public if appraised of the ability of brand X camera to communicate well with a mobile phone might cynically remark 'they're only doing that because mobile phones are taking over so what's the point?'

4 - Any camera manufacturer pushing their camera's mobile phone co-ordination would be by proxy promoting some brand or others mobile phone.

David Tolleson's picture

I was in Rocky Mountain National Park a month ago.
People were taking pictures of a Moose with there Cell phones and some of them asked me to send some pictures to them. I was using a Canon 5Dsr with a Canon 100-400mm lens, they asked me to send the pictures to them because I had a better lens and camera.

Alex Herbert's picture

I was turned off of phone cameras for a few years and stepped away from the flagship game. But just got the Sony Xperia 1 II, and as a photographer/videographer this phone's camera is actually fun to use. Total manual control and a very nice 'pro' video mode.

Steve Powell's picture

I am old school. Consequently, I have never been a fan of using a cell phone as a camera. The problem with people who use a cell phone as a camera is that they think they are a photographer. Which they are not. There is more to taking a photograph than pushing a button.

Mike Shwarts's picture

I am old school in many ways. Grew up with film and sometimes still use it. However I think you can make that same comment about dedicated cameras. Just because you own one doesn't mean you are a photographer. That includes flagship cameras and expensive lenses.

On the other hand, and talented photographer can make great photos with a phone within the limitations of the phone.

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