The advent of the smartphone camera completely eliminated the point and shoot market save for a few niche exceptions, thereby eliminating a large potential customer base for many manufacturers. What can those manufacturers do to attract smartphone shooters toward dedicated devices?
It is no secret that smartphones utterly decimated the compact camera industry after about 2010, and what was once a very large sector of the photography industry disappeared by about 2016. Now, the camera industry is much more segmented, with the point and shoot replaced by the smartphone, then jumping to entry-level micro four thirds and APS-C DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. Is there room to attract smartphone users to dedicated cameras? I think so.
It Will Only Be Some
For sure, there are lots of users for whom their smartphone is all they will ever need or want from a camera, no matter what the industry does to try to attract them. That being said, there are billions of smartphone users across the world, and even if only a small fraction of them are potential dedicated camera customers, that is still a huge market waiting to be tapped. So, let’s talk about that fraction.
They Are Not Going to Buy Professional-Level Cameras
Someone who primarily shoots with their smartphone and holds a slightly above-average interest in photography is not going to drop $5,000 on a professional full frame camera and lens. Any system that entices them from their smartphone needs to be priced reasonably — so reasonably that it can almost be an impulse purchase for someone who thinks they might want to try things out. There are certainly some camera and lens combinations that have begun to flirt with these levels in recent years: Canon and Nikon’s cheaper APS-C DSLRs with kit lenses, and Fuji models like the X-A7 come to mind. The problem is these cameras are not made for and generally not marketed toward beginners with a passing interest waiting to be capitalized upon. Rather, they are essentially lower-specced versions of the companies’ more advanced cameras — simpler, but cut from the same fundamental cloth. This can make these cameras seem a bit impenetrable for the casual user. Sure, they have an auto mode, but they are not particularly inviting.
Make It Inviting
So, what should such a camera have? It should be relatively distinct from a company’s other offerings so as to distinguish it from less inviting options. This could be done in any number of ways: a friendlier, simpler interface, reduced controls, and even (gasp) offering devices in designer colors. Such an interface could be akin to an auto mode on steroids: instead of offering settings followed with a brief explanation, put the effect front and center. For example, when setting aperture, one could show an illustrated depth of field diagram on the rear LCD showing both a horizontal perspective of an animation of the in-focus areas increasing and decreasing as well as a straight-on view showing how a subject is affected, with the actual aperture relegated to the top corner.
Make setting the camera less quantitative and more qualitative. Users don’t need to worry about on-camera controls for more esoteric settings like white balance. Just the most fundamental controls could be offered: shutter speed, aperture, ISO (perhaps labeled as “sensitivity”), a playback and trash button, and a power button. Maybe a drive mode and autofocus mode button. Remember, these users are used to interacting through devices through a touchscreen, and maintaining at least some semblance of that experience can help to attract potential customers. Instead of setting aperture as an abstract f-stop quantity with a dial, imagine if users had the aforementioned graphical interface together with a touchscreen slider. Ease of use is paramount to not discouraging users. This also includes in-camera processing. Professionals love flat raw files for the post-processing flexibility they give, but for a brand new photographer fresh from the world of smartphones, that file would look overwhelming and disappointing. Better to default to purely in-camera processing along with basic controls on the camera or on an accompanying phone app — controls for things like exposure, contrast, and saturation.
Connectivity With Phones
One of the major draws of smartphones cameras is the fact that the photos can be processed and shared on the same device instantly. Personally, I think devices that try to integrate advanced editing and sharing all on the camera are never a success because they can’t compete with smartphone interfaces that have been honed and refined over the course of a decade. Rather, I think the solution here is to create a reliable, easy-to-use wireless interface with a user’s phone. The accompanying app could be something like a stripped-down version of any pick of popular mobile editing apps (Snapseed, for example) and would also allow for straightforward sharing to social channels.
The key is creating a reliable and seamless wireless interface. Every wireless camera interface I have ever tried has been woefully complicated and unreliable — an afterthought behind the marquee features of the body. But for a user in this scenario, that interface is front and center and needs to be simple and strong.
Differentiate Cameras From Phones by Their Advanced Capabilities and Market Properly
As photographers, we certainly understand the benefits of things like larger sensors than the tiny bits of silicon found in phones. That sort of differentiation is rarely clearly delineated by manufacturers, though, and the benefits of more advanced cameras may be lost on potential users. Marketing for such a product should be geared specifically toward that audience, almost divorced entirely from a company’s other products and user base.
A Complete Kit With Two Lenses
Such a kit should have two lenses: a 50mm f/1.8 and some sort of kit super-zoom, like an 18-200mm, and if the 50mm could add 1:2 pseudo-macro capabilities, all the better. A typical 50mm f/1.8 can be had for $60, while Tamron, for example, makes an 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 lens that currently retails for $199. The combination of these lenses would give users access to both a huge range of focal lengths and to a wide aperture for experimenting with low light and depth of field.
The DxO One was a camera that I wish had gained more traction. It was an interesting concept: a camera with a decently sized sensor (1-inch) and a fast prime (32mm f/1.8) that was meant to be plugged into a smartphone for control. I think it failed for several reasons, though. First, it was relatively expensive: its release price was arguably high given the hardware it packed ($599), making it a tough sell. Second, it couldn't connect when the phone was in a case, which undermined the entire idea of a convenient, higher-level camera and lens meant to interface with a smartphone.
Third, I think it was marketed incorrectly. Pros are very picky and discerning when it comes to gear, so such a camera, while portable, didn’t create a significant enough advantage to justify its existence relative to its price. Rather, I think it would have been better suited marketed toward the crowd discussed in this article at a lower price and with a zoom lens. I think the concept was good, but the execution was flawed. Such a device could be an interesting alternative to a cheap standalone camera and could encourage smartphone users to try it out, but it would have to be appropriately made for and marketed toward them.
The smartphone utterly obliterated the point and shoot market, but it also created an inroad for lots of people who might not have tried photography before. There is a potentially huge untapped market of smartphone users who might want to expand their photography experience a bit more, so long as the process of doing so is not overly expensive or complicated.