Why Camera Manufacturers Are No Longer Relevant

Why Camera Manufacturers Are No Longer Relevant

It might seem with the focus upon the remarkable achievements of the latest smartphone cameras that traditional camera manufacturers have realized they are playing catch-up and trying to chase down the proverbial boat. The truth is that they've already missed it.

What does the photography market mean to camera manufacturers? Surely, it's a simple question of customers who need to take photos and want a camera — a tool — to do this? However, in the same way the GPS receiver, fitness tracker, and music player have been usurped by the smartphone, so too has the camera. Of course, the physics of light mean that the small sensor and lens inside a Google Pixel 4 can't be equivalent to those of a Sony Alpha a7R IV with Zeiss Batis 85mm. In fact, it isn't even equivalent to the beginner-oriented Nikon D3500 with a kit 18-55mm lens. The sticking point? The $450 wrapped up in a package that weighs 570 g. Compare that to the $800 Pixel the consumer would be buying anyway, which only weighs 162 g and takes, for all intents and purposes, equivalent photos. Here are three reasons that challenge the relevancy of traditional camera manufacturers.

1. Consumers Don't Want Traditional Digital Cameras

Digital camera sales peaked at 120 million units in 2011 and have been in freefall ever since. That's not to say that the traditional digital camera is suffering — far from it, as CIPA sales data for DSLR and mirrorless suggest that they are holding their own, although Canon is a little more pessimistic about the contraction of the market. High-end pros will always need high-end gear, and for this reason, there will be a place for the likes of Leica, Phase, and Hasselblad (the comparison below is for a smartphone and DSLR at the pixel level). What is more worrying for manufacturers is how ubiquitous the physical components of a camera have become at the low and middle sectors of the market, which has led to the production of passingly good smartphone cameras.

2. The Post-Production Revolution

The real revolution in photography has come in post-production. To pros, this is perhaps self-evident, as Adobe Photoshop demonstrates the power of digital manipulation time and again. That represents the first phase of the post-production revolution, with the emphasis on after the photo is captured. However, it is the (near) real-time post-production and communication of imagery that has been transformative. The new players in this market, in stark contrast to Photoshop-based techniques that create significantly enhanced images on a PC, have developed workflows that produce images that look good on small screens.

The key ingredients have been to target the principle viewing devices (smartphones), develop innovative algorithms that create images that look similar to those from a DSLR, process them in near-real time, and transmit them instantaneously. This change in the industry can be likened to the situation facing video-streaming services. It was originally thought that owning the network was what counted — if you controlled the underlying infrastructure, you controlled the distribution. However, Netflix has demonstrated that this isn't the case: as the network became multi-faceted and ubiquitous, it was production that principally mattered.

3. Smartphones Are Where the Real Development Is Happening

We will always need pro-level cameras, with clear parallels shown in the professional video camera market, which is vanishingly small. Ironically, they are seeing cannibalization of their sales by DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. However, the eye-wateringly clever stuff is currently happening in near-real-time post-production, with a heavy dose of hardware miniaturization.

The key is to making a camera that will fit inside a thin block that measures about five by two inches and can produce images that appear visually the same as those from a DSLR. Where are Nikon and Canon in this space? In contrast, Sony is heavily invested in image sensor production, as well as making its own phones. Leica is a technical partner with Huawei, while Xiaomi has recently asked its users which manufacturer it should partner with.

Arguably, Google and Apple have done more in this space than anyone else, iterating over very short product cycles. The key has been to implement multi-shot imaging, where the manufacturer develops their own camera app to complement the hardware in the smartphone. The iPhone 3 is generally credited with introducing the photography revolution to smartphone shooters, and the sector has seem dramatic innovation since.

Underpinning all this innovation has been computational photography, which improves the final image by combining multiple shots from one (or more) cameras. LG and Huawei led the multi-camera charge, although Google won praise for the quality of its single camera processing. However, with the computational power to do the heavy lifting on the phone itself, the latest generation of phones are all multi-camera and produce remarkable results.

What's the Future?

So, what is it that smartphone cameras are doing right? Much of it is simple automatic processing for brightness, contrast, color grading (including saturation), and sharpness, all things we would manually do in post-production. However, multi-shot HDR and the related noise reduction are easy wins. The addition of larger aperture lenses, image stabilization, and focusing have improved cameras, allowing the introduction of night shooting (such as Google's Night Sight). You only have to look at the camera on my 2016 LG G5 to see the impressive roll call of features back then: slow motion, time-lapse, montage, pop-out, and panorama.

The key ingredient is — of course — that all of this is happening on the phone. Consumers not only want the smallest device possible (that can produce good results), but also to be able to share their latest creations immediately. There is no sense of urgency in adding these features to traditional cameras. Sure, manufacturers produce pleasing JPEGs straight out of camera, while there is usually the availability of raw processing. Likewise, the addition of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth have made their way into the feature set. Yet, these offerings are a long way from producing in-camera HDRs or super-resolution images. Certainly, multi-shot raw processing is beyond the capabilities of pretty much any mobile device, yet it comes back to the features that consumers want — raw images are not among them, evidenced by the miniscule number of smartphone shooters that turn on raw capture. It's not that manufacturers can't add some of these options: Sony has had a JPEG panorama mode for some time, so multi-shot capture and real-time processing can be achieved.

Where does this leave camera manufacturers? They are currently wedded to plowing a traditional furrow with limited innovation or cross-over into the mobile space. What feature set would persuade high-end smartphone shooters to purchase a camera? Algorithms are fast becoming the distinguishing factor, even among camera manufacturers, with Sony's Eye AF a good example. When will smartphones usurp the camera crown?

Lead image courtesy of Fernando Stohr via Unsplash, used under Creative Commons.

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David Pavlich's picture

If you're happy with the results, then you have the best camera for your needs.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

See, pixel peeping just like cameras 15 years ago! Hey, I'm not against camera phones, I have done many experiments myself since the Iphone4, but I don't think the average user cares, most models in recent years are good enough for 99% of the population. Today, it's mostly a marketing trend, a manufacturers war to outdo each other with features 99% of users will never use. It's also a motive to keep the those mass produced items overpriced.

The Xiaomi Mi Note 10 is the exact same one that I use too. And yes, all things considered, I am happy with it.

It's not there yet, but we're getting closer everyday. There's no denying physics, but I don't discount the possibility of AI and other technologies eventually finding a way to make the difference in result minimal or imperceptible for most uses. I'm constantly astounded by how good computer generated imagery is becoming.

I just got a mi note 10 with the amazing 108mp sensor and optical 5x zoom, i no longer bring those super giant lens dslr or mirrorless camera

I think most camera factory got it all wrong, everyone want thin pocketable camera so that you can always carry with you everywhere, they should include some smartphone features like upload to faceboik without smartphone, instead they release more and more super large aperture lens like 28mm f1.2, 50mm f0.58, these are no new stuff we already have these in the 90s, they are heavy, stick out to get attention, slow to focus and boring focal lenght and not everyone love a tiny point shallow dof

Smartphone on the other hand is thin and pocketable, no more missing lens cap and messing with heavy lens

Whether a smartphone is suitable depends entirely on the type of photography you do. Not everyone cares about a camera being small enough to pocket.

David Pavlich's picture

"everyone want thin pocketable camera". That can't be so. I don't want one. ;-)

"everyone want thin pocketable camera so that you can always carry with you everywhere"

While it's nice to be able to carry something anywhere, the experience of shooting with my D750 is far superior to using a cell phone or smaller camera.

Brian Albers's picture

I’ve seen some absolutely stunning, impressive shots taken on cell phones.

Then again, it does seem like computational photography still has a ways to go. See pic below.

(Not my picture, so I don’t know what phone this was taken on, but it was posted within the last couple weeks. No EXIF data.)

I live in the heart of Silicon Valley, and spend part of just about every day in downtown Palo Alto, which sees a constant flow of young, well-off tourists and other visitors from around the world. And I still see plenty of people still using DSLR's and mirrorless cameras. I even regularly see people taking photos of the Apple Store with a DSLR or mirrorless camera. Clearly, consumers DO want DSLR's. Obviously they could use their phones. But they don't. Of course, it could certainly be different elsewhere, and maybe less tech-savvy people prefer to just use their phones. But at least I have some--however little--actual research.

Mark Russell's picture

Smartphones will only ever capture a portion of the camera market. The end use of the image will determine what a photographer uses to capture an image. I regularly use my smartphone to photograph grandchildren so that I can quickly share the images with friends spread around the globe. I also regularly make images on 4x5 e6 film, and with my full-frame 5D IV. It has to do with the end use.

Joseph Balson's picture

We already have computational photography with our cameras, it's just not in camera.
The results we get with LR, C1 or DXO or PS or whatever editing software we use are much better than any camera phone computational thing.

What is this? Clickbait? Horses for courses. No way to replace a good dSLR with a telephoto lens. I never quit shooting film, either.

Rohan Gillett's picture

I'm the same as you Normund. I'm wonder how much computational photography can do. Maybe there is some hard limit it might hit? By the way, how many phones have flip screens for low shots?

Many dedicated cameras do implement features such as focus stacking, panorama stitching, multi-exposure HDR, single-exposure tone mapping, time-lapse photography and video. You can also apply a host of post-exposure adjustments to the images if you wish. There are also special-effects modes. But generally users of dedicated cameras prefer to do the post-processing on a computer where they can select the algorithms and observe what comes out carefully, and use masks to select areas where the operations are applied and how strongly. Super-resolution imaging? Genuine fractals is software that did that already in 1996.

Ian Faulkner's picture

I have been doing photography for 50 years. I have used 4x5 cameras, 120 roll film cameras and DSLR cameras but my favorite camera is the Huawei P30 Pro.

Aside from my DSLR and a fisheye lens I always use my pocket computer for pictures and videos. I believed 2019 was the year when smartphones took over photography.

Travis Pinney's picture

Smartphones didn't "take over" photography, it just made photography more accessible to many people.

My old Samsung made me fall in love with photography, to the point I started investing in a proper DSLR setup. My iPhone X is good enough for documenting my family with videos and snapshots but, when I want something really high quality that I can frame on my walls, I reach for my Nikon.

Leon Kolenda's picture

And you think these images are GOOD?

Tom Reichner's picture

I kind of wondered about that, too. If those images are supposed to show us how good cellphone cameras have become, then, well, they are actually helping to make the opposite point.

Travis Pinney's picture

especially coming from someone that's been doing photography for 50 years. They're uploaded to his portfolio here so, unless it's a troll account, he's very proud of his smartphone photos.

VINICIUS YUZO ZUCARELI's picture

The only smartphone I think made good photos was my old trusty Nokia 808 pureview.

With it's absurd almost 1" sensor great optics and built in ND filter it was and is a beast.

I still have it and love it.

I don't know how easy it would be to take something like this with a smart phone. 100mm fully manual lens, zone focusing.

John Adams's picture

I think this will change, as cameras are catching up more people will be interested in photography. Nothing can really beat great optics with most modern FF and APS-C sensors. When I travel I see many people with cameras, most notably with entry DSLR cameras, that's because most people can't differentiate between DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, and this is the biggest problem. Camera manufacturers have to be able to show people that mirrorless is the bright future of stand-alone cameras, not phones. Also interesting to me is that I see more women than men with cameras taking photos on the streets.

a thing that none of these clickbait articles care to explore is the actual life-cycle of dslrs.
The simple truth of the matter is that as of about 2007 dslrs reached a techical level that still holds its own in 2020, over a decade later, with 16-20mp ff bodies producing fantastic results.
The same advances in image processing that affect phome photography allow photographers to save on buying the newest cameras and get fantastic results with older bodies with limited dr or higher noise outputs, meaning that the refresh rate for cameras slows down to an almost complete stop once the user is happy with the results.
The same goes for lenses, as in many cases optical designs were not updated since the 90's and are still good enough for modern work. If you look at the improvements over the generations of workhorse glass youll see that most are incremental and marginal, adding coatings, reducing abberations or slightly increasing corner sharpness, with the more significant innovations only hitting the markets at 2019 when Canon and Nikon launched their mirrorless mounts.

Phone cameras will never *replace* slr systems, as they will never be able to compete in one of the most important aspects of a professional tool - ergonomics. Once you look at it as a tool you need to hold in your hands day after day, the swiss army knife of comms and electronics approach of smartphones just cant compete.
You can see that even modern mirrorless cameras struggling with ergonomics as photographers demand bigger bodies and changes to button layouts for better grip or resprt to using battery grips and L brackets for better handling

Leon Kolenda's picture

Totally agree! There is even an aftermarket for adding things like lens's, grips, microphones, mounts, to Smartphones to help people with dealing with the shortcomings of ergonomics on smartphones, now you're defeating the purpose of compact easy to use smartphone convenience.

Rohan Gillett's picture

I wish there was an, "I don't know", option to the poll because I really don't know if a phone can replace my camera. It might or it might not ...

Christian Lainesse's picture

I can't wait to be the first in line to buy a medium format smartphone camera!

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Haha! funny. I need to patent a 2 screens camera held together by a scissors mechanism and telescopic bellow for sure

Smartphone are definitely getting better with each version. However I do not believe that we will come too a point were wedding sport or wildlife photographs will be shooting with a smartphone other a DSLR or mirrorless. Also I think most people who are not buy ILC and using there smartphone are just people that would have bought I point and shoot instead. Therefore I do not believe that smartphone are the cause for the decline of ILC rather I believe it is because most people are happy with buy used or keeping there current camera for year and don't what to upgrade to the new cameras.

Camera manufacturers are only irrelevant when the professional camera users stop using traditional cameras. That isn't the case now.

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