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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Tom Reichner's picture

Nothing that has been done with smartphone photography is at all relevant for the kind of photography I do.

As a wildlife specialist, I typically want to fill the frame with a subject that is far away, and I want the background to be beautifully blurred. I want my still image to have sufficient image quality to look great when printed at big sizes like 60" by 40", even when I need to crop a little. I often photograph wildlife in fast action, such as a flying bird or a running deer, so taking multiple exposures and then combining them in post production is not a viable option.

I often need to shoot a fast-moving subject at 800mm and get shallow depth of field in one frame. And I want the resultant image to look GREAT when it is blown up to 60" by 40". How is a cell phone ever going to help me make this kind of image?

Also worth mentioning is that many of the publishers I sell to require their contributing photographers to submit unedited files. They want the RAW or a completely unedited jPeg, because they want to have their graphic specialists and Art Directors to have full control over the editing. So anything at all about Photoshop or editing software is completely irrelevant for many of us who shoot stock images professionally. We're not even allowed to edit the photos, so .......

You are so right, Tom. Basically, phone cameras have effectively replaced point-and-shoot cameras, and that's it. They certainly haven't replaced wildlife photographer's cameras, and they haven't made their way into the studio either. They may have found their way into photo journalism, but I doubt the photo journalists who remain will be carrying only an iphone. The need remains for 'real' cameras.

Click bait.

maybe I am looking at this from a bad perspective, but I see DSLR (MILC) and smartphone cameras diverging more in what they can do, than converging.

we are only touching the tip of what computational photography can grant us, but people who like to think themselves creative want more than what a smartphone camera can provide.

9/10th of the time I only ever need/want my smartphone for photography, but there are some very specific instances that I am very glad for carrying my MILC.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Gee...and here I thought that their relevancy was only relevant to those seeing them as such.

Should be named: "Why oversimplified article titles are misleading"

The title should be "Camera Manufactures aren't as relevant as they used to be" If find the title here just a little too click baity and just not accurate, and irritating. Sure there are a SMALL NUMBER of professional photographers that use just a smartphone, emphasis on SMALL. I am nit-picky language when it comes to over-simplified sweeping generalizations,... So What!

All you have to do is ask yourself whether you would give up or replace your current gear for an iPhone... that should provide you with an answer. I love my iPhone 11, but not enough to give up my gear. Different tools.

For the average users who isn't really into photography, the smartphone is the does it all solution.
I know plenty of people whose hobbby isn't photography who would never dream of buying a camera.
They don't see the point. They share their pictures via social media and view them on smartphones.

Andres Photo's picture

The problem here I think, its as stock market...the most of the people are happy just to see their photos on a mobile screen, even in a laptop. Professionals will always need superior cameras than usual people, what cameras need now its to improve some process in the own camera, and not need to send via wifi or bluetooth the raws to edit with a mobile (its just an example).