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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70 Comments

It's the smartphone manufacturers who have embraced and developed computational photography, by necessity because of their puny sensors. So why don't "real" cameras do the same? Imagine an RX 100 with the same Pixel 4 or 11 Pro technology on a 1 inch sensor. It would be a game changer -- not in replacing all SLR/MILC requirements, but in greatly reducing them.

The only computational photography stuff I see in full size cameras is some not-so-good HDR merging, and the more recent Panasonic and Sony pixel shift technologies that allow for a humongous (180+ MP), clean output but only good for very static situations.

I think failing to incorporate computational photography in today's cameras is one of the biggest missed opportunities in the industry today.

It's interesting as many professionals have been doing this on a grand scale by using high end video cameras such as Reds and shooting video and pulling stills.

Thomas H's picture

You make a good point, connectivity is another.

But there is more: Somehow our "puny" eye lens and retina (I mean here in general the eyesight of any animal), made out of carbs, outperforms the best sensors and glass. This suggests that physically we would in the future have such tiny cameras and lenses, and achieve the results obsoleting these heavy dedicated cameras of todays.

VINICIUS YUZO ZUCARELI's picture

I think we are at most a couple years away from an Hybrid device.

One that has a switch that is pure camera like we know today, and then it is possible to change it to a "smart camera" mode.

It will have 2 processors, one photography related like a Digic X or something and another like a Snapdragon.

Camera mode will have significant better battery life and will work RAW files.

Smart camera mode will add a step, the picture taken by the Digic X specialist processor will be sent to the Snapdragon so it can be processed, multi image HDR, multi image Night Mode, real time panorama stitching and much more will be done combining the power and advantages of both processors.

Of course, it will also allow for use of a smartphone OS, features and apps, no need to off load photos to post to Instagram , but also all advantages of a SLR.

Tony Northrup's picture

Check out the Samsung Galaxy NX

The Samsung NX-mount made this camera a non-contender. If Sony were to do something analogous today, though, I think it would capture even more of the market (or even expand the otherwise-shrinking market).

David Pavlich's picture

You were wise in differentiating between 'consumers' and 'photographers'. Or maybe I should phrase it 'snap shooters' and 'image makers'.

Tony Northrup's picture

There are lots of really amazing photographers who use only smartphones. Much of the world can't afford a camera, but everyone needs a smartphone for regular life, and many of those smartphone photographers are skilled, talented, and work hard to produce amazing photo. You earn the title of "photographer" by making images, not by buying gear.

David Pavlich's picture

I tend to agree, Tony, however, I'm writing in the context of the title of this article. I assume that you agree with me that it is well off base. Of course, assuming can be hazardous.

Lotsa' people take nice shots with phones and they work well within their limitations. For a majority of photographers, the phone is too limiting. The relatively few photographers that use nothing but phones are the exceptions that proves my point.

I like F-Stoppers a lot, but articles with titles like this are click bait and they obviously work...we're both reading them.

I've yet to see too many good photos of the action at sports car races, the ballet, basket ball games, or birds in flight that were taken with cell phone cameras. And even if that would be reasonably possible, just holding the damn things up and composing with them is, too me, not as practical or expedient as looking through a viewfinder. Especially in bright sunlight.

I think your article is a bit premature.

I have to admit that when I take a photo with my iPhone and post it to Flickr, it looks just as good as the photos next to it, taken with "proper" photography gear. I can see the difference because I took the shot. But, thanks to post processing, I can make it look like a "real" camera took it, with "real" expensive lenses.

Andres Photo's picture

did you try to make night photography with your iPhone? I think even with post processing you can make it look like a "real" camera took it :)

Jeff Walsh's picture

This is as true as it was when tablets came out and people said it was the end of traditional painting.

Spy Black's picture

...or when Jobs foolishly proclaimed "the post-PC era"...

Alex Herbert's picture

"Looks at the big PC on my desk which I use to do REAL work"... nope, still here!

Andres Photo's picture

this is it :) Professional cameras will continue being improve for professionals, mobiles will continue being improving for casual photographers.

I still have my Nikon D5500, and as yet no one has been able to convince me to upgrade. Rather than becoming less expensive over time, cameras are getting more and more pricey- and that’s a problem for an enthusiast like me. I’m not interested in forking over $1000-$4000 for a new camera- especially since my D5500 cost $600 brand new in 2015. The D7300 would be the next logical step, but jeez, it’s so expensive! The meager improvements in IQ in the D5600 and D7300 are not worth the outlay.

Meanwhile, my iPhone 11 takes great pictures and it’s always in my pocket. Apple’s Deep Fusion produces results that rival my D5500 (in day to day and family situations), and mobile photography will only get better. If Nikon/Canon/Sony ever implements computational photography in its DSLR’s and mirrorless cameras, expect it to boost the price by at least $1000.

Nikon, Canon and Sony have essentially priced me and lots of people like me out of the market for interchangeable lens cameras. It’s not that I can’t afford a $4000 mirrorless camera system- I don’t care to. These companies have not proved to me that their new products are a worthwhile investment for a hobbyist like me. Especially with these new mounts- I’m not convinced that they’ll last. Nikon seems to be struggling of late. Canon is doing better but their day is coming. Sony and Leica may be the last ones standing in a few years, and only because Leica has the brand and Sony has the cash from all of its other divisions. We’ll see. Til then, I’m shooting film on an old Nikon FE and an N80, or I’m just using my phone.

David Pavlich's picture

If you're happy with the photos you take, then you have the gear that is best suited for your needs.

Alec Kinnear's picture

You're missing out on a lot with Nikon's Z6. Fabulous ergonomics, great viewfinder, affordable, excellent video (colours and highlight rolloff), compatible with your existing Fmount lenses.

And you can have one for closer to $1000 than $1500. When the iPhone 11 is yesterday's news and worth $200 not $1200, the Z6 will still be worth most of what you paid for it. Depreciation on a camera will be less than half as fast than the phone.

You can expect extremely expensive but finally capable mirrorless cameras from Canon. Exactly what you don't want. Nikon has positioned themselves in the right spot for the vast semi-pro, serious hobbyist market. Canon is pricing themselves out of that market, looking for a halo effect. Selling duff inexpensive and not very capable gear via outrageously expensive pro gear.

Just experimenting with an iPhone 11 Pro Max this last week. What is awesome with an iPhone is the auto-HDR in high contrast situations. It can pull in skies outside of 13 stops of dynamic range without pausing for breath. Heck, you can shoot straight into the sun (accident, but results surprised me, attached). But the colour rendering is not interesting. Shooting in RAW means giving up the dynamic range, as these SmartHDR images are fully baked.

While an iPhone is great in good light, for moving subjects it falls apart completely in lower light. Colours become watercolour like patches, every edge is waterbrushed and noisy. Video is particularly an issue, where anything but bright sunlight or direct 200 watt lights ends in noisy etchings and not video.

Back to carrying my Z6 with the ultra light and compact Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA.

Matthew Lacy's picture

I have the D5600, and it serves me well.

Rod Kestel's picture

Phone, no doubt are doing some pretty funky stuff, but largely what kills them for me is usability.

I don't have time for farnarkling around with menu screens, peering at the screen trying to frame my shot, then half a second shutter lag.

Then of course the obvious stuff like lenses etc.

Tony Northrup's picture

FWIW modern smartphones (like the latest iPhone) have less lag than traditional cameras. When you open the camera app, they begin buffering photos. When you press the shutter, they take the photo from that split second (factoring out the software's reaction time). With Live Photos, you can then go back and choose a split second before you pressed the shutter, if you want, factoring out your own ~0.5 second human reaction time. 0 or negative shutter lag is actually a big advantage of smartphones.

The M6 Mk II can do this as well-- and is less expensive than an iPhone 11 Max Pro. ;)

Jason Flynn's picture

Headlines like this make me sad I bought software through an fstoppers affiliate link. I can picture the author giggling “this will generate a lot of heated debate.”

Benoit Pigeon's picture

We are just back to where camera manufacturers were before digital with most of the market being users who don’t care about the technical issues and a small market of advanced and pros. Nothing has changed, just like consumers had no use for positives and most film emulsions were available for both consumers and pros only consumers didn’t care. There are just new comers in the game that happen to be the phone manufacturers. They cram all they can, automate everything and it looks pretty at 72dpi on a phone, just like most consumers probably never had anything printed larger than 4x6. But technology to print those 4x6, 30 years ago was much higher and automated than most people realize. I bet Mike Smith has never visited back 30+ years ago a lab that had the capacity of processing 50k rolls overnight, in a few hours really. For chromes, we had drum scanners and the super advanced Linocolor software something very few people even have heard about. Apart from phone manufacturers coming in the game, consumer advanced amateur and pro are at the same level of differences as they were in the past. People should stop writing confusing articles - my opinion.

The difference is that back then, camera manufacturers were still making money off their point-and-shoot or disposable film cameras aimed at the consumer market. This largely subsidized their higher end lines. Now they have none of that and they have to try to subsist entirely off higher end products being sold to a smaller consumer base. From our standpoint, we can see it as a return to the old days, but the reality for the industry is anything but.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

There are so many more people today owning quality Digital cameras and a good number of expensive lenses worldwide that I can't see it be a not profitable market at least equivalent to the film days. It would be good to have actual sales numbers for each of their cameras over the years to be sure.
When the original 5D came out many on forums assumed it would not be offered at the low price it did because of this and that, but mostly because of the full frame format that was still new. The other full frame Canon, 1DsMII was about $8k and the 5D ended in the $3200. I have no clue why people always assume manufacturers won't make money because sales are down or the newest product is much cheaper than ever seen, but I do know that the 5D line is now 15 years old and my guess is that it must have been very profitable from the start. Looking at B&H pricing for a Canon Rebel T7 with lens kit I see they are currently selling for $399 on sale. Not something I would want, but it is time now for all the pessimists to call Canon and tell them they know nothing about business.
And then, came out the 1DxMiii, a camera that just weeks before was considered to never be released because of the mirror less craze... Guess what, Nikon is about to release their own.
The sales boom is over, not the industry.

Looking at the B&H catalog, I still can't understand who's buying all those $1000ish camcorders. There are still a LOT models being sold, with new ones still being released. But there's no reason I should understand it--that's Sony's, Canon's, JVC's, etc, business. And they do know what they're doing most of the time.

Smartphones may not be for everybody but for the masses, it is happening. It would behoove manufacturers to start getting wise to advancements in smartphone-based camera technology and begin to incorporate some of those advancements into their own cameras.

I am doing a trip to Thailand and Vietnam at the moment and almost all my photographic and videographic needs are being accomplished on Xiaomi's Mi Note 10 with 5x optical, 5-camera system. The camera in my shirt pocket works for me just fine.

I just bought the mi note 10, it has 108mp sensor, 5x optical zoom and a marco lens that i can duplicate slide film, it has everything and the best thing is that it is always with me

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