For the past few years, the camera market has been contracting at an unusually fast pace, resulting in decreased sales of DSLR and mirrorless cameras. The point-and-shoot market is already dead, and entry-level camera sales have also seen huge declines worldwide. This is mostly attributed to the rise of the smartphone, and the fact that smartphone manufacturers have been moving into the camera industry, focusing heavily on camera features. The outlook of the smartphone invasion is pretty grim, and it seems like some companies might not be able to survive as a result. So the big question is, is there anything camera manufacturers can do to stay afloat? I have been wondering about this for a while now, so I have decided to put together some of my thoughts in this article.
Please note that this post has some continuation of my perspective on the state of the camera industry. If you have not seen the previous articles on this topic, please check out my iPhone X Review first, then the second post titled “The Smartphone vs The Camera Industry“.
Table of Contents
Smartphone Is The Device of Media and Information Consumption
As I have previously pointed out, the shift of desktop users to mobile is very real, and it is something we can clearly see on Internet websites, including Photography Life. Most people are turning towards their smartphones for information and media consumption, and it is a fact that can be observed everywhere. Social media apps such as Instagram and Facebook have been installed on billions of devices worldwide, and these apps primarily focus on user-generated photo and video content. Interestingly, all these platforms are limited to 2048-pixel long resolution, which works out to be between 2-4 MP at most.
If the web is limiting images to 2-4 MP output, and that’s the maximum resolution most apps are using today, we should think if our ongoing quest for more resolution is in any way meaningful in the near and distant future, especially considering the fact that our content is most likely going to be viewed on a smartphone. If we push for 4K, we are talking about 8.3 MP. While some smartphones have 4K screens, such resolution is clearly overkill on these devices – it is no more than a marketing gimmick. To take advantage of high resolution, one has to view them on larger devices and appropriate viewing distances. But most importantly, the content has to be there to match that resolution.
Take a look at what has happened with the 4K TV adoption. TV manufacturers have been pushing 4K screens for the past 8 years, and as of 2020, we are still struggling with quality 4K broadcast material. And I am only talking about a handful of developed countries – forget about the rest of the world! Want to watch a movie in 4K? It had better be a new release, or properly converted to “real 4K“. With 4K finally getting traction, content is still catching up, and yet TV manufacturers are already pushing for 8K TVs!
It is ridiculous to think about this, as no one would be able to discern the difference in image quality between a 4K and an 8K TV in normal viewing distances. Only those with 20/20 vision, staring at a 65″ TV at 4 feet (which is not normal viewing distance) will be able to tell the difference between 4K and 8K content. This means that unless 8K TVs get massive in size (over 100″) and are cheap enough for consumers to start buying them, it is simply pointless to go with such high resolution. Most importantly though, can you imagine what type of bandwidth 8K is going to require? Our infrastructure is nowhere close to being able to support it. And that’s “only” 33.2 MP per frame!
What does this all mean? Simply put, if you are targeting the masses (who clearly prefer to use their smartphones for content consumption), anything over 4K (or 8.3 MP) is going to be overkill, even in the distant future. If you want to be able to target future 8K TV users, anything over 33.2 MP is going to be excessive (and that’s considering 8K is going to be mass-adopted some day, which is doubtful). And if your goal is to print images (which very few people actually do) you can easily get by a 24-36 MP camera to make decent prints up to 30″x40″.
This means that a 36 MP camera is clearly more than enough for most people in the foreseeable future.
The Real Cost of High-Resolution Cameras
After my last article on Nikon lenses not being able to resolve enough detail to take advantage of modern high-resolution sensors, some of our readers thought that I was against future sensor development. That’s certainly not the case! I am not against sensor development – I am simply against constant (and often pointless) increases in camera resolution that are very costly for us, the end users.
As I am sure you already know, the cost of increased resolution does not end with the camera. Higher resolution demands larger and faster storage, more processing power, lots of RAM and high-resolution output devices capable of working with those RAW files. We have already seen the big struggles when we went from 16 MP to 36 MP, and it is clear that manufacturers will be pushing more pixels into their upcoming DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. Sony has already made a 60 MP A7R IV, and with the current pace of sensor development, we are not all that far off from seeing a 100 MP full-frame sensor soon.
Well, I have already played with 100 MP files from the Fuji GFX 100, and I can tell you that I am personally not ready for this change. Both my high-end PC and my $5K iMac Pro struggled with those 100 MP files, making the editing process very painful. In fact, I couldn’t even stitch some of the panoramas until I upgraded my RAM. Lightroom, Capture One and Photoshop were all painfully slow when working with those files, and it seems that even post-processing software needs to be optimized to work efficiently with such huge files.
And if most lenses are not good enough for modern high-resolution sensors, the problem is not necessarily with lenses either. Based on lens releases of the past few years, we already know that modern high-performance lenses are bigger and heavier than their predecessors. Spencer has done extensive research on this topic in his lens article. Sure, those new Sigma Art and Zeiss Otus lenses have superb sharpness, but they are large and very heavy. While smartphones are getting faster, thinner and lighter, it is clear that the camera industry has been heading in the opposite direction. And we are still wondering why camera sales are down?
Why go through all the pain of moving up in resolution, only to produce images for the web at 2-4 MP… Sure, it is great to see amazing detail from a 100 MP image, but how good are those megapixels if you don’t do anything with them at the end of the day? If you were an enthusiast photographer, and your primary audience was your friends and family, Instagram and Facebook, why would you need a high-resolution camera? You wouldn’t, plain and simple.
Forum geeks can argue day and night about the benefits of high-resolution sensors, and how they result in reduced artifacts, less moire and so on, but if the whole system is incapable of supporting these sensors, what is the point of it in the first place?
This megapixel race is not healthy for the camera industry. Camera manufacturers need to take a breather, and really focus on things that truly matter: great ergonomics, simplicity / ease of use, superb image quality, web and social media integration, and excellent software. These are the things that smartphone manufacturers understand and do, which is why they are taking the camera market by storm.
The Smartphone vs The High-End Camera
When running workshops, I always pay attention to what my participants do in the field. Over and over again, and something I have seen happen in my workshops during the past few years, is the tendency of participants to use their smartphones to take a picture, while their big cameras are mounted on tripods, ready to shoot. While they have to be real careful when working out all the technical aspects of shooting with their DSLR and mirrorless cameras, such as proper exposure, focusing, hyperfocal distance, focus stacking, ETTR, etc., a smartphone capture only takes a few seconds – frame the shot, zoom in / out, and take a picture – it is that simple.
But what follows is downright comical at times, as I hear people complaining why it is so difficult to shoot with their expensive cameras, while their iPhone or Android smartphones can capture the same shot in an instant, with reasonably good results. Why can’t camera manufacturers understand that while they are busy adding more unlabeled buttons and a myriad of cryptic menu options to their cameras, the rest of the world has been moving towards simpler, lighter and more intuitive tools. Swipe to change the camera mode, push one button to take a picture. Anyone can figure it out, without reading a comprehensive manual, or watching an hour-long YouTube video that explains the settings.
The results speak for themselves – over and over again, we see yet another report of the camera market decline. Camera manufacturers used to sell boatloads of point-and-shoot cameras. That market is gone. For years, they have been selling a ton of entry-level DSLR and mirrorless cameras, but most non-photographers could care less about them today, since they can get decent results from their smartphones.
The disappearance of point-and-shoot and entry-level camera markets is a big problem for all camera manufacturers, because that’s where a big portion of their profits has been historically. Expensive, high-end cameras have huge R&D and manufacturing costs, and they are specialized tools that companies cannot just survive on, unless they diversify into other markets or come up with products that appeal to wider audiences. Simply put, the serious enthusiast and professional camera market is a small niche on the global level when compared to the rest of the electronics industry.
When photography is more popular than ever, and yet manages to become so complex that it takes serious skill to shoot, post-process, store and print images, most people who want fast results will naturally bail, and we can already see that happening for many photographers out there. How many people do you know, who own a good camera that sits on their shelves gathering dust, as they take more pictures with their smartphones? I know quite a few. People get busy with their everyday lives, and when they remember that they haven’t even loaded pictures from their last trip to their computer, they slowly start to withdraw. They lose interest, and their investment converts into yet another object of furniture in the house.
Back a few years, one could argue that smartphone images were junk, that they were unusable for serious photography. But looking at modern developments in small sensor technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning, we can see that large R&D budgets are making noticeable dents in the camera industry, as image quality has been improving drastically year-after-year. Camera sales are down, because they are no longer appealing to an everyday user.
The iPhone 11 Pro is a good example of this. With its three cameras, its ability to stack and average images in order to reduce noise when capturing photos in low-light environments, and other new tech, a typical consumer is now looking at the iPhone as a “good enough” capture tool.
Smartphone Companies Are Now Camera Companies
While camera manufacturers are busy trying to capture each other’s declining market shares, Apple has quietly become a camera company. Apple clearly spent a lot of time and resources towards making the iPhone 11 Pro a great stills and video capture tool, and it is not going to stop that with future iterations. Google and other manufacturers have been doing the same with their smartphones. They are all camera companies now…
You have already seen magazine covers and billboards shot with smartphones, and this is all only the beginning. The next iteration of smartphones will feature 3D lenses in order to assess the depth of the scene. Imagine what that will do with image-making – once subject depth is accurately calculated, isolating subjects will get even easier (adjustable bokeh, anyone?), and augmented reality is going to get much more accurate. Smartphones will likely add even more lenses to fill the gaps, and we might even see pop-up telephoto lenses in the future.
While we are busy staring at images at 400% zoom to argue about which camera is better, which lens is sharper, or which system is the best, Apple, Google and other smartphone manufacturers are pushing their R&D resources towards superior cameras in their smartphones. Once smartphones go from “good enough” to “great”, just watch the camera market collapse again, this time with some serious casualties along the way…
It Is All About the Software Now
It is very clear that hardware is no longer the differentiating factor between camera manufacturers. Until some brand new technology and innovation comes along (which will most likely happen in smartphones first anyway), they are all competing on practically the same level. The game has moved to software now, and software is what’s going to keep a company in business, or result in its eventual demise.
Pretty much all major advances we see in smartphones have to do with software. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality, image stacking, image averaging, HDR, simulated bokeh, simulated light…these are all software enhancements.
We get excited about firmware updates, and yet camera manufacturers still fail to understand the importance of properly functioning software in their cameras. If they looked at all other industries, they would realize how critical it is to release up-to-date software and firmware for their products. A customer should not have to buy a whole new camera just to get a new software feature, that’s just ridiculous, and a thing of the past. Such sales tactics only create distrust between the manufacturer and the customer.
Most People Don’t Care About Image Quality, Only Photographers Do
Whenever I post a review of a smartphone or talk about small-sensor cameras, our readers often react by criticizing the details, lack of dynamic range, lack of depth, etc. It seems like the last 10 years of constant gear talk, reviews and non-stop announcements have contributed to the creation of way too many gear heads in the photography community, who just can’t stop talking about things like MTF curves, “creamy bokeh”, sharpness and image quality (and sadly, I am one of them!).
The reality is, few people outside the photography world care about ANY of that. People see a pretty picture, or an image that provokes emotion, and they like it. They don’t care what it was shot with, how big it can be printed or how much detail there is in the photo. It would be pointless for camera manufacturers to target such users, as they wouldn’t even consider something more advanced than a smartphone.
Knowing all this, camera manufacturers really need to rethink their strategy to at least preserve their existing markets, and try to get more people to buy into the idea of getting better pictures, and quick, superb results. If they focus on great user experience, much better image quality than what the smartphones are able to offer, easy-to-use interface, fast interoperability and integration with the smartphone ecosystem, they might have a chance to survive in the long term.
Where the Smartphones Fail and Big Cameras Shine
Let’s face it, smartphones will never be able to replace large sensor cameras, because there is always going to be a difference in image quality between the two. Note the emphasis on large sensor cameras. The point-and-shoot market collapsed because sensors on those cameras were as small as those on smartphones, and they simply couldn’t compete with the fast-paced technology and the superior software. Slightly larger sensors up to 1″ (and possibly even M43) are also under threat, because image quality differences are comparably small.
However, APS-C and especially full-frame sensors have drastic differences in image quality compared to smartphones, so this is what camera manufactures should really focus and capitalize on. This means abandoning the production of small sensor cameras (including all weatherproof “tough” series, because modern smartphones are now waterproof), and focusing on products that the smartphone will never be able to compete with due to its size limitations. The exception is very specialized cameras that still have demand, such as the Nikon P1000, as long as they do not have significant R&D and production costs.
The idea is to minimize all costs, and put significant focus into large sensor cameras, creating superb optics, as well as software that can drastically improve image quality. If smartphones fully converge into the camera market, it will be the end of it as we know it. So camera manufacturers should focus on keeping itself isolated from smartphones, as there is no point in trying to compete – they will never have enough resources to do that.
The Ideal Future Camera
If the smartphone is taking over, because it is simpler to use and produces instant, good quality results, why not make such a camera? Imagine an advanced mirrorless camera with a large LCD screen on the back, a very comfortable grip, minimum number of properly labeled buttons and dials to worry about. The sensor is stabilized with 5-axis IBIS, and a good selection of superb, relatively lightweight high-performance lenses are available for it.
Once the camera is turned on, the LCD comes up immediately, with very minimum delay. There is a small top LCD that shows the current camera mode as an icon. Camera modes are no longer the cryptic PASM modes that we are used to seeing. These are the camera modes that are available with particular pre-defined settings:
- Landscape: AF-S, IBIS Off, Base ISO, EFCS On, Exposure Delay / Timer set to 3 sec. Tapping on the nearest object in the scene that needs to be sharp forces the camera to calculate focus distance and focuses on the hyperfocal distance automatically, sets the best aperture. A built-in laser sensor that can accurately calculate camera to subject distance would be ideal to incorporate for accuracy. For advanced users, these settings can be changed through the menu.
- Panorama: AF-S, IBIS Off, Base ISO, EFCS On, pan to assess target area for best exposure, lock exposure and AF, provide a cut-off line for each shot for successful panorama merging. Add option for handheld automatic panorama capture and stitching, preferably DNG output.
- Portrait: AF-C, IBIS On, ISO Auto, Eye Tracking turned on by default, Aperture is wide open (can be adjusted). The subject is automatically tracked and camera focuses on the subject’s nearest eye. Works on people and pets.
- Action: AF-C, IBIS On, ISO Auto with Shutter Priority, Dynamic AF, Max FPS.
- Night / Indoors: AF-S, IBIS On, ISO Auto, AF Assist Light, Single AF.
- Movie: AF-C, IBIS On, ISO Auto, Dynamic AF, Zebras and other useful settings turned on.
- User Preset: Allows user to choose any camera mode and customize settings.
Exposure is calculated automatically, and HDR preview is applied to images depending on the scene. Autofocus system is very fast, and uses a combination of phase and contrast detection AF. Focus point can be moved by moving the thumb on the touchscreen while looking through the EVF, or by tapping on the desired area on the LCD. A more advanced version of the camera incorporates a joystick for those who want to navigate the camera with gloves.
The menu system is very basic, and only contains settings that are relevant to the chosen camera mode. For example, if shooting in Landscape camera mode, there are no settings like Eye AF, Movie Settings, etc. If end user wants to customize the camera, such settings are provided in a special “Advanced” menu setting that contains them.
The camera has at least 64 GB fast built-in internal memory, but a memory card can also be inserted to store images. To prevent the camera from buffering when shooting images or high-quality videos, the images are saved from the buffer to internal memory, then dumped to the memory card.
To minimize software footprint, the camera does not have a large operating system that takes a long time to boot, so it relies on camera firmware to do basic things, like image adjustments, presets and uploads to social media platforms. Software / firmware updates are periodic (at least once a quarter), with constant AF, tracking and feature improvements based on community feedback. Unless faster processor and more memory are required, all current software can be applied to different iterations of cameras. The software is unified across all camera models, whenever possible.
Software features include image averaging (stacking multiple images together to minimize noise and improve detail), pixel shift (to increase detail), intervalometer, timelapse, astrotracker and presets.
Once an image or video is captured, the camera can be set up to automatically transfer it to a smartphone, a tablet or a computer wirelessly via Bluetooth or WiFi. This one really needs to be ironed out, so that the transfers are fast, and the apps are intuitive to use. The default image recording format is HEIF, but both JPEG and DNG file formats are also available.
The camera is small, lightweight and weatherproof (both camera and lenses). There are two versions of the camera: APS-C, with a smaller mount, smaller and lighter lenses, and full-frame with larger mount and high performance lenses. The APS-C version of the camera is priced very reasonably, preferably in the $500-$800 range. The full-frame version of the camera is in the $1500-$2000 range. Think of both of these as entry-level / enthusiast-level cameras. For advanced pros, camera manufacturers can continue making advanced cameras with more buttons and features they are already used to.
What do you think about all this? How would your ideal future camera that appeals to larger masses look like? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!