Selective Focus: Learning the Lessons of Smartphone Cameras

Selective Focus: Learning the Lessons of Smartphone Cameras

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At photokina, the market analysts were well prepared with charts and figures showing the rapid ascension of the smartphone in the camera space. Sorting through the colorful graphs, there’s no doubt the cameraphone has driven exponential growth of picture taking per se. And it has made everyone aware that pictures are a key form, if not the form, of communication in the 21st century. Indeed, one presenter referred to images as “currency” in the new media.

Delving into the camera sales figures, you come away with one unassailable fact. The one casualty of this growth in cameraphone sales in the photo space is the fixed-lens, low-featured point-and-shoot camera. That is, those with less than 10x zoom power. According to the chart makers, the main characteristic of these cameras is that they offer little in attractive features over and above what the typical smartphone camera (let’s call them SCs from now on) offers. And they lack the ability to stay “connected,” which is apparently a fatal flaw in their survival.

I would argue that while their connectedness is nil, their image quality is generally superior. Apparently that is not swaying the general public. What the SCs do have is a “good enough” image. And it fulfills the need to communicate with images on places like Facebook, with videos on YouTube, etc. What SCs do is dumb down the engagement in photography. For most this is just fine, as SCs are doing what they want a camera to do these days. And that is to feed Facebook’s insatiable demand of images in order to keep one’s self relevant.

The Good News

The encouraging news is that 10x+ zoom integral lens cameras, mirrorless system cameras and SLRs—in short, advanced photographic instruments—are doing just fine. They offer some things SCs cannot. These include superior light-gathering ability and a creative engagement in photography. Add to that, taking image editing beyond moving the photo into a preprogrammed app.

Yet, when you look at SC sales figures, you can understand why CE/camera companies are smacking their lips and fretting simultaneously. And why they are subsequently tripping over themselves to get on the connected bandwagon.

According to the market research firm GFK (gfk.com), four out of five smartphones have a built-in camera function. And sales of SC units with 5+ megapixel resolution has risen 27% in the last year. Furthermore, market share of such models is nearing 40%. With 10MP models coming on strong, it’s evident the lower end of the camera market will continue to be pinched. The appeal to upload and share images is strong, with images going many directions. This now includes sharing images of family events and individual activities to “iReporter” clips. Such clips became ubiquitous during the Arab Spring and the events in tornado alley.

The reaction of the camera industry to this has been twofold, aside from some initial panic and early product missteps. First is the recognition of what SCs can and cannot do and figuring out how to differentiate product. What they can do eminently well is a snapshot. And the impulse and ease of making snapshots is now a part of the social fabric, as it has been for the past 100 years.

The SC is the camera that’s always with you because it also handles a number of other very important daily tasks. Like keeping in touch, checking e-mail, looking for a good Thai restaurant in walking distance, finding out movie times, etc. That’s hard to beat. Perhaps most important to the camera industry, the images from SCs are good enough for the intended purpose. And just in case you want to get artsy, you can buy this or that app.

Mimicking SCs

So, what did the camera industry do in the face of this amazingly utilitarian tool that is disrupting many other CE segments (including laptops and especially desktops for the home)? They came to market with cameras that attempt to mimic the SC’s capabilities. They displayed interim solutions that used the SC as the carrier of the image from the camera, as the link between the camera and the connected space.

The only problem is that while the image could eventually get there through what for some camera models was a fairly convoluted path, these cameras were incapable of doing the other things the SC can. That is make a phone call or find that Thai restaurant, etc. So the next step was to make that connectedness less cumbersome. They looked to having cameras that can browse. And even to have cameras capable of downloading apps to enable preprogrammed creative manipulation of an image, etc.

I am sorry to say that attempting to disrupt a disruptive product by reverse engineering a current technology to incorporate what you perceive to be the disruptive product’s most attractive features into an older technology is not what I consider a model for success. While it would appear that a camera with Wi-Fi, browsing and quick sharing capability might make sense, it becomes just that, a reaction rather than an innovation. That approach, I think, will be recognized by potential buyers as a one-way street to the museum of obsolete technology. It certainly has resulted in some curiosities that were not long on dealers’ shelves.

Give Them What SCs Can’t

Perhaps the camera industry might consider offering folks features that SCs can’t (at least right now). Offer powerful zooms that guarantee a steady shot, underwater photography that doesn’t look as if you dropped the camera into your aquarium, image quality and resolution that can result in a print the maker would be proud to put on a wall, excellent low-light image quality, the ability to use multiple flash and interchangeable lenses, the pride of ownership in a beautiful optical instrument, and the ability to create images with any darn sense of quality and craftsmanship at all. (The last being of course a subjective opinion in a world where mediocrity has been raised to an aesthetic all its own.)

Walking around photokina, I got the feeling camera makers get this, to an extent. Many of the products played to the strengths of what the camera industry offers. While admittedly some makers played the retro card a bit strongly—as much a demographic decision as a design one—and while sticker shock was a common reaction, there’s no question that the presence of more full-frame cameras, both SLR and compact alike, more sophisticated lenses and more high-zoom integral lens cameras was a direct response, even a challenge, to the SC juggernaut.

This is not to say that connectedness will not be a feature in many, many cameras in the coming year. Indeed, a camera as sophisticated as the Canon 6D full-frame SLR incorporates it, as well as GPS. Perhaps cameras like the 6D put it in perspective, viewing it as a feature, albeit an important one, but not the headline.

Evolution of Cameras’ Android-ization

In short, the “Android-ization” of cameras will become just that—another feature. It will join auto ISO, HDR, in-camera processing, GPS, predictive AF and all of the other amazing tech in today’s cameras. Hopefully the connectedness will improve and a way around the current awkward setup will be found. However, these are mere technical details. What’s important is the camera industry has said yes. We have learned the lesson of smartphones. That lesson is connectedness, but we have more to offer, and that’s a quality photographic experience. That’s a creative engagement in a craft and something more than a device that’s sole purpose seems to be serving you ads you don’t want to see and jacking up your data charges.

For our industry to prosper, we can’t be chasing another industry and trying to promise all they deliver. Our strength has always been to sell the fun and excitement of photography. To sell the creative nourishment it provides and the ability for what we sell to help users hold onto memories of the precious times in their lives. That we do that with quality cameras and lenses along with the promise of quality results is what will keep the industry strong.

So, camera industry, take a chill pill. Look at the bigger picture. The SC is fine for what it is. But it can’t match what a real live camera delivers—not the experience it provides nor the results it produces. That’s what our message has been in the past and what it should remain going forward.

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