The Digital Ecosystem: Building a Better Camera to Compete with Smartphones

The Digital Ecosystem: Building a Better Camera to Compete with Smartphones


Last time we discussed the overall imaging ecosystem, the switch from film to electronic sensors and digital imaging, and the advent of mobile imaging. As noted, more people are now taking more photos than ever. More potential customers experience the power of pictures than ever. These people want even better image capture, even simpler photo sharing.

But all that in no way means an easy sale. If the phone is “good enough” for most photography, what will entice anyone to invest even more income into another device? There are two general tactics: one that camera makers have relied on for a decade, and the other that they are trying now—better image quality, better connectivity and image editing.

Image Capture Quality
Smartphone picture quality has improved immensely in a decade, but the image capture of a stand-alone dedicated device will always be better. At least that’s been the camera industry’s main line of defense. For years, when asked about phone competition, camera makers have answered that they will always be able to sell premium picture quality. Fortunately, it has been a true statement: bigger sensors and bigger lenses yield better pictures. It’s unarguable physics. And improvements in sensors and optics may mostly benefit small mobile phones, but they also add to the image quality of all cameras.

Note the past tense: it has been a true statement. It won’t be forever. Five years ago a $200 camera took much better pictures than a phone. Today that is not as true. And so camera companies have focused on offering small cameras that are either much tougher than a smartphone, or much cheaper, so it won’t smart as much when you break it. But this tactic has limited applicability and appeal—and so Olympus is likely only the first of camera companies to cancel their low-end compact line.

Today a $500 camera still captures much better shots than a $500 phone. And, of course, for true imaging aficionados, even more expensive cameras provide pictures that phones will likely never match. iPhone images will always be outclassed by the full-frame sensor, snappy autofocus and huge lenses of enthusiast and professional interchangeable-lens cameras. (Let’s be clear that we aren’t talking “phone vs. SLR image quality.” That’s not a contest, or even a comparison.)

But here’s the danger zone for camera makers: if <$200 cameras are no longer viable products, and $600–$3,000 cameras are, what about the mid-range? Will sales there all attenuate like lower cost models, or can they somehow not only continue but also be strengthened? After all, if billions of people are enchanted by photography with their phones, some sizable percentage should be susceptible to the siren call of even better pictures. And that represents a tremendous possible increase in camera sales if manufacturers do it right.

So far they haven’t.

Today, if I want a better picture than my iPhone provides, camera makers offer confusing or uncompelling options. Many phone users aren’t ready or will never want to leap all the way up to a pro-level SLR, or even the supposedly more friendly “compact system camera” or a mirrorless ILC. Worse, <$1,000 enthusiast cameras offer insufficient enticements—ones that don’t overcome the twin obstacles of paying for and carrying around a separate device. Image capture is better, but not by an impressive order of magnitude; and optics are better, but most of us will rarely if ever need a 30x zoom!

The industry is trying new photographic capture technologies, but I believe they’ve yet to offer one that would make most people spend more money. Let’s take a look:

• 3D Capture. Fujifilm and Panasonic notably both offer consumer–aimed stereographic capture, but while most of us see one 3D image and say “Cool!” when we see 30 we say “Yawn.” In fact, we mostly don’t see them: we mostly look at pictures on screens (and mostly on Facebook, truth be told), and 3D does not translate there—nor does it on standard prints. 3D is proving insufficiently compelling in the TV market, and even worse so in the camera biz.

• Depth Capture. As evidenced by Lytro’s lack of impact, this potentially useful technique has instead been promoted and perceived as a one-trick gimmick. Light-field imaging captures light from multiple angles; it can capture images instantly without focusing and yield data on the distance and location of the photo’s subjects. But so far, all you can do is click on one part of the picture to make another part blurry. Okay, it’s really “selective focus” of depth of field, but making part of the shot blurry is hardly what most people want to do with their pictures. Especially when the selective focus only works on web pages with the viewer tech embedded.

• Sensitivity. The one imaging technology that has improved a lot in recent years is unfortunately available on phones as well—and that is ever-increasing low-light sensitivity. This is still the biggest pain point for most of us: We can see something we want to record forever, but our camera yields only dark or blurry images. While low-light sensitivity has increased tremendously, one primary cause, backside-illumination sensor tech, has quickly migrated from expensive cameras to everyday phones. Of course, larger sensors capture more light, but they also cost far more, and so they alone are not a capability on which cameras can compete.

Photography Device
So if image quality is not a metric on which mid-range cameras will be able to compete against phones forever, what is?

Capture is only one part of the photography experience. After we take a photo, we view, share, enhance, print and store it. Unfortunately, the phone has for many years trumped the camera in those categories as well, hands down.

Until recently it was not even a contest, as cameras only captured pictures and left the rest to what used to be called the “PC chain of pain”—connect a cable to the camera, download the images to a computer, try to find the images on that PC, select a few, upload them to a sharing or printing service, etc.

Smartphones revolutionized personal photography in that they weren’t just the fabled “camera you have with you.” They were more than a convenient camera. They were the complete photography device in your pocket: capture, display, upload, share—no cables or computers required.

Can or should cameras compete as complete photography devices? So far, the answer is no. Current Android cameras are simply smartphones that don’t make calls. What’s the point?

On the higher end, we have compacts and ILCs that are making a good effort: they have large touch screens, image enhancement functions, apps and even built-in Wi-Fi. Some of these are crucial. I wouldn’t buy a camera without connectivity, but “creative modes” are often useless, intrusive or unappealing; for those who like them, they are inferior to what they are used to enjoying on Instagram or the like on a phone, and Photoshop or its ilk on a computer. Other additions such as GPS are also outmatched by what phones have long offered.

Altogether these features merely add up to “me too.” It’s like cameras are saying, “Hey, we can do some of what phones do, so please spend hundreds of dollars to do what the device in your pocket, for which you’ve already spent hundreds of dollars, does for you as is.”

You can see why that’s a less-than-compelling sales proposition. What to do? Well . . . 

Companion Device
The reason I would only buy an ILC that has Wi-Fi isn’t because I want to upload images from the camera. It’s because I know that on at least a few occasions, I’d benefit from connecting my phone to the camera and using the phone as a remote viewer and shutter release. I believe this is a very valuable feature that will prove popular with many people as it becomes more widely known. But the key here isn’t just a better remote control; it’s like a peanut butter cup, two great tastes that taste great together.

I believe the best option is a camera that does not compete with a phone and does more than just be remotely controlled by a phone. Instead, I see manufacturers realizing there are millions of potential customers who already have in their pocket a powerful computer with a big display and connectivity. They don’t want to pay for those features twice, nor do most of them want to carry around a second device—pockets are only so big. But they might pay for an add-on—something that delivers the imaging capabilities their phones lack, which they want and can see the value of.

There are already, of course, many photography add-ons for phones, but these snap-on extra lenses and such are of limited benefit because they still direct light through the phone’s built-in lens and to its standard sensor, which yields little if any improvement in image quality.

No, what I want, what I’d pay for, and from which perhaps some camera maker can profit, is a camera meant to truly complement the phone. It would not make you pay for another screen or CPU; it would use the phone’s. It would not use the phone’s lens and sensor; it would snap over the phone and connect to its main USB jack, and with the proper app, in effect become the phone’s upgraded camera—one with a lens and sensor unlimited by the phone’s size and cost limitations.

When I initially proposed such a companion device a few years ago, most in the conference audience thought it an unlikely alternative. Has time made it more likely?

What are your thoughts? How should cameras compete with phones or otherwise entice upgrade purchases? Should they work together or stay separate devices and use cases? And what capabilities do cameras still need to offer to remain viable products in the future?

Photography consultant Paul Worthington is the consumer-imaging analyst for the 6Sight Report and an editor for PMA Newsline.