Camera Makers Need to Stop Whining About Smartphones and Start Innovating Again

Canon PowerShot G12

Every camera manufacturer is blaming the failure of the compact camera market on the growing use of smartphones. No doubt, the iPhone and Android camera capabilities are pushing the boundaries of the compact camera market. In practical use, it seems the iPhone has taken over the sheer volume of images captured today, as evidenced by the images uploaded to Flickr.

iPhone on Flickr

That said, I blame camera manufacturers themselves for part of the downfall of the camera market and, more specifically, the compact camera market. Again, there is no doubt that the iPhone and other smartphones make those casual snapshots so much more convenient today; however, new cameras aren’t what they used to be – in a couple of key ways.

First off, imaging technology has leveled off from the boom we saw a decade or so ago. It used to be that every 6-12 months resolution on cameras would increase by 50-100% – and that really meant something to overall image quality. When you bought a 2MP camera in 2002, you know that the new 3.2MP camera in 2003 would be a big jump . . . and it was.

Innovation was easy because the advances in technology were visible at first blush by looking at the image generated by the camera. Chasing “film quality” was still an ardent goal of camera manufacturers. Everyone wanted the next best thing because it really was something that was measurably better than what we had last year.

Somewhere along the way, we hit the 6-8MP boom of compact cameras. Manufacturers released a dozen or so new models every 6-12 months. Image stabilization, optical zoom, low-light performance bumped up marginally from the prior generation. The dust was starting to settle; however, marketing machines continued to push out the need to upgrade the latest and greatest. And people continued to buy these cameras.

Then, at the end of June 2007, Apple dropped the iPhone. The mobile photography market was born. Camera manufacturers continued to play the same game. The 2MP camera in the original iPhone, apparently wasn’t enough to cause camera makers to think different. The same, lazy upgrade path continued with a plethora of compact cameras released on a regular cycle. More megapixels remained the major drum beat across all market segments.

This brings me to my second point on the camera market’s implosion: manufacturers got fat and lazy. Over the next few years, the camera release cycles continued to drive the market until the upgrades became so incremental that annual upgrades are barely noticeable as upgrades from the previous generation of cameras. This observation applies throughout the consumer camera market to include mirrorless and entry-level DSLRs.

The image quality of cameras released in 2010 is so marginally lower than current models that consumers simply don’t need to upgrade every year. People still buy compact cameras and entry-level DSLRs. However, consumers that purchased a new camera in the past 3-5 years have such a high-quality camera that there is no need to upgrade to the latest and greatest. I know plenty of people who still use their 2008-era Canon Rebel XSi.

These entry-level consumers (for the most part) are not the pixel-peepers found in photography forums that dissect luminance and chroma noise among cameras at ISO 3200 and above. They are, however, the ones who are the driving force behind the market. For the most part, they don’t really care that the 2013-model Canon Rebel T5i (aka, Canon Rebel T4i Mark II – don’t even get me started on this one…) has a great touch screen interface.

Camera makers have run out of gas in the megapixel race and no one cares anymore. 8MP or 18MP? It doesn’t matter. If it is nice enough for Facebook or for those moms and grandmas still keeping a 4×6 family album, it doesn’t matter what other features camera makers pack into their annual vomit of new cameras.

The point is further demonstrated by taking a look into the most popular point & shoot cameras used on Flickr as of today.

Point and Shoot Cameras on Flickr

The number 2 camera? The Canon PowerShot G12 released in 2010. It was replaced over a year ago by the Canon PowerShot G15. The G15 added more megapixels (up from 10MP), 1080p HD video (up from 720p) and a bigger LCD, along with a few other improvements. All those G12 users? They don’t care.

The Canon S95 comes in a number 3. It too was a camera released in 2010. It has since been upgraded by Canon with the S100 in 2011 and the S110 in 2012. Both updates were solid cameras in their own right; however, S95 users have zero reasons to upgrade their already excellent cameras.

The Sony RX100 is the one stray in the group. It is a new camera, released in June 2012. An upgrade, the Sony RX100 II, was announced just a couple months ago.

So how do we explain the RX100 in a group of “old” cameras?

Easy.

Innovation.

The Sony RX100 did the exact same thing we saw back in 2003 when cameras jumped so much in image quality from the previous generation. No one has really done that with a compact camera since that era until Sony brought the RX100.

While the RX100 features a 20MP sensor, it is not the number of pixels on the sensor that make the camera so desirable in a sea of compact cameras. Sony did something no one else had done to date and stuffed a 1″ sensor inside of a pocket camera.

People fell in love.

Who cares that it was $650? It was awesome. Everyone was raving about it. A year later, no other manufacturer has touched it.

A year ago, Sony laid out the blueprint for what is required in the camera market of the 2010s:  Stop being lazy with cyclical upgrades and make a product that people notice because the product is awesome.

I don’t mean to love on Sony too much though. Just how different is the Sony NEX-5 from the NEX-5T? Or, the NEX-3 from the NEX-3N. I still get along just fine with a Sony NEX-C3, which Sony hasn’t given me a reason to upgrade yet.

Smartphones may just end up pushing camera makers out of their own market. (They have sure done a great job so far.) However, camera makers have (for the most part) been asleep at the wheel for the past few years. If camera makers want to roll over and die, they can just keep doing what they’ve been doing.

Or, they can pick themselves up, dust off their bum and start wooing us with products like they did a decade ago. More megapixels (or pretty much any feature or spec that marketing departments vomit out with each cycle) are not the answer. Make cameras that are obviously better than what you did last year and people will flock to them.

It is so easy to cry that the camera market has been victimized by idiot smartphone users. What have camera makers done for themselves though?

Stop the whining and start innovating again.

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Comments

  1. Sky says

    Innovation won’t change anything.

    What author doesn’t seem to realize is the fact that majority of people doesn’t need quality, innovative camera. They need camera that works. Previously this was delivered by P&S – these days it’s smarphones that do the job just fine, and with added software features that smartphones have (notably all of the connectivity) – they are also more fun and easy than P&Ss.

    So in the end camera manufacturers are in a war that they cannot win – sales of P&S even now are way over the top of what they should be – and that’s only because not everyone embraced smartphones yet. In the end though P&S will become niche market focused around “aware” photographers (either as their travel cameras, or an ‘emergency’ body). And even RX100 won’t change that – heck: I’d argue that RX100 is exactly this – a sign of how much P&S market will decline, going away and away from mass consumers and focusing around people who are ready to spend quite a bit of money for camera that will be truly portable and at the same time offer quality unmatched by any smartphone.

    “However, camera makers have (for the most part) been asleep at the wheel for the past few years.” – have they? Author missed mirrorless market emerging? Huge adaptation of 3rd party glass? Sigma revolution? Full frame compacts? HD DSLRs? Extreme sports photography (GoPro and similar) ?
    I can’t see how camera makers been asleep. Dozens of amazing things have been done during last few years and I dare to say that we live in most rapidly progressing era of the photography
    EVER.

    • says

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      On the consumer side of things, I would note that the mirrorless market and HDSLRs were introduced about 5 years ago. How much as really changed for the average consumer over that time? Not much. Hence, my point about Sony’s NEX-5 vs. NEX-5T.

      Sigma’s big move of late and the full frame compacts aren’t the typical consumer products; however, I’ll give credit to Sigma for the 17-70mm f/2.8-4 OS lens lens that most consumers should consider for their crop-sensor DSLRs over the first-party 18-55mm kit lenses. GoPro (not a traditional camera manufacturer) is a great example of a company that is innovating. It created an entire market on the consumer side that didn’t exist before it came along.

      There are certainly exceptions; however, lazy camera releases like the Canon S110, G15, (virtually any other recent compact camera), Rebel T5i and Sony NEX-5T are prime examples of the incremental upgrade cycle that makes no one interested in buying a new camera.

      As you said, smartphones do the job just fine, but there are plenty of people who still want to hold a camera in their hands (and are still doing so) – they’re just using a camera that’s 3-5 years old because manufacturers haven’t given them a reason to upgrade.

      Further to your point, who is the next GoPro? Or, who will be the one to deliver the wow factor of the Sony RX100 for a low-end consumer market? (And I’m not talking about delivering the specs of the RX100 in a $150 package, I’m talking about the emotional and psychological appeal of a camera that is so great, people have to have it.)

      • Sky says

        Thank you for such a detailed response.

        I’d argue that mirrorless were insignificant all the way till 2010 and a real peak of activity happen in 2012 (sadly this year was mostly stagnation – both of the sales and developments). So it’s 3 years tops for mirrorless market.

        How much has changed for customer ever since? Well, people stopped waiting for Canon and Nikon, a small-sensor mirrorless have been developed, we’ve seen several hybrid cameras – most notably Pentax K-01 and a growth of DSLR-shaped mirrorless with OM-D and A3000. Both of which were quite significant developments.
        Than something very important for customers happened – both Canon and Nikon joined Sony releasing their first sub-2000$ full frame DSLRs. And actually they did more than that – releasing cameras with a price point of not just barely below 2000$ but rather close to 1500$, which is a huge deal. Soon with that a new breed of cheap full frame lenses followed, something unseen form an age of the film.
        Than the whole market of large sensor compacts emerged – and I wouldn’t dismiss it as simply as saying that Sony is only an exception – right now few manufacturers worked or are working on this field, with Canon 1Gx being one of the recent pioneers, than there was Nikon Coolpix A which put all of the mirrorless in shame with it’s amazingly small size mixed with outstanding image quality. Than there are experiments of Pentax with mid-sized sensor MX-1 compact. I can keep on going and going on how many BRILLIANT things happened recently in a P&S market.
        And finally there’s Sigma doing some outstanding developments on the front of DSLR lenses with it’s 35 f/1.4 and the first f/1.8 zoom lens for DSLRs. It’s not a “typical consumer product”? You seen the prices of that f/1.8 zoom? That’s definitely a prime example of top notch consumer product. Just imagine the pricing policy Nikon or Canon would have for a lens like that. But even they innovate – for example Canon releasing recently first tele zoom lens with integrated TC.

        As for GoPro not being a traditional manufacturer – I do agree, however I was pointing out more at the extreme sports photography as a whole where both: Sony and Nikon seem to be doing some really nice progress, although each one of them in a different way.

        “lazy camera releases like the Canon S110, G15, (virtually any other recent compact camera), Rebel T5i and Sony NEX-5T are prime examples of the incremental upgrade cycle that makes no one interested in buying a new camera” – I’d argue that you are doing cherry picking just to prove your point that’s simply plain wrong and doesn’t stand against the facts. Incremental upgrades ALWAYS existed, even in the film age when cameras were released by far more rarely and changes for real leaps in progress were higher. Now we get a new cameras each year – because that’s how customers shaped the market – so what do you expect? Every single one of these cameras to be a real breakthrough? That’s not an option simply because of how the development cycle works.

        “As you said, smartphones do the job just fine, but there are plenty of people who still want to hold a camera in their hands” – but that’s a MINORITY of the market. Yes, from Your perspective it might seem like an important majority, but that’s a classical example of a rose glasses that photographers wear. Market does not care. People want to shoot photos, camera for them is only one of the ways of achieving that – if they find a camera on a smartphone than the need for separate camera is pretty much neglected. Time to grasp the reality – photography right now IS mostly a smartphone photography, and despite of thesis in an article – no amount of innovation from camera manufacturers is going to change that.

        For me this whole article brings up a “grumpy cat” meme. So many things happen around you, every part of the market has been touched recently by a photography revolution, and You argue that “camera manufacturers are whining” and “manufacturers got fat and lazy” – which of them got fat and lazy? Please, point out, cause as I tried to show you in both of my comments – ALL of them DO INNOVATE. Each one in different way and slightly different direction, but saying that “manufacturers got fat and lazy” doesn’t do the justice to their recent achievements. Perhaps you could say that 4-5 years ago and to a degree it might have some merit in it, but today?
        It’s a ridiculous statement.

  2. justpassby says

    probably camera manufacturer should consider collaboration with smart phone manufacturer in supplying them camera modules for their smartphone? it’s a way to open a new market and to get some brand awareness as well…

    • Sky says

      Sony and Samsung both already do it. They also release their own smartphones with quality cameras. Recently some news submerged about Nikon doing / wanting to do the same (on top of that Nikon also got an Android P&Ss).

  3. says

    P&S have to become like the Fuji x series to get people excited. Really Fuji, Olympus, and Sony are the only ones moving in this direction and the buzz about them proves it.

  4. Anthony says

    Integration with social media is something that will be very strong in the future. A camera which allows images to be selected from its LCD screen and sent directly to Facebook, Instagram and/or Pinterest via WiFi and/or 3G/4G will sell in the millions.

    There is no need for Sony RX100-style image quality. Connectivity will be key.

    • says

      We’re starting to see some of this among new cameras; however, I still feel like that won’t be enough. It just seems like more keeping up with the competition instead of separating from the pack.

      • Anthony says

        Agreed, it has been done, but only on a small scale.

        I think the attraction of a camera that is totally integrated with social media will be irresistible. There is no such product currently available.

        It’s easy to look at it from a photographer’s point of view and fail to see the attraction. Look at it from a social media user’s point of view and it is compelling.

        • Sky says

          “There is no such product currently available.” – Yes, there is. It’s called Samsung Galaxy Camera and you can get pretty much every social media in the world onto it, all in familiar interface known from smartphones.
          Despite of your predictions though – it came out to be a flop.

          • Anthony says

            Sky, thanks for your reply, but the Samsung is what I was referring to when I said “on a small scale”.

            From a photographer’s point of view it might appear to work. However, from a social media user’s point of view, it is a clumsy, slow and cumbersome tool that needs more patience than most human beings possess. Posting images on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram is not nearly as straightforward as it needs to be if the demand from this sector of the market is going to be addressed.

            I realise I’m not going to get much support from the photographers who mainly inhabit this fine web site. That’s because they simply don’t understand that social media users are crying out for something that makes better images than a smartphone *and* makes it easy to upload them to a number of their favourite social media sites.

            I think the most promising development is the Sony add-on sensor/lens combinations that will revolutionise imaging using a smartphone. An integrated solution should in theory be better, but the Samsung offering is not there yet.

          • says

            Good points Anthony. I agree with your sentiments about the Sony QX lenses; however, I remain undecided on what practical potential they possess. I’m looking forward to seeing what the market response is and whether something like these units is, at least, in the right direction…

          • Sky says

            Market response was very good so far – QX got more preorders than any A, E-mount or RX-series camera ever.
            We’ll see though if that’s a right direction. Only time will tell.

  5. Mark says

    Nice article. Though I want to point out that using Flickr as a means of measuring camera popularity is not reliable. The reasoning why iPhone has topped Flickr postings is because of its ability to be convenient to upload and share the user’s images. So you’ll most likely get a skewed view on camera usage.

    That being said, the iPhone and other smartphones have successfully taken away market share from the P&S market because of its convenience, but also the image quality was not far off from a traditional P&S. But outside of being a camera, it can share and edit photos very easily, thus being a small portable computer (which it essentially is). And the killer part is that it has a better business model, being a phone-first that’s upgradeable every year (or two years), making it an essential part of a person’s everyday life.

    I agree that traditional camera manufacturers have to innovate, and not just a capability level, but to create a better business model, because honestly, they are behind the curve. For the P&S market, they can’t rely on such a robust line of cameras with very similar capabilities. And, for the top-end P&S cameras, their capabilities and value need to outweigh a smartphone’s. Basically, they have to say, “My iPhone can’t do that, so I need…”

    The DSLRs, Mirrorless, and niche cameras are protected right now, because a smartphone is not yet on par with image quality and versatility. Though they are now being able to pair up and communicate with them.

    As for the business model, incremental upgrades will help fish a few people here and there, but, as you said, a majority will continue to keep their older models because the capabilities are too similar and the upgrade is not worth it. If they can’t find a better business model, I feel the P&S market will only continue to bleed out and give share away to smartphones.

  6. Darren Kelly says

    Great article Eric!,

    As a photography teacher, and producer of a popular DVD series on digital camera’, I can only echo what Eris has said.

    In 2005, I made my first DVD on compact digital cameras. I purchased 5 cameras for that purpose, starting at a price point of about $500 and finishing with an Olympus 8080 at about 1100.

    What they each had in common was their incredible small sensor. Over that time, all that has changed is the number of pixels has increased – to as high as 20, while the sensor has remained virtually unchanged. Yes, price has come down. Who cares.

    At the same time, the cell phone camera uses the same size, if not smaller sensor as those point and shoots, and now they have a pixel count in the 41mp range. How stupid is the consumer who thinks this is a step forward!

    If the camera manufacturers want to reclaim the market, they need to give us some cameras that make sense.

    1. If not full frame, there should be compacts that have 1 inch, or APS sensors with decent lenses attached. Remember how inexpensive it was to buy a point and shoot 35mm film camera with a built in lens? If they can sell a DSLR under $500, which they can, they should be able to sell me a point and shoot under that same price with a decent lens, and decent sized sensor. Yes, the RX100 is a good example. It could be more reasonably priced, and I believe in 2013 for the holiday sales market they will be.

    2. Cleaner images. Cel Phone cameras have so much noise in an image, it’s unusable in situations where light is an issue. Camera manufacturers need to continue to make improvements to sensitivity and noise issues.

    3. Connectivity. If they want an effective competition – in other words, if communicating with online services are important, more compact digital s need to connect to the web through wifi, or nfc with cel phones. Not a tough thing to master.

    Given that my first 2.2mp Oly 2020 cost me $1,000 – and I was happy with the deal, I’d pay decent money for better point and shoot cameras. But don’t stick a 1200mm lens on a micro sensor and expect me to shell out money for it.

    Good work Eric.

  7. Tom Chmara says

    I think what we’re seeing is maturing of the market – a return to ‘normal’ – the intense interest in dSLRs and other sophistications was an aberration resulting from the newness of digital technology.

    In the Film Era, only a few had SLRs: lenses were HUGELY expensive, primes (zooms were even more-expensive), and fiddly (automatic modes were limited – you really needed to match your needle!) So people bought Instamatic 124s, even 110-format cameras (with execrable image quality) – but they were easy to use, small and portable, got the picture they wanted, and fairly inexpensive so if they were lost or damaged it wasn’t a big deal. Those who wanted to do “photography” (art, in that sense), made the investments in money & time – and were rewarded.

    As digital matures, I think we’re seeing in cameras a return to ‘horses for courses': dSLR sales are likely to continue to fall, because let’s be honest, most of the market has zero interest in the flexibility that the dSLR offers, and huge interest in simplicity, portability, and immediacy. And the picture quality far exceeds their expectations (we know this because they feel compelled to immediately compromise it with crap filters like Instagram so that the sharp focus, smooth grain, and great contrast are trashed). EVIL cameras are an interesting middle ground – they improve the portability, but unless you’re a creative, they’re more than you need: your cameraphone is quite adequate (see above about Instagram :-)). Point-and-shoot are likely to be doomed – they don’t offer enough added value over and above a cameraphone, and you need to remember to carry them; but they don’t offer enough creative control to replace an EVIL or dSLR if you *really* intend to do “photography”.

    We’re moving towards incremental improvements: I’ve just upgraded to FF (another poster observed that the ‘revolutionary’ change here is it’s now an affordable luxury); camera makers have slowed in terms of megapixels (okay, once I’ve got 24MP, really, I’ve got enough for a double-truck print across my coffee-table book) and are now thrashing around to find the Next Big Compelling Thing (I’ve got incredible video capability – which I will pretty much never use). In that sense I’d argue we’re seeing LOTS of ‘innovation’ – in the sense of ‘solutions seeking a problem’ (yes, many DO want to shoot video – that’s great… lots of ‘record-only video’ because no one will ever watch it).

    And I’m happy with that.

    Tom

  8. Gennady says

    Hi, Eric!
    Firstly, thanks a bunch for your website, the info you offer FREE OF CHARGE is priceless.
    Now to the point of contention.
    I’m one hundred percent with you! For two years I’ve been trying to find a replacement for my old Panasonic Lumix DMC-LC1, with its 5-Mp (!) sensor that is smaller than the nail of my little finger. To no avail! The reasons are galore, you’re familiar with all of them. From A390 to 5D Mark III, and D800E: just look at the spots on the sensors — disgusting!
    As to the iPhones and the like, IMHO no real photographer would dream of using them. Imagine replacing something like LC1’s magnificent Leica lens with a tiny hole in a piece of plastic! The iThings just shouldn’t be compared with the cameras – DSLRs, mirroless, whatever.
    Once again, thanks a lot, keep on with your great initiative and have patience with the blatantly biased nincompoops.
    Admiringly,
    Gennady.
    P.S. Photography has been my hobby since the early 1950s and I’m hard put to it to come across better images than those produced by DMC-LC1 with its Leica lens — on Flickr or elsewhere.
    G.Sh.

    • Sky says

      Spots on the sensor… I’m not sure what you are referring to, but if it’s noise – than keep in mind that comparing equal sensitivities to your LC1 most of modern cameras are flawless while LC1 is the one with “spots on the sensor”.
      If for some reason you don’t like image from modern sensors – you can simply use batch processing on images to down-size them to 5MPx – than photographs will look 10 times better than anything your LC1 ever offered, while at the same time offer multiple times better ISO, dynamic range and colors separation.
      As for Leica lens – it’s not. It’s just branded by Leica, but manufactured by Panasonic. They got similar deal with several other cameras. Real Leica lenses these days can be found in M and S systems. Designed and manufactured by Leica.
      “As to the iPhones and the like, IMHO no real photographer would dream of using them” – dream… perhaps not, but work with them? Sure. Sometimes having very, very small and portable camera can be an advantage and many professional photographers use iPhones from time to time (even if it’s not their main camera).
      “Imagine replacing something like LC1′s magnificent Leica lens with a tiny hole in a piece of plastic!” – That wouldn’t be a problem considering that 5s offers comparable image quality, sturdy aluminum body that’s by far smaller and lighter. For large bodies I got a DSLR with whole system of lenses that pretty much never limits my possibilities.
      “The iThings just shouldn’t be compared with the cameras” – why not? All of these can shoot photographs. And last time I checked – photography was ALL ABOUT shooting photographs. Wasn’t it?
      Kind regards,
      Sky.
      ps. Photography has been my hobby since the early 1990s (shooting SLRs and TLRs back then) and I can come across better images than those produced by DMC-LC1 with its Leica lens — on Flickr or elsewhere — within less than 30 seconds.

  9. Daniel says

    A day will come when we don’t carry a camera, a phone or even a wrist watch. Hello Google Glass! The computer, phone, camera, sat-navi, weather forcast, books, news, personal assistant, entertainment, thermometer, altimeter, remote control & etc all in front of your eyes. Why the heck you need to carry anything else? :-)

    • Sky says

      I never wear glasses, but I always do have a phone. I don’t like glasses as such, so even if Google Glass would ever offer everything you speak of (what’s highly unlikely if not: impossible) – I still would choose a smartphone over weird, quirky, ugly Google Glass.
      Google Glass is like walking around with bluetooth headphones – makes you look like an idiot most of the time. No wait – it’s worse, cause bluetooth headphones don’t have a direct link to NSA.

  10. forkboy1965 says

    Better late than never….

    My friend, who works in a camera store, and I have discussed this before and share the opinion it’s likely better the camera manufacturers abandon the entry-level line of point-n-shoot cameras.

    Camera phones by and large serve the average, everyday person just fine. While they may miss the optical zoom that comes with p&s cameras it sure doesn’t seem to have slowed down the use of smart phones for picture taking.

    As camera phones continue to improve (and include the convenience of sharing right from the phone) optical zoom becomes the only missing feature.

    We think the manufacturers would be better off looking for ways to make better their camera lines starting in the $250-$300 range. Looking for features that will truly separate their cameras from what smart phones can do.

    Just our two cents worth…