CamerAgX

September 11, 2016

The rise of the smartphone, and the fall of grace of digital cameras

Filed under: Gear — xtalfu @ 11:43 pm


When I started this blog, my focus was “old-gear”, and by “old gear”, I meant film cameras. I would not have imagined that 7 years later,  digital cameras would have started joining the ranks of the old gear.


At the turn of the century, at the peak of the photographic film era, approximately 85 billion photos were taken every year. In 2012, we took 380 billion pictures. And since the growth is not slowing down, the total is probably well over 400 billion now. Basically,  10% of the photos ever taken since the invention of photography were taken last year.


Obviously, this massive growth was made possible by the switch from film to digital technologies. Hundreds of millions of photographers bought digital cameras ( 120 million cameras sold in 2010 alone). But the engine of growth is now the smartphone. Smartphones are ubiquitous, easy to use and supremely convenient. They are produced by the billion (1.5 billion last year) and the user base passed the 2 billion mark 2 or 3 years ago.

Pictures taken

Pictures taken by type of device in % (Source: Infotrends)


Photography is with messaging (and probably in combination with messaging) the most popular use of the smartphone. 92 % of the users of smartphones take pictures with them, and 80% send or upload the photos from the phone. As the saying goes, the best camera is the one you have with you. As a means of sharing pictures, our smartphones are also much more convenient than digital cameras. And with 12 MP (megapixel) sensors, image stabilization, good image processing algorithms, large screens and great apps to edit the photos, they produce better pictures than most of the point and shoot cameras that were still selling by the millions a few years ago.


If 10 years ago, photos were printed on photographic or ink-jet paper, now they stay on the phone – the new pocket-size photo album – or they’re uploaded to hundreds of social networks. 350 million photos are uploaded on Facebook every day, 58 million on Instagram.


As a result, the market for cheap point and shoot cameras has almost disappeared, and the big cameras manufacturers are desperately trying to drive the market towards a range of increasingly expensive “expert” cameras with always larger sensors, as far as possible from the competition of the smartphone industry.


This trend is visible not only on the few remaining models of point and shoot cameras, but also for mirrorless and DSLR cameras, with the push towards “full frame” and now medium format sensors.


But higher unit prices can only do so much in a shrinking market – the digital camera production fell from a peak of 120 million units in 2010 to 40 million units last year. The camera makers are feeling the pinch, and the more fragile and the less committed – such as Samsung – have started leaving the sector altogether. We’re at the beginning of a new phase of consolidation in the industry.


Will digital cameras become collectible?


If 5 or 10 years from now, smartphones have kept on making rapid progress in image quality, almost all the pictures will be taken with phones or tablets, and “cameras” will only be used by enthusiasts. People will start looking at digital cameras with nostalgia. And the most original of them – the most different from smartphones in terms of ergonomics and output, will start gaining value. Maybe.

 

Sales of digital cameras - 1999-2015

Sales of digital cameras – 1999-2015

But digital cameras are different from film cameras: their value is to a large extent driven by the quality of the images they produce, and in that regard, a 10 year old digital camera can not compete.

In the film days, images taken with a 30 year old camera were indistinguishable from images taken with a brand new one, provided you used the same film and the same lens on the two bodies. The ease of use and the depth of the automation were better on the more recent camera, which  produced good pictures with  a higher rate of success in the hands of average photographers. But really good images were not different.


In the digital world, image quality is ultimately function of the sensor and of the image processing engine. And a 10 year old digital camera – even a top of line professional model from one of the big manufacturers can not keep up with a brand new entry level DSLR in terms of low light sensibility and image resolution.


In the silver halide days, film performance was the key factor. In the digital days, it’s the electronics in the camera’s  body, and 10 year bodies are simply obsolete. 


Interestingly, lenses are holding their value much better. And the advent of mirrorless cameras has sparked a renewed interest for all sorts of  lenses, even from older generations or from orphan systems. More about this in a coming post.


Gas Station - Rome, Georgia - Sony A6000 and Nikkor 135mm

Gas Station – Rome, Georgia – Sony A6000 and Nikkor AI 135mm f/3.5 – Metabones lens mount adapter.

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