Are smartphones better than cameras? Convenient and photographically more capable than ever, and now very much the default choice for most casual photography. But to what extent will we end up moving away from dedicated cameras in the long term?

The compact camera market may still be alive, but it’s in a significantly different shape to how it once was. Even as recently as ten years ago, it was rich with options from various manufacturers whose roots could be traced back to many different places, from traditional photographic companies and general electronics ones though to new players keen on disrupting the market with a more leftfield offering.

While a number of those companies still have a hand in the market, their focus has narrowed to just a few niche sub-sectors: DSLR-like cameras with expansive zoom lenses built into them; enthusiast compact cameras with large sensors; and waterproof models. Many of these are still distinct enough from smartphones to warrant their existence, but outside of these, and cameras designed specifically for children, little else remains.

Camera sales across the world have been sliding for some time now, and many manufacturers have publically stated changes in direction to help them weather this decline. But the fact that cameras on smartphones are so capable these days is no coincidence; it’s hard to deny that this is now the main photographic tool for most people. So how did it get to this point? And how much more erosion of the traditional photography market can we expect?

How we got here

Over the past decade or so, many attempts were made to converge smartphone technology with photographic hardware. None of these, however, were successful enough in their own right to carve out any kind of pathway for future models. 

Nikon’s Coolpix S800c, which was announced back in 2012, combined an Android OS with a long zoom lens and a largely touchscreen-based interface. Panasonic’s Lumix CM1, which arrived two years later, blended a traditional smartphone with a 1-inch sensor – considerably larger than those inside smartphones even today. Sony, meanwhile, even introduced a QX system that allowed lenses for its Alpha system of mirrorless cameras to be used in conjunction with a separate sensor unit and a smartphone.

A more recent stab at fusing the benefits of both smartphones and traditional cameras came in the shape of the DxO One, which combined a 1-inch sensor and lens, and plugged into a smartphone’s charging port, making use of the smartphone’s large display for image composition and display.

But perhaps the most prominent arrivals to this experimental camp were Samsung’s Galaxy Camera and Galaxy Camera 2 models, which integrated an Android OS with 3G capabilities and a 21x optical zoom (and even had Dropbox pre-installed for immediate cloud storage). Models introduced more recently prove that such experiments aren’t over yet, but the likelihood is that such hybrids would only ever become successful within their own niche category, rather than attract enough attention to lead to a more significant shift in product development across the market.

Size isn’t everything

In the end, what’s triumphed hasn’t been a dual-device setup, or the incorporation of smartphone functionality into camera bodies, but smartphones absorbing an increasing amount of traditional camera technology. 

Sensors and lenses have improved with successive smartphone models, the former growing in size and pixel count over time and the latter widening in aperture and offering new focal lengths – and smartphone manufacturers have made plenty of noise about this in the marketing for the models.

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They’ve also taken advantage of computational photography to circumvent the challenges of using relatively small sensors, and by combining multiple lenses and periscope lens designs, they’ve been able to offer optical zoom functionality without the usual bulky profile. 

Furthermore, by augmenting their native camera apps with photographic features that were once only available through third-party apps – raw shooting, manual exposure, white balance adjustment and so on – the argument for having a standalone camera has diminished even further. The desire for a more seamless user journey between capturing and disseminating an image has also become vital, a significant plus for smartphones when you consider just how woeful an experience wireless connectivity continues to be on many dedicated cameras.

Will smartphones replace digital cameras and DSLRs?

From the convenience of always having one on you to the ability to take a quick selfie, and seamless integration of endless photo-oriented apps and social media channels, there are many reasons why smartphones have become so dominant for everyday photography. But to what extent should we expect smartphones to continue reshaping the compact camera market?

A logical place to start with such a question is to look at the types of cameras that remain, and assessing the likelihood of smartphones either catching up in capabilities, or at least coming close enough to severely lessen their appeal.

Of the four compact categories mentioned above, the most likely group for smartphones to challenge next is the rugged camera category, not least because so many smartphones already offer protection against dust and water ingress to some extent. 

Here, dedicated compact cameras generally maintain the advantages of shock-proofing and freezeproofing, and to a lesser extent, crushproofing, although several shockproof smartphones can now be had from the likes of CAT, AGM and Doogee (and rugged cases for conventional smartphones have been available for some time). It seems perfectly reasonable to expect future generations of smartphones to be hardier and to work more reliably across a greater range of environmental conditions.

Tackling long-zoom cameras may be more problematic. It’s not just the optical stretch of the zoom, and the complexity of packing something like this into a slim smartphone body that’s an obstacle, but the ability to hold such a small device steadily while composing the image too; this would require strong advances in image stabilization for it to be practical.

With periscope lens designs, however, and higher megapixel counts allowing for images that appear to be captured at a longer focal length and still output at a reasonable size, this is one area in which smartphone manufacturers have been pushing in recent years – although the gap between what’s possible on the smartphones and dedicated cameras remains significant. 

It doesn’t seem likely that smartphones will replace compact cameras designed specifically for children any time soon. There are many reasons for this, from a parent’s desire for a child not to have their own smartphone to the low cost of dedicated devices maintaining their position as a fun toy that the child can be trusted with. Smartphones also lack the (necessary) large physical controls common to such child-friendly cameras, which makes them far more fiddly to operate.

So what about enthusiast compacts with large sensors? Are smartphones a serious challenge to these? It certainly seems that advances in smartphone technology have encompassed many features that were only once present in cameras aimed at this kind of discerning audience, and advances in sensor design and lens technology have narrowed the gap without question. 

That said, this type of user can more readily spot differences in image quality between the two formats. Features like simulated bokeh may look pleasing enough to the average smartphone users, but those used to achieving these things with a dedicated camera may take more convincing. Furthermore, enthusiast photographers place more value on many factors that would be impractical for smartphone manufacturers to adopt, not least ergonomic designs and physical controls.

Smartphones vs DSLRs and mirrorless cameras: what are we likely to see next?

When it comes to interchangeable-lens cameras, the fact that there are fewer entry-level DSLRs and mirrorless cameras than there used to be is telling. Camera manufacturers need to have a relatively affordable entry-point into a system, of course, although the focus has undoubtedly shifted to the more profitable enthusiast and professional end of the market in recent years, where users are likely to build a system of camera bodies and lenses over time. 

It’s certainly true that smartphones have become sophisticated photographic tools in recent years, but there’s still plenty to split these from dedicated cameras aimed at enthusiast and professional photographers. Camera manufacturers have targeted smartphone users for some time with their marketing, underlining the benefits of a larger sensor and interchangeable lenses, and have made more efforts to style them to appeal to this audience too.

And camera development continues to keep the gap wide enough between the two; it may well be possible to capture images destined for print publication with the current breed of smartphones, and to output similarly sized images, but keen photographers have little reason to be limited by a smartphone when they are clearly better catered for by a current DSLR or mirrorless model.

The last few years in particular have witnessed much upheaval in the mirrorless market, as many new full-frame systems have been introduced, along with a new generation of lenses to do these cameras justice. Many videographers also now use such mirrorless models for their work over costlier, video-specific solutions.

Because of all this, and the necessity for smartphones to have wide appeal against more specialist tools such as professional interchangeable-lens cameras, the two are likely to co-exist for the foreseeable future. Demand for traditional DSLRs continues to decline, however, as mirrorless cameras have gained prominence.

While DSLRs continue to be developed – principally by Canon and Nikon – it seems it’s only a matter of time before production of DSLRs ceases for good, or at least is confined to very specific applications. Ricoh Imaging, for example, which owns the Pentax brand, hasn’t released a truly new DSLR since 2017.

Looking ahead, the signs point to the camera market continuing to become more niche in its offerings, though perhaps without the participation of one or more manufacturers, who may ultimately conclude it to not be profitable enough to stay in the game. A number of once-significant brands have, after all, already gone this way.

Others may only count imaging as a small division among a number of other more profitable ones, which potentially makes them more susceptible to significant changes.

It seems incredibly unlikely that the traditional camera market will disappear as smartphones become smarter. But it would be foolish to assume that smartphones won’t continue to dictate what camera manufacturers need to offer to remain relevant.

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