According to The NPD Group’s new Imaging Confluence Study, the share of U.S. consumers taking photos and videos on their smartphones has grown from 17 percent last year to 27 percent, while the camera and traditional camcorders share has declined from 52 percent to 44 percent with the balance being images from other cameras like DSLRs.
What’s going on here is a battle of fidelity vs. convenience, and whenever convenience is a realistic option, providing ‘good enough’ fidelity, it always wins out over fidelity. Take the smartphone. For a number of years, the smartphone camera had much lower fidelity than a typical point-and-shoot digital camera. But, over the past couple of years, smartphone manufacturers have greatly increased the quality of the digital images taken by their integrated cameras.
Case in point, the current iPhone 4S takes a photo with 8MP resolution with f2.4 aperture and has a novel option called HDR that takes two photos: one over exposed and one under exposed and then combines them to make an image that is better than either one taken alone. This helps tremendously with images that have either a very dark or light background. Plus, the iPhone 4S camera can take 1080p video with image stabilization. This is as good as or better than most digital cameras and camcorders from just a few years ago.
But, the iPhone camera (as well as any typical Android smartphone camera) doesn’t provide optical zoom because it requires substantial movement of the lenses that isn’t possible to do in a thin smartphone form factor. The smartphone cameras, also, don’t have large image processing chips like what’s provided in digital cameras. These are important because the larger and more functional image processing chips greatly enhance the image, e.g. eliminating the shadow that often sits behind a close-up image. Finally, smartphone cameras don’t yet have larger, detachable lenses. The larger lenses capture more light and enable a wide range in optical zoom.
It’s possible to imagine that a future smartphone camera will perform as well as today’s digital cameras with large optical zoom and larger lenses. Take the innovations recently announced by Pelican Imaging: they provide the equivalent of a large lens by adding a number of small lenses to the back of a smartphone and then provide an image processing chip that integrates the images from the small lenses so that they act together like one large lens. Their technology should come to market this year with enhancements already in the pipeline.
It’s not hard to imagine that in a few years, this class of technology will provide optical zoom in smartphone cameras just like what’s provided in digital cameras today.
Look at the detachable lens camera market. According to NPD, their share increased by 12 percent in units and 11 percent in dollars with an average price of $863. And, point-and-shoot cameras with optical zooms of 10x or greater grew by 16 percent in units and 10 percent in dollars with an average price of $247.
There’s a new class of detachable lens digital cameras that have recently come to market: the Sony NEX and the Nikon 1 (with Canon likely to follow soon). These digital cameras enable a detachable lens to be placed on a camera that’s about the size of a typical point-and-shoot camera thus enabling larger optical zoom and lenses to be used that would not be possible with today’s integrated point-and-shoot cameras. They have better image processors and can take full HD video. These new cameras are relatively expensive but serve the need for someone who wants higher fidelity (large lenses with optical zoom) but in a much smaller, lighter and more convenient package.
Thus, customers understand the definite advantage of larger optical zoom (e.g. 10x or greater) and appreciate detachable lenses to provide different lighting and optical zoom requirements from events such as weddings, sports and entertainment. (By the way, have you noticed that major concerts don’t ever try to prevent photos? That’s because these shows have such extreme lighting conditions that it makes it almost impossible to take a good photo using a digital camera. Hence, since their stage AV ruins most images, they don’t bother announcing that photos are prohibited.)
Since smartphone cameras are continuing to get better each year on an incremental basis, it seems clear that most digital images (still and video) are soon going to be taken by a smartphone and not a separate digital camera. Yes, we’ll continue to buy and use higher-end digital cameras for important events when higher fidelity is justified, but we are in the throes of a major societal shift as fidelity improves in smartphones: why bother with a separate digital camera when the smartphone you’re holding in your hand is good enough for most situations?
I expect that one or more of the major digital camera manufacturers like Canon, Nikon, Olympus or Panasonic will hook up with a smartphone maker like Apple, Motorola or Samsung to provide a way to attach larger lenses to the back of a smartphone or via an adapter so that the benefits of large lenses (optical zoom, increased light and an image processing chip that can create wonderful images) will be available in a smartphone.
While it may not be a good thing to throw away your digital point-and-shoot camera today, it won’t be long before you’ll find that you just don’t use it very often. The low end of the digital camera market is already dead, and in less than five years, major parts of the current digital camera market will be replaced by advanced cameras in smartphones.
J. Gerry Purdy, Ph.D.
Mobile & Wireless