How smartphones are slowly killing the camera industry

The art of photography may be booming as a hobby, but the humble camera is getting left behind in the fast-paced world of interconnected imaging.

Lexy Savvides Principal Video Producer
Lexy is an on-air presenter and award-winning producer who covers consumer tech, including the latest smartphones, wearables and emerging trends like assistive robotics. She's won two Gold Telly Awards for her video series Beta Test. Prior to her career at CNET, she was a magazine editor, radio announcer and DJ. Lexy is based in San Francisco.
Expertise Wearables, smartwatches, mobile phones, photography, health tech, assistive robotics Credentials
  • Webby Award honoree, 2x Gold Telly Award winner
Lexy Savvides
5 min read

The art of photography may be booming as a hobby, but the humble camera is getting left behind in the fast-paced world of interconnected imaging.

(Credit: Apple; Canon; Rhino Reaper image by Mt Basmt, royalty free)

Our desire to document every facet of life is well established by now. An Instagram here, a Facebook image there; it has certainly been a short leap from the once-ubiquitous photo lab to the instant selfie.

Developments in sensor and lens technology have proven that consumers are turning to smartphones more than ever before to capture moments in time, rather than picking up the traditional camera.

A recent study by DxO Labs showed that the most sophisticated smartphone cameras today are able to outperform top-of-the-line compact cameras from a few years ago.

Following this thread only leads to the inevitable conclusion that soon, smartphone cameras will be as good as, if not better than, compact cameras being released at the same time.

Canon, the world's largest manufacturer of cameras, recently cut its sales forecast and profits for this financial year. As reported by Bloomberg, while predicted sales of its EOS line of SLRs and interchangeable lens cameras (ILCs) dropped by 4.3 per cent, the biggest decline came in the compact arena. The company now predicts sales of 19 million units, a cut of 9.5 per cent from previous years.

It's a trend that has been reflected across the industry as a whole. Market research firm IHS cited global camera sales as dropping to 115.2 million units this year, down 4.3 per cent.

It would be remiss to call 100 million insignificant. Until you compare it to smartphone sales, which this year hit 161.7 million shipments in the third quarter of 2012 alone, according to Strategy Analytics. Even though shipments do not necessarily correlate with sales, it's still a resounding victory for the smartphone.

With all of the doom and gloom on the table, it's only natural to ask: what went wrong?

Innovation, not increments

In a move that is endemic among camera manufacturers, we have seen very little innovation over the past few years. It's far too easy to release a product with incremental updates; a slightly higher-resolution sensor here or a new paint job there does not encourage buyers to update their models.

Amusingly, there have even been instances where new cameras are outperformed by their older line-mates. Why bother upgrading?

The biggest shake-up to the digital camera market so far has been the introduction of ILCs, although the contention over the category name has done little to engender their merits to consumers. Do we call them mirrorless? ILCs? Compact System Cameras?

Regardless of what we call them, there is so much potential for these cameras to be a disruptive technology. An entirely new segment that promises image quality (almost) on par with SLRs, ease of use and the flexibility of interchangeable lenses should be game changing.

ILCs aren't the solution just yet. (Credit: Nikon)

However, uptake has been slow, with global sales falling well behind those of SLRs. In Europe, ILCs are being outsold by SLRs at a rate of 10 to one.

A big part of the problem, at least from an outsider's perspective, is marketing. Who are these cameras really for?

Serious photographers already have an SLR, and are reluctant to invest in an entirely new system. The only advantage for them is that ILCs are smaller and lighter. Point-and-shoot upgraders can find the controls intimidating, and more often than not leave the kit lens on anyway, making an interchangeable lens system pointless.

It doesn't help that some models become cannibalised by their own product range within six months to a year from release.

Some companies are trying hard to make this segment work.

Olympus was onto a winner with the retro-tinged OM-D, but it couldn't supply enough cameras to meet demand at first. Sony's recent investment in Olympus could be a shrewd move, taking the momentum behind the popular camera and marrying it with the reach of an even bigger global brand.

Nikon was the first of the "big two" camera manufacturers to dip its toes into the market, and offered some genuinely great features on the Nikon 1 system. Controls were confusing for beginners, though, and the design prompted a love-it-or-hate-it response.

Will the Canon EOS M make ILCs viable for consumers? (Credit: CBSi)

No surprise, then, that Canon has been the last to move into this space, with the soon-to-debut EOS M. Only time will tell how consumers react to this camera.

ILCs have the distinct advantage of being modular. There are so many options to "add on", which not only extends the life of the camera body, but also encourages photographers to keep coming back when they need a new flash, lens or underwater casing.

Except that these "add-ons" are prohibitively expensive in many cases, and it's often impossible to find them in stores.

Smarter thinking

Features like backside-illuminated sensors and panoramic photography, most famously touted on the iPhone, have been around for a long time in traditional cameras. When they appear on smartphones, the world sits up and takes notice.

You could put this down to the smartphone's reach; after all, they grace most people's back pockets. Or it could be a question of selling a feature better to a captive audience.

Then comes the argument of price. A stand-alone compact camera with a respectable feature set could cost anywhere from AU$299 to AU$800. It's a wildly varied range that can be a somewhat daunting investment.

Compare this to a smartphone with a decent camera module, with which you can easily walk out of a telco on a $0 upfront plan. It's easy to see which one wins for the casual photographer.

The Socialmatic camera proves that people can be interested in compact cameras, with the right spin. (Credit: ADR Studio)

While it would be easy to argue that there is no room for compact cameras anymore in the eyes of consumers, you can take the overwhelming response to the concept of the Instagram camera to see that this is not the case. There is an element of novelty to it, thanks to filters and social sharing. But at the heart, it's just another point-and-shoot camera. Traditional camera manufacturers are missing a pretty vital piece of the puzzle, and it's worth taking risks to work out what that is.

Nikon's Android-based S800c might not have been fully cooked when it was released, but the potential is there. We only hope that other manufacturers can be as bold in the risks they take in this space. As previously covered here on CNET Australia, connectivity is a big factor for keeping cameras relevant. But it has to be done in a way that is better than what is currently on offer from smartphones.

On the flipside, such doom and gloom on the decline of the camera industry has been floating around the internet for years. The camera market will always have room for imaging machines like SLRs to cater for enthusiasts and professionals. It's the bottom end of the market that is slowly but surely being eaten away, unless manufacturers can stem the tide with some serious innovation.