Will smartphones kill off compact cameras?

30 Nov 2011

The renowned American portrait photographer, Annie Leibovitz, recently whipped out her iPhone 4S on a US chat show and proclaimed that the device was “the compact camera of choice”. Is this the Steve Jobs distortion field at work from beyond the grave or has the iPhone really cracked point and shoot?

To be fair, Leibovitz’s comments were more about extolling the multitude of virtues that the iPhone 4S brings and less about its camera. “It’s so accessible and easy... It’s a pencil, it’s a pen, it’s a notebook,” she claimed, suggesting that the value of the device lay not only in its ability to take very passable pictures, but also that the use, manipulation, uploading and storage of those photos was now a very compelling package.

High praise indeed! But what would it mean for the compact camera market? Are people happy with passable camera phone images or do they still want the little extra that the purpose-built compact camera brings?

The camera market is painfully aware of its vulnerability to an ever-encroaching smartphone, even though smartphones have done little damage to the compact camera market so far. The Camera and Image Product Association (CIPA) has shown a very small fluctuation in the volume of compact cameras sold for the past three years.

To find out if they’ve got another three years left in them, let’s examine the merits of smartphones and compacts on a number of criteria.

Price

The majority of compact cameras that are within the current or last generation will retail for between £100 - £500. Several online retailers currently boast an impressive range of cheap and versatile compacts with very acceptable specifications. Panasonic’s Lumix FS35 at £105, the Nikon Coolpix S3100 at £74 and various Fuji Finepix offerings from £47. All perfectly good “kids”, “grandparent” and “night out” cameras.

For only a few pounds more you can step up to the latest models, which offer a picture quality that will adequately grace your mantelpiece or Flickr site. This really puts a higher standard of image out there for a price that even basic smartphones cannot compete with – although most people will consider the camera an “added bonus” to the phone, of course.

Image quality

Even the £47 model in the list above will shoot an image that is superior to anything you could capture on your smartphone.

The better smartphones still shoot images that are prone to poor tonal balance and are often missing basic colour information that burns out many of the whites, creating an opportunity for the lower quality filters of Instagram rather than a fine quality print or something worthy of your Flickr portfolio.

Image quality is still the greatest advantage that a point-and-shoot has over a smartphone, but the gap is decreasing rapidly. With better optical filtering and improvements in sensors, phones such as the iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy S2 are pushing mobile imaging to new standards and are certainly acceptable, as Ms Leibovitz will testify.

Portability

This one is definitely a blow to the compact camera market. The main reason image quality is better on compacts than smartphones is that they contain larger sensors and lenses, and that means they’re generally larger and thicker than today’s smartphones. Significant investment is being made in sensor development to shrink the modern compact and maintain quality. But carry two devices into the disco... I think not.

File transfer

This one the smartphone wins hands down. Yes, the phone will shoot a smaller image but its connectivity to the internet, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Instagram and more sets it apart. There is so much more to do with what you shoot instantly and with editing suites for smartphones being provided in apps stores, on many occasions free of charge, the connection-free camera is not on the same page.

Where now for the compact?

If compact cameras are going to have a future, they must get friendly with the net.

That means a ‘pay as you upload’ internet connection through one of the 3G networks and simple integration with the major web photography outlets. They must also offer better onboard editing -- which means levels adjustment and sharpening that doesn’t just accentuate noise and grain. We’ve already got the necessary processing power on several cameras with dual-core processors.

The crunch point could be the data networks: their data plans aren’t really set up for the uploading of multiple files of 10MB or more.

Is Annie right? Is the iPhone 4S the "point and shoot of choice"? Given everything else she mentioned, and for most of the "moments" you’ll want to spontaneously capture in your life the answer would be "yes". But I can’t let go of a good compact camera at about 12 megapixels. Not yet.

To find out which compact camera offers the finest picture quality, see issue 208 of PC Pro, on sale 8 December

Ewen Rankin is a professional photographer who often shoots in RAW but isn’t enslaved by it

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