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Posted on November 30th, 2011 by Ewen Rankin

Will smartphones kill off compact cameras?

iPhone 4S photo

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.


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.


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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19 Responses to “ Will smartphones kill off compact cameras? ”

  1. MJ Says:
    November 30th, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    The iPhone camera is fine as-is for pictures, but what it lacks is zoom. If a compact is to have a life, it should live with your phone – use bluetooth to send the pictures over to the phone automatically. The PhotoStream is really nice – being able to take pictures on two phones and see them on either is great.

  2. Tim Irons Says:
    November 30th, 2011 at 7:28 pm

    My first comment is that phones haven’t killed off the MP3 player. Many people have a clear preference for single use devices.

    My second comment is that it is time camera had built in chargers. This is another area where phones have a clear advantage.

  3. Ewen Rankin Says:
    November 30th, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    Great point Tim. Proprietary connection blocks for charging batteries and the general lack of inbuilt USB based charging is killing Camera as a whole

  4. Lawrence Says:
    December 1st, 2011 at 7:42 am

    The opportunity to combine the best features of both camera and phone must be there, but I guess manufacturers like Samsung don’t want to cannibalise their own markets. That said there have been attempts before but it would seem they haven’t been that successful sales wise. Perhaps because it ends up being bigger than the equivalent phone, and bigger than the equivalent camera, and it puts people off. But when you look at how much functionality they pack into devices already, adding a better camera to a phone or vice versa ought to be possible without increasing the bulk too much.

  5. WG Says:
    December 1st, 2011 at 9:41 am

    A Mobile Phone Does Everything Badly.
    Computing: Screen To Fiddly.
    Phone: To expensive
    Camera: Poor Quality
    I could go on but intelligent people can make there own.
    Progress I think not.
    I still have a film camera for real photographs. A 120 Roll Film Camera like the Mamiya 6 gives you a 100 megapixel image.

  6. GFK Says:
    December 1st, 2011 at 9:45 am

    My Nokia N8 12 mega Smartphone with a Carl Zeiss lens and 4X zoom gives me excllent results up to about 5X7″ prints and good results at A4 size, with all the added features of instant mail etc.

  7. David Wright Says:
    December 1st, 2011 at 9:46 am

    I still carry around a compact (Canon Ixsus), when I go out and about. I’ve used my iPhone and htc Sensation for the odd photo, but the results are usually very disappointing or lack the contrast I need for my documentation – I usually use my EOS 550D for my documentation photos, but have had a couple of occassions, where I’ve been at work and had to bash out a handbook or presentation in a hurry and didn’t have the time to go home and get the EOS or Ixsus.

    The images were okay, but they didn’t really do the documents justice, they lacked clarity and colour balance and focus also left something to be desired.

    As others have also said, zoom capability is also a problem.

    If I have nothing else to hand, I’ll use my mobile, but if I think I am going to want to take a picture, then I’ll take either the Ixsus or the EOS with me (depending on what I am doing and what I want to achieve).

    On my holiday back to the UK in the summer, I took around 1200 photos on the EOS, 300 on the Ixsus and 0 on my 2 mobile phones, even though the phones were in my pocket and I just needed to pull them out and shoot, I still found myself reaching for my camera bag and digging out a “real” camera for the shots.

    The girls were similar, they took several hundred photos on their cameras and maybe half a dozen on their phones – that said, they don’t have smart phones and roaming rates would have made uploading the image prohibitive anyway.

    As to Twitter, Flikr et al. I think I post less than 1% of my images online – and that is only after loading them on a PC and checking them – something which neither the camera nor smartphone is really good at, because their displays are just too small and usually not very well colour balanced or visibile, especially with outdoor shots.

    As an example, I was rear-ended in traffic back in the summer and whipped out my iPhone, the results weren’t usable, you couldn’t see any damage. It was only when I got the EOS out could mess with the settings that the damage was clearly visible.

    The difference was the other party claiming their was no damage, to their insurance agreeing to pay out for a complete new wrap-around bumper, including spraying!

    The smartphone is fine for the odd candid snap, but it is still severely lacking in many areas.

  8. Oliver Says:
    December 1st, 2011 at 9:50 am

    While I use my phone camera for an easy way to take quick pictures, I still prefer to have a decent camera.
    Am I alone in thinking that the move to screens only on cameras is a bad move? I don’t feel I can get the same control holding the camera at arm’s length and it is very difficult now to find a good camera at a reasonable price with a viewfinder.

  9. Chatan Says:
    December 1st, 2011 at 10:09 am

    The convenience of a smartphone is the biggest thing for me. We bought a very good Panasonic digital camera which we wanted to use, and the photo’s are much better than my iPhone 4 However, I found with my smartphone I now take much more photo’s than I ever used to.

    Another point I find very annoyed is the fact that digital cameras have their own proprietary charging dock for the battery. Why can’t it be included within the camera so all I need is a USB cable? Its just one more cable to take on holiday


  10. Neil Says:
    December 1st, 2011 at 10:16 am

    An article about cameras in smart-phones and no mention of the Nokia N8? I’ve sold my compact camera and video camera as the N8 picture quality is as good as. The only issue I can see with smart-phone cameras is the lack of optical zoom. If I want really good pictures I’ll use the SLR, for everything else there’s the N8 (which I will always have in my pocket unlike a compact camera).

  11. Ewen Rankin Says:
    December 1st, 2011 at 11:20 am

    To be fair Neil, the article was sparked by the comments of Ms Leibovitz which were centred around iPhone 4S but I agree the N8 has taken very passable pictures.

    As to Zoom, the lack of optical zoom is a real issue I agree, the iPhone 4S zoom is good but as its digital, it gets very grainy very quickly.

    Good points all

  12. GFK Says:
    December 1st, 2011 at 11:29 am

    Having used the Iphone, Samsung 2, my Nokia N8 beats them both on photo quality and versatility (photographic. I also have the feeling that the Nokia is better built and more reliable in the long term, albeit not as fashionable as the other two perhaps, which is probably why Ewin Rankin left it out. Pity.

  13. Peter Says:
    December 1st, 2011 at 11:31 am

    Most smartphones need to be charged daily… my compact camera lasts weeks of occasional use, which for certain situations (camping) can be a major feature. The fact that it can shoot HD video underwater also helps…

    I do tend to use the phone for a lot of my basic compact camera needs these days, though. Nice to be able to upload a snapshot to facebook while out and about. It’s also nice having GPS metadata.

    It’d almost make sense for makers of more specialist devices to incorporate smartphone capability; I have a more niche interest in sound recording, for example, but it’ll be a long time before a phone comes close to touching my Sony PCM-M10. Would be great to be able to edit on the device though…

  14. Robert Falck Says:
    December 1st, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    I am not what I would like to classify as a photo enthusiast, I merely take photos when I feel a need or desire to do so. Most of the time, these photos get taken on my mobile phone, which tends to go with me almost anywhere I go when I leave my home.

    We shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking that there are more enthusiasts out there, compared to the amount of “normal” users. And in all fairness, regular folks are the main market of the point-and-shoot compact camera. If this large mass of people decide to aim their attention towards smartphones instead, things will change a lot.

    Personally I think it is all about reaching the “good enough” barrier, when normal people do not mind living with a all-in-one device for most of their needs. For most use cases, the photos taken with modern smartphones simply is good enough.

    But as with all things, when something is widespread enough it gets increasingly difficult to get rid of. I do not see compact cameras going away just yet and the manufacturers might be able to sway some peoples opinion and keep the products relevant. Assuming that they get with the times and connect their cameras to other devices as well as wirelessly connecting to computers.

    They are not down and out, but they will have a tough road to travel!

  15. james Says:
    December 2nd, 2011 at 9:26 am

    I use to have a Canon S3 IS but whenever I tried to use it, it intimidated people. They didn’t want to have their photo taken with it. Now, when I use my n900 the shots are much more natural even though the quality has taken a huge nose dive.

  16. JohnAHind Says:
    December 2nd, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    Compact cameras and smartphones have the same problem as “night out” cameras – they’re not so much “point and shoot” as “shoot and hope”! The disappearance of the optical viewfinder means you can’t see what you are shooting when using flash.

  17. Ken Wells Says:
    December 3rd, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    Comments on accuracy of picture taking by screen rather than view finder. “Which” magazine has been campaigning for the return of viewfinders with camera manufacturers, I find it difficult to aim my daughter smart phone accurately ( I do not have one yet) I can aim my camera without a view finder by sighting along the edge of the flash attahcment

  18. wittgenfrog Says:
    December 6th, 2011 at 12:25 am

    @Ken Wells – dead right I absolutely HATE using LCD displays as view-finders.

    On the more general point, I’ll happily snap odds & sods with my mobile – Movies & stills. However when I want specifically to ‘take a photograph’, I have to use my DSLR.

    Technology continually develops. Sharp have developed a lens\sensor package that’s absolutely minute but packs in oddles of megapixels. ‘Resolution’ isn’t the whole game though, and ‘phone cameras tend to have slow handling compared to compacts & DSLRs.

    But you can’t beat Physics. Packing megapixels into minute sensors makes for lots of noise in the images.

    In bigger cameras you get the benefits of having bigger sensors \ bigger pixels \ less noise = better images, especially in lowish light. That advantage is increased by having the space (and power) to includeon-board high-performnce image processing.

    Finally you just can’t make for more ‘interesting’ pictures. The lenses are too inflexible.

  19. Ewen Rankin Says:
    December 7th, 2011 at 7:26 am

    Seems the latest Camera figures I had access to were credible. The Phone is NOT killing the camera


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