Standalone camera: Shot (Dead) By iPhone

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It is hard to miss Apple’s “Shot on iPhone 6” advertising campaign. It is pretty much everywhere in San Francisco, not surprising that Apple is gearing up for the launch of its brand new Photos app. The company is spending a considerable amount of resources hyping the iPhone 6 and its capabilities ahead of the new application.

While walking to work, I was wondering if they are just saying the obvious. It is pretty clear that the iPhone 6 (and 6-plus) have become a major disrupter in the world of photography. It has already become the second most popular camera being used to upload photos to FlickrIn a previous post, I had pointed out that: “The ultimate beauty of iPhone — it has made photography not scary. It has removed technology and made it just an act of creation.”

Photo courtesy of Vincent Laforet

Vincent Laforet, a Pulitzer prize winning photographer, who is currently making waves with his AIR series (photos of cities at night from 10,000 feet above the ground) recently wrote a long essay on why the age of standalone camera is coming to an end for all but professional photographers. It is a rather provocative thing for a “professional photographer” to say.

The software that is installed on those smartphones and iPhones and what you can do with it supersedes the advantage that any once camera system alone gives you for most of us….The battle is over… the smartphones and iOSs have won. The quality is good enough on a smartphone/iPhone today, that when combined with software the need for a dedicated still camera can appear to be a burden to the majority of people out there: unless they have a specific technical need that only a DSLR or speciality lenses can offer…..Now Apple is focusing on the OS X “Photo” App – which they are putting a lot of work into, but not claiming should be a replacement for Aperture or necessarily a “Pro” oriented App.

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NUMBERS OFTEN DON’T LIE

That is a prescient assessment of the future of standalone cameras. And here are some numbers from trade group, Camera & Imaging Products Association of Japan that backup that assertion:

  • Total shipments of digital cameras in 2014 (the cumulative total of shipments from January to December) reached 43.4 million units, down 30.9 percent from 2013.
  • During 2014, compact digital cameras sales fell to 29.6 million units, a year-on-year decrease of 35.3 percent.
  • Total shipments (the cumulative total of shipments from January to December) of digital cameras in 2015 are projected to be 34.7 million units, a year-on-year decrease of 20.0 percent.
  • Compact digital sales are projected to be 21.7 million units, a year-on-year decrease of 26.7 percent.

Think about it this way — when it comes to standalone sales 2014 was the worse year in a decade for the industry. The trade group’s own forecasts for 2015 don’t inspire much confidence about the future of the business. The sales are heading back to where they started from — nearly zero. The falling sales are made even dismal by a simple fact that nearly 1.8 billion photos were uploaded daily to the web in 2014.

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There is a no doubt, a correlation between the rising smartphone sales and the declining camera sales. I do believe that iPhone and all the software that has arrived on the iOS platform, starting with Instagram, was instrumental in accelerating the demise of the standalone cameras. Worldwide_iPhoneCamera-Units-final

There is a deeper correlation between the improving iPhone camera and slow decline in digital camera sales, which peaked in 2008 and since then have been in not-so-slow decline. There have been three big dips in sales of digital cameras — 2012, 2013 and 2014. You can correlate the dips to rising sales of the iPhones — and definite increase in the quality of iPhone cameras — the iPhone 5/5s and iPhone 6 have shown massive improvements in visual computing and camera capabilities.

To turn back the clock, the original iPhone had a 2 megapixel camera. The iPhone 6 has an 8 megapixel camera with f/2.2 aperture and 1.5µ pixels and in case of iPhone 6+, optical stabilization. The impact of this improvement is even more obvious in Apple’s backyard — the United States, where the digital camera sales are sinking faster than a rock — down from a peak of 44 million digital cameras units in 2010 to 11 million in 2014.

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The association asserts that higher end camera sales are going to save the industry’s bacon, ” there will be a so-called step-up demand among users who first discover the joy of photography with low-end digital cameras and smartphones.” By the way, the shipments of cameras with an interchangeable lens – aka these step up cameras are projected to be 13 million units, a year-on-year decrease of 5.8 percent.

I think they are being overly optimistic — with all the low-level innovation happening on and around the smartphones — whether it is lenses from upstarts such as Moment Lens or  selfie sticks sold by vendors on the streets of Florence — the cameras as we knew them feel decidedly old. They all have WiFi or NFC but the software experience is from another era. Just as iPhone (and later Android-phones) killed the standalone MP3 player, today, the standalone digital camera faces that very same bleak future.

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Folks at Canon know that the end is near and that is why they decided to buy Axis, Swedish maker of network video surveillance equipment for $2.8 billion. Nikon, the other major camera maker is buying a Optos, a Scottish medical imaging company for over $300 million.

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So to recap:

  • Smartphones are simpler to use, are part of consumer daily behavior and camera can be controlled through software apps.
  • The image quality is good enough getting better by the year.
  • Smartphone photos can be shared socially — which is a primary behavior on the visual web.
  • The software and user experience of cameras has not evolved and consumer expectations are more in line with what iPhones and Android devices have to offer.

So what does the future hold for these camera companies? Many believe that putting connected OS — Android mostly — and using that to get apps on the platform is the way forward. I don’t know if that makes any sense, given how quickly and how often the Android OS changes. These companies are worse than first graders in terms of their capabilities of creating software and user-interfaces. And their concept of being “connected” is laughable.

DMC-CM1_Spec_WOC_20140915Panasonic recently introduced a new camera — which is essentially a smartphone with a 20 megapixel one inch sensor and a 28 mm lens (whose badge says Leica.) It is illustrative of the creative bankruptcy of the camera industry which is desperately trying to figure out how to save the point-and-shoot camera business. More importantly it costs $1500 dollars.

For $200 you can add a telephoto and a wide angle lens from Moment — and if you have seen some of my photos on Instagram or even here, they are pretty compelling and do a great job of making good pictures — just look at Moment’s Instagram feed. Panasonic doesn’t seem grasp the concept that people have smartphones and those smartphones have good enough cameras and more importantly they are part of their daily workflow.

THE GOOD ENOUGH PRINCIPLE

People don’t print photos and as digital frames get popular, there is even less of a reason to print photos — so the resolution people want in their life should be good enough to match the screens of those frames. Good enough is post-millenial reality — we have good enough video streams, we have good enough Skype calls and our phone calls are good enough. There is a reason why Spotify and Pandora are growing — they bring the music to our lives that is good enough and is played back on devices (connected speakers) that are good enough.

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Instead of trying to focus on software and connectivity — these camera companies need to zero in on two things they know really well: lenses and sensors. They should be thinking about how they can make their “glass” (aka lenses) work with the computer we carry around in our pockets. Sony was right in introducing its Q-series cameras that attached to the iPhone, but I think they introduced them a little too early. Today (or even tomorrow) if there was a Leica 35 mm standalone lens with a built in sensor and the clip-on unit working with the compute and software on the iPhone — I would pay good money for that.

There is definitely room for innovation — though I suspect Moment Lens is more likely to do it than those thumb twiddlers in Japan. Or perhaps, Apple would make something like that! In one of his podcasts released in November 2014, Apple watcher/expert John Gruber noted:

The specific thing I heard is that next years camera might be the biggest camera jump ever. I don’t even know what sense this makes, but I’ve heard that it’s some kind of weird two-lens system where the back camera uses two lenses and it somehow takes it up into DSLR quality imagery.

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This is bad news for camera companies which have always thrived on the amateurs and pro-amateurs buying the gear they see in the hands of professional photographers (most of them are often coddled by the big camera companies.)

Apple’s new “Shot on iPhone 6” campaign makes the situation doubly dangerous for these companies — an average person sees beautiful photo taken by Cole Rise on their way to work. It was snapped on an iPhone 6. And like me, they wonder — can I take that photo? Aspiration, does the rest.

Hat tip: Thanks Nima Wedlake and Hiten Shah for your help with this post. Photo of iPhone/Camera kind courtesy of Vincent Laforet

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