The camera industry is truly at the crossroads, with smartphones invading their territory in a big way in the last few years.
MAHADEVAN | RAKESH SHARMA
Where are the digital cameras? The short answer is that they are all in the smart phones. The camera industry is truly at the crossroads, with smartphones invading their territory in a big way in the last few years. Cameras – meaning, standalone cameras – have been pushed into a highly niche space from which there seems to be no easy escape, at the time being at least. And thereby hangs a tale. But first, a little background to the situation.
It was just a short dozen years ago that a compact 5 megapixel Nikon digital camera was the owner’s pride. That was the time when the digital camera boom was near its peak. But the awe-inspiring 5 megapixel camera didn’t come cheap; it cost almost Rs 25,000. It was still a lot cheaper than the other meaningful option for those who wanted to shoot some good pictures – an SLR, or single lens reflex, camera, which put you back by nearly twice that much. There was another option, but not quite a realistic one – the pretty icky 240k-pixel camera attached to the midrange mobile phone that more or less built pictures around grains!
This was just before the advent of the smartphone, or the iPhone, to be more exact. In 2007, digital cameras had successfully replaced film cameras, which were quickly on the way to becoming relics. Digital camera sales touched 100 million that year, seemingly set to keep selling more and more in the coming years. Three years, later, in 2010, digital camera sales touched 120 million for the year. As it turned out, that was the peak. That was also the time smartphones started coming into their own, with Google’s Android too establishing itself as a serious contender in the smartphone space.
But the phone cameras, in their initial years, were nothing to write home about, with lenses, resolution, sensors and processing ability still being way behind that of dedicated digital cameras. The iPhone was about the only one that boasted about its camera. What this meant was that while in good light, the phones produced decent enough pictures, when the light shifted down, the quality of the pictures too tended to fall away. Which is probably why after an initial dip in sales in 2008-09, digital cameras picked up again.
But 2010 turned out to be the watershed year. The turn of the second decade of the 21st century saw the digital camera taking a beating from the smartphone camera. The alarming downturn continued year after year, till from the high of 120 million pieces in 2010, digital camera sales plummeted to a nearly unbelievable 25 million in 2017.
So, what was responsible for this drastic fall in favour for the digital camera? When we refer to the digital camera, it should be pointed out that we are referring to the compact fixed-lens camera, which was the go-to device for the trigger-happy (function) photographer.Well, many things.
- THE ADVENT OF SOCIAL MEDIA
The advent of social media. Even though social media had been around in its incipient form since the turn of the century, and Facebook itself launched in 2004, the iPhone was the catalyst that created a paradigm shift. The iPhone launched in 2007, and Facebook took off the next year, in 2008. In the first four years of its existence, Facebook managed to cobble together a monthly user base of less than 100 million. After 2008, its growth became exponential, with the service growing by 400-500 million users per month every couple of years. Connecting and sharing online grew and established itself as an irremovable idea, and of course, photos were a big part of the sharing of people’s personal lives.
On Facebook, still, photos were only a part of the experience. Instagram launched in 2010, as an app exclusive to the iOS platform. This was the beginning of the idea of the photograph being the centrepiece of the sharing of personal experience. The genie was out of the bottle, and this was perhaps the moment when the camera phone and social media began to have a symbiotic relationship, and began to feed off each other.
Once this need was created in people to engage more with photographs, the smartphone, which already had a camera, was quick to seize on the opportunity. The selfie was born, whereby one didn’t need external help to take a photo with them in it.Apple, through the iPhone and the app store, had already clearly stated its intent to make the smartphone the primary mobile device that was capable of handling most everyday communication functions that one might need to on the move. And with photographs suddenly coming centrestage, smartphone manufacturers cottoned on to the idea.
- ADVANCES IN CAMERA PHONE TECHNOLOGY
And this new conjoined existence of photographs and smartphones led to developments in camera technology in phones. The cheap plastic lenses were quickly replaced, in some of the flagship phones, by brand glass such as Carl Zeiss, which immediately led to better clarity in photographs. The single lens was gradually replaced by multiple-lens assemblies that borrowed from professional cameras, contributing to further improvement in quality.
Just like in cameras, there was a megapixel boom in phone cameras too. Nokia was the first one to come out with a 20-megapixel camera. The purely functional selfie camera on the front saw its own prestige enhanced with its megapixels matching those of the primary camera.
Then came the flashes, then the selfie flashes, and then twin flashes that could illuminate even a reasonably large group photo.
Sensor sizes increased, at least in the flagship phones. Again, the result was better pictures.Then came double cameras, one to click and the other to focus. This has over time led to phones with multiple cameras that cover the entire ground from macros to wide angle. Recently, the number of cameras hit five. Phone cameras and software now also give you the flexibility now to choose which area of the photo you want in focus. All these developments, along with increasingly capable processing software, have given rise to a situation where the average phone camera can fulfil the needs of most phone photographers.
- EXPLOSION OF SELF-EXPRESSION
With the advent of convenient avenues to showcase the self, we are the generation that resorted most to photography as the medium of self-expression. People are taking more photos than ever before. In 2013, the number of digital photographs taken was a whopping 660 billion. Four years later, in 2017, that number had almost doubled to 1.2 trillion. This would arguably not have happened had the smartphone not become the go-to mobile device for all manner of communication. Twenty years ago, a wedding function would have seen perhaps three cameras besides the professional. Ten years ago, there were perhaps 30. Now, there are probably 300, with virtually everyone brandishing a smartphone and clicking their own hundreds of pictures of the event.
Picture quality has improved to the extent that even serious photographers on a hurried or a lightly-packed trip prefer to take their high-end camera phone, because given the context of convenience, the quality difference between that and a professional camera has narrowed to such an extent as to be not worth an argument.
There is a whole slew of phones which have their cameras as their primary propositions. Entire brands are known for the prowess of their cameras and how well they are integrated with the social media apps on the phone. Camera phones are now so indispensable that almost 90 per cent of all digital photographs are taken on smartphones.
On the video front, too, the smartphone camera has made remarkable inroads. The video camera as a device is more or less extinct now, with the smartphone having taken over this function almost completely. The smartphone has even entered the television broadcast arena, beginning to stand in for the professional video. The reporter doubles up as the cameraman, sending in stories through selfie videos.So, where are we headed? In the same direction, one should say. And faster. Non-smartphone photography has receded to SLRs and mirrorless cameras, whose remaining strengths too are under attack by the all-pervasive pretender. How much longer before smartphones invade the niche areas of the SLR – such as RAW capability, shallow focus, and long exposures? No idea, but one tends to suspect, not too long. The age of the camera as the primary standalone device to take photographs seems near its end.