How the Smartphone Won the Consumer Camera War Using Social Media

The smartphone won the consumer camera war; today, both smartphones and traditional cameras tend to copy one another.

Back in 2011, the first sentence of a Panasonic press release related the size of the Panasonic GF3 to the size of a smartphone. In hindsight, this tells us that they knew that the end of consumer cameras was coming. The sentence reads, “Panasonic today announces its latest compact system camera (CSC), the mirror-free Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GF3 is the company’s smallest and lightest digital interchangeable lens camera with a built-in flash*1, with its body size comparable to that of a smartphone and weighing just 7.83oz (body only), less than a standard 8oz cup of coffee.” Previously, smartphones were never even mentioned in press releases for traditional cameras. It was also around this time that manufacturers started to admit to us that they were losing the war to smartphones that were killing their point and shoots. Indeed, many manufacturers have discontinued the majority of their compact camera lineup. The camera manufacturers just couldn’t keep up–many of them couldn’t shoot an image, apply a filter with a touchscreen, and then upload immediately to their favorite web service. Instead, they all decided to make apps for smartphone systems. And perhaps that’s how they knew it was the start of the tunnel collapsing.

There was a point in my career as a journalist where I had to choose between gaming or photography. I started in the tech world, and I really didn’t see myself playing video games and reviewing them into my 60s. The truth is that I’m 33 and still love playing as a hobby. But photography became my long-time partner. It brought me into the men’s lifestyle world, the art world, and other areas of tech. And I steadfastly believe that with enough time and enough lack of foresight, the camera as we know it will go the way of the watch. That’s not a knock on the horological world though–I know too many people that would throw a sizeable chunk of their savings account at a $15,000 Rolex to wear as a piece of jewelry. The more time passes, the more I think that Leica has the right idea. Though I also hope that camera manufacturers will rapidly adapt.

The Inevitable Evolution of the Web

“I think it was really around 2011,” says Sascha Segan, Lead Mobile Analyst from PC Mag in an interview with us. Manufacturers started putting cameras into phones since around 2003, and everyone had one anyway. “The general shift to smartphones made it much easier to ‘do’ things with your cameraphone photos. Before smartphones, shots were often trapped on your phone.” Suddenly, consumers could keep up with the changing web. In a few years, Facebook would be changing college campuses, Instagram would become the rage, and Steve Jobs had put a camera on the iPhone that you actually wanted to use.

“You could text tiny versions, or painstakingly move them via Bluetooth or cable, but many people didn’t. Smartphone apps let people much more easily transfer photos onto their computers and online services. 2011 was when Android went mainstream and when the iPhone went to Verizon – a banner year for the smartphone revolution.”

To try to keep up, camera manufacturers spoke of things like, “The power to connect,” and Wifi. Soon, cameras had their own apps that could be used. Samsung had seen this coming years before but released what they had too far ahead of its time. Then came 4G. “4G was perfect,” says Sascha. “Verizon 4G launched at the very end of 2010. Instagram started in late 2010 and became mainstream in 2011.” At this point, the cameras were good enough for most consumers. And if the images weren’t all that great, then they’d just edit them on their phone.

“But when photography really went online, smartphones’ ease of transferring, editing, and using photos made point-and-shoots feel paleolithic.”

Sascha Segan

Sascha wasn’t the only one to see this change coming, though. “I remember we covered a lot of point and shoot cameras at CES 2013, but by Photokina 2014 (in September, so about 20 months later), I was starting to see how smartphones were really cutting into sales,” related Steve Dent–Associate Editor at Engadget. “By 2016, the point and shoot market had been cut off at the ankles, and by 2018, the market was gone completely. So this shift happened over just 4-5 years.”

Point and Shoot: The Awkward Position of the Compact Camera

How many of you actually own a point and shoot? These days, we like to call them compact cameras or fixed lens cameras because of just how much power is in the ones currently on the market. Generally speaking, a manufacturer has to work very hard to differentiate their point and shoot cameras from the rest. Take a look at our list:

  • Canon: Larger sensors with a massive push towards content developers. Also, large zoom ranges that phones can’t do
  • Nikon: An absurd zoom range in a point and shoot that has a cult following
  • Sony: Large sensor point and shoots that are winning photographers many awards
  • Fujifilm: The X100 series of cameras earned a photographer lots of acclaim at this year’s World Press Photo awards
  • Ricoh/Pentax: A cult following with street photography. They’ve also got a waterproof one.
  • Olympus: Waterproofing
  • Panasonic: A rangefinder like camera with stylish looks and a large sensor
  • Leica: Insane build quality at a high price point

“But DSLRs are like the ‘gaming PC’ of photography now – an elite tool for elite performance in qualified hands.”

Sascha Segan

Of course, point and shoot cameras still have an advantage over phones, but most people don’t need the features that they have. “I wouldn’t say that people didn’t care about optical point and shoot lenses, but most of them didn’t care enough to buy a camera on top of a smartphone,” Steve believes. “That could be because they didn’t have much experience using a camera with optical zoom in the first place, or didn’t find them that useful. Rather than spending another $300-400 to get a separate camera, they’d just walk closer to the subject or use the digital zoom on their smartphone (even though they were terrible).” However, these days most smartphones have a camera design with multiple lenses instead of a zoom. One can easily use the phone to zoom between focal lengths if needed.

“Now that people are used to that, I think they’d have trouble going back to a smartphone with just a single standard wide lens.”

wolffilm lenses

Ultimately, consumers just cared about a few things: pushing a button, getting a photo, and convenience. Traditional cameras just don’t do that as well as smartphones. “…ultimately, it was about which device made it easier to use your photos,” says Sascha. “When the only option was to get prints at a CVS or download onto a PC via cable, point and shoots made sense. But when photography really went online, smartphones’ ease of transferring, editing, and using photos made point-and-shoots feel paleolithic.”

For the most part, the process is still this way. Upon walking into the Fujifilm Wonder Shop, you’re presented with Kiosks for printing your images. To do that, the best approach is to download their app and send the photos directly to their machines. So if you’re doing that from your Fujifilm camera, you’re best off using Wifi to beam the images to your phone, then using your phone to transfer to the kiosk. It’s a clunky, roundabout way of doing things that shouldn’t be the case almost a decade after the inception of all this.

Will the Smartphone Replace the Dedicated Camera?

“…unless you have plenty of light, smartphone images still look pretty crappy,”

Steve Dent

“Absolutely not!” exclaims Sascha when asked about whether or not smartphones are catching up to their larger sensor brethren. “While the most important technology in any photo is the photographer – a good photographer can take a great shot with an LG VX8000 flip phone or a Lomo Diana Mini – DSLRs’ bigger sensors, better glass, and range of lenses are still a huge leap beyond what anything in a phone form factor can offer. But DSLRs are like the ‘gaming PC’ of photography now – an elite tool for elite performance in qualified hands.”

That hasn’t stopped the likes of Google, Samsung, Huawei, and Apple from trying, though! Their Night Mode options have delivered incredible results that are impressing even professional photographers. But much of that is being done through processors, algorithms, etc: it’s not being done organically. However, as the latest generation of photographers is discovering, there’s only so much that you can do with a smartphone and post-production. At a certain point, you actually just have to be a good photographer.

“…unless you have plenty of light, smartphone images still look pretty crappy,” says Steve. “Even on good smartphones (iPhone 11, Galaxy S10, etc.), you see a lot of oversharpening to compensate for lack of detail, along with mediocre color science and poor optics compared to interchangeable lens cameras.” He continued to state that when looked at 100%, the dedicated camera is going to deliver better images each and every time. In fact, a smartphone image is going to look soft.

Again, all of this is a testament to what post-production is excellent for. But if it can do that much for a smartphone image to be able to hang the photo in a Chelsea gallery or plaster an ad on the side of 14th and 9th, then a dedicated camera can surely take that even further.