“Like I haven’t heard this one before,” was what first came to mind when I read Sony Semiconductor’s President and CEO claim that smartphone cameras will outclass interchangeable lens cameras by 2024. That’s less than two years away and makes you wonder why Sony is still so heavily invested in producing mirrorless cameras. But with the VP of Qualcomm Product Management expressing a similar opinion, you now have two heavy industry heavyweights throwing their weight behind smartphone cameras. How close is the next generation of smartphones to making our mirrorless and DSLR cameras obsolete?
DSLRs started to spell the death of film cameras a little over 15 years ago. Mirrorless cameras are slowly but steadily making DSLRs unappealing. It’s no secret that smartphone cameras were responsible for compact camera sales dropping like crazy not so long ago. Phys’.org reported on it a decade ago when they noted a 48% drop in digital camera sales in 2012 compared to 2011. Compact cameras were the mainstay of family holidays in the 80s and 90s. Maybe that extended to the early 2000s, when the transition to digital cameras was being made. We had an Olympus compact digital camera (barely two megapixels), which I still used until 2007 or 08. Blame it on the iPhone for making a revolutionary smartphone everyone wanted in their pocket.
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Would Any Professional Use A Smartphone Seriously?
What Killed The Compact Camera?
All of a sudden, everyone had a camera in their pocket. People began viewing photos very differently. From prints and photo albums, people began to switch to email and social media as the primary ways of seeing new photos. Serious photographers were still weighing their options between film flagships and the latest DSLR models that brands began tempting them with. But the ordinary consumer was now able to quickly snap a photo of their kids and immediately send it to their parents in another country. It made no sense to carry a compact camera anywhere anymore.
For fifteen years, camera sales have been on the decline thanks to the uber portability and convenience of smartphone cameras. However, there was no denying that interchangeable lens cameras ruled in terms of image quality and usability. For professionals, no smartphone could outdo a DSLR or mirrorless camera under any circumstance. Camera brands firmly believed that professionals and prosumers would pick their cameras over a smartphone camera any day. But are they also responsible for their own impending downfall?
The Megapixel Race
I blame camera brands for two specific things that ruined the respect professional photographers used to have. For one, brands made professional spec cameras too affordable and too often. Everyone from Uncle Bob to your cousin across the border suddenly had a new camera that topped the specs of your top-level camera from last year. While in the past, SLRs and the like were only in the hands of professionals, DSLRs became commonplace. “Hey, I’ve got the same camera you’re using” is what no professional photographer wants to hear at a party he’s working.
The second thing I blame brands for, and I might get some flak for this, is the megapixel mirage. Camera brands themselves began to (I’d say knowingly) market higher megapixel cameras as superior. Something that was only the mainstay of super expensive medium format cameras was now just a swipe away with your credit card. Remember the Nikon D800 and its 36 MP sensor? Everyone who didn’t need it began craving it. Soon, high megapixel sensors began trickling down to smartphone cameras. The first generation iPhone only came with a paltry 2MP camera sensor. As I write this article, Xiaomi has announced their 12T Pro smartphone with a massive 200MP sensor. And to the average person, it doesn’t matter that these phones have a much smaller camera sensor: the majority not even 1 inch.
You could put all the AI tech in a smartphone, but pixel for pixel, it still couldn’t hold up to an ILC. Because, at the end of the day, it’s physics. Larger sensors produce an actual shallow depth of field, not some fuzzy, often badly cut out, blur generated by a computational algorithm. Put an APS-C or full-frame sensor inside a smartphone, and then we’ll really have something to compare.
What’s Threatening ILCs Now?
Innovation From Smartphone Companies
Huawei was probably the first smartphone manufacturer to introduce AI scene recognition in their smartphone processor. It could recognize what the camera was trying to photograph. Then an algorithm would accordingly apply changes to the settings and make it look better for you. Auto mode in these smartphone cameras suddenly became more intelligent. AI was doing real-time changes in front of your eyes. Portrait mode (where the background is blurred) is improving but still far from what an ILC sensor can deliver. So, back in May, when the Sony Semiconductor Solutions President and CEO stated that smartphone “still images will exceed the image quality of single-lens cameras” by 2024, the camera industry probably began to worry. Here was Sony, the industry-leading mirrorless camera brand, predicting a problem for its own industry.
Qualcomm Says We’re Three to Five Years Away From Peak AI Magic
The VP at Qualcomm, a leading semiconductor component manufacturer for smartphones, feels that AI is five years from taking over the entire image-making process in a phone. He made this claim in a recent interview with Android Authority. He’s got faith in their new Snapdragon processor being at least 10 times faster than anything from Canon or Nikon. He doesn’t think smartphones need more and more megapixels. “I don’t necessarily think we need hundreds and hundreds of megapixels. I think we need bigger pixels, right?” he rightly says.
Going forward in the future, we see a lot more AI capability to understand the scene, to understand the difference between skin and hair, and fabric and background and that sort of thing.Judd Heape, Vice President, Product Management at Qualcomm, in an interview with Android Authority
A Handful Of Years Is Too Optimistic
I think we’re a long way from smartphone cameras taking over ILCs regarding image quality and probably camera reliability. Let me reiterate that something: the sensors in these smartphone cameras are still smaller. Even if we look at smartphones with multiple lenses in them (ultrawide, zoom, standard, etc.). They still don’t have the same sensor capabilities for each of those lenses. There might be R&D going on about how to swap out smartphone lenses. But without any credible information or rumors, we might not see them any time soon. I don’t care how many megapixels your smartphone camera has. No amount of digital zoom on that tiny sensor will produce an image that satisfies the pixel peeper in us.
AI Is Being Used In ILCs Too
Maybe they were inspired by smartphones using it, but even ILC cameras have AI today. The OM System OM1 is one example. Alice Camera, based out of London, is another trying to make headway in this field. Even without AI, larger sensor cameras still hold the upper hand in challenging low light conditions. It might be years before we even see an APS-C sensor inside a consumer smartphone camera. If I were a camera brand, I wouldn’t worry too much. The image quality of ILCs isn’t being surpassed by smartphones any time soon.
All images in this article were either shot by our staff or used with Creative Commons permission.