I went to a wedding recently. It was the usual wedding crowd – a bunch of proud, dressed up oldies and their dolled up, ambitious, tech-savvy children.
When the bride was walking down the aisle I noticed something curious. A sea of lit up smartphones were hovering at eye level everywhere, displaying the whole procession in vivid detail. People taking photos. Shooting video. Uploading instantly.
My fiancee, standing beside me, was happily filming the whole thing with with her HTC Android. Where was her compact point-and-shoot camera?
She couldn’t find the memory card, the battery wasn’t fully charged and there was already too much stuff in her handbag – she listed her reasons without taking her eyes off the huge LCD screen.
There’s a whole bunch of compact cameras you can buy for between $100 and $500 – you know, all the Canon IXUS, Sony Cybershot and Nikon Coolpix varieties out there.
They all feature some zooming ability, a decent enough image quality and a respectable screen. And their main selling point for a long time has been an ability to pack decent photo-taking ability into your pocket or bag.
But at this wedding there was not one of those cameras in sight.
In fact, if you looked around you’ll only see the people wielding the aforementioned smartphone cameras, a few Uncle Bob types strapped to their Canon Rebels and the hired professional photographers cruising around in style with their Canon 5DMKIIIs (and typically being followed and annoyed by Uncle Bob types – but that’s another story).
So should we pay attention to this observation as a new trend in where camera trends are heading? And is this a reason for camera manufacturers to be worried?
A few years back no-one would consider their phone camera as a bona fide alternative to a compact point-and-shoot. Phone cameras were just a thing for kids to take fuzzy pictures with.
And perhaps the current smartphone cameras are not yet advanced enough to compete with the dedicated compact cameras, but how long will it be until they catch up?
And will consumers like my fiancee at some point completely stop caring about whatever technology gap still remains for the sake of not having to carry around two devices?
To answer these questions I think we need to take a look at the changes in how the photos are being consumed. Most oldies will remember taking photos, getting them printed and then glueing them into a photo album.
Today that photo album exists mainly online and the ease and speed with which one can get them there is becoming more valuable than the quality of the actual image. Heeelllooo Instagram!
Many photography professionals and “purists” criticise this trend; they view it as a dumbing down of the photographic medium. Thing is, photography at this end of the market has never been about creating masterpieces. It’s always been about telling candid stories of subjects through snapshots. And we’ve always created piles of rejected, bad images to get the one that we love and keep.
And to that effect, nothing has changed.
One of the things that has changed, however, is the technology in the slightly higher market segment.
Whereas before there were, broadly, two types of consumer cameras – the compacts and the DSLRs – there’s now a promising newcomer sandwiched in between them – the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) mirror less camera.
MFT offers a better low light performance, bigger sensors, more resolution (if you care), better lenses, better Depth Of Field (DOF) control, a much improved ability to use the camera creatively, and being able to make you look like a more “serious” photographer (status has never been an insignificant factor in camera-purchasing decisions).
At this stage the MFT is still relatively new. And because of that it’s still expensive and chunky enough to be cleanly in its own market segment. But I think as time goes on, the MFT will come down both in price and size, beginning to put significant pressure on the upper end of the compact camera market.
At the same time, I think it’s safe to bet that the smartphones will continue to evolve both the hardware and the software of their cameras, which will begin to put more and more pressure on the bottom end of the compact camera market.
The consumers will eventually take a pick – those for whom convenience, portability and connectivity are most important will continue using their smartphones for their everyday photography needs. Those with a requirement for more quality will be very tempted by the MFT; if they have even a hint of a creative flame then I think the deal will be sealed.
So it seems that the death of the compact camera is not so much a question of “if”, but of “when”.
And since the compact is squeezed by aggressively expanding and gifted competitors on both sides, I think that 2013 might just be the year in which manufacturers will see a significant enough decline in its sales for them to justify a complete axing of the category.