Camera vs. Smartphone – Battle of the titans

Oh where to start… I can see the flames already… But let me take a stab at it anyway.

Back in the day (of film that is, that was THE day) cameras were an object that was carried by, well… photographers and aspiring photographers. A lot happened in that era to popularize photography and as years passed, it was indeed made more affordable and popular. Cameras were becoming smaller, less intimidating, cheaper and easier to use and carry around. However, still one had to develop and print, which meant taking the trip to the store, shelling out the dough and waiting to see the result, which more often than not, left something to de desired.

Fast forward to the digital era. The big changes were the cost of use and the instant gratification (or lack thereof!). Suddenly, one could shoot to their heart’s desire and it cost them nothing. The image was there, ready to transfer to a PC to view in full glory. If the result was a bit crappy, one could shoot again and again until they got it right. There, instant gratification costing nothing! You’d think that you couldn’t have it any better.

Digital cameras went a long way in that era from 1-2 megapixel deals to 50 megapixels today and sensors were getting bigger and bigger too. They were also getting still easier to use, even though there was a whole new set of skills one had to understand and master to use them in their full capacity. DSLR’s ruled supreme and compact cameras (and bridge cameras) were reserved for those that did not want to invest the time and effort for using a “proper” camera (=DSLR). But nobody (well, except for Queen Elizabeth) rules forever and mirrorless cameras made their appearance as a claimant to the throne of the Proper Camera Kingdom. As that battle loomed on, another conspiracy was brewing in the background…

Mobile phones had always an eye to the throne and as they morphed into smartphones, their cameras started getting better and better. They employed the help of the experts and used their own expertise in microelectronics to create smartphone cams that are astonishingly good. Zeiss and Leica, top experts in the optics industry, helped with the lenses and Sony, Nokia (back then anyway), Apple, Motorola and others did their magic for the UI and the whole tech merging.

Megapixels, the one metric that people seem to have an infatuation with, started rising too and soon enough people started asking if we need cameras anymore… Figures seem to be pointing to a pattern that is hard to ignore:

  • Sales of cameras were dormant with a healthy but related upward trend from the 50’s to the 90’s. From 2000 on and for 10 years leading up to 2010, shipments of cameras skyrocketed from 30 million pieces to over 120 million. In the next 10 years, the bottom fell off the market and shipments went down to less than 20 million. Correlate that trend with the advent of digital photography and smartphone dominance and you can see the picture…

So, if the saying “the best camera is the one you have with you” holds true, yes, smartphones are great and they are here to stay. We are likely to be carrying a smartphone for a long time and its camera will only be getting better, thus enabling us to take more and better pictures.

There are several tests that compare the latest smartphone with a DSLR or mirrorless, concluding that for a vast array of circumstances and situations, one is very well served with a smartphone and the results are perfectly acceptable for posting on the web (which most of us do anyway) or even printing.

Is this the end of the camera then? Well, it depends. The camera as a mass market object appealing to the broad masses is dying. The less expensive ones are not much better than the better smartphones and the truly good ones are very expensive and large / heavy. They still appeal to the aficionados, the hobbyists and, of course, the professionals. They will continue to do so, not only because they are immensely capable machines for whatever they are designed to do, but also because there is still a market out there for people who want to own a camera and enjoy shooting with one. This is one qualitative aspect that megapixels and tech do not cover at all and it will keep being the bailiwick of cameras for years to come.

Furthermore, image quality is primarily a function of the lens and the sensor. The bigger the sensor, the better the IQ. Full frame sensors are better than crop sensors and medium format are still better, not to mention large format. Bigger megapixels, allowing for more light, still make a difference and smartphone sensors are t-i-n-y be any description. Yes, technology is advancing but physics is still king when it comes to laws of nature. Lenses are of the utmost importance too; the design and light capturing ability of purpose-made lenses cannot be matched by smartphone lenses by any stretch of the imagination. Smartphone lenses are small (obviously) and this limiting factor puts a ceiling to how good they can become. Truly great lenses run in the thousands and they employ design aspects that are just not feasible in the small scale surroundings of a smartphone housing. 

Yet, who is this for? If all one wants to do is have a capable, small, easy to use, always there, point and shoot camera, the smartphone is here to stay and it is indeed a great way to get into the art and stay there. The others (the few) with a use for no holds barred IQ, for special lenses for each assignment or type of photography, for the enjoyment of holding a precision instrument and making it sing, well, for those, digital cameras (and film cameras for that matter) is the way to go. No reason to fight then!