Can the cameras survive the smartphone assault?

Global camera shipments may be in a free-fall but the likes of Canon and Nikon aren't losing sleep, just yet. However, the future of the camera industry will really be determined by the developments in the smartphone sector.

A picture might be worth a thousand words, but this viral ad from Nokia says so much more about both the rise of smartphone photography and the challenge it poses for traditional camera makers.

Look past the whole ‘flash photography turns people into zombies’ idea, and there's a clear message here. Nokia's phones aren't just for making calls but they take excellent photos as well. 

But then again, you could say that about most of the smartphones currently on the market. When the first iPhone was launched back in 2007, it contained just one 2-megapixel rear camera. In contrast, the iPhone 5s wields both an 8-megapixel rear camera and a 1.2 megapixel front camera – almost quadrupling the original model’s photography prowess.

It’s easy to see why smartphone manufacturers are jumping on the photography bandwagon, and why camera makers are worried about it.

Consumers want to be able to take a photo – or a selfie – edit it, and then upload straight onto the net. Given this, a quality camera is now a must-have feature for all devices.

The rise of smartphone photography is forcing camera makers to write-off the lucrative low cost, low-end ‘point-and-click’ segment of the camera market and focus on mid to high end products – the type of feature-filled single lens reflex (SLR) cameras that would be shared across the family and would be replaced roughly once every three to five years.

So how big a threat are smartphones to the traditional camera makers, especially if consumers reckon a phone is a suitable substitute for a SLR?

Not losing sleep, just yet

Global camera shipments may be in a free-fall – sliding 43 per cent in the past first five months of 2013 – but according to Canon Australia’s director of consumer imaging, Jason McLean, the local revenue brought in the Canon’s mid to high range camera line (products over $200) is growing by just under 20 per cent.

And, as McLean adds, this is in spite of the fact that Australia has one of the highest smartphone adoption rates in the world.

“They're buying these cameras because they're taking those images that they want to keep, they're not disposable images,” McLean explains.

“They [Canon customers] take a lot of care in the output, and the memories they are trying to capture.”

Canon’s rival, Nikon noted a similar trend.

“People may start out using a smartphone but we’re seeing a trend where they actually want to take photography a step further,” Nikon Australia product manager, John Young said in an emailed statement.

“As people’s passion for photography grows, so does their tool kit – a Nikon camera enhances the photographer’s experience, offering top quality photos and user flexibility,” he said.

As you can probably tell, the camera industry is pushing the idea that cameras can take better quality images than smartphones – indicating that a picture taken by a Digital SLR is somehow worth more than a smartphone happy snap.

Oddly enough, professional photographers aren't entirely convinced. 

Graph for Can the cameras survive the smartphone assault?

Engineer turned professional photographer, Josh Marshall took this photo with his iPhone at Merewether Beach in Newcastle.

He contends that anyone can take professional looking shots with a smartphone, as long as they have an eye for lighting and photography.

"The vast majority of my personal photos now are taken on a phone, simply because it’s the one I have on me,” says Marshall, who is also the Newcastle chapter president of the Australian Institute of Professional Photography.

But Marshall is also wary that there are some things that smartphones will always struggle to do. For instance, given their compact form, smartphones would first have to defy the laws of physics in order to capture the same kind of quality of photo that can be snapped with a digital SLR.

“There are certain attributes that actually depend on the size the system, the size of the imaging sensor itself, and the size of the lens,” Marshall explains.

“That beautiful blurred background that you see in a lot of portraiture, that’s very difficult to accomplish in a camera with a smaller sensor.”

Though in saying this, Marshall added that one day, it may be possible for smartphone makers to work around this with future compact technologies and sophisticated photo editing software.

Losing the budget segment 

It’s for this reason that Telsyte device analyst, Foad Fadaghi says that the future of the camera industry will really be determined by the developments in the smartphone sector.

“If we see an exponential growth in the quality of lens, the technology and the software, going into smartphone cameras, it doesn't bode so well for standalone digital cameras - particularly those in that budget segment,” Fadaghi says.

Though, Fadaghi adds camera makers may not see their sector as significantly “cannibalised” by the smartphone in Australia, when compared to other developing markets in Asia.

“Because we are a first world, affluent country, it’s unlikely that we will suffer as much of the same substitution effect that you may see in some countries,” he says.

“If we can afford it, it’s quite likely that we will buy both [a camera and a smartphone].”

If smartphones are set to replace more than just the lower-end of the camera market, chances are we’ll see the first signs of this in a couple of years, when smartphone cameras reach new heights of photographic prowess and consumers rethink the prospect of replacing their existing ‘special occasion’ Digital SLR camera.

There is no doubt that by that point your run of the mill SLR will also be packing plenty of punch. As seen with the iPhone, back in 2007 an entry level SLR offered around 10 megapixel shots. Now, a basic SLR is capable of taking 20 megapixel pictures. Again, who knows what they will be capable of in the future – perhaps a leap into some form of 3D imaging might sustain the industry?

Given the current rate of innovation consumers will inevitably find themselves at crossroads and re-evaluate whether pictures taken on their newly upgraded smartphone are good enough and enduring enough to negate the need for a SLR.

It may be sooner than we all think. Nokia, for instance, is already trying to make this argument with the launch of its 1020 phone – a device with a 43-megapixel camera.

It may not be an industry killer (especially given that many commentators labelled it as being a really good camera attached to a rather shoddy phone) but it could be a sign of things to come.

Is the camera industry ready for an era where smartphones are built for more than just happy snaps and selfies?