As Good As A Phone…?

The other day, on a photography forum, a guy asked if there was a point-and-shoot camera he could buy that would take pictures as good as his smartphone. Yes. We have reached that point.

For a long time, the “real camera” pitch was this: sure, phones are convenient, fit in your pocket and have all that connectivity. But with a little knowledge and practice, you’ll get much better pictures with a real camera.

Then we started seeing this: “I don’t need my camera anymore, my new iPhone does everything I need”. Real photographers fought back: ok, sure, for family and travel photos; but a real camera has more dynamic range, lower noise, fewer artifacts, higher resolution. But we sensed we were losing the argument, because for 95% of photos, none of those things mattered any more. Facebook, with its merciless downsizing and compression, was the great equalizer: noise, sharpness and resolution were irrelevant. We could still claim DOF, bokeh and a bit of dynamic range… or maybe you wanted a really big print…

And now, this: people like their iPhone photos more than the ones from their nice point-and-shoot cameras. The new phone is going to Disneyland; the big black camera is heading to Ebay.

Smartphones now do – in the blink of an eye – many of the things that used to be in post-processing: easy ones, like enhancing color, recovering shadows, optimizing the histogram; and harder ones, like combining images for HDR and noise reduction, or creating fake DOF and bokeh. And “filters”, like vintage film effects or gritty newsprint B&W. Basically, all the things that make a photo “pop” at 2 inches across, on a phone.

And the phones are getting better at this all the time.

Apple and Google know what people like about photos. They have access to the billions of photos taken on those phones, so they know what we’re shooting. They know which ones get shared, emailed and posted – maybe even how many ‘likes’ they got – and they can use neural nets on this big data to extract subtle preferences in framing, lighting, contrast and color. They’ve hired very smart, creative people to figure out how to make photos look better to the average person – not to design better cameras.

Phones (unlike cameras) are always online, so image processing can actually be cloud based and draw on all sorts of new capabilities. That processing can not only recognize places and faces, but tap into powerful and growing knowledge of what makes people look attractive, healthy, happy, and competent. People like you and your kids, in your photos.

Replacing boring skies in travel photos will just be automatic – by default anyway. Replacing boring people will be next.

So – you’re still a “real photographer”. You see the anguished posts and comments on photo forums: why can’t big camera makers catch up? Specifically, why can’t in-camera JPGs be as good as photos from high-end smartphones? But camera companies face barriers that are pretty high.

Financially speaking, Nikon, Sony and Canon could all fit in Apple’s garage. They can’t begin to match Apple’s R&D budget – not even the part devoted to cameras. Or their customer base – hundreds of millions of people ready to spend $1,000 or more on a phone.

And camera makers don’t have the platform for that kind of processing, either in hardware or software. The number of smartphones being sold means huge economies of scale that lead to ever more powerful chipsets; and cameras are stuck with much higher expectations for shutter responsiveness, burst speed and battery life. But the software side is even more complicated.

iOS and Android are fully developed OSs with powerful development systems, libraries and utilities. Connectivity is built in; but just as important is access to new image processing software, open source projects, “machine learning” and other powerful stuff that already runs on these platforms and won’t need to be rewritten. And then there’s the big talent pool of developers who already know these systems and want to work on them – not on some proprietary OS at Nikon.

So why can’t camera makers just run Linux instead of some realtime OS? It’s not so simple. Licensing a distribution and making it run on their hardware would be just the start; once out there, it has to be supported, updated and patched basically forever. Imagine the security issues, and the PR disaster when some top pro’s camera gets hacked. But the smartphone makers have this all worked out – they not only own the OS, they basically own your device and can update it as needed because it’s always connected to the internet. How would camera makers push out a security update, or a patch for a Day 0 vulnerability?

Hackers, ready to attack a camera running Android

The kind of bandwidth 5G is promising means all this post-shot manipulation won’t just happen in real time – it won’t even have to happen on the phone. It can be done in powerful server clusters with real-time access to anything – image libraries, new processing code, even other phones and cameras. Well, it can if you’re a software juggernaut like Apple or Google – but Nikon and Canon aren’t in that league.

All of this sophisticated “post processing” will of course, have the ultimate effect of making everyone’s photos look more and more alike. But for many people that’s just fine.

smartphone photos of the future

Cameras still have big advantages – starting with ergonomics and lenses. And camera makers have their proprietary processing tricks – it will take a while for Apple’s people to know as much about all aspects of photography as the back-room gurus at Nikon. But for most people, smartphones are now giving them the eye candy they want – and will give them more of it in the future. We won’t even be comparing “cameras” anymore, but cloud-based systems that produce images – tuned, edited and extended to be whatever people like. What used to be called “post processing” is just one part of what these systems will do.

You may even disagree! If so, leave a comment anyway. If it includes a link to your own photo site, you get a nice SEO-boosting ‘dofollow’ backlink.

7 Replies to “As Good As A Phone…?”

  1. “The new phone is going to Disneyland; the big black camera is heading to Ebay.”

    Good post. I really like that line. The camera makers should have caught on 10 or 12 years ago — People care more about the pictures than the machine that makes them. And they want/need to share their photos. Now, in real time, not after they get back home.

    My fantasy is that Samsung might team up with OM (Olympus).

    And since I’m just setting up a Smugmug I’ll take you up on your ‘follow back’. 🙂

  2. “So why can’t camera makers just run Linux instead of some realtime OS? It’s not so simple. Licensing a distribution and making it run on their hardware would be just the start; once out there, it has to be supported, updated and patched basically forever. Imagine the security issues, and the PR disaster when some top pro’s camera gets hacked”

    You couldn’t be more wrong. Sony cameras have been running on Linux for over 10 years. A Sony camera is effectively like a little computer running Linux.

    1. You’re right, Sony cameras (at least some of them) apparently run an embedded Linux. I probably have some light bulbs and dimmers that do, too. But it’s not like I could easily mount the SD card’s volume over my network, or send email from my camera – it’s a cut-down version and a closed system. Sony’s development probably benefits from the Linux platform, and they have some sort of 3rd-party app ecosystem.

      But connectivity is the big thing for the future. Without an always-on cellular data link, cameras won’t be able to do the kinds of real-time processing I’m talking about. And for that, they’re up against battery life and cellular “data plan” costs.

  3. In my opinion phone cameras suck in ergonomics, range of usefulness, and IQ. They are good for P&S shooters who lack the competence to be a real photographer.

    1. I’ll give you 2 out of 3, because I don’t really believe IQ matters anymore except to photographers. Yes, the ergonomics are just unbelievably bad.

  4. Just seeing this now. Everything you said is real and is happening. A lot of people won’t like it – but it is happening.

    The camera phone still needs someone with a good EYE to create a photograph rather than just a snapshot. However, many people do not care – as long as they get a decent picture.

    My favorite line from your narrative is: Replacing boring people will be next. BRAVO.

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