Are digital cameras on their last legs?

by , Editor, Which? Computing Technology 14 January 2013
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There was no shortage of new cameras buzzing about CES 2013 in Las Vegas. But do any of them have enough new ideas to save the faltering compact camera market?

Digital camera with workmen

This year got off to a rough start for digital cameras. The UK’s most established high street camera specialist, Jessops, went into administration, largely down to poor sales in this cameraphone world and better bargains online.

I don’t see 2013 getting any less gloomy for the big camera manufacturers, and the ‘innovations’ coming out of CES 2013 didn’t change my mind.

CES 2013: digital camera innovations fall flat

CES hosted all the predictable updates to the latest cameras. They’re smaller, they’re ‘touch screenier’, they’re waterproof to greater depths, and they have more wi-fi than your nearest Starbucks. But are any of these innovations truly enough to revive sales of compact cameras?

Let’s start with wi-fi cameras. Wireless connectivity will not be the saviour of compact cameras. Why? Because all you can really do with a wi-fi camera is upload your photos straight to Facebook. You can’t use your fancy wi-fi-enabled camera to browse the web, play games, make Skype calls, or anything else that smartphones have been doing for years now.

Touchscreen cameras? To me, a touchscreen isn’t a natural fit for taking snaps. However, touchscreens are cheaper than ever to make now, so why not slap one on the back of the camera? Oh, I know why not, because you’re left with a baffling little box of a device like the newly-unveiled Canon PowerShot N. I’m all for innovation if it leaves you with a genuinely useful product, but I don’t think Canon’s square snapper fits the bill.

Waterproof cameras? They’re definitely great things, and I welcome the idea of Sony introducing a more affordable one. But Panasonic and Olympus have unveiled cameras that can go to depths of 14 metres. That’s lovely for keen divers with £349 to spare, but that’s a pretty niche market they’re targeting, and not one that will prop up dwindling camera sales.

High-end cameras holding off smartphones

There’s still one section of the market that cameraphones can’t eat into, and that’s high-end cameras like DSLRs and compact system cameras (CSCs).

Sales of CSCs ought to keep on rising this year, particularly if prices finally begin to settle to a more sensible level. But sales of high-end cameras won’t be enough to revive the flagging fortunes of camera manufacturers, who’ve taken a serious hit with the rise of cameraphones.

Myself, I hardly ever use my cameraphone. I like taking my time composing a shot properly (and yes, that means using a viewfinder), and I don’t think I’ve ever felt the need to post a photo straight on to the web.

But I know I’m not typical, compared to the millions of people snapping away on cameraphones every day. And from what I saw coming out of Las Vegas, I don’t think the big camera manufacturers have hit upon anything that will truly entice the cameraphone crowd.

13 comments

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BrianAC

So, someone explain why I should buy a phone to take photographs?

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wavechange

I believe it is because a Hasselblad will not fit in a pocket with a tripod.

I use my phone only if I don’t have a compact camera to hand.

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BrianAC

Perhaps I could have put that better. Why should I have to buy a mobile phone if all I want to do is to take photographs? Are they cheaper? Do they take better photos? Do they have x20 zoom lenses? If you need a new mobile phone I guess you may as well have a camera too if it costs little more. I can certainly see it is always handy if you have an accident (assuming I had charged it in the last 3 months). I could never see myself using it as a camera as such. Neither can I see it being as good as a camera though, even a cheap compact, or can it be? Already I miss the viewfinder on the new(ish) camera, I can’t get along with the video screen as I have to swap glasses to see the object I am shooting and then try to see it on the viewer.
The DSLR is a different thing though, as much as I would love one or two, video also, alas that can never happen.

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wavechange

It’s the convenience factor, Brian. A portable CD player will give better sound quality than an mp3 player but most people opt for convenience. A phone is a bit like a Swiss army penknife. A smartphone can do a a lot of jobs even if it is not the best tool for most of them.

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banjo

My main reason for using a “proper” camera is that the flashgun on phones is useless.

I find my smartphone ideal for capturing pictures of nights out and incidental things. I have a DSLR for my more ‘considered’ photography, as a smartphone simply isn’t up to the job. But I haven’t owned a compact camera in around 8 years, after my last one went to a watery grave (whoops).

I think they’ll always be a place for DSLRs in the market and compact cameras will be around for a little while yet. But I think the market is probably shrinking rapidly, and no number of bells and whistles will change that.

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clint kirk

Like most people I, too, find my smartphone’s camera quite handy for unplanned snapshots as it’s not convenient to carry a proper camera everywhere with you at all times. I think there will still be a market for compact cameras for a long time to come. A lot of them are becoming “superzoom”. They are not as good as DSLRs but the latter with a long telephoto lens would be well outside most people’s budget, whereas a compact with a 24-360mm (35mm equivalent) zoom is now commonplace and quite cheap. However, I do wish manufacturers would stop trying to add lots of innovative new features in every new model, and start concentrating on improving the basic functions. Improve on the image quality by having bigger sensors (physical size, not megapixels). Improve the optics. Reduce artifacts at extremes of zoom. Use larger-aperture lenses (what’s the point of having aperture priority if the aperture range is only 6.3 to 8.6?) Make the flash illuminate the picture more evenly.

And while I’m at it, I wish Which? would stop reporting irrelevant things in the camera reviews such as megapixels (every new camera has enough megapixels already) or number of scene modes (you don’t need any; ok maybe three or four could be useful) and start reporting on what really matters like sensor size and minimum and maximum aperture. (One thing I do like about Which? camera reviews is the shutter delay ratings, which is hard to find elsewhere.)

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wavechange

Your point about obsession with megapixels has been made many times, Clint. Unfortunately, megapixels sell cameras and if this information was omitted from a review of cameras there would be plenty of criticism.

You will be pleased to know that I don’t know the megapixel rating of my pocket-size compact camera – except that it’s a lot more than the older and larger camera that has a decent size lens and which takes much better photos.

There is hope. Computer owners used to be obsessed about RAM, CPU speed and hard disk capacity. After purchase, most people don’t have much of a clue about these things nowadays, and they focus on what they can achieve with their computer instead.

You might not like hundreds of features on a camera, but once again they help sales even if few use them. I certainly agree about the desirability of having information about shutter delay, though it’s generally much better than in the early days of digital cameras.

Hello Clint, Rich has written about the myth of the megapixel before: http://conversation.which.co.uk/technology/the-myth-of-the-megapixel-on-digital-cameras/ However, we like to make our reviews as thorough as possible as this is information that many consumers do like to compare.

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David

Cameras on phones are just an afterthought, I’d never dream of going on holiday without my compact digital camera, they win in so many areas.

Battery life, flexibility, focus options, coping in various lighting conditions, zoom, buttons (touchscreen is no good when you are continually switching your gaze between subject and screen, you need a button to hit), shutter delay, resolution of image, flash.

But especially battery life. I don’t know any phone that would last a day of sightseeing, with regular use of email, texting, GPS and wifi, if you were using it as a camera as well!

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Doug

I have a smartphone but the camera is crap. I always carry my Canon Ixus 100is in a pocket and with 12 pixels (twice as many as it needs) and a 3x optical zoom it’s versatile enough for most purposes and takes quality photographs. It also has a (poor) optical viewfinder but I rarely use that these days. There are plenty of pocketable quality cameras around and, if you think you need 30x zoom the Lumix tz30 will travel in your pocket although you’ll feel the weight.
Yes, for the best results you need a camera with a large sensor, and this means DSLR or CSC (which is only compact until you fit the dustbin size lens onto the front so what’s the point ?) but how big do you want to see the image (A4 prints from a good compact are fine) or how small a bit of the image do you want to crop ?

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Terry Farrell

The cameras on some of the smartphones take reasonable pictures under good conditions, better in fact than many of the traditional point-and-shoot cameras that were around before mobiles added camera functions. Think of those nasty Instamatic snaps!

But just as smartphones won’t replace desktop computers, the camera function won’t replace a proper camera. Taking photos in difficult conditions or when you need good quality pictures for your album of memories, the mobile camera won’t do it. Who knows what the future may bring though.

But who carries around a bulky camera everywhere they go. Have smartphone: will snap!

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tim

Someone once told me: “The best camera in the world is the one that you have with you.” That’s why smartphones will replace compacts. I have an SLR, but have to make a conscious decision to take it out with me, whereas I always have my phone.

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