What a query, you might think. And, indeed, most Macfilos readers will answer the question if we still need cameras with a firm yes. But if you look at market data and observe people around you, some doubt might arise. So, what justification have dedicated cameras for photography today?
The figures are sobering. The camera market is shrinking at a pace nobody would have expected. This happens worldwide, and even the emergence of strong middle classes in big nations such as China, India or Brazil seems not to change this. Probably because they, in general, may have other needs or interests than a camera.
A market, silently imploding
The figures for Germany alone are remarkable. In 2007, when digital photography had become mainstream and the first iPhone was released, Europe’s most important market recorded 8.8 million sold cameras, as a brochure for the photokina (another word from the good old times) stated in 2008. Ten years later, the number had fallen to 2.66 million. In 2020, it was a mere 1.57 million, as these figures are showing. 2021 saw no turnaround according to consistent reports from traders and industry experts. Things aren’t going well.
In worldwide numbers, 2021 was under the level of 2000 with a total of 8.36 million sold cameras (CIPA members only). At the pinnacle in 2010, the figure was 121.46 million. The market has lost more than 90 per cent in terms of sold cameras within a decade according to CIPA data. And it is only thanks to the trend towards ever higher-priced cameras (or the literal death of low-priced models) that sales have not collapsed to the same extent.
A contender becomes dominant
At the same time, smartphones have become ever more capable. As noted, the iPhone started the revolution in 2007, and within a few years, the multi-functional cellphone with a camera as one of its characteristic features became a standard tool for billions of people. In Germany, 22.5 million smartphones were sold in 2020, a constant number over the last years. That means that for every camera sold, there are more than 14 new smartphones. And their cameras are getting better and better – more megapixels, different focal lengths, better high-ISO capabilities.
So again, do we still need cameras (beyond their attraction as collectors’ items, an aspect which I leave aside in this article)? Four thoughts.
1 What do we use? Conscious choice of tools
When you are setting out to practice photography as an amateur, this is a deliberate decision. Sure, you often take your camera with you just in case your core activity offers some opportunities to take some good photos. But even then, you make an active choice to take a camera (as opposed to having your smartphone always with you, because you might need it for such crazy things as making a phone call). So the creative process starts with the reflection of what gear you might need or you might want to use. Big kit or small kit, long or short focal lengths, you name it.
For this conscious work with your equipment, it seems essential that you perceive your cameras and lenses as being tools. Packing your bag, you are anticipating what you might encounter during your photography session. And this is not only true for professionals (many of whom do not take images in their leisure time) but also for amateurs. A smartphone that you have always with you anyway allows no such choice of gear. So, the moment of planning will not take place either.
An arsenal of cameras and/or lenses alone makes nobody a good photographer, for sure. But if you have a conscious approach to your equipment, you deal with photography on a different level. I think that alone justifies the existence of purpose-built cameras and all the accessories that go with them. From my point of view, it makes a huge difference whether you hold a multifunctional mini-computer in your hands or a device with which you can do exactly one thing.
2 How do we shoot? Composing pictures or making snapshots
Speaking of making deliberate decisions, this of course not only applies to the somewhat marginal question of what gear you use. Far more important is the question of what you shoot and how you shoot. For snapshots, the easiest possible workflow is the best. This is why point-and-shoot cameras always had the most automatic functions, why they were always built with the aim of the easiest possible handling, and why they were designed to be so small that you could take them everywhere (ironically, the Leica checked all these boxes back in 1925, given the then competition). Today, even the cheapest smartphone meets all these requirements.
If you want to take snapshots, a smartphone is a perfect device. You can also use it to compose an image to artistic standards. But even the latest and the greatest Apple, Samsung or XYZ products will limit their users in their creative options. Your choice of angles of view is restricted, playing with the optical laws of depth of field (something that lies in the nature of photography, because the human eye does not know this phenomenon in this form) is only possible with computational imaging and therefore artificial in a special way.
Again, a tool that is made solely for taking pictures forces you to concentrate on the process of making pictures. A viewfinder lets you see the world in a special way (depending on the equipment you use), and holding your camera to your eye makes it an extension of your organ of sight. I am sure this makes a change to the act of depicting the world. If you have a certain ambition, in this strive to depict the world, a real camera might be exactly what you need, what triggers your creativity or just enhances your confidence and fun.
3 What do we get? Output and outcome questions
Apropos creativity. Again, a good camera does not make a good photographer. But I think that a tool that you deliberately chose, that you like, that you are probably even proud of, will see more use and more engagement. And more taken images will likely lead to get more good pictures (whatever “good” is — let’s say, individually satisfying pictures). High output does not automatically mean a good outcome, of course. If this were true, hundreds of millions of excellent smartphone images per day would come into being. But I want to make a claim that it does make a difference how you are actually using your image-recording device and what character it has.
This rather psychological aspect aside, a purpose-built camera has a superior outcome in terms of image quality. Smartphone images are computed to look fine on the (often astonishingly good) screens of smartphones. Rightly so, as the overwhelming majority of these images will never leave the smartphone ecosystem. Once you try to have such a photo printed to a substantial size, you are likely to be disappointed. Not much to be seen of your 12 or 20 megapixels on a modest 8×10 inch print. The extreme miniaturization and the enormous density of pixels on the small sensor are taking their toll.
So, if one needs or wishes images that work beyond a smartphone screen, social media or the occasional publication on an internet site, one might feel the need for a dedicated camera. Sure, an increasing number of journalists, artists and so-called content creators are relying on smartphones — for the moment, mainly for video footage, but ever more frequently for photos, too. But this is not necessarily proof that cameras are no longer needed. It could as well have something to do with the wish for cheaper productions and lower quality standards.
4. What’s next? Future scenarios
With smartphones constantly improving their photographic capabilities, there is no reason to believe that point-and-shoot cameras have any future. Or that a substantial number of customers who just want to point and shoot would go for a device other than a smartphone. Furthermore, artificial intelligence will allow smartphones to enter the fields so far reserved to serious cameras. Shallow depth of field for portraits and ultra-wide angle perspective is already available thanks to computational imaging. More new achievements will follow.
One scenario is therefore that smartphones will become entirely dominant and that even professional photographers will use them in greater numbers. Because it’s easy, fast, cheap and unobtrusive. And it is so incredibly easy to post-process, share, and publish your images right from your phone.
Another scenario is that the remaining cameras will become more and more similar to smartphones. Zeiss had no success with their revolutionary ZX-1 which is more or less such a product. But other manufacturers might well make similar attempts. If only to address the generation of smartphone natives. For them, connectivity is probably more important than the last quantum of optical perfection.
A third scenario assumes that the further innovation dynamics on the camera sector are rapidly slowing down due to lack of R&D capital. All major manufacturers have invested enormous sums in their new mirrorless systems, including some very sophisticated lenses. With sales staying low, even price increases will not compensate for market shrinkage. Consequently, innovation cycles could become much longer because marginal utility gets more and more expensive to achieve.
Scenario number four is similar and different at the same time: Often we read that 18, 24 or 47 megapixels or 3,200, 25,600 or 100,000 ISO were the culmination point and that we now have all that we need. This assumption has been wrong every time so far — because the industry is forced into bringing ever new features to keep the system running. So, there is some likelihood that we will, in the higher-end sector, see no full market saturation in the foreseeable future. Needless to say that anything else would cause a disastrous chain reaction for the whole industry.
Other scenarios are possible for sure and might come true. Discuss in the comments section!
So, to pick up the question in the title, do we still need cameras? It depends on what “we” represents. If “we” means our society, the answer is no. The vast majority of people who want to take pictures are doing this without a dedicated camera already. This seems to be true for all age groups, so demography will not help. If “we” means a community of pros and committed amateurs (and this group might well grow among younger generations), the answer is a firm yes. We need cameras because we love them — frequently as creative tools, sometimes as fascinating toys and always as the still best prerequisite for outstanding results.
What do you think? What is the outlook for the camera as we know it? Will future cameras be radically different? Or will smartphones take over the photography market leaving just a few amateurs to be the last customers of the formerly so proud camera industry? Which innovations do you hope for and which are you afraid of? Or are you simply settled knowing that you have already acquired your last camera? Let’s discuss it in the comments section – I’m really curious what your opinion is.
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