In an August, 2010 Monday Note titled Smartcameras In Our Future?, I wished for smartphone-like apps running on a nice compact camera such as Canon’s S90 (now replaced by the S100). At the time, in-camera photo processing was limited and wireless connectivity required accessories like Eye-Fi, a clever but not so easy-to-use SD card with a Wi-Fi radio.
On the smartphone side, connectivity (Wi-Fi and 3G) was simple and mostly good (AT&T exceptions hereby stipulated) and, as a bonus, GPS geolocation worked. But when it came to picture quality, smartphones couldn’t compete with dedicated compact cameras. The phones’ inadequate sensors had trouble with high contrast scenes. Pictures in low light? Forget about it.
Since then, sensor technology has made incredible progress. A few years ago, ISO 3,200 was considered extreme; today, the Canon 1 DX and Nikon D4 reach ISO 204,800 sensitivity. Granted, these are big, expensive high-end cameras — and heightened sensitivity doesn’t always yield the best picture — but the new top number is 64 times the previous maximum. A low-light scene that once required a blur-friendly 1/2 second exposure can now be safely captured in 1/128th of a second.
Such progress stems from the silicon industry’s relentless progress, particularly, in this case, in silencing electrical noise. Stray electrons that are introduced by the camera’s circuitry are intelligently rejected; “authentic” electrons that capture the sparse photons in a low-light snapshot are no longer drowned in an electrical hubbub.
As expected, these improvements have ‘”dribbled down.” The advancements in silicon technology that have given us the 24x36mm sensors in our pro cameras are finding their way into the tiny sensors in our smartphones. ‘The Best Camera Is The One That’s With You’ is truer than ever. Esteemed photographers such as Annie Leibovitz have fun showing off what they can do with a smartphone.
But improved sensor technology is only one of the reasons why smartphones have eaten compact cameras alive. The other reason is software. Smartphone app stores now sport a huge number of photo apps. Search for ‘‘photo editor” in Google play (née Android Marketplace) and you’ll get more than 1,000 hits. The iPhone App Store yields an absurdly high number as well. Not all of these apps are useful — or even good — but the gamut is impressive. From collage to special effects, from panorama stitching to HDR processing (coaxing highlight and lowlight details into a “viewable” picture), smartphone camera software makes these better sensors even better.
Now add in the smartphone’s connectivity with its natural affinity for easy and automatic upload/download, such as what Photostream does for Apple devices… Compact cameras – which, by comparison to smartphones, don’t seem quite so compact anymore — are at an ever-growing disadvantage.
“It won’t last,” says Samsung. In the eyes of many, the Korean electronics giant has become the new Sony, or, better, the new Panasonic. Well-known for smartphones and tablets, Samsung also reigns in the HDTV market, they make PCs, refrigerators, cameras, all very good ones. As the king of Android phones, it’s no surprise to hear rumors that Samsung is preparing to launch Android compact cameras. It’s a terrific idea: Compact cameras have bigger sensors, better optics and zoom lenses. With better apps and connectivity (Wi-Fi at least), they’ll make great travel companions.
Canon and Nikon should pay heed…or risk sequestering themselves in the ultra high-end camera ghetto.