Market Change – Compact Cameras

While planning my next smartphone choice, comparing models and especially looking at the camera components, I was reminded again how much things have changed since I bought my first digital camera, back in 2004 (a neat little Canon Powershot A400, very decent cam especially considering its low price). At that time, compact digital cameras were on the rise, becoming affordable and had a definite quality advantage compared to phone cams.

Add to that the optical zoom on the compact cam and you get a very attractive package. Using the separate device also meant there was less drain on the phone battery even if the phone had a camera (though that WAS less important at the time, since pre-smartphone, battery runtime was far longer for phones). Especially compact cams with not too much zoom (~3x) could use decent sized sensors which resulted in far better pictures compared to phone cams.

A variation of the mobile phone I had at the time sported a whole 0.3 MegaPixels compared to the 3.2 MP of the Canon A400. Over the next few years things continued to develop favorably for compact cameras. Sensor resolutions increased, new tech was developed (CCD -> CMOS for faster processing), cameras with even larger zoom factors came out…

Phone cameras developed as well, but the pace was different, as the general tech wasn’t quite advanced enough for the constraints. Sensor resolution increased to 3 and then to 5 MegaPixels in higher end phones over the years, but of course there still wasn’t anything there regarding an optical zoom, their overall disadvantage was still massive and sales for compact cameras flourished for some more years.

The beginning of the turning point came with the advent of the smartphone and the rise of Android and iOS. The more one could do with the phone, the more people expected the components to be capable, as it’s a device you always carry with you. And as the quality of on-phone cameras steadily increased, the more the willingness to take another device with you just for one purpose decreased, beginning the downwards trend for compact cam sales.

As I try to keep myself informed in certain topics, I usually at least glance through reviews of new compact cameras and these recent years, progress in that area seems to have slowed to a crawl comparatively, naturally caused by lower sales numbers, which in turn doesn’t help future sales numbers either (one example of that would be Canon’s SX620 that got released in October 2017 but was essentially the same camera as the SX610 from 2015, only with a slightly increased zoom). In complete contrast, the advances smartphone cameras have been making, especially in the high-end models, are rather noticeable, with things like working around the missing optical zoom by putting two or even three cameras with different focal lengths into one smartphone or AI systems to detect what is photographed to optimize the picture.

Workarounds like the multiple camera solutions are obviously necessary since so far the laws of physics put up some strong limitations on things like actual zoom lenses on the dimensions usually required by a smartphone (even smaller bumps on the rear of the phone are usually frowned upon). Since there hasn’t been a successor to the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom and there have been hardly any other models like that, besides some add-ons in the Moto phone lines, I think it’s safe to say that specialized models with mechanical zoom lenses didn’t quite catch on in the mass market.

While there are of course still areas where a smartphone camera is absolutely lacking when compared to a good compact camera, the differences have decreased to a point where not many are willing to buy one and take it with them and subsequently companies aren’t as willing to invest into advancing them R&D-wise.

Those that are willing to use a dedicated device for an increase in quality, often aim higher in terms of a camera purchase, going more likely for something along the lines of either a premium compact camera or (more likely, given the price and flexibility) a “Four Thirds” / APS-C / full frame camera system with exchangeable lenses. These produce results of a far higher quality, but the investment is of course also higher, though cheap DSLRs don’t even set themselves apart that much from higher priced compact cameras, meanwhile they produce far superior image quality, made possible also due to their larger size (especially when measured with some zoom-lenses).

We’ve come quite a long way in these 14 years, which isn’t too surprising given the time frame, but I still find it interesting how much the market has changed. I wonder how it will be given another 14 years…

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