Digital camera de-evolution

Credit: Stewart Wolpin/DVICE

What was the last thing you took a photo of? A drunk bud at a recent St. Patrick's Day bacchanalia? Scenes from a recent trip? Your pet or kid doing something cloyingly cute? Something NSFW, candid photos, taken on holiday (nudge nudge, wink wink)? And with what camera did you take this or other recent photos? My guess is you used your smartphone, not a digital camera. That's not necessarily a good thing. But it is understandable, and quite a popular choice.

Photo-sharing site Flickr tracks what cameras are used to shoot photos uploaded to it. Most popular? iPhone 4S. Number 2? iPhone 5. Number 3? iPhone 4. In fact, iPhone has been Flickr users' favorite camera for two years now. Flickr is not an isolated case. Smartphones outsell digital cameras by more than 10-1, a ratio that continues to widen.

Who Wants to Buy a Camera?

The timing of iPhone rising to Flickr's favorite camera spot is not coincidental. Two years ago, the first 5 MP smartphone cameras started to become prevalent. Since then, sales of digital cameras, especially sub-$200 models, have collapsed faster than Lance Armstrong's reputation. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, the folks who put on CES every year, digital camera sales in the U.S. have plummeted by more than 50% since the rise of 5 MP smartphones, from around 38 million in 2011 to a projected 18 million this year.

These abysmal digital camera sales projections actually may be optimistic. Smartphones are becoming so conventional you can get a near-bleeding edge model such as the Nokia Lumia 822 from Verizon — equipped with a now-common 8 MP camera — for free. Newer smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S4 and other bleeding edge smartphones coming down the pike this year likely will be equipped with 13 MP cameras.

This changing of the photographic guard, which I noted briefly as one of my "After CES: 10 Tech Predictions Immediate Future has resulted in two consequences: first, if you're using a cellcam to capture these once-in-a-lifetime what used to be Kodak moments, you're ending up with demonstrably inferior photos for posterity. And second, camera makers are completely rethinking what cameras they are making.

Higher Tech, Lower Res

In choosing the camera in our smartphone over a more traditional, dedicated camera, we are trading quality for convenience. With a smartphone camera, you can shoot photos that you can see instantly and instantly share photos with friends and family. We already have the smartphone camera in our pocket, so there's no need to carry a second device. And we've already spent $200 (or maybe nothing) on the smartphone. Why spend another $200 on a second camera?

But this is a devil's bargain.

It matters not how high a smartphone's camera resolution gets. Resolution has nothing to do with photo quality, only photo size. It's the lens, the sensor, and the processor that determine how good your photo will turn out. A smartphone's lens is usually plastic crap, the sensor is small, and the processor performs a plethora of other smartphone duties. Plus, no smartphone camera has an optical zoom, further limiting your smartphone photo options.

Check out this unscientific comparison I did between photos captured by an iPhone 5, equipped arguably with the best smartphone camera, and the Sony RX100, arguably the best point-and-shoot digital camera available. You'll see how much you're losing when you rely on your smartphone as your primary camera, especially indoors and under less than ideal lighting situations.

Smaller Tech, Higher Quality

Since we've stopped buying inexpensive digital cameras, camera makers have cut back on the number of inexpensive models they offer. Instead, they've added more expensive, more profitable models. They don't care if they sell fewer cameras as long as they make more money. According to CEA, the average price of a digital camera has risen from $186 in 2010 to $215 this year.

These more expensive cameras come in two new forms. The first are so-called Compact System Cameras (CSC). CSCs are essentially mini-DSLRs with more manual controls than point-and-shoot models, including DSLR-like interchangeable lenses minus the bulky mirror that help pros frame precisely what they're shooting and lets them track an object in the view finder in burst mode.

The first of these mirrorless cameras came out in 2008 from Panasonic and Olympus using the Micro Four Thirds format. Any Micro Four Thirds camera could use any Micro Four Thirds lenses. But even Micro Four Thirds camera bodies are often too big. Over the last year or so, Sony (Alpha NEX), Samsung (NX) and Nikon (Nikon 1) have started selling multiple models of CSCs with bodies barely larger than point-and-shoot models, but using proprietary lenses.

Two notable CSCs are just entering or are about the enter the market. Samsung's Rangefinder-like NX300 ($750), featuring a tilting touchscreen and a snappy autofocus system, went on sale last week. In the next few weeks, Sony will start selling the cheapest CSC bundle (body+lens) kit ever, the NEX-3N ($500). Both CSCs are equipped with APS-C sensors, the largest sensors found outside $2,000-plus DSLRs. Since larger sensors have larger pixels, and larger pixels are more light sensitive, big sensors result in significantly better low-light photos.

There is also a new class of APS-C-equipped "premium compact" cameras, which are essentially fancy point-and-shoot cameras such as the aforementioned (and quite tiny) Sony RX100 ($650), the Canon G1 X ($700), the Fuji X100S ($1,300) and the Nikon Coolpix A ($1,100).

While not as pocket-sized, convenient or cheap as a smartphone, these new pricier premium compact and CSC digital cameras take much better photos than any smartphone or any cheap point-and-shoot camera. You'll get results you may not nessarily appreciate today, but maybe tomorrow, and probably for the rest of your life (nudge nudge, wink wink).

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