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With a Phone in Your Pocket, Why Also Own a Camera?

In the world of electronic gadgets, the name of the game is "convergence." A single mobile phone today is capable performing what used to require several devices. And the cameras built into new phones are getting better all the time.

You may perhaps have heard that the battery in the new Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is susceptible to catching fire during charging. In just the past week, the news that Samsung is recalling the phone world-wide has been getting ever more media exposure. Even though it has happened to just a tiny fraction of the millions of units sold since the August launch of Samsung's flagship model, it is a serious risk, not to be taken lightly. You may be wondering why I'm talking about this issue here given my opening paragraph and the focus of this site in general, but there is, in fact, a connection. You see, I upgraded to a Galaxy Note 7 when they were released, in part because of the performance of its camera. It would seem that being on the bleeding edge can entail more risk than I had realized. Similar battery fire risks plagued early model Tesla cars, hover boards and even some laptop computers. Phone batteries aren't immune either. So while I may need to use an asbestos oven mitt for a cell phone case until this recall mess works itself out, I do now have a really nice phone camera.

What makes the Note 7 camera so novel is Samsung's new Dual Pixel camera technology that made its debut with the Galaxy Edge 7 earlier this year. The camera built into most phones can sense focus on just a handful of pixel locations across the sensor. The Dual Pixel design features two photodiodes backing every single pixel, so achieving focus is both extremely fast, and quite accurate. Especially in low light situations, the improvement over previous phone cameras is quite noticeable. And focus is a significant part of taking sharp images.

The iPhone 7 Plus, announced just this week, has its own innovation to be proud of. Although first seen back in 2014 on the HTC One M8, the incorporation of a dual lens camera design by Apple is garnering a lot of attention simply because its Apple. One limitation of most phone cameras is that they have a fixed focal length. I think every phone camera allows for digital cropping to simulate a change of focal length and field of view. But doing so cropped out sensor pixels, thus decreasing resolution. By giving users both actual wide-angle and telephoto lenses, users can retain the full 12-megapixel resolution across a wider range of situations. The HTC camera got poor reviews, but Apple seems to have done things right with their new release based on reviews I've read so far. No reports of exploding batteries on the new iPhone yet either.

So on both the Android and Apple iOS sides of the mobile phone divide, the state of camera technology continues to advance. At the same time though, sales of "traditional" cameras have been in decline. Survey after survey for the past several years have shown declines in camera sales, even as the number of camera models available in the marketplace continues to increase. The high water mark for overall camera sales reportedly occurred back in 2010. Last year in 2015, sales were down to roughly a third of that 2010 peak worldwide. Predictions had been that mirrorless cameras would overtake the sales of DSLR models as time went on, but the declines have affected both types similarly. Smartphone sales are up, and all other types of camera sales seem to be in decline. Sales data can be backed up with usage data too. Statistics from online photo sharing websites have shown the iPhone to be the most popular camera for a number of years now. There's simply no way to interpret the data other than to admit that smartphone cameras are becoming the camera of choice for many users. The typical consumer has concluded that they no longer need both a phone and a camera when a single device can function as both.

That realization may cause concern for photographers who consider themselves as "serious" about their craft. After all, there's simply no way for a phone camera sensor the size of your little finger nail to match the picture quality of a larger DSLR-sized sensor. Beyond a certain size reduction, basic optical physics becomes a hard limit. The truth is though that, for most users, the current 12-megapixel resolution predominant in the smartphone world today is more than sufficient for recording memories from family vacations and birthday parties.

Before anyone starts to freak out about their preferred type of camera though, it's important to put all this in context. Digital SLR cameras and smartphone cameras each have their advantages and their adherents. There's room in the market for all. And both types continue to get better with each new generation even as overall cost for equivalent performance continues to decrease.

As an added point of reference, it wasn't that long ago when camera makers were touting record increases in sales. Features such as improved autofocus, auto-exposure and image stabilization made cameras so easy to use that people could use them without needing to understand fully how they worked. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the cost versus performance of digital cameras had convinced increasing numbers of average consumers to take the plunge. And the typical casual user has moved on to the smartphone.

What type of camera best fits your needs is up to you, and there nothing that says you can't have it both ways. As someone who owns both DSLR and smartphone cameras, I'm glad that both continue to improve. So long as the battery in it doesn't catch fire, it's nice to be able to carry my Samsung Note 7 in my pocket since I can't possibly carry a full camera bag and my trusty Nikon DSLR with me at all times. But it's also nice to be able to pull out that DSLR when I want to get really serious about the images I take.

Date posted: September 11, 2016


Copyright © 2016 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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