Phone Cameras Challenge Point-And-Shoot Compacts

Oct 27, 2011
Originally published on May 23, 2012 11:18 am

Nearly every new smartphone has a better camera than its predecessor. One of the latest is Apple's iPhone 4S — but there are plenty of other cellphones with advanced cameras on the market, such as the HTC myTouch 4G and the Samsung Galaxy SII.

The cameras are so good, in fact, that it raises the question of whether it's worth it for amateur photographers to own a separate point-and-shoot camera.

Keith Jenkins, who heads NPR's multimedia unit, says that when smartphone cameras reached the 6 to 8 megapixel range, they started to approach the territory traditionally held by low-end point-and-shoot cameras.

"As our smartphones become more and more the one device that we use to do everything, it's going to become increasingly difficult for anyone who creates a stand-alone product that can be replicated inside of a smartphone to survive," Jenkins tells NPR's Ari Shapiro.

With more megapixels and a decent lens, smartphone cameras can take much sharper photos than they used to. Stand-alone cameras still have an advantage with their larger sensor chips, which allows for more detail and a better depth of field in photographs. And pictures taken with a point-and-shoot tend to look more like what the eye actually sees.

But convenience, and the ability to share those photos — instantly and with anybody — is starting to give smartphones an edge.

That could be trouble for camera manufacturers, Jenkins says. The industry is moving toward connected cameras — housed in smartphones and tablets — and camera manufacturers don't have a strong presence in that market.

"I do think that some [camera companies] will make it, but we've already seen a shrinkage in the market as we went from film to digital," Jenkins says, "and I think as we move from cameras that are stand-alone to cameras that are connected — and that could instantly put you on the Web or have a photo emailed — it's going to be harder to compete."

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Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Nearly every new smartphone has a better camera than the one before. One of the latest is Apple's iPhone 4S, and there are plenty of others on the market too, which raises the question of whether it's worth it for amateur photographers to own a separate point-and-shoot camera. We've invited Keith Jenkins, to help us answer the question. He's NPR's multimedia editor. Morning, Keith.

KEITH JENKINS, BYLINE: Hey Ari, how're you doing?

SHAPIRO: Good. So I'm camera manufacturer, how worried should I be about the increasing quality of smartphone cameras.

JENKINS: I'd be very worried. I'd be worried to the extent of starting to look for a new job. I think the camera manufacturers have missed the boat, and it's probably a boat that they never could get on anyway, because none of them manufacture phones or computers. And what has happened is that the industry has really moved towards, you know, what I like to call connected cameras, and those are in the form of cell phones, and to some extent now, in some of our tablets.

SHAPIRO: So walk us through what a standard cell phone camera can do that used to be only the domain of separate stand-alone point and shoot cameras.

JENKINS: Well, once they broke probably the six to eight megapixel range, they started to approach the territory that the low-end point and shoots had as their sole domain for a really long time.

SHAPIRO: And just to be clear, when you talk about the number of megapixels, that's about how sharp the image is, how much you can blow it up without it getting blurry, stuff like that.

JENKINS: Exactly. The sharpness is one factor. The image size blows up to about an eight by ten, so that a eight megapixel smart phone really gives you something which will look as good as what you're used to getting out of your old Kodak or your stand-alone camera.

SHAPIRO: What other features do most smartphone cameras have nowadays.

JENKINS: For the most part, it's still megapixel and just a good decent lens. A lot of them, because they're on smartphones with touch screens, allow you to do touch focus and to zoom instead of, you know, having to use dials and knobs. But the biggest factor is that it allows you to instantly share your photograph with anybody.

SHAPIRO: Well, tell me about the features that the stand-alone cameras have that still have not made their way into the smartphones.

JENKINS: Well, chip size, being able to have a larger chip allows you to have more detail, better depth of field, your pictures feel more like what your eye sees. That's still something that stand-alone cameras are much better at than smartphones.

SHAPIRO: So if I came to you for advice on whether I should buy a separate point and shoot camera, or stick with my smartphone camera, what level of photography do you think, at this point, demands a separate point and shoot, and what is the profile of the person who would be perfectly satisfied just using the camera on their smartphone?

JENKINS: Well, I think if you are traveling, taking a vacation, you are probably gonna want to have a stand-alone camera, just because the number of images you're going to be taking will quickly eat up your memory inside of a smartphone. But for your day-to-day taking pictures of the kids at the soccer game, pretty much anything that you would want to share quickly and easily, a smartphone is probably the best way to go.

SHAPIRO: Where do you see this road heading? I mean, ultimately, can the camera companies stay relevant, profitable, marketable, in the mix?

Well, as our smartphones become more and more the one device that we use to do everything, it's going to become increasingly difficult for anybody who creates a stand-alone product that can be replicated inside of a smartphone to survive. I do think that some of them will make it, but we've already seen a shrinkage in the market as we went from film to digital, and I think as we move from cameras that are stand alone to cameras that are connected and that can instantly put you on the web, or have a photo emailed, it's gonna be harder to compete.

That's Keith Jenkins, NPR's multimedia editor. Thanks, Keith.

JENKINS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.