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Lots of room for innovation in cameras

nokia-lumia-1020-thumbA couple readers took exception to a post I wrote last week in which I extolled the virtues of the Samsung Galaxy camera, a gadget notable for being a full camera that has cellular and wi-fi connectivity built into it. It's not that they objected to what I thought about the camera itself, but more that I had previously dismissed the Nokia Lumia 1020, a new phone that packs a whopping 41 megapixels. I'm not sure my point about the importance of Samsung's device came across clearly, so some additional explanation is necessary. I recently noted that we're currently in an innovation lull - new, exciting things are happening, but we may not see revolutionary new products and leaps happen as fast and furiously as they have over the past decade. That's probably a good thing, because it would be nice to have a bit of a breather and digest before the next wave comes along. One reader suggested that Nokia's new phone/camera went against that grain - its 41 megapixels and loss-less image quality might be enough to drive that final stake into the heart of point-and-shoot cameras. That's probably true; point-and-shoots are clearly on their way out. But is that revolutionary or even particularly innovative? I don't think so, since it's been happening for years.

There’s a clear ceiling to how good phone cameras can get, and we may in fact be approaching it with devices such as the Lumia 1020. Megapixels matter only to a certain extent, as does steadily improving processing software, but the bottom line is that the size of lenses – and the sensors they’re attached to – do actually matter. Both of those key factors are ultimately limited by the acceptable size of a phone.

It’s why Single Lens Reflex cameras (SLRs) are both likely to stick around for a while longer, and why they’ve so far stayed relatively immune to Moore’s Law. While new gadgets such as tablets or even e-readers have debuted at premium prices and then quickly nose-dived to dirt cheapness, SLRs have stayed expensive for decades – even despite the digital revolution – largely because the glass and precision parts used to make lenses simply don’t see Moore’s continual price-performance improvements.

As any photographer knows, lenses are therefore usually more important than the camera itself. And unless some smartphone maker starts impractically slapping giant telephoto lenses onto their devices, full SLR cameras will continue to take much better photos than any smartphone for the foreseeable future.

The point of my musings on Samsung’s Galaxy device is that there isn’t really a statute of innovation limitations going the other way: SLR cameras don’t have the same physical obstacles as it pertains to connectivity as phones do in regards to image quality. In other words, it will be much easier to put cellular and wi-fi connectivity into SLR cameras than it will be to get smartphones to take comparable photos.

The Galaxy, while not an SLR, is halfway to being one of those proper cameras and an intriguing early step towards getting the category fully connected. Wi-fi-enabled SLRs from the likes of Canon and Nikon are already gaining in popularity, with full cellular capability inevitably next.

Smartphone innovation is happening, but we probably won’t see anything earth-shattering for a while. There is, however, room for a lot more innovation to happen in proper cameras.

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2 Comments on Lots of room for innovation in cameras

  1. Thanks for the follow-up. Much appreciated.

    I agree we have technological convergence coming from both up and down directions, i.e. smartphones approaching or at point-and-shoot (P&S) quality camera levels on one hand, and SLRs and P&Ss w/ better connectivity capability on the other. My main point about Lumia 1020 is that it is the leading representative of the former approach, and it in fact can deliver true P&S quality (or in some conditions even better) photography in a true _smartphone form factor_.

    All the other devices IMO (Samsungs G Zoom, Sony Camera Lens) are either way bulkier, or still comprising of two devices. The revolution I see is in the fact finally with Lumia 1020 I do not anymore have to carry two devices. I do not have to take that P&S and a smartphone to a wedding or family event aymore in order to not to worry about image quality. With L1020, there will be no trade-off, the photos will not look like that they were taken with a smartphone anymore (see e.g. Pogue’s review in NYT yesterday).

    In other words, whether the evolution has finally lead to a revolution is up for discussion, I tend to think so 🙂

    • Gotcha. I actually haven’t carried a point and shoot for ages. I find the iPhone 5’s camera has been pretty stellar, at least for well-lit shots, and it has indeed been the only camera I’ve brought on several assignments. It still blows in low light so I’m curious how much the 1020 or other phones can improve on that. Alas, if I want to take “real” photos (ie with depth of field, etc.), I still have to pack my bulky SLR.

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