A New Generation of Stripped Down Cameras based on Smart Phones? It's a marketing idea I think would work well. Right now.

Photograph from our marketing shoot for ZACH Theatre's production of:
"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time."

I was hauling my enormous Panasonic G85 around with me this morning as Studio Dog and I patrolled the neighborhood looking for deers and skunks at which to bark. I was giving some long thought to a few things I'd read recently on the web about using cellphones as cameras, in place of "real" cameras and it struck me that we've come to believe that it's a multiplicity of uses that drives adaptation of smart phones to take some people's daily photos. 

I began to think: What if it's not the immediacy of being able to send a photo that moment that's driving the adoption? What if people just like the form factor and the fact that newer generations of processors and software have made the images from the small form factors much more appealing and technically sufficient? 

The top dog in the cellphone market right now, for photography, video and day-to-day stay in touch at all costs syndrome, is probably the iPhone X. Big screen, fast processing, many (too many) features, much technology dedicated to things like facial recognition, banking security, fast access to multiple networks, the ability to crunch more data more quickly, etc. The downside of owning the "best" cellphone camera on the market is obviously the price. It's north of a thousand bucks. 

This led me to start thinking about an alternate product; one that I would want to have, one that would appeal to purists looking to downsize from Godzilla DSLRs into a product that was capable of taking good images but really, really fit into a pocket. And how about one without a recurring, monthly price burden? 

There are many times when I think I would like to own a super small camera that did 4K video, had image stabilization, made good images and had ample storage. Something the size of my iPhone 5S but without the initial purchase price penalty or the monthly subscription to AT&T to keep the whole mess breathing.

Here's the camera I designed in my head as Studio Dog sniffed fresh deer poop: It would have the same form factor as the iPhone 5S. All internal electronics would be dedicated to the perfect processing of images and videos. There would be no web access, no wi-fi, no bluetooth, no apps. It would shoot in raw and basic Jpeg as well as H.265 video. There would be three external ports across the bottom end of the device: One 3.5mm jack for microphones. One 3.5mm jack for headphones. One USB3 C port for charging and seamless downloading of images. The interior space would be dedicated to battery, processing and storage. No antennae, no gingerbread, but also no high prices.

The mini-camera should hit the market at $199 or less. A one time buy. No contracts. No monthly dues. No endless parade of apps to buy. Just buy the device, charge it and go shoot. Finished shooting? Go home, plug it into your computer, tablet or laptop (or even your phone) and download your images. Recharge, do it again.

There are already cheap phones on the market with cameras but most of them absolutely suck as a camera. Think of this device as the iPod of cameras. A dedicated device tuned to the way real photographers want to use them. 

Yes, we are all pretty affluent and we already have phones but think about the legions of younger, less affluent people who can't afford the stretch to the very best phones --- especially the weird conundrum of unlocked phones with no service plan. I think they (the ardent imaging fans) would lunge for something like this. 

Think also of the people who need "crash cameras" for dangerous shooting situations where the likelihood of losing a camera is high. A bag full of $199 fully capable mini-cams could be just right. They would be elegant versions of GoPros but with better performance and a more enticing design aesthetic. 

I'd buy one in a heartbeat. Part of the attraction to me is the singular nature of the device's nature. It would have one role; imaging. It would have one attractive feature set: easy to carry and nearly disposable. It would be the perfect camera for kids and people who sometimes get pushed into the swimming pool with their street clothes on. Might not survive the chlorinated water but it wouldn't cost a thousand bucks to replace. 

I don't always want a phone. If I used my iPhone as a camera I would be pissed off when people called as I was trying to take a photo. If I turn off the phone I also turn off the camera. Yes, I could ignore the ring but yes, I could ignore mosquitos and loud banging noises but they don't help me concentrate on the task at hand. 

Would you buy one? Something the photographic equivalent of an iPhone 6 or 7 but without all the social magnet bullshit installed? I would. I would jump at the chance. For those times when I'm in a suit and tie and a camera slung over the shoulder just isn't right....


  1. You may be on to something. I've been keeping an eye out for a good price drop on a Huawei P9. I wouldn't use it as a phone, and I would also shut off WiFi. No, I want the dual Leica labeled cameras, in order to have a dedicated monochrome camera. A poor man's Leica monochrome.

  2. I guess the question for me is how this would differentiate from existing small-form-factor cameras?

    You can pick up a Canon S110 for less than $200. It has all the features you want (high quality images, RAW/JPEG shooting, pocket-able, various jacks). In fact, it has even more. Optical zoom, sturdy body, WiFi. It's also a lot easier to take photos with than a phone-like camera which you have to awkwardly cup in your hand as you shoot.

  3. I understand what you're thinking but...

    People have already have smart phones and these devices produce 'good enough' results for them.

    For the rest a phone that costs a 1000 (pounds/dollars etc) gets you the best phone camera there is and it does everything. This probably costs less than cameras that folk reading this site buy.

    When I want to go light I like the 'do everything device' and so only have one thing to carry and charge. The top-of-the-heap phones have absolutely amazing cameras - ones that for me are close to being good enough for my everyday photos.

    So, I'm thinking another device probably wouldn't be a seller. Sorry.

  4. Would I buy one?

    Not without at least wifi for fast file uploading.

    I take a LOT of photos ( snaps?) on my phone and just flick them off to various social media.

    That is where phones excel.

    Otherwise start crowd funding your product launch and I'm in.

  5. I like the concept. I would add that it would need to have LTE and Wifi for in the field transfer of images. No cell service, more like an iPad. Shoot and upload directly to the service of your choice. The big thing your idea has going for it is the connectivity with the separate mic and headphone jacks...not a combo. USB-C, yes. I'd even take one a bit thicker more the depth of this really small external bus-powered HDD's if that meant we could get in a bit larger sensor and lens. I'd love to see Apple do this.

  6. Have you seen the Panasonic CM1? Or its successor the CM10? They are getting a little long in the tooth now, and they were expensive to start, but they were Android based cameras with 1" sensors. Equipped with a Leica branded 28mm equiv. f2.8 lens, they claimed some of the best image quality in a "phone" (the CM1 was a full Android phone, the CM10 was stripped down a tiny bit and could not make phone calls).

    Sadly, it looks like the CM10 did not strip down the price as far as needed. Neither model seem to be on the market right now, and Panasonic does not seem to be releasing a successor. The market might be just a little too niche. Maybe if they could get the price down to the range you suggest. It might be possible if they remove more of the "phone" parts, but I think that would limit interest. When I use my iPhone for my camera, it is because I am carrying it anyway and I don't want the added bulk of an extra device.

  7. For those times when I want small, I have a GX85 with a 20mm f1.7 lens. It'll fit easily into a jacket pocket.

    Although a small form factor is a nice idea, the reality of a tiny sensor and lens that you'll need to fit a device that slim really leaves me cold. I can easily turn off the phone part of my phone with airplane mode, and still use it as a camera.

    But I'll never be satisfied with the image quality coming out of a lens the size of a pencil eraser on a sensor the size of a tic-tac. If I want shallow DOF, I'd rather do it myself with a lens that can deliver instead of relying on an algorithm that makes it look like a bad photoshop job.

    I only use a camera phone for images that I don't care about, like shooting plumbing fixtures to bring to the hardware store, and stuff like that.

    I have no interest in sharing my life on social media. I do share photos, but only photos, and only after careful editing. There is enough visual vomit out there. Who cares where I am right now, or what I'm drinking or having for lunch?

  8. It's not exactly what you're asking for but I use my Ricoh GR exactly for this purpose.

  9. I’ve used one of those for years. Well, almost one of those. It’s an iPod Touch.

    All the components and functions of an iPhone 5S minus the phone. Of couse, it’s limited in the same ways as the 5S — one lens, a bit too wide. Miniscule sensor means no large prints. Saves to Apple Photos, which is fine for uploading (via wifi) but otherwise not so great. But if I wanted to I could install any of the mobile editing apps, so that’s not really a limitation.

    Like the iPhone, for anyone willing to give up fine manual controls (and there are apps for that as well) the autofocus and onscreen touch-up for exposure are perfectly adequate.

    Shoots self-stitching panoramas and video, too.

    So why did I buy that EM5.2? Oh, yeah....I remember.....

  10. The best thing about a smart phone camera is it's HUGE screen !
    You can't get that on any dedicated camera.
    (OK, there are a couple but they are not desirable.)
    That's why I have long wanted what you propose. (I don't have a smart phone)

  11. If you don't like the phone ringing, airplane mode is a tap away.

  12. I don't think it would fly, Kirk, for one simple reason -- most people only want to carry one thing, and that one thing is a phone. If it's also a camera, so much the better. Photographers, however, at least most of the time, are willing to carry something in addition to a phone because they care enough about their photographs to go to that extra bit of trouble.

    So no, I wouldn't buy one.

  13. Yep! I agree with what Dave Jenkins said. Spot on.

  14. It seems as if the Leica TL came close to a smartphonish camera, though not as thin. Me, I want a viewfinder.

  15. Remember the Flip Mino?

  16. I know how you feel. My wife takes all her pictures with an iPod touch. (We have flip phones.) I’d like to get her a camera that would produce better results, but she would never put up with the complexity of even the most entry level “real” camera. I’d welcome a camera as easy to use as a phone, but with better imaging and lower cost.

  17. No Thanks. I'll just carry my phone because, as with most people, it will always be more accessible than any other device carried alongside it.

  18. Yea, I have several Lumix cameras, but the iPod Touch seems to punch above its weight class. Smaller than a Ricoh GR, good battery life in airplane mode, decent camera that also shoots video and has HDR mode; a decent photo editor built in; and I really like some of the lens and filter combos using Hipstamatic - especially the tintype lens for portraits.

  19. Design Review and Cost-Benefit Analysis from Marketing and upper management.

    -It has the word Photography associated with it up the price $500.00
    -It's loosely associated with Apple due to form factor up the price $500.00.
    -It's got a HEADPHONE jack. Jack up the price $500.00. Management makes a pun haha add
    $500 for management humor.
    -Its design creates a hip "slim & thin" look. Up the price $500.00.
    - It has a single ASIC that cuts manufactureing costs. Up the price $500.00.
    - Copy Apple's color scheme up the price $500.00
    - Get Vanity Fair to feature the new look...
    - Leak specs to DP review...
    - Shut up that Tuck guy...

  20. Now that sounds a bit like the compact cameras people stopped buying, no. Say a slightly thinner Canon S90 with better video, or something like that?

  21. Gonna play Devil's advocate here. Do the math on a cell phone plus a good mobile web brrowsing device plus a pretty damn decent and easy to use camera, and then add in lots of photo manipulating capability via very capable ( if used with dicretion) and affordable apps, and maybe, just maybe, the retail price ain't as bad as it looks after all?

  22. I commented previously with a different idea, not cheap, but related to the cell phone camera rage. I want cell phone camera operability with a 35mm sensor and interchangeable lenses. Give me a Sony A7riii with an iPhone X screen and IOS software, take all the buttons and knobs off the Sony to make it look like a phone, provide the operations of the knobs on the screen, and then give me Filmic Pro and Procamera like software. I believe this is the future of professional 35mm cameras.

  23. Michael Man,

    Samsung did a variation of just that but with the APS-C sensor in the Samsung Galaxy NX camera. Five inch touch screen, Android (not iOS) and few physical buttons. The absolute worst selling camera of any digital camera made by any manufacturer. How bad were sales? Worldwide? I heard 800......

    Absolutely the worst mess of an interchangeable lens camera imaginable....

  24. I know the NX. Not exactly what I had in mind. Think lens with a phone appendage instead of phone with lens appendage. These ideas were headed in the right direction IMO: Sony QX1, Olympus Air A01, Hasselblad True Zoom Camera Mod...

  25. Sounds like the Nokia 808 I bought two years ago to experiment. I only use it as a camera. No wi-fi.


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