The interesting shift continues; from DSLR to Mirrorless to Phone Cameras. From a brief period when everyone wanted to be a "pro" to a current span when "pro" is almost a pejorative.

Annie. ©Kirk Tuck

The battle lines keep getting re-drawn. In the infancy of digital we scampered around trying to find cameras that had enough megapixels to use for professional work (to take over from our 35mm film cameras) that didn't cost as much as a decent used car. Once prices dropped the aspirational target for nearly everyone practicing any kind of photography with enthusiasm was the "professional" quality DSLR. We fine-tuned that, modifying the "ask" to include a full frame sensor. And then the insurrection started. The shot across tradition's bow were the mirrorless cameras from Olympus and Panasonic. 

Many people imagine that the main selling points of the cameras were: "Small" and "Lightweight" but what really connected for most people (even if they don't realize it, consciously) was the introduction of workable EVFs, with all the new promises of workflow immediacy and instant near visualization of the final image....before you even pressed the shutter. The new aspect of the mirrorless revolution that resonated with photo nerds specifically was the shorter lens mount flange to sensor distance which opened up the adaptation of hundred or thousands of lenses designed for all other systems which could be easily adapted and used with little penalty (except that we learned that a lot of lenses we thought were great were actually mediocre on the smaller format because they lacked resolution and bite).

We've now seen the completion of a circle combining all the things we thought we wanted when they were scarce or non-existent; we have full frame sensor cameras that deliver most of the promises of EVF technology and can also be used in conjunction with a wide, wide variety of older lenses! 

But, of course, no photographic manufacturing target, dependent on consumer interests, can stand still for long and now, after everyone has finally leapt aboard the full frame, mirrorless train (hurry Pentax, the rest of the guys are leaving the station....) We see all that hard work (at least on the part of camera makers and retail marketers) come to a period of slowing or negative growth as previously adamant amateurs and pros of each camp now come to grips with a subject that we've mulled over here on VSL for years: Do top flight cameras matter anymore in an age where 75% of all images are viewed on telephone screens?

I've seen a growing cadre of young and old users who have discovered the new potential imaging quality of phones from Samsung and Apple who are re-thinking their previous dependence on traditional cameras. And, I hate to tell you this, but among people under 40 (maybe under 50) that video capability, which traditional camera users maligned for years as an expensive feature no one wanted, has now become a vital and much used part of the whole camera/phone package. Among younger photographers I'm seeing more video being made than still images....

People push back by talking about the poor handling characteristics of iPhones as cameras but it's only a matter of months before their complaints turn into a torrent of Kickstarter Kampaigns aimed at building cases for phones that add handling features and mimic traditional camera handling niceties. 
I'd count on that. Pop that flat and non-grippy phone into a case that allows for a traditional set of controls and play "street photographer" at will. 

Yes. 12 megapixels will not match the image quality of a Phase One camera with 100 megapixels when it comes to printing a 40 by 60 inch print. But how closely do they match up when the final images are compared on a phone screen? An iPad? A 60 inch 4K television monitor viewed at 10 feet? And do you really need the full potential of whatever top of the line camera for every shot you take? Really? 

It's going to be interesting to see where all this takes us. It seems like a sea change has happened and a bunch of us weren't paying attention and we're still in denial. Not saying we never need to use better cameras than the ones in our phones, only that we're far, far, far from the mainstream market whose mainstream buying previously subsidized the ritzy and technically masterful cameras we've usually embraced. 

I hope my next standalone camera doesn't get priced up into trust fund territory. But the way clients are acting now for many photographers I'm pretty sure the iPhones and Galaxy phones will be more than enough for a number of markets....I have the feeling that full frame, high res cameras are the large format and medium format cameras of our time. The phones are the 35mms and point-and-shoots.

Evolution is tricky, especially when you are in the middle of the process. 


Stephen Kennedy said...

I think what I hear you saying is that I should buy that Nikon D700 one more time.

The third time is a charm!

Eric Rose said...

I agree video is where it's at. Many pros are using video capture for what was traditionally still work such as fashion. They just pull out the frames they need for the print advertising people. Plus the marketing department gets all kinds of awesome video they can dole out on various social media platforms. Traditional portraiture may not fit into this sphere yet but it won't be long.

I just had lunch with a professional documentary video photographer. When not producing great documentaries he travels all over the world giving TED talks. Nikon gave him all their latest Z equipment to use. While he cut his teeth being a PJ his biggest complaint about the Nikon gear is that the ergonomics for video shooters really sucks! If Nikon is to remain in business they have to realize that the new market is for very capable video cameras that work well in a video environment and can also be used for stills when necessary. Not the other way around.

He still bemoans giving up his Panasonic GH5.


Scott said...

Right on, brother.

My daughter took some pictures of her three kids on their first day of school last week. Great pictures, artistically and technically. Taken with her iPhone X in portrait mode. The bokeh and DoF look just right, the colors are great, sharp as anything viewed on an iPad.

I took pictures of them last weekend using my E-M1ii. Great pictures, artistically and technically (IMHO). The bokeh and DoF look just right, the colors are great, sharp as anything viewed on an iPad. I spent 15 minutes or so in LR processing them; she spent 15 seconds or so on her iPhone posting them.

The legacy camera makers think their business is making gear to capture the best pixels. Apple et al know that the business is making stuff to let people share images. Guess who has already won?

David said...

More than that,
A phone allows for AI auto everything, post it or share it now.
Another feature I see is comming to phones is, if you didn't like that shot you took, here is a web grab of the same scenery that you might like better. And now insert your friend. Done looks better. So much power in a little phone. Big cameras miss the online archives, the AI photo perfection and the instant share.

Anonymous said...

Just noticed that Pro Photo just created two flash units for smart phones. I would say the writing is on the wall.

Anonymous said...

Kirk and Commentors,

I am an old schooler who has been through film, digital and phones for the last 50 years and agree with all the sentiments expressed here. The new iPhone 11 Pro has left me wondering how much I'll use my Sony a6000 going forward, let alone three film cameras I still have. I've gone from wondering whether I should shoot slide film or color negatives to having a seamless workflow that can be executed in almost real time. This is a wonderful time to be a photo enthusiast.

Tom Powell

amolitor said...

Trying to get your arms around "the camera market" is a nightmare, and has been for a long time, because it's so fragmented.

There are people who "just want pictures"
There are people who, basically, want to fiddle around with a cool gadget
There are people who want jewelry
There are people who want to make art
There are people who want to make money
etc, etc, etc

All these things speak to different gear, now. Complicating the matter is that most of us occupy at least a couple of these roles at various times. On the weekend we just want pictures, but Monday morning we need to make money (or whatever). It's not enough to just target the "wants jewelry" profile, because that person probably also "wants pictures" part of the time, which is the only reason Leica even bothers to stick a sensor in their cameras these days.

Traditional product marketing and product development lumps buyers into target markets, based on their key buying criteria, and then you build stuff that does that, and market it, essentially, as "look, our thing does that" but in this case that doesn't necessarily work very well. Compromises are gonna happen.

Naively, you end up with equipment that kinda fits some collection of these profiles, but probably not very well because it's compromising to hit more than one thing at a time.

Homo_erectus said...

For the vast majority of folks the camera in their phone is all they will ever need. And while they are frequently dissatisfied with it, it's also the only camera they are willing to buy.

People making art with cameras tend to prefer idiosyncratic hardware and I don't think that will change very much.

Just like film and analog audio formats haven't totally gone extinct as digital formats have pushed them to the margins, I don't think we will see larger format digital go extinct. I do think that it's likely that in five or ten years only one or two of the familiar camera makers will still be in the business of making camera bodies though.

I think that common lens mounts like the Leica/Panasonic/Sigma L mount is one way we might see the future go. Another possibility is that everyone ends up making lenses for Sony cameras because Sony is just big enough and full of hubris enough to keep making larger sensor digital cameras well, well, past the point where everyone else has given up.

I started shooting film a few years ago and I am doing that more and more these days so I guess I'm swimming against the tide. I'd love for someone to start manufacturing a nice modern 35mm film camera that doesn't cost stupid amounts of money and uses modern lenses.

Maybe it's because I live in a hipsterville that is also a college town but I swear I see more film cameras out in the wild than digital cameras, excluding phones of course.

Crap, am I a hipster?

PhotoDes said...

We used to talk about "happy snappers" being the mass market and that seems not to have changed. I recall a notable photographer who said he didn't care to see others' photos presented on phone screens or tablet screens. That probably hasn't changed either. What's changed is the form factor for casual photography equipment (and I find phone ergonomics to be dismal at best). However, the "camera" is always at hand and sharing is certainly easy for those who need a following.

Then there's video -- I have found too many videos are self-indulgent time-wasters, and I immediately ditch any video that hits me with an overlay or pop-up ad. It's just too easy to get better information by reading a well-thought-out website. Maybe there's a video experience I'm missing. One counter-trend I have noted in video is growth in new (very expensive and impressive) camera and equipment offerings for the pros.

Having used EVFs since the early 2000's and also a couple of DSLRs, I see just variations in features and convenience -- I choose what I want for the job at hand. Maybe some people are now happy with a tricked out phonecam for a project but I don't see any of these things as the sea changes you describe. Lots of new things to choose from.

Ray said...

Thom Hogan must be in the audience somewhere saying "I told you so."

Mitch said...

I think it was Ron Howard who said something like don't mistake craft for art/content/the expression of an idea. So many photos now. So little being said. Now that the devices have made the craft part of the equation so much easier, let's see who rises up consistently with something to say or a point of view.

For those of us unable in the prior decades of our professional lives to purchase the right cameras to be worn as jewelry, it's always been about the idea and the communication executed with whatever tool was at hand or was affordable. Except for those few years where I made some of my income solely because I could produce a well shot black and white and provide an accompanying monochrome print for newspaper advertising.

The days of camera manufacturers making money by believing they are in the business of making cameras and by touting lines/mm are rapidly closing. Should-a learned from the railroads who teetered because they believed they were in the business of running trains. Interesting times ahead.

Michael Ferron said...

One component of this scenario is the enjoyment of personal creativity. I have several photo apps for my iPhone xr including a B&W app and a raw app. Though for personal artistic reasons I'd rather shoot B&W film if I had nothing left to shoot with but my phone? Damn I'd just do that and still be happy.

frankn said...

What makes iPhone photography compelling is the quality of the output. The big advantage of iPhone and android is the computational photography to address the short comings of the physical size.
My question is, why can't the Nikon/Canon/Sony incorporate computational photography as an option, to bring the quality to the next level?

jiannazzone said...

I am traveling with my wife. Last night we sat down and compared her photos, taken with an iPhone 8, to mine, taken with a Fuji X-T2. I had to admit that, at least on a small screen, there was little difference in quality. I'll reserve final judgment until viewing them on a large monitor and in print. It may be time to end my 50 year habit of carrying "real" cameras unless I know there will be a specific need for one.

Michael Matthews said...

Then it occurred to me that my iPhone is a better photographer than I am. Will it be depressing? Or liberating? Time will tell.

Tim Auger said...

What makes phone photography horrible is the impossibility of seeing the screen image in bright light; the impossibility of seeing the image at all if you are over 50 and don’t want to be perpetually putting on, taking off, or changing your glasses; and the horrible ergonomics. What I would like is a compact camera with a good lens and EVF into which I could slot a phone SIM card. A camera that will work as a phone, not the other way round.