Inevitable demise of the standalone camera

Article By : Brian Dipert

Will standalone cameras completely disappear? Not any time soon. But for the masses, they're increasingly being supplanted by image capture-capable smartphones.

My involvement with EDN (as more than just a reader, to clarify) began on January 6, 1997. That’s a quarter century and a week ago (but who’s counting?) as I write these words. It’s sometimes fun (for me, at least…then again, I’m easily amused) to go back and re-read some of my older stuff and see how technology has evolved over the eons. As well as to assess how right…and occasionally wrong, believe it or not…I was in my past forecasting.

I engaged in one of these nostalgia exercises over the weekend, in prepping to begin work on this particular piece. Back in December 1997, for example, I evaluated the then-embryonic digital camera market, prognosticating (albeit subtly) that film’s time in the limelight was beginning to fade (see “Digital photography CLICKS“). Keep in mind that I’d been regularly shooting silver halide-based still images since I was a kid, and (perhaps more notably) that my boss at the time was a passionate film photographer. Given that I’d been on the job for less than a year, my stance could have been a career-limiting move (I kid, of course; Greg was cool). When you read it, note the consistent reference to CCDs (CMOS image sensors were still stuck in R&D at the time), as well as to the incredibly low-res (versus modern-day equivalents) images the showcased cameras captured.

By late 2003, I had noted (with no shortage of smugness, I confess) that the silver halide crystals-to-pixels transition was already well underway (see “Pixels’ progress: Digital photography sticks“), and just 3 years (and a few months) later, I was already offering suggestions as to how suppliers of both cameras and their constituent building blocks might successfully continue to differentiate themselves in the already rapidly maturing digital camera market (see “Imaging beyond pixels: Low-light sensors, low-power zoom lenses, antishake technology, and innovative optics enhance digital still cameras“). And now I’m talking about the demise of the standalone camera market? Why, and replaced by what?

First off, I’m not suggesting a complete evaporation. Professional-grade cameras (still, video and hybrid alike) will stick around for the foreseeable future. But the bulk of the market as measured by volume shipments, tailored for consumers, is already well on the way to fading away. Some of this is due to cannibalization; as the earlier-mentioned word “hybrid” suggests, while you historically might have bought two separate cameras—still and video—you can now get by with just one, which credibly handles both media types with aplomb.

As another cannibalization example, mirrorless cameras are steadily replacing DSLR predecessors, as the mirrorless successors’ electronic viewfinders become increasingly resolution-rich and color-accurate, for example, and as their lens suites become increasingly focal length-complete and high quality. Canon has already announced the demise of its ongoing DSLR development, for example, although Pentax (the platform basis of all the “glass” I’ve collected over many decades) is thankfully still soldiering on.

Some of this trend is due to the end of evolution: when you’ve already got a camera that captures 16 or 20 Mpixel stills and 4K video, what (if any) lingering motivation exists to invest in a successor? And some of it is due to continued evolution of a different sort; as I first explored in a two-part online supplement (see “Imaging Beyond Pixels: Form-Factor Transformations“) to an earlier mentioned March 2007 print article (see “Form-Factor Transformations: What About The Camera Phone?“), and further delved into in a September 2009 blog follow-up (see “The Camera Phone: An Always-Available Internet Dialtone“), the increasingly capable still and video capture capabilities of the smartphones you already tote with you everywhere are rendering standalone cameras increasingly irrelevant for the masses.

A recent experience of mine drove home these trends (and fundamentally motivated this write-up). My beloved is perpetually challenged when trying to get me gifts for Christmases, birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and the like, for a couple of basic reasons:

  • My product interests are predominantly technical, especially now that I’ve acquired enough outdoors-activity equipment to last a lifetime (assuming I take good care of it).
  • I’m pretty picky about what I acquire.
  • When I come across something I want, I tend to purchase it on my (oft-immediate) timeline versus practicing self-control until the next gift-getting occasion comes around.

So it was that my wife was absent any compelling present-for-spouse ideas as the holiday shopping season kicked off this past fall. I’d owned my current point-and-shoot digital camera, Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-ZS10 (originally introduced in 2011) since mid-2013, and it was already a factory refurb when I acquired it, so I figured an upgrade might be warranted.

visit to The Wirecutter indicated that Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-LX10 several-generations-newer-and-more-advanced successor would fit the bill perfectly:

And when we found a used one in claimed “excellent” condition at Adorama for $150 off the brand-new (on-sale, even) price, that sealed the deal. Unfortunately, upon its arrival, it consistently displayed a “System Error (Zoom)” message on the backside LCD screen on power-up, whereupon it refused to do anything else (a common problem, as it turns out).

We sent the Lumix DMC-LX10 back for a full refund, and I’m sticking with the oldie-but-goodie Lumix DMC-ZS10 for now. But none of this is what motivated this post. What did is that Panasonic is still selling—and The Wirecutter is still “best-in-class” recommending—a camera whose introduction dates back to late 2016. If that’s not indicative of a market in which evolution has effectively ended, I don’t know what is!

With that, I’ll pass keyboard control over to you for your thoughts on anything I’ve mentioned here (or anything else digital camera-related, for that matter!) in the comments.

This article was originally published on EDN.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.


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