Are Digital Cameras Obsolete?

Category: Photography

What goes around comes around. Digital cameras killed the old-school film camera market long ago. Today, some are wondering if standalone digital cameras are in danger of extinction by cameras built into smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices. Read on to see if they're right...

Will Digital Cameras Be Replaced By Smartphones?

Smartphones are getting smarter, and the cameras that they sport are becoming more advanced. So are digital cameras the latest addition to the technology dinosaur family? Will they sit on a dusty shelf, next to your old eight-track cassette player? I think the short answer is “no,” but they will likely become rarer, more expensive, and evolve more slowly. Here's my analysis...

There is no question that smartphone cameras are more than adequate for most consumer photography and videography. They're everywhere, they're convenient, and and they're being used to capture and store images and video of pretty much everything happening around us. And because they have the advantage of being integrated with a computer, they can do tricks with software that their clunky one-trick cousins cannot.

Are Digital Cameras Obsolete?

Behold the camera specs of some of the most popular phones today:

iPhone 5: 8-megapixel iSight camera; Panorama (pics can be “stitched together” for a panoramic view); Video recording, HD (1080p) up to 30 frames per second with audio; FaceTime HD camera with 1.2MP photos and HD video (720p) up to 30 frames per second; Autofocus; Tap to focus video or still images; Face detection in video or still images; LED flash; Improved video stabilization; Photo and video geotagging.

HTC One: BSI sensor, Pixel size 2.0 µm; F2.0 aperture and 28 mm lens; Optical Image Stabilization (OIS); Smart Flash: Five levels of flash automatically set by distance to subject; Front Camera: 2.1 MP, 880 wide angle lens with HDR capability; 1080p Full HD video recording with HDR Video; HTC Zoe™ with Sequence Shot, Always Smile and Object Removal; Gallery with Video Highlights and HTC Share; Continuous shooting and VideoPic; Slow motion video recording with variable speed playback

Samsung Galaxy S4: Rear camera: 13 megapixels 1080p Full HD Video Recording @ 30fps; Back-illuminated sensor, Auto focus, Touch to focus, Digital image stabilization, Face detection, Smile detection, Exposure compensation, White balance presets, Digital zoom, Geo tagging, High Dynamic Range mode (HDR), Panorama, Scenes, Effects, Self-timer, Voice activation. Front camera: 2 megapixels 1080p HD Video Recording @ 30fps Back-illuminated sensor

Then there’s the Nokia Lumia 1020, with an incredible 41 Mega-Pixel main camera; 1.5 inch sensor; Xenon flash effective to 4 meters; and more, but I can’t get over those 41 million pixels.

I'm Not Dead Yet!

But there are a few things digital cameras can do that are still missing from smartphones. For starters, digital cameras can use high-capacity SD storage cards, capable of holding 256 GB or more. That's enough storage to hold 64,000 photos (12MP) or 42 hours of video (12Mbps).

Digital cameras typically have better optics and sensors, leading to higher quality images, even in low light. They can accommodate zoom lenses, wide-angle lenses, and filters. They also offer automatic correction of inappropriate vertical (portrait) framing. And for those who know what the heck all those buttons and dials on a camera are for, they offer fine control over shutter speed, F-stop and other stuff that point-and-shoot guys like me don't use.

Most consumers will never find 90 per cent of these features. They point, they shoot, they upload, then they go back to texting, surfing, and listening to music without pausing to put away the camera and take out the phone. To them, buying a standalone camera makes as much sense as using a match to see if your gas tank is empty.

But there will always be serious amateurs and professionals who earn their livings with cameras to keep the standalone digital camera alive. And there are also apps that enable your smartphone and digital camera to work together, such as OI.Share). Hopefully, there is enough interest to keep prices within reason while providing enough sales revenue to fund R&D. Otherwise, the standalone camera may stand still and lonely.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome! Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Are Digital Cameras Obsolete?"

(See all 32 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

22 Aug 2013


Timely article as usual. I know you can't cram everything into one article, but there are lenses available for the iPhone. Apparently some newspapers are discarding some of their digital cameras and replacing them with iPhones with lenses. I don't have an iPhone, but did a search and found this site which provides an example:

Posted by:

John Nagle
22 Aug 2013

The one thing overlooked by the digital set is the fact that digital photographs aren't allowed in court. As you pointed out, they are too easy to modify with basic tools.

So analog cameras are here to stay, if only in niche markets.

Posted by:

22 Aug 2013

Give me a REAL camera Any Day, i.e., a SLR or a DSLR. I've gotten rid of nearly every P/S camera I've owned due to lack of Image Quality and frequent failures due to cheap builds that are filling up the Hazardous Waste Landfills.

P/S cams, phones, tablets, etc. have a LONG WAY TO GO before technology catches up with either of those technologies with regard to IQ.

If there's no power on the grid I can always go back to my 1950's SLRs using my stash of film in the freezer and my (now vintage)selenium powered light meters..... that Still Work after 50+ years. Of Course, there is always the Sunny 16 Rule.

How long do you think those digital images will Last and be Readily Accessible? Nowhere near as long as most people realize. Analog SLRs and Digital DSLRs have a lot of life left in them. Only thing that will eventually get in the way will be finding replacement parts or individuals who are knowledgeable enough to work on them.

Posted by:

22 Aug 2013

I just saw a video of a bobcat in Falmouth, MA, that was taken with an I-phone. Not ready for prime time. My problem with smartphone cameras is that it's difficult to take steady pictures or films! And I have lots of pictures of the palm of my hand (talk about butt-dialing). A purpose-built camera is ergonomically designed (except maybe my Kodak 116!), as well has having all of the other features described above.

Posted by:

22 Aug 2013

A camera is a camera and a phone is a phone - and never the twain shall meet!

Posted by:

22 Aug 2013

The laws of physics say that a camera module that can fit into a typical smartphone or a pocket-sized point-and-shoot will never really be able to compete with a larger P&S, let alone a DSLR. The reason being the respective sizes of the lenses and sensors.

Posted by:

John Musolino
22 Aug 2013

If it has a ring-tone, it's not a camera...

That said, for the person who uses an inexpensive point & shoot camera, who doesn't care that much about quality because all they will do is post photos to their Facebook page or e-mail them to family, then yes, a smartphone is probably good enough. For those (myself included) who want higher quality, and more flexibility, a smartphone won't cut it.

Posted by:

Sandy Papavasiliou
23 Aug 2013

My mobile phone is a small basic cheap model. Suits me. Fits in my handbag and I wouldn't cry if I lost it. The canon camera takes a nice photo. I can upload, tweak it with Picasa, print only what I really like and leave the rest for posterity.

Posted by:

23 Aug 2013

Count me in with those who don't have a SmartPhone or any phone with a camera in it. I'm also fearful that all screens larger than a deck of cards will disappear. I can't do my digital graphics on a screen so small. Not that my stuff has any's just I'm going to miss my hobby when they make it impossible for me to indulge in it.

Posted by:

23 Aug 2013

Donna, you are not the last dinosaur! My cell phone can take pictures, but I have only taken a couple--I would rather use my digital camera.

I have not been terribly impressed with most pictures taken on cell phones, although they seem to meet the needs of the people who take them. I have a small digital camera and used it quite a bit, but I wanted to do more so I just bought a better camera with super zoom capacity. I am remembering how much fun I had with my old 35mm SLR, on which I took some fantastic shots (it died several years ago). In addition to a long zoom range this new camera can do some amazing things that phones just can't do.

I agree with Bill that there will always be "real cameras" for serious photographers.

Posted by:

23 Aug 2013

Both will have their own places in our life, pro camera for professional, those who make a living, point & shoot for those, who have cameraless smartphone but smartphone camera will be everywhere and it will get better and better.

Posted by:

23 Aug 2013

Jeff is correct, there are lenses for iPhone, there are also lenses for other phones as well. The search is popular enough that "phone camera lens" came up in the suggestions by the time I had typed "phone cam" in the search field on Google.
I take a lot more pictures since I have a camera in my phone that I carry with me practically everywhere and I am of those one who said, "Why would anyone want a camera on their phone?" when I first heard about them. Of course in my defense those were very low resolution cameras.
My first phone with a camera (a Windows Phone model) had a 4M pixel camera with an up to 2X digital zoom, which was just a way of cropping the photo before it was taken, but I liked it even though it was cumbersome to use. My current Android phone does not have zoom on the native phone app, but the resolution is higher (5 MP) and I can crop after the fact so it probably works out better in the long run.
The one thing that I have trouble remembering to do is shoot video in landscape mode, shooting video in portrait mode on a camera phone is even more problematic than shooting photos in that mode as mentioned by RandiO, as with a photo when it is uploaded to a computer it is rotated 90 degrees when played on the computer. It is relatively easy with any of several available tools to rotate a photo. Although I have a video player that lets me rotate a video as I view it, I have yet to find a free video editor that will let me rotate one and save it in the rotated mode.

Posted by:

23 Aug 2013

Bob: I sure hope that digital cameras don't go away. We oldsters (my bride and I) are not hip on multifunction devices. The camera on my present cell phone is nothing to write home about and I AM TOO CHEAP to spring for a smartphone. I prefer dumb phones that do minimal things. So, I have what's best for me; a phone that only calls and texts (thus saving me a good deal in monthly fees) and a digital camera that takes very nice pictures that cost me less that $100, even after adding an SD card. What more do I need?! I will say that having the camera on the phone is a blessing, especially when there is an accident with a motor vehicle. Thanks, as always, for your wonderful newsletters and insights!

Posted by:

23 Aug 2013

Actually, digital cameras are just now maturing beyond point and shoot cameras. Modestly priced cameras now can be bought with features equal to a SLR film camera. Not that one couldn't buy one ten years ago with similar features, you could, but it would cost close to 10K. Now they can be bought for 3 or 4 hundred.

Being able to set the aperture and hence the focal range is a must for anyone halfway serious about photography. You can't get that with most point & shoot cameras.

I have never seen anyone mention it but today's cameras have exposure speeds much faster than the old film cameras and also faster than older digitals. That eliminates a need for a flash in more low light conditions.

Posted by:

23 Aug 2013

There is no comparison between digital cameras and smartphones. For anyone who is the least bit serious about REAL photography, as opposed to those who like to snap pics of their friends doing dumb things, a camera is a must. I am happy to see there are others who would never consider replacing their cameras with the latest techo marvel.

And yes, I love vinyl records as well!

Posted by:

Beverly Robinson
23 Aug 2013

I hope the digital camera stays, the downloadability and the quality are two of the things that are hard to beat, besides the fact that you can buy a high capacity storage card only one time, and that is really great. And, lest we forget you can talk and take pictures at the same time!!

Posted by:

Lee D
24 Aug 2013

Then there are those of us who can't afford or don't want a smartphone. I still have a point and shoot with zoom that I can use. I may need a newer one sometime since it can only use a SD card (not the newer thing). But I don't have much I want to take pictures of very often so it holds enough as long as I download every now and then.

Posted by:

26 Aug 2013

To SharonH ... I can not agree with you more. It seems to me people are walking away from quality and opting for fast and or convenient instead. Being a retired photographer, I can not begin to detail the quality of the shots I took with my Hasselblad 500CM. Now it seems everyone is happy with smart phone snapshots.

When they released direct to disc vinyl recordings a few decades ago, I just about had heart failure. DD was so incredible. My IPod is not even in the same league.

Back to photos; my Canon EOS DSLR (18mp) is a pretty darn good professional camera, but nothing like my 500CM shooting film is. BTW Hasselblad does make a digital model that shoots 80mp.

Posted by:

30 Aug 2013

As good as camera phones are now, even the lowest-end DSLR's are significantly better. Control, quality, accessibility to change settings literally at your fingertips, etc. put DSLR's above and beyond phone cameras. It's fitting that the author would write about camera phones in this way as he said: "And for those who know what the heck all those buttons and dials on a camera are for, they offer fine control over shutter speed, F-stop and other stuff that point-and-shoot guys like me don't use." I would think the same way if I didn't know what those things are and what they do.

Posted by:

Tom C
12 Sep 2013

DSLR manufacturers can feel pretty secure that their audience (however small) will continue to need their products. Regardless of pixel counts, it is their large sensors that allow them to do what smaller format cameras cannot - take high-quality pictures at distance in dark circumstances. The physical size of their sensors and wide light paths of their lenses allows more light to be captured, and that makes all the difference when lighting is sub-optimal. Even the large (2/3 inch) sensor of the Nokia 1020 is limited by the relatively small lens and the light path it produces.
HOWEVER - point and shoots had better watch their backs. High pixel counts like the Nokia's make optical zooms unnecessary, and will only get better with time. Certainly they will never be able to create a 16MB image at 4X zoom, but for a point and shoot user, anything over 3MB is a waste anyway.
Personally, I never carry any of the 3 point and shoots I've accumulated over the years - the camera in my S4 is sufficient for all but the most important, low-light shots. That's when I still drag out my big, ol' Canon DSLR.

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