The Future of Digital Imaging - Will Smartphones Replace DSLR and Mirrorless Cameras?

There have been a lot of chatters and speculations flying around that some companies won't survive the coming storm and smartphones will eradicate the existence of dedicated cameras in the future. Just because the camera sales are down and some companies aren't doing so well recently, it was too easy to make assumptions that the market won't survive and some brands will have to die. That is oversimplification of what will happen. The doom and gloom scenario have been vastly exaggerated, and I have a few things to say about this topic. I personally do not think smartphones will fully replace DSLR and mirrorless cameras, in the future there is enough room for everyone to co-exist. In this article  I addressed this issue and shared my thoughts on what will happen to the future of digital cameras. 

A lot of parallels were drawn from the demise of Kodak due to the rise of digital photography in comparison to some companies not innovating fast enough to catch up to the rise of smartphones. I am not denying there are stark similarities between these two scenarios, but the there are some crucial key differences as well. 

Kodak based their almost entire business model on supplying film and printing, the digital photography revolution killed them because digital cameras no longer need film and printing. The medium of photography, the way the camera works have changed fundamentally.  It was not because Kodak did not innovate fast enough or catch up to the market, in fact Kodak was the forerunner when it comes to digital photography, they contributed greatly at the conception and innovation of digital cameras right at the start. There were a lot going on in the company which led to the downfall, and the main reason was Kodak holding on to their old business model.

Coming back to smartphones, yes it is clear that smartphones are eating into the pie of digital camera sales, but what is happening now is entirely different. Smartphone's  camera is fully digital camera, a direct imitation of similar digital photography process found in DSLR and mirrorless cameras. There is no change of shooting method or process, and the digital photography at the core has not changed at all. In fact the cameras on smartphones, at the time of this writing, are still inferior in comparison to what dedicated, traditional digital cameras can do. Again, as I have said a few times in my previous videos and articles, the main reason smartphones are doing so well - convenience and full integration with digital lifestyle and social media. 

No I don't believe this will be sufficient for the smartphones to kill off the existence of DSLR and mirrorless cameras, but I do have a few thoughts on what will happen to the industry moving forward. 

It is not difficult to predict the demise of entry level DSLR and mirrorless cameras. The only way the business model for low priced, low profit margin products to work is sales by sheer quantity to the mass market. It is no secret that the top selling camera models for the past 10 years have been the lowest entry level cameras (such as Canon 1000D, 500D/600D series, Nikon D3000/D5000 series). The camera companies can only make enough money by selling in huge volume. 

However, here  comes the problem, the immediate drop of sales over the years happen to this huge chunk of entry level market - a lot of consumers have decided that their smartphone camera is good enough for day to day shooting and snapshots, and they don't need an actual camera anymore. If the sales quantity of entry level cameras continue to drop, it will reach a point that the camera companies will lose money instead of making money by maintaining the entry level product line-up. Without the mass volume, it does not make sense to continue making entry level cameras where the demand has almost completely stopped.

The next practical move is to shift the market upward to mid tier and high end models, such as Canon 7D series or 5D series, and Nikon D500 and D700/800 series. Selling one D850 camera can bring in 10 times the profit of one D3500 camera. There is no future in keeping the entry level products and they will surely go first. 

What made smartphones so successful? Besides the point that it is one device to do it all, the form factor of smartphones are truly compact, so small, so light and so slim, easily pocketable and bring around everywhere. I am speaking for the mass consumer market, I am not referring to professional photographers and serious enthusiasts, there is no place for large, bulky and heavy cameras in the future. The cameras will have to be made truly portable to entice the general market to want to bring out and use. I believe there will be compromise when it comes to overall imaging performance, we won't be getting the best of the best out of smaller sized cameras. Also, there will be hybrid products, cameras that will be co-dependent on smartphones to work. 

A solid example would be Olympus Air A-01, an interesting flirtation into what the future of hybrid imaging products may look like - stripping off unnecessary parts of the camera that can be filled in by the smartphones. No EVF and LCD screen, but the Olympus Air needs the smartphones to be connected, utilizing the much larger sized and higher resolution screen as live view. By removing so much components, the camera module was miniaturized, being so small even when paired with the smartphone, yet at the same time maintaining the full imaging performance of a true Micro Four Thirds system, having a much larger image sensor than what the smartphone built in camera has, and the ability to adapt higher grade optics to achieve specific photography effects (macro, telephoto lens, large aperture lens, etc). Who is to say that this incarnation of hybrid imaging product is not capable of super advanced computational photography? Utilizing the best of both worlds - a real camera and the true power of a smartphone. There is no longer a need for a larger, bulkier traditional camera, at least not for the general consumers. 

The next important race will be for convenience, not so much of pushing the imaging boundaries. If we study consumer behavior, they mass consumer are usually happy with sub-par quality, at the expense of convenience. Take audio for example, when mp3 format came along, it was broadly embraced though the audio quality is not as superior in comparison to a CD (compact disc). The mp3 format is easily shareable and used across multiple devices, the popularity and wide use of mp3 was not because of pushing audio quality boundaries, but due to sheer convenience. Then came along steraming services such as Spotify - the audio quality is even worse than what an average mp3 file can produce, yet it was adopted by every smartphone user. The elitists, true audiphiles and hi-fi enthusiasts will still be around, championing super audio CD and high resolution audio, but they make up a very small percentage of the market. A general consumer would be happy listening to Spotify music off a $10 China off-brand headphones. 

Similar scenario can be applied to digital imaging products. The chase of higher megapixels, cleaner high ISO numbers and better dynamic range can only bring the camera sales so far. The camera companies are fighting a losing battle. If this is the direction where the core companies are pushing, they are only targeting a very small, and diminishing market. I believe we can still win back the crowd of camera users that have been lost to the smartphone domination. There will be smartphone users who want to upgrade their photography skills and use a dedicated camera. Camera companies need to readjust their strategies to accommodate such market, and I believe this market is growing and will continue to grow.

The first to win the race of convenience wins the market. Why not make the camera connect directly to cloud storage, and at the press of a shutter button the image will be transferred to cloud immediately, effectively simplifying the overall digital photography process? From the cloud storage, with an app, any person can download the image directly or share it out from their phone seamlessly, without having to connect to the camera, or any other devices. We are moving toward 5G connectivity, where massive amount of data can be uploaded and downloaded almost instantaneously, I believe this can improve a lot of possibilities when it comes to pushing the convenience factor in digital cameras of the future. The consumers will  be happy to sacrifice image quality and performance (say, use a smaller image sensor such as Micro Four Thirds instead of full frame), using a truly compact form camera which have superior connectivity, yet delivering shooting capabilities far beyond what a typical smartphone camera can do. 

Finally the camera technology will converge and in the future all cameras will have eerily similar capabilities and features. It is already happening - Canon and Nikon are adopting the telecentric lens design approach when they went mirrorless with their full frame cameras, the same telecentric design adopted by Olympus more than 15 years ago. Olympus started the 5-Axis Image Stabilization, now everyone also has almost similar implementation of 5-Axis IS though the exact mechanism of how they work is still quite different. We see similar image sensors being used in different camera models, same EVF panels, same features and shooting capabilities and everyone is trying to do the same thing. One day, we can't really tell apart from one camera to another, and everything will look boringly the same. 

I am sure the product categories will be streamlined. Look at Canon  - they have 200D series, then the 800D, 80D, 7D, 6D, 5D and 1D series, that is just too many product lines, and now some of the cameras are starting to look very, very similar. Do we really need that many camera categories? Will there be enough consumers to sustain that many lines of products? I believe the camera companies will have to simplify their product categories, slimming down to maybe 3 or 4 categories the most. 

I believe DSLR and mirrorless cameras will continue to exist alongside smartphones. I don't think they are going anywhere, but the market is shifting and we will see many changes happening soon. After all, the demand of the market is changing and the way the consumers do photography and use imaging products now are constantly evolving. 

Do you agree with my commentary and speculations? Feel free to disagree with me, and I would love to hear your thoughts, please share in the comments below!

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  1. Hi Robin, I agree. Side-by-Side.... For Hobbies DSLR and MILC will give more versatile. I do hope Olympus will go into right direction and give us great devices.

  2. I see it a bit differently. "Real cameras" (dedicated tools for photography only) will soon become as popular as Medium-format cameras were during the hay-days of film photography. The person that is serious about creating an image for the sake of it as an art expression (instead of just for sharing urges on social media) will most likely want a tool that gives a satisfying tactile experience, instead of that awkward feeling that phones give. When one wants to create an digital image that will be viewed not only on tiny mobile screens, that is where a proper camera will still be king. But of course that is such a small minority of people using digital photography today. For the rest iPhones will be just fine :-)

    1. I agree. Hence the manufacturers need to shift their focus on the general smartphone users as well, there is a huge market sitting there, those who want to upgrade but do not want the bulk and weight that comes with most camera system. There is a future for smaller/lighter and more convenient/easy to use cameras! The race is on.

  3. I agree with you about several things:

    Picture quality - MKBHD did a “Blind Smartphone Camera Test” on youtube that is interesting and informative. He goes over what he thinks most people are looking for in smartphone camera images.

    Race of Convenience - Tesla is launching communication satellites in large numbers. Wikipedia says they plan on orbiting 12,000 satellites by the mid 2020’s. There are also recent rumors that Apple is working on a satellite network for their phones. Soon it may be possible for a camera company to make one agreement with one provider for worldwide connectivity for all of their cameras. If there are several providers to choose from, they might even be able to get a decent price for this service. Whatever camera company does this first will have a huge advantage on the others.