Photography in the new age of mirrorless and apps

Till today, I still can’t believe I took this photo with my phone.

The writing on the wall has been there for two years. Mirrorless cameras are the next wave and yet the two big camera makers have not stepped into the arena. Just read this Bloomberg article:

Canon Inc. (7751) and Nikon Corp. (7731), the world’s two biggest makers of high-end cameras, may be missing out on the industry’s biggest technology shift since film rolls became obsolete. The two Tokyo-based companies use mirrors in all cameras with interchangeable lenses, a technique Sony Corp. (6758) is shifting away from. As a result, Canon and Nikon’s combined share of the Japanese market has fallen by 35 percent, while Sony’s share has doubled, according to estimates at research firm BCN Inc.

Canon Hanging on to Mirrors Means Opportunity for Sony, Panasonic Cameras, Bloomberg, 7 Sep 2011

Since I got my lightweight Olympus Pen in 2009, I’ve largely stopped using my Canon EOS 5D except for sessions when I need to do macro shots or shoot the sky outside of my window. Honestly, it grieves me that my Canons don’t get used so much now, given their way superior image quality and shooting capabilities, but I no longer need the professional quality they provide, nor can I tolerate the weight of the gear during family outings.

It’s not just about my need to carry a lighter camera that can do a “good enough” job. The way we share photos has changed dramatically in the last decade, and that in turn has changed the quality of photos that we need, as well as the type of cameras we prefer to carry around.

In the early 2000s, when digital photography was still in puberty, it was a race to get more megapixels out so that printed photos wouldn’t look pixelated. The original (and much disliked among SPH photogs) Nikon D1 sported only 2.1 megapixels, and yet this was considered cutting edge in 1999. Today, the Canon EOS 1Ds Mk III gives you 21.1MP and really, only pros need that kind of resolution.

If I ever return to professional photography, I’d be happy with all the megapixels I can get, but I still remain a non-pro currently. My 13MP EOS 5D turns six years old this year, and it’s an amazing camera for my needs.

The mirrorless (or hybrid) dSLRs will continue to gain ground over traditional dSLRs in the consumer space, and it is inevitable that Canon and Nikon will release their own models once the market data finally convinces them that their legacy business is not optimized for today’s consumer audience. Perhaps they are already working on it but it will take time to get to market, as well as develop new, smaller lenses for the new lineup. Lenses make or break a camera system, and that could further delay Canon and Nikon’s engagement with the mirrorless audience.

Despite my fondness of the Olympus Pen (and I think the new EP3 is awesome despite the small advances), I am still a Canon faithful at heart and will return to the fold once they produce the “good enough” mirrorless camera for me. After all, it was a Canon that accompanied my professional growth and a Canon that took my wedding photos.

Now back to megapixels – Many consumer compact cams offer 16MP today, when what most people need is not more than 10MP. Why?

Most of us have stopped printing photos – at least those of us living in developed countries. I feel sorry for the film processing shops, and puzzled when companies try to sell us 4R-sized photo printers.

C’mon, just about everyone is on Facebook, and that is what we use on a constant basis to share our images. To make uploads faster, I usually downsize my photos to 1.5MP (1500 pixels by 1000 pixels) because most of the time, people are going to be viewing them on a smartphone or tablet. Even on a huge 24″ screen, Facebook doesn’t allow full-screen views currently (but that could change any time).

I remember when I was conducting photography workshops about 5 years ago. I would tell the audience to shoot images in the highest possible resolution available in their camera because we are entering into a HD world. Perhaps one day we could plaster our walls with cheap LCD screens and fill it with high-res family images.

That advice still holds true, but none of us could have imaged how social networks like Facebook and Twitter would add another perspective to how we store and share stuff. I’ve never bothered with the likes of Flickr to share my photos, but since FB came online, I’ve shared thousands of images happily.

Back in the last decade, I used to scoff at camera phones too. They produced really awful images with high grain, fuzzy details and wrong colors all the time. But check out the phones of today – Android, iPhone and Windows Phones can produce really stunning images (as long as you don’t intend to print them on A4 sized paper!) with good contrast, details and color balance. They will only get better and faster at sharing images.

Another image that I took with my phone. These days you can do some metering on the phone by selecting the exposure spot on the screen, making it possible to capture difficult scenes like this.

What really makes smartphones great cameras are the apps (do you remember a time when phones apps did not exist?). If you’ve used Instagram or Hipstamatic, they can really transform ordinary photos into amazing Polaroid-style visuals. Whether you like them retro or pop-art, these apps have built in filters that hit the emotional buttons perfectly when you decide to show them off.

The Goblins at Thomson, taken with the Hipstamatic app that does fantastic color toning for a 1980s feel.

The new Canon S100 (as well as other high-end compacts) has a GPS built in to help record the location of photos, but this is essentially a feature that will go largely unused. What would be really useful in a camera are WiFi/3G modules and a built-in app to downsize images and upload to social networks immediately. Growth in the compact camera market has been slowing down and that’s because smartphones do a better job of sharing images despite their lower image capturing capabilities.

Photography for consumers has always been about sharing and showing off their latest images. The problem is that today, compact cams and dSLRs (including the mirrorless guys) remain unplugged from our social lives while trying to offer incremental new features that most people don’t need. Until camera makers figure out the new paradigm and how to leverage it better, the phone makers are going to be having a field day.

PS: Another endangered species is the dedicated camcorder. Prices have plummeted dramatically for HD camcorders in the past few years, but they’re up against phones and cameras which can do a “good enough” job of HD video. For now, camcorders still provide superior autofocus tracking, color balance and image stabilization over other products, but the writing is on the wall for them too.