Round Up: The New Instant Camera

by Reads (18)

As someone who started taking pictures seriously just long enough ago to catch what may have been the “golden era” of 35mm cameras, I continue to have moments of amazement at the many ways digital has changed the entire practice of photography. This week, I was struck several times by the fact that for all intents and purposes, taking digital pictures is free. I’ve argued in this space before that, as others have suggested, this may have made us all lazier as photographers, but what I won’t suggest for a minute is that I’m not occasionally awestruck anew by the fact that there’s no real penalty (especially with cheap 8GB memory these days) for taking a hundred frames to get “the shot.”

Not surprisingly, all of this has led to some marked changes in both how we capture our images and what we do with them after they’re taken. On the first point, it’s been interesting to watch the growth of the camera phone market over the last few years, and the changes this trend has brought to how we think about taking pictures more generally.

Polaroid Land Camera
The Polaroid Land Camera was about as portable as an office telephone system, and took pictures nearly as bad as those from most cell-phone cams

The concurrent explosion of photo sharing and social networking sites – which fill the role once occupied by traditional photo albums for many – has made taking images from capture to display easier (and cheaper) than it’s ever been. Rather than being the dominant means of storing and presenting images, paper-based photo albums (and physical prints generally) have increasingly been relegated to niche-market status, still usually preferred by photo enthusiasts and purists, but falling out of favor elsewhere.

For general consumers, the photo printing market’s not quite dead – yet – but I believe the writing’s on the wall. In a few more years, the thought of going to the trouble of printing family snapshots and putting them in albums will seem as foreign as the thought of sharing images instantly over a computer would have seem twenty years ago: you might be able to do it, but why would you want to?

In turn, this ongoing change in how we handle photos after the shot suggests at least one possibility for what’s coming next in the camera market. My own (admittedly drastic) theory on the subject is that the entire compact camera segment may never again see the kind of dominance it enjoys today. Falling DSLR prices are stealing away serious shooters in larger and larger numbers already, and it now looks as though improving technology in camera phones coming from the bottom of the market will soon be polished enough to put the squeeze on compact cameras from the other side.

An interesting study published on the PMA Foresight camera market analysis blog this week provided some numbers from the photo sharing site Flickr on the most popular cameras and camera phones used to upload pictures to the service. According to the data PMA pulled together, “Some camera phone models exhibit nearly as many users as some of the most prominent digital camera models….” In many ways, I think the dominance of web-based versus print-based sharing has done a lot to push the camera phone into the photographic foreground: no longer constrained by the resolution required by printing, casual shooters who share photos exclusively through their Flickr account or their MySpace page seem, by and large, perfectly happy with the limited resolution offered by camera phones. A one-megapixel capture through a cheap optic doesn’t stand up so well in print, but at 640×480 it may well look just fine.

And camera phone technology isn’t sitting still either. Resolution and noise performance increases are already a reality. Several new technologies look promising for overcoming the limitations of tiny optics in these devices. Put these advances – plus improved interfaces and features on camera phones, a move to the web as a photo sharing medium, and the convenience offered by being able to carry one integrated device instead of two – together and the benefits for taking snapshots, at least, should be obvious.

In some ways, I think we’ve been here before. At its best, the camera as integrated into a multifunction device is strikingly similar to a classic of the last half-century, the Polaroid instant camera.

In both cases, there’s an overt admission that image quality takes a back seat to convenience and ease of use. With camera phones being able to upload shots directly to photo sharing sites, even the Polaroid’s instantaneous image delivery is paralleled in the modern integrated camera. Only the medium has changed.

I’m not sure that I’m ready to embrace the idea of an integrated camera just yet – I think I may be too much of a “camera nut” to ever treat the concept without just a hint of disdain. Then again, it was not so many years ago that some people were saying the same things about full-size digital cameras. The more things change… You know the rest.

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