Art and technology of photography

These smartphone cameras are getting ridiculous

It seems that we have reached a tipping point for mobile photography. With new flagship devices such as the iPhone X, the Pixel 2 XL and the Galaxy S9, it seems that our phones can finally replace our cameras. For the past decade the camera wars has always been a battle between Nikon and Canon but nowadays that battle seems to be more irrelevant for most people. Apple, Samsung, and Google have stolen the spotlight for innovative photography hardware. Have you all heard of the Huawei P20? It’s the new high-end smartphone from the Chinese tech company and it’s camera might be the most advanced camera on a phone so far. The thing has three lenses (four if you count the front). One is a 8 MP telephoto, another is attached to a 40 MP camera, and the third goes to a 20MP monochrome sensor. The front facing lens feeds into a 24 MP sensor. That is insanity.


(This is what the Sony A7 looks like. It’s a great camera and I love mine. It’s actually a really small camera but unlike a Huawei P20 it can’t fit in your pocket)

For comparison my Sony A7 is only packing 24.3 megapixels and its doing that on a sensor that is far far larger. In well lit scenes, the imaged produced by a Pixel 2 XL is solidly in DSLR quality as shown here (go see for yourself). Even professionals are choosing smartphones over dedicated cameras for their work. Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane was filmed entirely on iPhone 7 Plus.

soderbergh meme

Effects on the camera industry

With the advent of high quality cameras on our phones it seems that people are ditching their actual cameras and it seems to be a process that has been happening for decades. Which each decade experiencing a paradigm shift in how photos are taken. In the ’90s everyone who wanted to take pictures had to own a 35mm. By the ’00s the camera manufactures still dominated the industry. Digital cameras had a lot of hype and phone cameras back then were still pretty bad. I recall that my Samsung flip phone’s camera from those days took low res photos. In that decade, film photography has become irrelevant for the average consumer, but now in the ’10s, it seems that camera manufactures are fading into irrelevance. For the average consumer there are less reasons to use a dedicated camera. Last week, I ran a statistically insignificant Twitter survey to see what the class uses for their picture taking needs.

(The results, though statistically insignificant, are quite skewed)

This chart is more conclusive:


 (Camera sales have declined precipitously)

The death of the camera

There are many analyses done on the decline of camera sales. In this write up, the author asserts that what has been disrupting the camera industry is Instagram culture. In particular he argues that the “insta” part of Instagram killed the camera. He adds to the popular narrative of how we have become dependent on instant gratification and makes the point that the value of the pictures that we take has depreciating value. According to him, people take photos in order to get gratification on social media through likes and comments on Instagram and Facebook. It’s true picture sharing is easier with a smartphone over your DSLR (thanks to social media), but I don’t think that is the main reason why the smartphone is beating the camera in the photography industry. I’ve alluded to it; I think the smartphone has become sufficient for the needs of most consumer.

Since the beginning of consumer photography to the present, regular people take pictures for mostly the same reasons: to record memories. Whether its to remember a vacation or the birthday party of a close friend, people brought their cameras with them to create a visual representation of their memories. Whatever solution that can do this task the most conveniently will become the choice for most people. There was once a time when this was the compact camera; now the smartphone is the most convenient way to record memories of birthday parties, honeymoons and the most important moments of our lives. I do not believe that social media interaction is the reason why people take pictures; the reason for photography has been a constant despite rapid technological change.

What about the professional and advanced amateur?

For this subset of the population, the smartphone will not be replacing the camera anytime soon. Gear matters a lot for these people and the use of this gear will become one of the ways advanced amateurs will differentiate themselves from the rest of the picture taking masses. Advancements in mobile photography will not sway these groups to ditch their Nikons and Canons. When photography has become a profession or a serious hobby, advanced camera specs are still lusted over.


(The latest beast from Nikon, the D850. MSRP $3299)

While advancements with smartphones have not disrupted much for professionals and hobbyists, social media has certainly have brought a whole new way work is shared. For the hobbyists, it has never been so easy to share your work. Everyone with an email address can create an Instagram account and proceed to upload the photos that they are most proud of. It has never been so easy to reach out and connect with your favorite photographers; everyone is just one DM away. Arranging collabs has become much more streamlined. With the rise of Instagram, I feel that photography has become a more popular form of creative expression. It seems nowadays everyone has some kind of interest in photography, with some wanting to get into it as a hobby. This popularity comes form the perception of easy exposure through the use of social media, like Instagram. Compared to painting, photography is fast and can go around the world in seconds.

For the professional photographer, social media is both a valuable tool and an hinderance. With social media, it has never been easier for professionals to connect with clients. Their work is easily viewed through social media and contact is nothing more than a simple DM. A lot of photographers put their emails in their Instagram bios. While this is great for the established pro, it has also become enormously difficult for newcomers to break into the professional scene. A strong social media presence can be a huge benefit for a pro photographer but with hundreds and millions of users, competition to get noticed has also never been so intense.


A post shared by Somewhere Magazine (@somewheremagazine) on

I’d love to hear what you think about this topic. Photography seems to be the art form that is the most disrupted by new technologies. How do you think social media and mobile will affect this tool/art form/hobby in the future?


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  1. Great post, and I was one of the many who said that smartphone is sufficient for me to take pictures instead of professional camera. I have never been a fan of taking pictures in my life, and for me personally the smartphone cameras are way beyond good (I would be satisfied with less advanced quality than what we have now). Unless the user uses it to capture almost every moment of his/her life, many take pictures rather occasionally, especially while traveling. It’s true that I rarely see anyone holding an actual camera wherever I travel to. If anyone asks me to take a picture for them, they typically give me their phones.

    In regards to social media affecting the particular group of people who take photography as a hobby, I still believe real cameras will still prevail over smartphone cameras. Professional photographers take pictures for the aesthetics purpose, and they take joy from capturing beautiful moments or scenery themselves rather than getting likes on social media. As many professional photographers take the activity itself pleasing instead of the fame they receive from the pictures, I still believe this will persist. Perhaps I imagine cameras having capabilities to connect to social media so that photographers can post pictures easily.

  2. Nice post! I enjoyed reading it. I agree with your point that whatever solution that can record people’s memory most conveniently would become the choice for most people. I also agree that social media interaction is not the main reason why people take pictures. However, for some people, social media interaction still increases the frequency of taking pictures. Even though posting pictures is also a part of recording memory, social media interaction just gives extra motivation for many users to take good pictures or selfies.The picture you posted: the D850 Nikon, costs $3,299. Price is a big limitation in the camera industry. A built-in camera in our smartphone make people have the impression that the smartphone camera is “free” because there is no extra cost to it.

  3. @jamessenwei I like how you’ve continued on the theme of your last blogpost, “Can Social Media be a Medium for Performance Art?” I personally think high-tech cameras will continue to exist, but not necessarily for the same reasons as you do.

    (1) Ergonomics: Taking a photo with my phone is okay, but even being able to press the volume button instead of touching the screen is still not as natural of a feeling as holding a ‘real’ camera. If I wanted to take photos all day, I would much rather hold a camera than delicately hold my phone.
    (2) Multi-functionality: although the multiple functions of phones is normally seen as a bonus, for photography, this may be a problem. Imagine being close to getting the perfect shot and all of a sudden your mom calls – screen interrupted. Also, some phone batteries are notoriously short-lasting, especially if you are constantly using the screen as you would be with a photo session.

    I do think the Apple advertisements of “this shot taken with an iPhone” are pretty cool, though.

  4. Great post. I do think the day of the camera is short lived for most people these day. That’s why I found it very puzzling that Snapchat called themselves a camera company.

  5. Awesome post! I have definitely seen this trend, but it was great to read about the actual transformation. I think this is an important point in time for camera companies to really refine their strategy and market, as I think your survey is indicative of the trend towards using smartphones for photos. I think cameras are going to start to have to be tailored more towards the needs of professional photographers and companies need to start looking towards this future by innovating and making technologies or products that make switching from professional cameras costly. As you pointed out the new trends each decade, I am interested to see the new trend or disruptor in this industry.

  6. A little different, but I feel like there will be a similar effect to watches stemming from digital watches. It may not be as strong of a negative impact, but digital watches will be taking a bigger and bigger chunk of the watch industry because of their many abilities compared to a simple watch.

    As for cameras, I do think cameras will never completely go away. However, I don’t think that at any point their share of the camera market compared to phones will ever grow again. The quality of smartphone cameras as well as the surprisingly good editing apps (many of which are free) are enough for people. I really like that you brought up the point about instant gratification. I think that plays such a major role. For example, I remember in high school my mom had her own camera to take photos at my baseball games. Those were great, but I would always make sure to tell her to take some on her phone as well and send them to me right after the game. I rarely posted the pictures, but I liked having them on my phone and not having to wait for my mom to upload them and email them to me. Great post though.

  7. James I really liked this topic because I took 2 photography classes at home and really learned what it meant to take great photography. I’m not going to lie and say that Instagram isn’t good for Photography overall because it is, but image editing and what people consider to be “good” photos has changed because of it. Instagram glorifies a lot of HDR type photography while it is hard to have people truly look at the beauty of simple photos.

    I find that Social Media is actually changing the way that we consume media. People look at photos on Instagram or Tumblr extremely quickly rather than admiring less content for longer. I think this might actually hurt photographers because it encourages them to post a larger volume of photos but their actual photography work can’t keep up with the volume demanded through social media. What are your thoughts on changing what it means to take “great photos” for more serious purposes and people understanding that it’s not quite as easy as “point and click” and people might not like images when they are blown up onto sizes that are bigger than their smartphone screen?

    1. @tuckercharette Hi Tucker, great questions. Photography is only a hobby for me so I’m not sure about the answers to your questions (I too took a high school photo class and currently taking one at BC). That said, here is what I think:

      I think photography like many other things goes through many fads and trends. Today it might be drone photography, glass balls, selfies, overexposed color etc. While what is popular will change with the trends, what it means to take “great photos” will more or less be the same. A “great photo” for more serious purposes might incorporate stuff like interesting composition or interesting/correct exposure. A “great photo” has a lot of subjective qualities too. Serious photographers will take pictures of what is meaningful to them, could be intimate portraits or grand landscapes. If it holds meaning to the photographer, perhaps that is all that is necessary to be a “great photo” and if it is meaningful to the photographer, chances are it can be meaningful to other people as well.

      For people understanding its not as easy as “point and click,” I don’t think it is important for a lot of people. Of course if people want to get more into it they can learn more if it interests them.

      I personally love it when I see beautiful photos printed to large sizes and I don’t feel that I hold a controversial opinion.

  8. Great article, I liked that shoutout to “Unsane” and Steven Soderbergh! I’m taking a Filmmaking I class and it’s been really interesting to hear the attitudes towards cameras versus iPhones from my professor. Although the film department has their own cameras to rent out for our projects, he basically told us that most of our iPhones could shoot equal or possibly better quality footage, and to even consider shooting our final projects on iPhone! I have to say that even with more people turning to smartphones for their photography needs in past years, that perspective surprised me. I bet that 10 years from now that class will probably be taught with iPhones in mind, it would certainly save the Film department a lot of money. Another milestone? First Oscar winner shot on an iPhone: I bet it’s not as far off as we might think.

  9. Great post, and as someone who falls in the filmmaker category, the DSLR revolution has made my profession possible. As someone who never touched a camera until my sophomore year of college, I was able to quickly enter the space with a DSLR, a social media platform, and editing software that is widely available to consumers. I think people’s love for social media videos, cinematic wedding videos, and even company’s needs for commercials will evolve, but not change. As long as creative professionals can adapt with the technology, there will always be a niche to be found – at least I hope!

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