The Death of the Compact Camera


Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a camera called the Box Brownie.  Box Brownie came on the market 114 years ago and its lineage can be traced through to the Compact cameras of today.

The Brownie popularized low-cost photography and introduced the concept of the snapshot.  The first Brownie was a very basic cardboard box camera with a simple meniscus lens that took 2¼-inch square pictures on 117 roll film.  With its simple controls and initial price of $1, it was intended to be a camera that anyone could afford and use, with the slogan, “You push the button, we do the rest.”

Pic taken by Nokia 1020.Pic taken by Nokia 1020.

So the Brownie brought photography within the reach of the masses, but it had one problem.  It was a large camera box!  What people wanted was a camera as simple as the Brownie, but would fit in the pocket.  It would be small and thus ‘compact’ and before long the market was flooded with what was now called the Compact cameras.

Looking at what is available in Compact form, there are many, perhaps too many, for what is a shrinking market.

Examples of these include the Canon PowerShot A1400 and the Olympus VR-340.  Mid-range compacts are represented by the Canon PowerShot Elph 330 HS, and for even better imaging in a compact package, the prime-lens Ricoh GR and the zooming Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 are worth looking at.

But now enter the Smartphone, the camera built into the ubiquitous mobile phone.  Originally looked on with suspicion and derision, the Smartphone is now increasingly being thought of as a genuine alternative to the compact range.

Handling is one area in which the true camera beats Smartphones.  The big physical shutter button, the easy to use zoom and the accessible function buttons and knobs make it easier to control the Compact camera.  But that is about where the camera advantages end.

Compact cameras have small, low-resolution LCD monitors, but smartphones have large, high-resolution screens with better sharpness, color and tones.  On the Smartphone you get a better idea of what you are taking and a better review of what you have actually captured.

Zooming features with Smartphones generally rely on cropping the image, so it looks like a zoom.  Nokia have a Smartphone with 41 megapixels on a larger sensor, so zooming by cropping becomes a perfectly acceptable option up to the equivalent of a 5x zoom.

Aussie testers say the 41 MP top line Nokia 1020 has been made with serious photographers in mind and it has manual controls.  The full-resolution images can be saved in Adobe’s DNG RAW format.

The Nokia 1020 is outstanding.  Resolved detail is amazing.  Exposure and focus are spot on and color is realistic, say the testers.

The iPhone photos always look sharp and brightly colored, and fits the bill as the perfect box camera.  You press the button and the phone does the rest.

The statistics tell the story of where the low end of photography is going.

By 2003, more camera phones were sold worldwide than stand-alone digital cameras.

In 2005, Nokia became the world’s most sold digital “camera” brand.

In 2006, half of the world’s mobile phones had a built-in camera.

In 2008, Nokia sold more camera phones than Kodak had done with film cameras and became the biggest manufacturer of any kind of camera.

In 2009, camera sales continued to slide as camera phones improved their auto- focus, zoom and low-light features.

In 2010 the worldwide number of camera phones totaled more than a billion and sales of separate cameras continued to decline.  Even inexpensive mobile phones were being sold with a camera.

Up to November, 2011 US retail sales of entry-level cameras fell 17 percent to 12 million units from 2010.  In that same time-frame cam-phone makers sold 95 million in the US.

When you look at the advantages of the Compact camera over the Brownie, it really is ‘no contest’.  The Compact group is far better.

But now when you look at the advantages of the Smartphone over the Compact camera, it is again ‘no contest’.  The Smartphone group is much better.  The Brownie is dead, and the Compact is on its last legs.  R.I.P.