What should compact camera designers do to help compact cameras regain their market share?

Canon G7X Mark III alternative

Itu2019s not really a matter of regaining market share.

Itu2019s a matter of maintaining any market at all.

,Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Kodak sold over 50 million of these bad boys.

The Kodak Instamatic cartridge film format took square photos on 24mm film.

Cameras like this one had a single-element, plastic, fixed focus lens at around f/8.

0 with about a 1/100 second shutter speed normally, dropping to maybe 1/60 second if you attached a flash cube.

,Why did such a terrible camera sell more than perhaps all of the SLRs ever made, put together? Because this was the bottom of the barrel in photography.

The cheapest and simplest way a human could take a photo that had some reasonable assurance of turning out ok.

As long as Mom remembered not to put her finger over the lens.

This was my Momu2019s camera at the time, so to me, itu2019s always u201cMom with an Instamaticu201d u2014 sure could have just as easily been Dad.

My Dad, however, had a Konica T3 and several lenses.

One reason Iu2019ve been into photography most of my life!,Today, somewhere around 1.

5 billion smart phones are sold every year.

The cheap ones probably have at least one $5.

00 camera module, the expensive ones may have a $20 camera modules, possibly even a few.

The thing youu2019re buying is a pocket computer with a persistent network connection, but, particularly in the premium market, you get a u201cpretty oku201d camera.

And you get software that increasingly make it easy for a person with no photographic experience or desire to learn to shoot a photo theyu2019re happy posting to Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, etc.

,Thing is, these days, most people want smartphones because they want smartphones.

That camera comes along for u201cfreeu201d, since youu2019re buying the phone anyway.

And itu2019s because of those phones, and only those phones, that the compact digital market has shrunk.

,Well, thatu2019s not entirely true.

Itu2019s also progress.

If you look at camera sales in the 1960s-1990s, youu2019ll see that they were slowly growing.

Part of this was because photography as both a hobby for enthusiasts and u201cthis is a thing we dou201d for that Mom with the Instamatic were both growing.

So people bought cameras, used them for awhile, didnu2019t like the results, and bought newer, better models in a few years.

And when digital hit, exactly the same thing, only that rather than folks upgrading every 10 years, they were trading in old digitals for new after a year or two.

The technology was just changing that fast.

,Today, digital is pretty mature.

Things get better, but incrementally, not by leaps and bounds.

And even through itu2019s a trick to get any kind of camera used for actual photography working at all well on a phone, itu2019s driven by such a huge market, something that never existed in the camera industry, that phones have simply eclipsed low-end compact digitals.

And since most people replace their phones every year or two, every phone manufacturer is working on the next big camera hack to get you to buy theiru2019s rather than that other guyu2019s phone next time.

,The Compact Digitalu2019s DemiseSo where did compact digital go wrong? Nowhere, really.

Itu2019s just that the low end of compact digital was a big overlap to what was possible in the vibrant new consumer smartphone market of the late 2000s.

,So let me pick on a poor, innocent compact digital from 15 years ago, the Olympus D-390.

This came out at around $175, and dropped to below $150 during most of its life.

It has a single focal length 5mm lens at f/2.

8, and a 1/3.

2u2033 sensor.

This was an u201cInstamaticu201d in the digital world of 2003.

,Smartphones existed in 2003, but only for business users.

Palm, Microsoft, Compaq, HP, Nokia, they were all sure that consumers had no use for a $400+ phone.

Of course, they were wrong, and four years later, the iPhone 2 was out, fully usable as a pocket computer with many functions.

And while not really intended for serious photography, it was introduced with practically the same camera.

Apple used a 3.

9mm lens in all but the most recent iPhones, with this same sensor size, even as resolution grew a bit.

,Now, sure, I know what youu2019re thinkingu2026 how does a $600 phone replace a $150 camera as a camera? Well, mostly because people werenu2019t thinking they had bought a camera.

They had this pocket computer that for some silly reason is still called a u201cphoneu201d, and oh-by-the-way, it takes a photo as good as Momu2019s Olympus D-390.

And so by 2010u20132011 or so, every smartphone company understands that photography is a major application, and theyu2019re all trying to make their phones better than the next guyu2019s u2014 theyu2019re probably not even thinking about compact digital cameras.

,Do Things a Phone Cannot!,So in this same basic timeframe, Olympus, specifically, got entirely out of the compact digital market.

There just wasnu2019t enough in it for them.

Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, and Sony are still making them, even down to the sub $100 point, but they donu2019t really put much new technology in at the low end.

They are differentiating.

,Olympus does actually make one compact digital today, still: the TG-5.

This has the typical 1/2.

3u2033 sensor, a sensible 12 megapixels like most phones these days, but a bit larger than most smartphone sensors, and a decent f/2.

0 lens, which lets in enough light.

Itu2019s also got an optical zoom lens, not a crazy long one, but better than a phone can manage.

But specifically, itu2019s the camera you take where your smartphone doesnu2019t belong.

Itu2019s water and sand resistant, it can survive a 7ft drop that would smash pretty much every one of 2018u2019s silly glass-clad phones to bits.

And of course, you can change the battery or memory card, like a real camera.

It shoots 4K video, like your smartphone, too.

,Another 1/2.

3u2033 sensor camera, the Panasonic Lumix ZS70 sports a ridiculous 30x zoom lens in a pocket camera.

Thatu2019s a full-frame equivalent range of 24-720mm.

Is that a high quality 720mm equivalent? Not at all.

But itu2019s an image.

Your smartphone canu2019t help you at 72mm, much less 720mm.

This one also has an eye-level viewfinder, and itu2019s about $400, a mid-range model.

,Stepping up again, letu2019s look at the Canon G7X.

Thatu2019s a $650 camera with a 4.

2x zoom.

Itu2019s a much faster lens than on the ZS70, but we sorta-kinda have smartphones that can fake a 5x zoom now (Huawei P20 Pro), so is a camera this pricey an endangered species.

Nope, and thatu2019s because of the sensor chip.

This is a so-called 1u2033 sensor camera, originally introduced by Sony in the RX100 series.

That sensor has about 6x the light-gathering area of a smartphone sensor.

Itu2019s large enough to allow variable aperture, shallow (ish) natural depth-of-field, much more dynamic range than youu2019ll get on a phone, etc.

,An even pricier compact digital is the Sony RX10 Mark IV, which runs around $1700.

Also not all that compact, but still considerably smaller than a small DSLR.

The thing about this is that itu2019s also a 1u2033 camera with a pretty fast lens.

But it offers a full-frame range of 24u2013600mm, it shoots at 24fps, and it can buffer 180 or so raw photos before the buffer fills up.

This is a DSLR/mirrorless alternative, it has very little resemblance to whatu2019s possible on a phone.

,And just to show you theyu2019re crazy, Sony made this, the RX1R Mark II.

This is a $3200 compact digital camera.

Itu2019s only got a fixed focal length 35mm f/2.

0 lens, which has been described as one of the five best full frame lenses ever made.

Oh, and yeah, the sensor is full frame and 42 megapixels, same size as in a full frame professional DSLR or, specifically, the Sony A7R mark III mirrorless.

,So basically, as the phone became the 21st Century Instamatic, stand-alone cameras that couldnu2019t compete vanished from planet earth.

Or at least popular use in the West u2014 itu2019s not necessarily the case that everyone who wants a digital camera can spend $800 on a smartphone or $400 on a mid-range modern compact digital camera.

So the low end isnu2019t gone entirely.

But itu2019s pretty stagnant.

,Meanwhile, manufacturers have made the compact digital market more interesting than ever.

Itu2019s never going to regain the huge volumes of the film to digital transition era, but that wasnu2019t possible anyway, once digital cameras didnu2019t stink after a year or two.

But there are still more compact digital cameras sold than DSLRs and mirrorless.

With these pushing upscale in ways they never did ten years ago, there are more options than ever.

,Whatu2019s Next?Well, maybe I saw a little more of the future from some Photokina displays.

Check this out:,This is the Zeiss ZX1.

Itu2019s now the third compact digital, after the RX1 and the Leica Q, with a full frame sensor.

And no price yet, but you canu2019t afford it.

So other than a way-too-hipster look, whatu2019s up with this?,Mainly, itu2019s the user interface and software.

Thereu2019s a relatively huge, smartphone sized screen on this, and itu2019s got Adobe Lightroom built-in.

So like a phone, itu2019s going to be able to be both your camera and your computer for edits, but itu2019s intended for photographers who know their stuff, not novice.

Itu2019s also got WiFi, and yes, you can connect to a hotspot and upload directly to the internet.

It appears to be running Android, but they have not said anything about that.

,So what we have here is a compact digital thatu2019s doing more phone things that weu2019ve seen in awhile, but at a pretty high level.

And now letu2019s mix that idea up with another big thing in tech thatu2019s on the way: 5G cellular.

The claim is that 5G will make data connections so cheap, youu2019ll have IoT and other wireless devices making direct connections to the internet.

,Whether or not that materializes, the idea of building cellular into regular cameras may have some legs.

Think about the cellular phone-as-camera workflow.

You shoot, some AI processes your image, you approve, hit a button, up it goes.

There are plenty of people doing somewhat serious work on their phones, simply because of this, and of course, choosing subjects that work with phone cameras well.

As some of the folks who have learned photography that way want better, they are going to look at dedicated cameras, compacts, mirrorless, and DSLR.

And theyu2019re going to love the better imaging, the art of editing your own photos, etc.

But theyu2019re not necessarily going to want to give up that connectivity.

,So I think this will be a challenge to the camera makers, to make cameras live online or to link them transparently through smartphones.

Thatu2019s already been done a bit here and there, but it will have to improve.

Canon G7X Mark IV

As a former Canon user I would say the Sony, is a wonderful camera but just as someone else said look at the Fuji x100t or S, they are wonderful cameras.

Sony RX100

Yes.

Its one of the best advanced compacts you can buy.

,One of the coolest things about it is that Sony still stock the earlier versions, so you can cherry pick your features;,The Mk 1 and 2 are essentially the same (the Mk 2 has a tilting screen, the Mk1 doesnt, and the Mk 2 has a slightly better sensor).

Both were only about a generation behind crop frame DSLRs for picture quality at the time of their release.

Pretty good given you can keep one in your pocket and donu2019t have to spend a fortune on lenses!,The Mk 3 gets an EVF and a faster lens, so better low light.

,Mk 1 to 3 are basically technology updates with nothing really new.

From Mk 4 onwards, there is a theme to each release;,Mk 4: Video.

The Mk 4 gets 4k video (previously it was only 1080p) and the option for s-log (useful if you will be doing a lot of post production with your videos).

You also get a better EVF.

The earliest one to go for if video is important.

,Mk 5: Focusing.

The Mk 5 gets a far better focusing system (phase detect rather than contrast detect).

Pick this one if you will be shooting a lot of sports or have fast moving kids.

This is the first model that can act as a DSLR replacement if you are comparing to current crop frame DSLRs as of this writing.

EDIT - As Osmo Ronkanen has mentioned in the comments, Sony updated the Mk 5 to a 5A.

This is a mid release refresh; you get an updated processor, which is turn gives you better (faster) focusing in any of the tracking modes.

You also get some UI fixes, including a better menu system.

,Mk 6: longer lens.

The Mk 6 gets a longer reach on the lens; 24u2013200mm rather than the 24u201370mm of previous models.

Picking this one is a matter of preference; the lens has longer reach but do you really need o move beyond the standard 24u201370mm range?,Iu2019d pick the Mk 3 onwards as a DSLR replacement, depending on your budget and needs; Mk 3 is a decent entry level, Mk 4 is a good modern DSLR replacement, and the Mk 6 is the same with a far better tele end on the lens.

,The Mk 1 to 3 are still better than any current camera phone, and Iu2019d pick them if you want to move from a phone camera to a cheap dedicated camera that is also pocketable.

In particular, the Mk 1 is a very good cheap camera if you want more than your camera phone has to offer.

Ebay is a good place for them but make sure that it hasnu2019t been dropped.

Donu2019t bid on anything that has a dent because the lens mechanism on all advanced compacts is the thing that goes first, and drops are the normal route.

,All advanced compacts also have a tendency to collect dust on the sensor.

I fix this on mine by placing a vacuum cleaner hose near (but not touching!) the lens joins to suck up dust on its way to the sensor.

,Note - I am a Sony shooter, coming into the system from the film days with Minolta (which was bought out by Sony).

I currently use the Sony A7 series (full frame mirrorless) as my main camera, the A6300 as a crop frame camera (its not my u2018back up camerau2019, its to get a 1.

6 zoom on my lenses without losing resolution) and the RX100 series as an u2018always carryu2019 DSLR replacement.

The RX100 beats my camera phone by a long way, so I rarely now use a camera phone.