There was a time, not too long ago, when every tourist site or family event was lit by the bright little flashbulbs of compact digital cameras. Little PowerShots and Coolpix could be found in the bags of middle school selfie-takers and candid-snapping grandparents alike. People marveled at the ease of the thing, that such a little device could take such great pictures. “I can take pictures of every moment of my child’s life,” cheered the moms. “And the film is so cheap!” joked the dads. “Color accent is so COOL!” gushed the teens.
But the reign of the compact camera is rapidly fading. These days, people are far more likely to whip out their smartphone than their digital camera to snap a quick pic. Every day, another article pops up about the death of the compact camera and the Instagram-ification of everyday photography. We here at Resource like to think of ourselves as pretty straight shooters, so here it is, uncut and unfiltered, the 4-1-1 on the great digital camera debate.
Let’s break it down.
These days, people with basic phones are a vastly shrinking majority compared to the over 1 billion smartphone users worldwide. But talking photography-specific, what’s so great about a smart phone?
- It’s easy: One device, all the features. With a smartphone, you can snap edit, and share photos, all on the go. No juggling of multiple devices or searching frantically for chords—it’s all right there at your fingertips.
- It’s (almost) always there: Barring a brain fart or serious hermit phase, most people have their phones on them at all times, making it easy to pull it out and snap photos on the fly. Rather than having to remember to bring a second device, your phone is your go-to gadget, encouraging spontaneous shooting for those unexpected moments you want to capture.
- Connectivity: With both Wi-Fi and 3G/4G capabilities, smartphones eliminate the need for chords or computers. Any photo you take can be instantly edited and emailed, messaged, uploaded, or otherwise shared with a few hundred of your closest friends and followers.
- Apps on Apps on Apps: Instagram, PicStitch, SnapSeed, KitKat, Hipstamatic: the list goes on and on. With the whole of the Apple or Android universe at your fingertips, you have multiple options to instantly manipulate and improve your photos, turning an offhand snap of your dog or your lunch into (at least what you consider) an artsy masterpiece. Plus, these apps are designed to be user-friendly and intuitive, making them much more accessible to non-professional photographers than Photoshop or Lightroom.
What’s not so great?
- Image Quality: While Apple and Android have both made strides to improve the quality of their built-in cameras, at the end of the day, this is still primarily a phone. There’s a limited number of pixels you can pack into a camera roughly the size of an M&M (the mini ones, not peanut), and that shows in the quality of your pictures, especially in low-light settings.
- What You See Is What You Get: There’s only so much you can control in the basic camera mode. As of yet, there’s no way in Apple Cam to adjust aperture, ISO, or exposure, the big three of making photos. Aside from tilting the camera or purchasing add-ons or accessories (like the Luxi Incident Light Meter Adapter, for example), your in-camera options are pretty limited.
- That Battery Isn’t Going Anywhere: Unlike compact cameras, where you can easily switch out the battery for prolonged shooting, the iPhone battery is not removable without professional assistance, meaning that if you’re planning on shooting for a substantial amount of time, you better be fully juiced on arrival and set aside time for a charging break.
- The Monthly Grind: One of the biggest downsides of the smart phone compared to the compact camera? You just keep paying. Rather than making a one-time purchase, smart phones come with lovely little data plans, which necessitate a monthly fee. Now granted, you’re going to be using that device for a lot more than just taking pictures and a lot of those other features are what the data plan covers, but if we’re talking just cameras here, there’s no other model on the market that requires you to continue paying to use a device you’ve already bought.
Once ubiquitous, these little babies have become an endangered species, with alarmists even calling them on the brink of extinction. But the compact camera isn’t going down without a fight, and there are still several perks these guys can hold over those young smartphone whippersnappers trying to steal their crown.
- Any Way You Want It: First and foremost, the compact camera is exactly that: a camera. They are designed with the shooter in mind, not the multi-tasker, and it shows in the range of options and settings that can be adjusted or customized. Most models also come with easy-shooting modes for landscape, night scenes, close-up, portrait, multiple exposure, motion capture and more.
- Feels so Good: A compact camera feels like a camera, with the lens and dials and buttons you know and love. Particularly for those on the more nostalgic or traditional side, tapping a touch screen just doesn’t have the same feel as looking through a viewfinder or at a screen and pressing that little button. You feel like a photographer when using what is clearly a camera, rather than just another one of the Instagram masses.
- Paying Once is Enough: No data plans, no monthly fees. Once you buy this baby, it is all yours.
- Easy Access: Like we said before, one of the big advantages the compact camera has over the smartphone is the ability to change out the battery. For long shoots, or on trips where access to plugs may be scarce, the back-up battery is your best friend, letting you document the entire camping trip, not just the first day.
And the not so good…
- Patience, Young Grasshopper: Compact cameras can shoot pics all day long, but in order to edit them you need to connect your camera to a computer or tablet, upload the files and then start reformatting and adjusting. This requires either bringing multiple devices along with you to a shoot (and praying you remembered all the right chords), or waiting until you get home or back to the office to begin processing your work.
- Just a Camera, Nothing More: With a compact camera, what you see is what you get. With the exception of some newer models, most compacts do not come with other features or apps. They are purely for capturing images or video and not for surfing the web, getting directions, sharing pics, or stalking your ex on Facebook.
- Disconnected: While some newer models are starting to come with Wi-Fi or 3G/4G capabilities (either built-in or with an optional Wi-Fi adaptor add-on), the average camera doesn’t, making it harder for you to share your images on social media or with your contacts. #sadface #latergram
- One More Device: Whereas most people have their phones with them wherever they go, a compact camera is an extra gadget to throw in their bag. You have to make a conscious decision to bring your camera, which limits your ability to take spontaneous pictures or record unexpected moments. You bring the compact camera to the events you expect you’ll want to remember—weddings, graduations, family vacations—but you don’t always have it on you for those surprise moments you don’t want to forget.
So it seems the gauntlet has been thrown. But who will come out victorious in the end? Our vote is for the smartphone. While compact cameras still boast higher quality images, they’re just not as convenient or as customizable as the smartphone. As Apple and Android continue to up the ante on mobile image capture, we predict more and more casual photographers will leave the compact camera at home and just shoot from their smartphone. And while the compact camera does offer a more hands-on in camera experience, with the options and feel of a real camera, serious shutterbugs are far more likely to invest in a DSLR, especially as higher quality models become available at the lower end of the price scale.
Now there are things compact cameras could do to pull ahead—adding connectivity and the ability to download apps, for example. But as long as smartphone manufacturers continue to add more pixels to that tiny little sensor, and with more and more apps and accessories emerging every day, we think it’s only a matter of time before the compact camera goes the way of the pager and the tape deck. What do you think?