It's a shift that began on the consumer front long ago -- now it's being officially recognized by manufacturers. Sure, smartphones are still cost-prohibitive for some, but save for a few bottom-shelf budget offerings, so are point-and-shoot cameras. With a similar replacement cycle (roughly every two years), the burden of upgrading continues to lessen as our mobile devices catch up on the optical quality front. With excellent still images and 1080p video becoming standard, the only clear dedicated-device advantage lies in the lens, and like a pro with a prime, casual photographers have learned to compensate for this omnipresent setback by using their legs to do the zooming -- sure, it's not an ideal solution, but it has proven to be less of a challenge than you might expect.
For select manufacturers, the implications couldn't be more positive -- consumers are taking their business to Samsung's explosively popular cellphone line, for example, and the iPhone 4S continues to make waves for Apple. Smartphone makers are incorporating improved optics -- an f/2 autofocus lens on the HTC One X, for example, and PureView on the Nokia 808 -- there's also been a huge push for software improvements. HTC has reduced lag and introduced Instagram-like features, a streamlined UI and a nifty slow-mo video mode. Samsung, for its part, has added clever sharing features, like S Beam and Buddy Photo Share to its Galaxy S III, while including camera functionality in the Siri-like S Voice. The versatility of a mobile OS offers clear software and sharing advantages over a locked-down camera operating system, and while image quality discrepancies are still noticeable, a smartphone's camera doesn't top the list of consumers' priorities -- but that doesn't mean they won't use it.
During a visit to Samsung's Korean headquarters aimed at highlighting the company's increased commitment to the mirrorless segment, one question loomed above all others: Since Samsung's smartphones have been so successful, will we soon see resources shift away from compacts and toward improving image quality on mobile devices? In short, the response implied that Galaxy could one day be that group's focus as well, but the departure from point-and-shoots could take years, not months. Now, just weeks after that trip to Sammy HQ, it would appear that we have our answer. The imaging division is here to stay, but a shift has already begun.
There are some aspects of photography that smartphones will never touch.
There are some aspects of photography that smartphones will never touch. Sure, we've seen DSLR rigs for mobile devices like the iPad, but some creators themselves even recognize the product's impracticality. You won't see sports photographers using anything other than full-size digital SLRs -- not any time soon, at least. With a massive jump in focusing ability and vastly improved optics, we could one day see mirrorless models popping up on the sidelines (and not around the necks of friends and family members). But despite HTC and Sprint's recent marketing push with photographer Meeno Peluce, no self-respecting professional will show up on set and whip out their HTC EVO 4G LTE and expect an invitation to return for future shoots.
High-end DSLRs continue to dominate the well-established pro market, and while ILCs receive accolades as second shooters, they won't soon cannibalize the $3,000-and-up segment. This means manufacturers like Canon and Nikon will remain afloat, for now, but they've no doubt seen a decline in point-and-shoot sales that's likely to continue until that category vanishes entirely. For consumers, the shift represents a boost in convenience, publication and savings, and while many device owners are still taking a hit in the image quality department, that won't be the case for long.