Camera and Camera-Phone Trends to Expect in 2012
First, let's get the obvious out of the way: In 2012, cameras will become smaller, more powerful, and more specialized. Meanwhile, smartphone cameras will continue to improve at a blistering pace, approaching the imaging capabilities and features found in stand-alone cameras of a few years ago. Over the next 12 months, you can expect another great round of "phones versus cameras."
In some ways, stand-alone cameras and phones will forge a more symbiotic relationship in 2012. In 2011, we saw both storage cards (the Eye-Fi Mobile X2) and point-and-shoot cameras (the Panasonic Lumix FX90) that synced wirelessly to smartphones and tablets, thus enabling iOS and Android devices to store and share images from higher-quality cameras over ad-hoc Wi-Fi connections.
That trend of cameras "playing nice" with phones is likely to continue in 2012, but you should also expect cameras to come out fighting against their smartphone counterparts. You'll almost certainly see some very competitively priced cameras with high-end optics and features that run circles around those found in your average smartphone. Their arrival will make buying a "real" camera a more attractive proposition.
We'll know more specifics in just a few weeks when the International CES 2012 trade show is in full swing, but here are some safe bets for the upcoming year.
You'll See CMOS, Mostly
From DSLRs to smartphones, you'll be hard-pressed to find a new camera in 2012 that has a CCD sensor. While the type of sensor embedded in your camera of choice may not be of much interest to you, the in-camera features associated with CMOS sensors certainly might be: Among them are 1080p video capture at high frame rates, very fast burst modes, good low-light performance, automated HDR image capture, 3D shooting with a single lens, the ability to simulate a shallow depth of field with a small sensor, and video recording at hundreds of frames per second to enable superslow-motion playback.
The CMOS sensor's speed and versatility have led to many of the best features we've seen in stand-alone cameras in recent years--and that wave of in-camera innovation will hit the world of smartphone cameras in 2012. In fact, we've already seen the first ripples in the past few months: T-Mobile's MyTouch 4G Slide and the HTC Amaze both offer photographic features that we were used to encountering only in stand-alone cameras, such as motion-controlled panorama modes, multiexposure HDR, and burst modes that reach up to 5 frames per second.
Of course, the CMOS sensor is only part of the equation. A camera's image-processing engine has to do a lot of the work. And that brings me to my next point...
Quad-Core Phones Will Have Great Camera Features
As Ginny Mies explains in her 2012 smartphone preview, the mobile world will be all about quad-core phones and tablets in the next 12 months or so.
Using that extra processing horsepower--and possibly even dedicated cores for image processing--smartphone cameras are likely to shrink the performance gap between themselves and stand-alone cameras even more in the coming year.
A quad-core phone's processing power will enable features such as faster burst-shooting modes, improved noise reduction, very fast image stitching and stacking for panorama and HDR modes, lightning-quick autofocus, automatic scene recognition, and built-in effects filters that you can apply to video and images as you're shooting them.
With all that additional imaging firepower in smartphones, plus their ability to share everything wirelessly on the go, what can stand-alone cameras do to establish a competitive edge over phones? Funny you should ask.
Long Zooms, Wide Apertures, Manual Controls, and Rugged Frames
Even as phone cameras improve dramatically, certain aspects of a stand-alone camera's optics, controls, and hardware will be superior for the foreseeable future. Look for the major camera manufacturers to focus on what smartphone cameras can't do, and then to attack those shortcomings with reckless abandon.
For example, pocket megazoom cameras are becoming truly pocketable, which seems impossible given their optical-zoom ranges. We've seen compact cameras that are less than an inch thick yet offer optical-zoom ranges up to 12X; expect body sizes to shrink and zoom ranges to grow in the next year.
Another type of camera that wields serious imaging advantages over your average smartphone is the "premium" or "advanced" point-and-shoot. These pocketable cameras offer bright, wide-aperture lenses--often F2.0 or F1.8 at the wide-angle end of the zoom--in addition to manual exposure controls.
Compared with most camera phones, these models are capable of excellent image quality in low light and with shallow depth-of-field effects, both due to the maximum aperture settings. In past years, these higher-end pocket cameras have been priced around $400 to $500; in the next year, we may see more of them following the pricing strategy of the $300-range Nikon Coolpix P300.
And because you probably don't want to risk damaging the center of your mobile-computing universe by using it to take underwater or skydiving shots, ruggedized cameras will always have a competitive edge in the "phones versus cameras" discussion. All the major camera manufacturers continue to release waterproof, drop-proof, snowproof, and dustproof cameras--some of which will look more like everyday models than weatherproofed niche devices.
Next page: Interchangeable-Lens Cameras, Lytro
The Expanding World of Interchangeable-Lens Cameras
Of course, if you really want to make sure that your camera outperforms a smartphone, it's best to step up to a DSLR or a compact interchangeable-lens camera.
Over the past year, the realm of compact interchangeable-lens cameras has matured significantly, as new players such as Nikon and Pentax have joined the mirrorless fray. Perhaps more important, the world of compact interchangeable-lens cameras has branched out to include different models for different types of users.
Panasonic, Olympus, and Sony, for example, now have several models in their mirrorless lineups, from ultraportable cameras designed for novice shooters (Panasonic's Lumix GF3, Olympus's Pen Mini, and Sony's NEX-C3) to more-advanced and more-expensive models designed to be real replacements for a full-fledged DSLR (Panasonic's Lumix GX1 and GH2, Olympus's Pen E-P3, and Sony's NEX-7).
Now that most of the major camera makers have a stake in the compact interchangeable-lens camera market, look for relative newcomers such as Nikon and Pentax to develop different "levels" of cameras in the category. Also, this could be the year that Canon joins the compact interchangeable-lens party.
Will Lytro Change Everything?
Still, for all the variation in the world of interchangeable-lens cameras these days, none of them are capable of light-field photography.
Quite possibly the most exciting announcement in the past year of digital photography, Lytro's light-field camera is due to ship in the first quarter of 2012. It's the first consumer camera that lets you select a focus point for your photo after you shoot it, simply by touching the camera's small touchscreen viewfinder or offloading the images to a computer and clicking on part of the photo.
Lytro's first-generation camera will be very limited in image resolution (rumored to be just north of 1 megapixel), OS compatibility (it'll work only with Macs at launch), and wallet-friendliness (it's priced at $400 for an 8GB version and $500 for a 16GB version).
However, it could make up for those constraints in wow factor and operational simplicity. Other compelling features include a very long-life battery that's built to last on a single charge until the camera's storage capacity is filled, as well as the ability to create 3D stills easily with the camera's light-field sensor.
The camera is an extremely innovative device, and it'll be interesting to see if the product catches on en masse in 2012. And if it does, could Lytro's light-field sensor technology find its way into other cameras and phones?
"We feel that there's a lot of technology that we can apply to some very differentiated, very interesting, and very exciting products," says Lytro executive chairman Charles Chi. "We feel that we have the capital to do that, the capability in the company to do that, and also the vision to execute on the program. So we're very focused on building our own branded cameras and product line to sell in the marketplace."
Phone cameras would be a challenge, however. "If we were to apply the technology in smartphones, that ecosystem is, of course, very complex with some very large players there," Chi says. "It's an industry that's very different, and driven based on operational excellence. For us to compete in there, we'd have to be a very different kind of company. So if we were to enter that space, it would definitely be through a partnership and a codevelopment of the technology, and ultimately some kind of licensing with the appropriate partner."
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