Geek Vs Geek: Are Cameras Obsolete Thanks to Smartphones?

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Smartphones have fundamentally transformed everyday life in so many ways. Take photography, for example: These days, smartphones have replaced cameras for many people, and camera manufacturers like Nikon are scrambling for relevance. Can you safely sell your old camera? Or is there still a place for cameras in a smartphone world? Dave voices an emphatic yes, while Rick says “good riddance.”

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Once a month, eHow Tech editor Dave Johnson faces off against Rick Broida, who writes about technology for CNET, PC World, and Wired. Follow along as they tackle this question from opposing corners.

Dave: I see the handwriting on the wall: Each year, fewer people buy digital cameras. And those who still have cameras tends to leave them at home and shoot with their smartphones instead (the iPhone was, for a time, the most commonly used camera on Flickr — now it ranks third). That doesn’t mean I have to like the trend, though. Using a smartphone camera instead of a camera camera is kinda like listening to your music collection on a Close ‘n Play. I might be tilting at windmills, but can I at least try to convince people not to abandon their cameras?

Rick: You might as well ask people to hang onto their cassette-tape players and travel agents. Standalone cameras are over, done, finito. Why would I buy (or carry) a separate camera when the phone in my pocket has a huge viewfinder, plenty of megapixels, and integrated apps for instant sharing with friends and family? Go ahead and stick with your dinosaur dSLR, caveman; in the time it took you to find the right lens, I took 50 snapshots of the UFO that just hovered over my house.

Dave: Actually, you just made my point; thank you. Travel agents still exist because there are times when it makes sense to use one — every travel problem can’t be solved on Kayak. Those UFO photos you took? Useless. We all know that UFOs only come at night, so to get a good photo of one, you’ll need to increase the ISO. And you’ll get better results if you switch to one of the nighttime scene modes. Oh, wait, you can’t do any of those things with a smartphone. The iPhone has no ISO control at all (though admittedly, Android does) and no smartphones give you a wealth of exposure options like scene modes, which help compact digital camera shooters take great photos more easily.

Rick: Not so, Geronimo: Lots of apps offer scene modes, and although they may be accomplishing their effects via software wizardry as opposed to light and lens adjustments, the end results are often comparable. Or at least acceptable. Hey, I’m the first to admit there will always be a place in the world for pro-level photography powered by dSLR cameras. But I think that for most shutterbugs, convenience trumps just about everything else. My iPhone 4S camera may not be great, but it’s definitely good enough. And it goes where I go; I’ll be snapping photos of Bigfoot while you’re running back to the car to get your camera bag.

Dave: What is it with you and picking terrible subjects for your smartphone? Your Bigfoot photos will be a blurry mess — phones have relatively slow shutter speeds, making it impossible to freeze action in low light, which as we all know is the only time Bigfoot comes out to forage. And that’s where a lot of this hinges on what we consider “acceptable.” Smartphones take noisy photos because their sensors are so small. They only shoot wide angle shots and are incapable of telephoto photos. They can’t freeze fast action. I could go on about their lack of meaningful exposure controls and their horrific flashes, but I don’t need to. Isn’t it enough that smartphones are robbing a generation of people the ability to take entire categories of photos, like nighttime and telephoto photos? It’s as if we developed a new kind of music player that couldn’t reproduce guitar sounds, so instead of using a different player, people stopped listening to rock and roll. Basically, with smartphone cameras you’re stuck with polkas, and even those only sound so-so. That’s kind of sad, isn’t it?

Rick: Do NOT. Diss. Polkas. Them’s fightin’ words! I’ll admit that my phone does a poor job capturing action, though obviously I can always switch over to video in case Bigfoot is wearing Adidas. What’s interesting is that although compact camera sales are nose-diving, it turns out that digital SLRs–cameras with interchangeable lenses–are on the rise. So it appears that while consumers continue to favor their phones for everyday quick-draw snapshot opportunities, they still want all those options you list above. Indeed, it may be precisely because they’re taking more pictures that they now want to take better pictures, at least when the occasion warrants. I’m thinking kids’ soccer games where you need a strong optical zoom (and fast shutter), family portraits for holiday cards, and things like that. But face facts: smartphone cameras will put point-and-shoots out to pasture like so many Bigfoots.

Dave: So I think that, aside from your irrational love of listening to polkas while photographing cryptozoological creatures, we kind of agree. I think. I say: Smartphones are fine for routine snapshots. And “the best camera is the one you have with you,” is absolutely true. We’re awash in snapshots that document seemingly every moment of our lives, since everyone has a camera with them at all times now. And that’s great — I wish there were more photos of my parents when they were kids, for example. But I draw the line at special events. When I was in Italy, I saw people everywhere taking their once-in-a-lifetime photos by holding iPads at arm’s length. Ugh — not only does it look ridiculous, but the iPad takes terrible, terrible pictures. Birthdays, holidays, graduations, vacations — those special memories deserve to be memorialized on a camera capable of doing those scenes justice. Bottom line: There’s still a place for cameras — let’s not turn all of photography into a polka played on a Close ‘n Play.

Rick: Oh, so now you hate the iPad and, by proxy, all Apple products, is that it? I’m sure the fanboys will have a field day with you. I do think that, for once, we’re on the same page, meaning that, for once, you’re on the Page of Reason. Welcome! It will be interesting to see if camera manufacturers can figure out a way to make point-and-shoots sexy again, which a few are trying now with features like apps and Wi-Fi. On the flipside, phone makers just need to figure out how to build in better lenses and that’ll be the final nail in the compact-camera coffin. From there it’s just Close ‘n Bury.

Who won? We’d love to hear from you. Weigh in with your opinion in the comments, or tweet @davejoh.

What other tech topics would you like to see Dave and Rick discuss? Send your ideas to Dave via Twitter @davejoh. And if you follow Dave, he promises to come to your home and explain something techy to your dad.

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