Your latest camera probably has Wi-Fi capabilities, yet we know a lot of people say they simply don't use that capability at all. In part this is because the potentially useful image transfer apps can be awkward or unreliable to use. Why is it so difficult to simply transfer some images to your phone?

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It's been nearly twenty years since Nikon introduced the first Wi-Fi enabled cameras and 16 years since the iPhone helped to ushered in the modern smartphone era, and yet we continue to hear about how unreliable and inconsistent the experience of connecting cameras can be.

Wouldn't it be nice?

The experience can be deeply frustrating, as the concept holds so much promise: the idea of being able to use a dedicated camera to take precisely the photo you want and then be able to share or upload it using a smartphone seems obvious. Irrespective of image quality differences, the best cameras are much better for engaging with the photographic process than a little glass slab with a circle icon at the bottom of the screen.

Equally, a smartphone already has the communication capabilities, advanced interface and wireless contract associated with it, which should mean that there's no need pay to duplicate the cellular and GPS hardware, for your camera maker to try to develop an extensive input interface or for anyone to convince large, often intransigent network operators to provide sensibly-priced plans for devices that aren't going to be used for web browsing or phone calls.

I wouldn't wish this on anyone: the suite of smartphone apps I use when reviewing cameras.

Easy smartphone connectivity, whether it's to transfer photos, remotely control the camera or append location data to images, should be one of the main ways for cameras to compete with the (or, perhaps, take advantage of) the simplicity and ubiquity of smartphones, so it's very much in the interest of the camera makers to make this all work. So why hasn't this problem been resolved a long time ago?

Phone makers don't make it easy

It sounds like it shouldn't be too difficult a challenge: there are only two smartphone operating systems used in significant numbers: iOS and Android. But each presents its own problems. To support the 'security/privacy' arm of its sales pitch, Apple is very controlling over its hardware. For many years its phones didn't include NFC hardware, so there could be no 'tap to connect' option for iOS users, and when it finally added NFC, it was only used for contactless payments. Likewise, it's long been an Apple restriction that apps don't have the power to change Wi-Fi connection settings. This makes sense from a security point of view, but means users have to manually change to their camera's Wi-Fi connection, rather than the app being able to do it in the background.

Although it's the lowest rated of the camera makers' apps on the Google Play store, I can't remember the last time I had a problem with Fujifilm's Camera Connect app, possibly because I'm typically testing the latest model. I'm aware X100V owners, for instance, have had a very different experience.

Android phones don't have a single company dictating what can and can't be done by apps. Instead it has a wide variety of phone makers doing different things using a much more diverse range of hardware, which makes it difficult for a camera maker to give a consistent experience across different devices. I've variously been told by camera makers that their app didn't work because my phone was too new, because it wasn't from a popular enough maker to have been worth testing on, and then because it was too old to be supported. All within the space of about 12 months.

Camera makers aren't s/w developers

This experience highlights the underlying problem: camera makers aren't software companies, at heart. Camera companies are also often smaller than most people assume. They have teams developing software for their cameras, in terms of both underlying features and user interfaces, but that doesn't necessarily mean they have the software development resources to develop apps for two operating systems or to continually keep them updated as those operating systems evolve.

Even if they have in-house capabilities to develop apps, they may not have the resources or the mindset to maintain backwards compatibility while also trying to keep up with updates to OS versions and newer phone hardware and developing and testing new features for new models.

Conversely, my phone really doesn't like setting up Wi-Fi connections with Nikon's Snapbridge app, which I found very reliable on my previous phone and which generally gets good reviews from users.

This not only creates a problem when Android or iOS moves to a new version or embraces updated phone hardware, but also when camera hardware evolves. For instance, when capabilities such as Bluetooth constant connection or newer Wi-Fi standards appear on new cameras, the focus is often on exploiting these new features, not maintaining compatibility. One camera maker has acknowledged that this is why their app essentially stopped working with some of its older cameras.

This makes it very difficult to assess the quality of connectivity in our reviews, quite aside from the challenge of finding a second phone that uses the other operating system: we're typically either using the cameras before the apps support them, or we find ourselves getting the best possible experience, just after the app has been updated, following extensive testing with the new model.

Cameras last longer than apps

And this highlights the final problem: cameras tend to have much longer lifespans than most phones. The expectation that your new phone, running a newer OS will work just as well with a five year old camera, while also supporting the one that's still in the works is difficult for camera makers to uphold. For instance, both iOS and Android have made the switch from 32-bit to 64-bit and older apps are increasingly not supported.

The most extreme example of this mismatch of timescales comes from one of the world's largest smartphone makers. Samsung built some very advanced smartphone connectivity into its cameras, up to and including its Galaxy Camera models that were essentially smartphones as much as they were cameras. But when the company walked away from the camera market, it left its NX users with cameras whose connectivity capabilities withered, fairly near the start of what should have been long lifespans of their cameras.

This isn't a problem unique to cameras, so it's not necessarily some great plot on the part of Apple and Google to use the cameras built into their devices. Look around your home and you may find you have some app-connectable devices, perhaps an music system, an air conditioning unit or some 'smart' lightbulbs that maybe don't work as reliably as when you first set them up. Many of these devices, too, are likely to outlive the app that they originally worked with.

Things are getting better (slowly)

Despite this pessimism, things do seem to be improving, somewhat. Low-powered constant Bluetooth connections which allow the phone or camera to communicate with the other and initiate a Wi-Fi connection seems to have become more common and increasingly robust.

Being informed of firmware updates and being able to download them via your phone makes it easier to keep your camera up-to-date.

A quick glance at the Google and Apple app stores suggests things are getting better: Canon's Camera Connect app has an average rating of 4.65 out of 5 while Nikon's Snapbridge isn't far behind on 4.35. Perhaps Sony's 1.85 rating will improve as a greater proportion of its users move to recent cameras that support constant connection. Though we suspect Fujifilm would have hoped its new XApp would score higher than its current 2.25 rating (up from the dismal 1.5 stars that the older Camera Connect app achieved).

In addition to (generally) improving performance, most brands' apps are adding features such as the ability to update firmware, on the go (which I've used regularly, across several cameras). But, to an extent, we may need to resign ourselves to the idea that Wi-Fi capability is something that may not last a camera's whole lifetime, and just enjoy it while it lasts.