Smartphones killed the compact and now they're coming for entry-level ILCs
When friends ask me to recommend a camera, more often than not they say they're looking to take better pictures than what they get from their phone. But what does "better than my phone" actually mean?
One of those key differentiating factors has been the "pretty blurry background" effect that an interchangeable lens camera is capable of producing. Whether you know the word 'bokeh' or not, you know what a nice portrait looks like: sharp focus on the subject, a soft blurry background. And you know that your phone can't do it (until now – more on that in a second). In my experience, that's often part of what people mean when they say "better than my phone." But those days are quickly coming to an end, and it's the iPhone 7 Plus leading the way.
The iPhone 7 Plus offers Portrait Mode, which uses depth information from the device's two rear-facing cameras to mimic shallow depth of field. Apple sure didn't invent it, and it's far from perfect, but that doesn't matter: they've made the effect very convincing and put it in the hands of millions of users.
The entry-level ILC is dead, long live the entry-level ILC
It's not even a question of if the $500 ILC becomes obsolete, it's a matter of when. And when may actually be right now. Ex-Google SVP Vic Gundotra spelled it out in a recent Facebook post.
He pretty much hits the nail on the head right there. As it functions now the effect isn't perfect, but it's likely already good enough for most people, and it's only going to keep getting better. And that phrase, "good enough for most people" is exactly how we talked about smartphone cameras just as the compact camera was dealt its final blow.
Computational photography killed the $500 DSLR
I know what you're thinking. "But zoom! Pixel-level resolution! Low light image quality!" I'm here to tell you that smartphones are already well on their way to solving those problems, if they haven't already. And here's the key: they don't have to get it perfect, it just has to be convincing enough to most people. Also, there are approximately zero people outside of the photography community who care how their photos look at 100% magnification.
Smartphone cameras can't get any bigger than they already are, but they can get smarter. With more cameras, sophisticated algorithms and computational techniques, that's exactly what they're doing. It won't be long before your smartphone camera's auto mode will be able to retouch images in real-time. Or change apparent focal length after-the-fact.
Autofocus may be the piece of the puzzle that's hardest to solve. Smartphones are slow to focus in low light, but $500 ILCs don't do a whole lot better. And neither smartphone nor entry-level DSLR is particularly good at tracking a moving toddler, for example. It's always been necessary to go farther up the product chain to get appreciably better autofocus.
Then there's just plain old inertia: lots of people who do want the image quality benefits traditionally associated with a DSLR actually want nothing to do with a DSLR. They're big, confusing and come with a significant learning curve. Camera manufacturers have been able to sell cameras to somewhat unwilling customers because they alone held the keys to better images. So once the device that's already in your pocket does just about everything a Canon T6 does, why on earth would you be bothered to buy a Rebel?
More than just image capture
Also consider that phones aren't just capture devices – they're an interface for your image storage and management. Sure, most entry-level ILCs will connect to your phone via Wi-Fi, but even when it works well, it's never as easy as just capturing the images on your smartphone in the first place.
There are many 'set it and forget it' image management services that will automatically back up your photos, and they don't stop there – they'll automatically identify subjects, allow you to search by keyword and date, and organize them into a reasonably-priced photo book for you. Sure beats the pants off spending hours importing and cataloging photos on your hard drive.
There will always be lower-cost, accessible ILCs for people who want to venture outside of 'green square mode.' But once smartphones can do a reasonably good imitation of things like bokeh and optical zoom, those who never wanted to pick up a dedicated camera won't have to.
You're reading an article on a photography website, so I feel safe saying that you and I care about photography. We want to make pictures, and we take joy in the process. But many people don't, and they are happy to turn the job over to their smartphone. The day when that segment of the photo-taking population can do that and see results that are good enough in their eyes is right around the corner – if it isn't already here.
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