When Samsung launched the Galaxy S9 in Auckland, the company invited journalists to an open plan restaurant. There, Samsung invited journalists to photograph the chef preparing food.
The menu included a dish with a viscous pour-on sauce. This was a clever way of highlighting the S9’s very slow motion video function. The results were impressive.
Samsung hired a video professional to take slow motion footage of bees entering a hive. Shown on a giant TV screen, the pictures were crystal clear and, at times, had stunning clarity.
When phone makers show journalists new devices, they devote at least half the time to cameras.
Apple and Huawei have the same emphasis on photography.
Phone makers with smaller budgets push camera features to the top of their press releases.
During technical presentations company insiders talk at great length about phone features. At least a third of allotted time is camera talk. You can come away with the impression that’s all they want to talk about.
Every phone maker mentioned so far and some others will tell you they have the best phone camera. In a limited sense most of them are right, although it depends on your terms of reference. No phone costing, say, $800 or more has a bad camera.
In the last year or so, every phone maker used the word ‘bokeh’ at least once in their launch presentation. It would not be hard to think up a cliché bingo card for phone launch attendees.
If this sounds like ‘me too’ market, well, it can be at times. Everyone seems to think a fashion parade is original.
Yet there are important difference. Each company’s best camera excels at something else. Samsung’s Galaxy S9 does well in low light and can do very slow motion video. Huawei’s Mate 10 is best for black and white photography.
Most phone makers can point at unique camera hardware features. They can all point at unique software.
The quality of still and moving pictures from high end phones is remarkable. If you know what you’re doing — we’ll come back to that point — you can achieve wonderful things. This is even more impressive when you consider how small the lenses are. Phone lenses are prone to finger smudges and camera shake is a given.
A point of difference
So why do phone makers put so much emphasis on cameras? An obvious reason is cameras differentiate what can otherwise be me-too products.
Telephony and connectivity are much the same on all phones including cheap ones. Screen resolution is higher than the human eye can perceive. Few high-end phones struggle with processing power. These days they all look alike.
While there is a huge and obvious software difference between Apple’s iPhone range and Android handsets, you couldn’t say the same for Android models. Phone makers add their own software skins to stock Android. In almost every case this detracts value, at least from the customer’s perspective.
This leaves cameras and camera software as a playground for creativity and innovation. Which, in turn, brings us to the second reason phone makers place so much emphasis on photography.
Phone hardware designs and specifications have stabilised. With the move to remove bezels, that is the borders around screens, there’s little left to tinker with. Samsung struggles deciding where to put its fingerprint scanner. Otherwise, physical phone design has reached a cul-de-sac, at least for now.
The Galaxy S9 looks so much like the S8. Samsung had to come up with a new case colour for people wanting to show off their new phone.
Room for phone camera improvement
Over the last few years phone makers found room for improvement in their camera hardware and software. It’s likely this will soon reach another dead end. The laws of physics mean there’s only so much you can do with a tiny lens and sensor array.
The last big innovation was the move to dual lens cameras. This hasn’t played out yet. Meanwhile, at least one phone maker, Huawei, is talking of a triple lens camera.
There’s a danger this could become like the disposable razor business. There, for a time, adding an extra blade gave the appearance of innovation to an otherwise evolved product. It could be like tail fins on 1950s American cars. In effect we’re talking innovation for the sake of having an innovation talking point.
Another danger is that customers are loosing interest in phone cameras. Or, more likely, customer interest in phone cameras is not in alignment with phone maker hype.
Take, again, the Samsung Galaxy S9 slow-motion video feature. As mentioned early, the results are impressive, but how many Galaxy S9 buyers will use it?
Or, more to the point, how many will continue to use it beyond playing around with it when they first get their phone?
You can ask the same question about many of the camera innovations phone makers promote. Is the beauty mode, which attempts to make people look better, anything more than passing fad. How many phone owners have taken more than a handful of bokeh shots with blurred backgrounds?
Are people buying cameras or phones?
Slow-motion video is nice-to-have, but it’s unlikely more than one phone buyer in 20 will use it often. Similar reasoning goes for all fancy high-end phone camera features.
The flip side of this logic is worth considering. High-end phones with fancy camera features sell at a considerable premium. You may pay NZ$500 extra to get that super camera in your hands. If you only use it a dozen or so times, that feature has cost you $40 a shot.
Skeptical readers might see the industry’s obsession with camera phones as a way of forcing up handset prices. It also repairs margins in a business where only Apple and Samsung make decent money.
Of course, you can use phone cameras for serious work. If you need to take pictures in your job, the extra cost can be a smart investment.
Yet, in general you can’t take pictures of the quality you’d get from a SLR or any decent camera with a much bigger lens and sensor array. Phone cameras are handy, we carry them with us all the time. And the quality is so good that at times it is hard to tell if an iPhone or a Canon camera took the shot.
When the phone camera is hard to use
One phone camera drawback is they are hard to use in a hurry. Sure, all the phone makers tell us how easy their products are to use. Even so, the software can be confusing.
Phone camera interfaces are often tiny and you need to hunt around to find controls. Almost everyone uses the default mode for every shot. What’s more, stabbing at controls on a phone screen is not the best way to steady your hand to take pictures. Adjusting and using a digital SLR is easy in comparison.
There is still some room for improvement with phone cameras. Among other things Huawei’s third lens could do the trick. There is scope for yet more innovation in the software and, yes, a better user interface.
No doubt other improvements are in the works. At best we may see one or two more cycles. In the meantime some phone makers are switching their marketing attention to what they call AI or artificial intelligence.
It’s questionable whether this is real AI in the sense that the software learns things from use. There’s also a big question over whether phone buyers give a toss for this approach. We’ll see.
End of the golden age
Phone makers face a far bigger problem than competition with each other. It appears phone sales have faltered and now may be about to end the same kind of fall that has plagued the PC sector.
People are hanging on to their phone longer. Research companies like IDC and Gartner put this down to consumers not being so enchanted with new feature that they feel a need to upgrade.
Given the marketing emphasis phone makers put on cameras, that can be evidence they are out of sync with what customers want. Whatever that is, it’s unlikely to be a way of taking better photographs or videos.