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How digital photography reinvented itself to become better than ever

As a photographer who honed his craft in film, Scott Mead was reluctant to go digital. Everyone was.

“Early digital cameras were 3 to maybe 6 megapixels, and that didn’t really translate into the availability to have very large images,” Mead said. “Whereas when you’re shooting slides, hey, it’s as big as your enlarger can go, then that’s how big you can actually print.”

But then he tried digital, and discovered firsthand how it would revolutionize his work. Mead was working as a photographer for the automotive website, in the late ’90s, and he had purchased one of the first digital Nikon Coolpix cameras to cover the Los Angeles Auto Show.

“All the other photographers, they’re shooting with film, and we were able to take that one little Coolpix and go from new car introduction to new car introduction, and literally scooped everyone because we were able to take the images and had everything live within an hour,” Mead said. “No one else had anything until that night or early the next day.

“That was the eye opener –- the speed that we can get is phenomenal.”

More experiences would soon follow that convinced him to fully embrace digital photography. The ability to take as many photos as he wanted (as long as the memory card had room for them, that is) is a major convenience, as it allowed him to make mistakes without worrying about wasting the 36 exposures he was limited to with film. It also saved him money on slides.

An industry that rewrote its own rules, ate itself, and reinvented itself anew.

“From that day on, I really needed to embrace digital,” Mead said. “I bought one of the first Canon DSLRs, transitioned completely in 2002, and I’ve never looked back.”

The digital camera revolutionized photography. It democratized the medium, making it accessible to more people. For working photographers like Mead, the digital camera made their jobs simpler, faster, and cost-effective. By 2006, the digital camera industry was shipping tens of millions of units, making it a very profitable sector in consumer electronics.

Ten years later reveals a completely different story — an industry that rewrote its own rules, ate itself, and reinvented itself anew. Digital photography is more popular than ever, yet the tool that made it first possible for many consumers — the stand-alone digital camera — is no longer driving things. Despite its impact in tech and culture, the pocket camera is starting down the path that VHS and CD-ROMs took.

What is taking its place is an even more democratic world of imagery, where cameras are all around us, selfies rule, and photography is more vibrant than ever.

And it’s all thanks to Steve Jobs.

The birth and death of the compact digital camera

According to statistics from the Camera and Imaging Products Association (CIPA), a consortium of major Japanese imaging-related companies that includes Sony, Canon, Nikon, Ricoh, Fujifilm, and others, nearly 79 million digital cameras shipped worldwide in 2006. Compare that to 1999 — the year true compact digital cameras entered the marketplace — when just over 5 million units shipped.

By 2010, camera makers shipped more than 121 million cameras. With the exception of a drop in 2009 (attributed to the global economic slowdown), camera makers increased camera shipments every year and offered hundreds of models to choose from.

Photography has never ceased to be a popular hobby since its invention. With the arrival of automatic film cameras, more consumers could easily capture memories without actually learning how to operate a camera. The digital camera only made it easier: There was no need to purchase rolls of film and pay to have them processed; you don’t need to be careful about wasting shots; and you could archive hundreds of images on a computer.

And once the World Wide Web came along, we could easily share our digital images by way of email or sites like Flickr, MySpace, Facebook, etc. The emerging online culture of sharing photos made digital cameras a must-have tool, and companies flooded the market with options.

And then something happened. CIPA recorded a slight drop in 2011, to 115,524,000 — likely due to production constraints stemming from the earthquake and tsunami that affected Japan. While the number didn’t set off any alarms, the years that followed did. Camera shipments dipped below 100 million in 2012; to 63 million in 2013; 44 million in 2014; and 35 million in 2015. From January to October of this year, approximately 19 million cameras were shipped.

The initial drop could be blamed on the recession, or the tsunami, but what of the years that followed? The answer is simple: In 2011, a device called the iPhone 4S debuted. It touted a new backside-illuminated eight-megapixel camera that also recorded video in Full HD 1080p and introduced the masses to high-dynamic-range photography. The powerful camera inside this smartphone, which Digital Trends dubbed the point-and-shoot killer, demonstrated that users no longer needed a separate stand-alone camera for photography.

Cell phone cameras weren’t new, of course. Anyone who owned a phone in the mid-2000s probably had a low-resolution camera useful for taking temporary photos, images for MMS, and so on. There was still a need for a stand-alone cameras.

But the iPhone (and subsequently all smartphones) changed people’s mindset and attitudes toward images. And when the shift occurred, it happened fast.

Image used with permission by copyright holder
With its powerful backside-illuminated camera sensor, the iPhone 4S closed the gap between smartphone and point-and-shoot cameras. (Credit: Greg Mombert/Digital Trends)

The smartphone battle

When Apple announced the iPhone 4S, its predecessor, the iPhone 4, was already the most popular camera on photo-sharing site Flickr (and iPhones are still the most popular cameras among today’s users). The iPhone 4S brought specs traditionally found in point-and-shoots to the smartphone: a back-illuminated sensor from Sony, superb optics, stabilization, face detection, and HDR, to name a few. And the inclusion of a separate, front-facing camera triggered the self-portrait craze, otherwise known as selfies.

The rise of smartphone cameras had started before the iPhone 4S, of course. While the three-megapixel camera in the iPhone 3GS wasn’t stellar, the phone was listed as one of Flickr’s top cameras, alongside the iPhone 4. Casual shutterbugs were embracing the smartphone as their everyday camera, eschewing bulkier stand-alone options.

“That social feedback was the motivating factor, not image quality.”

The iPhone 3GS and other smartphones of the time (2009) didn’t take the highest-quality photos, but for the majority of users, they were more than good enough. From a marketing position, smartphone makers like Apple took a page from Kodak’s book, focusing on capturing the moment rather than making art. For the 3GS, Apple highlighted its strengths, like the ability to record and edit video in-camera.

Camera makers wouldn’t know how the smartphone would affect their financials until much later, but the decreasing sales and user migration didn’t escape them. But rather than embracing this new technology, they created attack plans that highlighted the weaknesses of smartphone cameras: the poor resolution, due to very small sensors; the lack of optical zoom and optical image stabilization; and manual shooting modes. Nearly every camera maker ran smear campaigns. Olympus ran ads that poked fun of smartphone cameras; still redirects to its website. Panasonic proclaimed, “If it has a ringtone, it’s not a camera.”

But what drew users to the smartphone were ease of use and the killer apps, something camera company executives didn’t grasp at the time. The camera wasn’t the highlight feature, it was what you could do with the photos that users found attractive. You could make on-the-fly edits; add creative flair to photos; and more than anything else, you could share them. Users could now attach photos to emails immediately after they were taken. They could send them to other smartphone owners by MMS. Or and this is what would ignite the explosion in smartphone photography: They could share them with the rest of the world via social media, particularly Instagram. It encouraged users to get their photos off their devices, something that eluded camera makers.

Panasonic Lumix Billboard
Image used with permission by copyright holder
Camera companies tried in vain to shame smartphone users into buying point-and-shoot cameras, but convenience won. (Credit: Jason in Hollywood)

“The camera on the first iPhone was not good — it was on par with the rest of the industry at the time,” Scott Peterson, an industry analyst at Gap Intelligence who covers the camera and smartphone markets, told Digital Trends. “So Apple wasn’t pitching its photography prowess. But the phone had a good, simple way to beam content across the Internet. Apple put it in the public eye of a product that people really wanted, and it encouraged growth in social networking. Not print it out or archive it somewhere, but put it on Facebook. And you liked it, and that felt good. That social feedback was the motivating factor, not image quality.”

Apple then took the fight to the camera makers’ turf, challenging the industry on what were once perceived as the iPhone’s weaknesses, like resolution. In advertising and keynotes, the iPhone’s camera would take center stage. Marketing campaigns like “Shot on iPhone” demonstrated the smartphone’s capability of producing images good enough for billboards. By the time the latest iPhones arrived, Apple had stopped comparing them to stand-alone cameras — the iPhone is the camera.

2.5 trillion photos will be shared online in 2016.

And as the technology continued to grow in smartphone cameras, the stand-alone digital camera remained stagnant.

“Compact cameras used to be king,” Peterson said. “It was all about how sleek and sexy you can get these things -– they were fashion accessories. The smartphone just destroyed that entire market –- now the Galaxy smartphone is that accessory.”

It isn’t just consumers who are benefiting from smartphone cameras. Professional photographers like Mead are too.

“Despite their size, smartphones can take extremely good images,” said Mead, who now runs photography workshops in Maui, Hawaii. “The engineers have come up with processing engines and algorithms to translate the light correctly, to where shooting with an iPhone nowadays, it’s really hard to get a bad image.

“But the other great thing is that it has opened up a plethora of tools and apps that aid the photographer,” Mead added. “It takes so much guesswork out of it that we are able to plan things to where we could set up to get the best image possible.”

Apple’s “shot on iPhone” ad campaign helped convince the masses that phone cameras were good enough for everything – including billboard photos. (Credit: Apple)

Lauren Wendle has seen the many changes in the photo industry since she started working in the photography trade show business in the 1970s. As the vice president of Emerald Expositions, which puts on the PhotoPlus and WPPI professional photography trade shows, the success of the camera industry is important to her business. But even she agrees that the smartphone has changed the industry.

“Point-and-shoot camera have totally been replaced by iPhones,” Wendle said. “Even professional photographers -– they used to take point-and-shoot cameras with them when they were traveling, but now no one does.

“The smartphone business is really affecting camera companies more and more as the cameras in phones have gotten better,” Wendle added. “[The camera industry is] feeling it even more this year -– a lot of their profit margin was with point-and-shoot cameras, which it’s not now. Even though our trade shows are for professional photographers, and companies like Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Olympus are strong in our pro area, those manufacturers are affected, so they don’t have as much money to spend.”

Could the hemorrhaging have stopped sooner?

Thanks to smartphones, there are more images being taken now than ever before. According to a report from Deloitte, 2.5 trillion photos will be shared online in 2016, with smartphones accounting for a staggering 90 percent of the photos taken. That’s not to suggest photographers aren’t using higher-end equipment, but with a stat like that, combined with the falling numbers of stand-alone camera sales, it’s clear smartphones have become the preferred tool, and Apple the preferred phone, despite years of history and market share and mind share built by companies like Palm, Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola.

Could companies have prevented Apple from encroaching into their territory? Should they have?

On the phone side, the iPhone’s concept was so different that many established makers dismissed its potential. They didn’t see it as a threat — at least, not publicly. Palm’s then-CEO, Ed Colligan, said, “We’ve learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone. PC guys are not going to just figure this out.” Jon Rubinstein, a former Apple vice president and also a former Palm CEO, stressed the importance of having specialized devices that handled a single function, rather than a single device that did everything.

“The standalone pocket camera was doomed from the beginning.”

Camera makers didn’t seem threatened at all. After all, the iPhone had a so-so two-megapixel camera that didn’t exactly wow. In fact, the iPhone camera was perceived the same way cell phone cameras had always been perceived: They were low-resolution gizmos  — more novelty than useful. To take “real” photos, you need a “real” camera.

“I had a slide in my presentation [at the time] where I mentioned a story about how to re-create Instagram using vintage cameras and film, as a funny joke,” Peterson recalled of meetings he had with camera companies. “I got straight faces from these top executives of every camera corporation, and all of them were like, ‘What’s Instagram?’”

Ultimately, had camera companies responded appropriately and sooner, could the stand-alone point-and-shoot have been saved? Peterson says no.

“The standalone pocket camera was doomed from the beginning,” Peterson said. “The problem is that you’re making me carry two gadgets, which is why I hesitate to say this could have been avoided. Cameras were disrupted because they were inconvenient.”

Despite that outlook, Peterson does wish camera makers had taken more of an opportunity to try something different.

“What I would have liked to see more of were wild attempts to capture [the market] back. What was Sony thinking with those QX cameras? That was cool. Olympus has their Air. But they never really executed on those products.”

Sony’s QX100 endowed Android phones with the power of a “real” camera, but didn’t make it far. (Credit: Sony)

By the time the threat was seen, it was too late to stop. In 2014, Digital Trends questioned why major camera companies were even still making them. David Elrich, our camera reviewer, noted that companies had a lot of factories and could crank things out; point-and-shoot digital cameras retained a foothold in select markets, particularly in developing countries, but even those would eventually shrink. Some internal employees at the major companies — from product managers to executives — privately acknowledged that they should have taken smartphones more seriously, and partnered with phone makers on things like sensor or lens design.

Between 2012 and 2013, Fujifilm and Olympus exited the compact, entry-level camera business to focus on more profitable models. Other manufacturers followed suit by cutting the number of new models introduced, or leaving the sector entirely. By 2016, the compact point-and-shoot has become a niche gadget. On the other hand, if the smartphone is viewed as a camera, the point-and-shoot is alive and well.

The pocket camera is dead –- long live the pocket camera.

Camera companies had the right ideas

The smartphone takeover suggests camera makers weren’t innovative with their products, which isn’t true. Sony was an early pioneer in digital photography, for example. Its Mavica camera was the first digital-like still camera that recorded onto floppy disks (the camera used a CCD sensor, yet recorded an analog signal). Canon and Nikon turned their film-based single-lens-reflex (SLR) cameras — the workhorse of pro photographers — into digital variants that would streamline photographers’ workflows, making them easier. These and other digital camera products required a lot of research and development.

Camera companies also dabbled in making “connected” models long before modern smartphones came about. Kodak was the first to offer Wi-Fi in a consumer camera, the EasyShare One, which allowed users to upload photos to a web portal via an Internet hot spot.

Kodak executives failed to see the business potential or that digital could one day replace film.

“Kodak could have been so huge with this,” Peterson said. “It connected to its EasyShare online gallery, which was basically Facebook of that time. But it wasn’t popular because Kodak never supported it with additional product launches.”

Immediately following suit were Nikon and Canon, which introduced Wi-Fi-enabled models in their Coolpix and PowerShot point-and-shoots. And in 2007, a startup called Eye-fi released an SD card that added wireless connectivity to any camera. Other camera technologies, like facial recognition, subject tracking, scene recognition, and digital video, were also developed by camera company engineers.

Ideas from early camera companies sound very similar to what smartphones do now, in fact. But the problem was that they were too early, and they didn’t know how to properly grow a demand for these products.

“Canon and Nikon came out with Wi-Fi derivatives of existing models, but they added a $100 premium,” Peterson said. “A $399 compact was now $499, but did the same stuff.” And because the Wi-Fi functionality was limited, few consumers wanted to pay the premium. “Both Canon and Nikon failed, and I’m sure they had some meetings and ‘consumers hate Wi-Fi’ was their takeaway,” Peterson said.

Camera companies had dictated how we shot photography for so long –- using a small box with a shutter that opened and closed –- that, like original cell phones, it became almost impossible to see it being done any other way. Plus, the camera companies, particularly those in Japan, tend to be cautious before introducing new concepts –- more reactionary than proactive.

“This is a classic case of The Innovator’s Dilemma,” said Bradley Lautenbach, the senior vice president of marketing and product design at Light, a company that’s created a computational camera, the L16, that uses 16 cameras and software to deliver DSLR-like performance in a compact unit. “The incumbent camera companies have very little near-term incentive to disrupt themselves by exploring radical departures via research and development.”

steven sasson kodak
Image used with permission by copyright holder
Kodak engineer Steve Sasson invented the first digital camera in 1975, but the company shelved it for two decades before offering digital cameras to consumers. (Credit: Steven Sasson)

But there were innovators working there who saw the future, including a young Kodak engineer named Steven Sasson. Sasson is the father of the first single-unit digital camera, which he invented in 1975. The prototype –- pieced together using various parts that included a new technology called the charged coupled device, or CCD –- captured 0.01-megapixel black-and-white images that were recorded onto a cassette tape. The camera was gigantic by today’s standards, as it involved a Kodak Super 8 lens, an analog-to-digital converter, and other electronic components.

“This was more than just a camera,” Sasson told the New York Times last year. “It was a photographic system to demonstrate the idea of an all-electronic camera that didn’t use film and didn’t use paper … .”

While Kodak is credited for this milestone, this particular prototype was never developed into a production model; Kodak continued to focus on its highly lucrative film products instead, and didn’t enter the consumer digital camera market until almost 20 year later –- well after other camera makers, mainly those in Japan, seized on the new technology.

Almost nobody at Kodak knew what he was working on, Sasson said, even though he had been hired to explore new uses for CCD sensors –- a component that would be the backbone of consumer digital cameras.

Inventor Portrait: Steven Sasson

Kodak executives failed to see the business potential or that digital could one day replace film. Kodak patented the digital camera technology in 1978, and Sasson continued to develop digital-based technologies and products within Kodak, including the first digital single-lens-reflex (SLR) camera.

Instead, Kodak licensed the patent to others (essentially every company that made a digital camera) and made billions off Sasson’s invention. As film became obsolete, what Kodak made off its digital patents wasn’t enough to prevent it from sliding into bankruptcy. The company embraced its own revolutionary invention too late, and its patents would later be sold to a consortium of companies that included Apple, Google, Samsung, and Facebook –- companies that are leading consumer digital photography today.

In 2006, “Kodak was the biggest exhibitor at trade shows 10 years ago, with its film products” Wendle said. “It went from being the biggest to not exhibiting at all.”

Refocusing on the DSLR, OEM, new technologies

By 2016, the traditional camera companies were finally working with smartphones, rather than fighting against them. For one thing, most stand-alone cameras now include Wi-Fi connectivity that lets you control the camera remotely or upload photos to the Internet via a smartphone.

Instead, camera companies are marketing different types of point-and-shoots -– ones that offer something unique that smartphones can’t. These include long-zoom models –- or megazooms –- that put a telephoto lens into a compact, fixed-lens unit; rugged cameras that can take a literal beating and survive in harsh climates; and action cameras, small camcorders that shoot high-definition videos (led by GoPro, which itself was a disruptor when it entered the camera business). Canon even tried to create a new category of youth-oriented connected point-and-shoots, including a model called the PowerShot N that had a unique design and approach.

“The smartphone is extremely automatic, but it doesn’t see the light the way human eye sees light”

“The PowerShot N was the ‘Instagram’ camera that you took one picture and it shot six random filters,” Peterson said. “I almost cried when I saw that, because that was fun. But they never executed on that product. Camera companies haven’t found a winning product with the youth.”

Then there are premium, advanced point-and-shoots. These cameras, which typically cost more, offer high-end specs that include large sensors, quality glass optics, innovative features, and manual shooting modes. These compact cameras deliver far better images than what smartphones can muster (for now), without stepping up to an interchangeable lens model.

But even these point-and-shoot models make up a small number of the total shipped. According to CIPA, fixed lens models dropped from approximately 45,000 in 2013, to around 22,000 in 2015, down 50 percent. That’s a lot of shrinkage. Camera companies are focusing on interchangeable lens cameras (ILCs), which include DSLRs and mirrorless (non-reflex). With these models, their makers are introducing new specs and features that allow users to capture amazing photography and videography.

Case in point: Panasonic’s latest cameras offer the abilities to extract high-resolution stills from a 4K video and choose a point of focus after a shot has been taken, while Olympus is using sensor-shift technology that lets you shoot even higher resolution images that what the sensor can natively shoot. And, DSLRs are being used to shoot full-length movies and television shows. In short: Interchangeable lens cameras are still as great as ever.

Panasonic’s latest Lumix cameras allow photographers to adjust the focus after a photo is taken. (Credit: Panasonic)

“Smartphones are going to be that all-in-one tool, but I don’t think it’s going to make the DSLR obsolete because there are so many of us who are traditionalist,” Mead said. “The smartphone is extremely automatic, but it doesn’t see the light the way human eye sees light, in the way that we can make a DSLR interpret light the way we see it. DSLRs are going to be fine.”

“DSLR cameras made the everyday prosumer able to shoot Hollywood-style videos, inexpensively,” said Joel Holland, founder of VideoBlocks, an agency that provides stock video footage. Many of the VideoBlocks content offered were created using cameras like DSLRs. “All of a sudden you had people shooting artistic videos with shallow depth of field, and that created a professional look in the viewers’ eyes because that’s what we typically see in movies.”

Some companies are finding success in other areas. Sony’s digital imaging division, which had suffered losses along with the rest of the company, is now one of the company’s bright spots. Although Sony is making some of the best cameras (its mirrorless camera sales are actually growing), it’s also profiting from making sensors, which are used in many imaging products, including the iPhone and Google’s new Pixel.

“I’ve never been more excited about photography.”

Sony’s sensor technology is one reason why today’s premium smartphones can deliver the type of image quality once associated only with digital cameras. Business is lucrative enough that even Canon is looking to sell its sensors to others. For other companies, that revenue could lie in lenses (Nikon) or image stabilization (Olympus).

Then there are the surprises, like Fujifilm’s Instax series of instant cameras and film, which work similarly to old Polaroid cameras. For the first time, Fujifilm’s instant film cameras outsold its digital models, thanks to a newfound interest in film photography among younger users –- like turntables, what’s retro is cool again. It’s so popular that Fujifilm has even created an instant film printer that works with smartphones, bridging the divide between digital and analog. It’s too bad the original Polaroid couldn’t hold on, because Fujifilm is now profiting from what Polaroid used to do best.

Photography’s future is brighter than ever

The past 10 years has seen a transformation in the tools we use to capture images, and the next 10 will continue to evolve how we record and experience visual content.

Despite the slowdown in traditional camera sales, interest in photography and, increasingly, videography, are only getting stronger, and it’s being driven Silicon Valley. As evidenced by social networking, people are sharing an incredible number of photos online. People share more than 80 million photos per day on Instagram, and through likes and reshares, it’s also one of the more active social media sites on the internet. And imagery is the backbone of the Snapchat messaging service.

“I’ve never been more excited about photography,” Peterson said. “It is more accessible to more people -– it is more important and valuable than ever.”

With more people taking photos than before, “their visual literacy has become greater and greater,” Emerald Expositions’ Wendle said. She sees this as a positive in her business of putting on trade shows, as it draws new visitors who are interested in attending seminars on how to shoot better photography.

“For the casual photographer, it’s going to become a lot easier to capture an incredible image, to really preserve a moment as it was experienced,” said Light’s Lautenbach. “For the experienced photographer, new tools and tricks are coming which will really help the artist push the bounds of the medium. It’s a very exciting time for anyone who takes pictures (which is pretty much everyone now).”

- Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
A new generation of cameras, like Ricoh’s Theta, allow you take 360-degree photos. (Credit: Theta)

In the immediate future, new technologies, like machine learning and artificial intelligence, will take smartphone cameras to the next level, as evidenced by Google’s Pixel phone and the many photo-related apps it has built. Through complex algorithms, software will automatically tag your photos and even group them into categories, as well as recognize faces. The technology is already being used in apps like Google Photos and stock photo services like Shutterstock.

Digital zooms, once frowned upon in digital cameras, could see a resurgence due to improved processing and software. New designs, like the dual lens and image stabilization, as well as support for uncompressed RAW files in the iPhone 7 Plus, show how smartphone makers can overcome the limitations of a thin frame –- putting to rest any lingering doubts whether smartphones can function as “real” cameras. Om Malik, a well-regarded technologist and founder of the now-shuttered GigaOM site, went as far to say recently that Apple has changed the camera industry forever with the iPhone 7 –- a device that’s getting close to being DSLR-like.

Further out in the future, virtual reality and augmented reality are being touted as ways people will enjoy content. But you don’t have to go too far into the future to see this happening. Headsets like Samsung’s Galaxy VR and Google’s Daydream View are already tools available to experience photos and videos in a new way, rather than on a 2D screen. And to create content for these displays, 360-degree cameras — like the Ricoh Theta, Samsung Galaxy 360, Kodak Pixpro 360, and Giroptic 360cam — are starting to make their way into consumers’ hands.

Companies that have diversified, such as Sony and Canon, will fare better.

“I do really see virtual reality being a much bigger deal,” Wendle said. “In our [PhotoPlus Expo trade show], we have an area dedicated to film VR, but it’s only just the beginning.”

Consumer quadcopters, or drones, may have seemed gimmicky when they first hit the scene, but expect them to become popular, particularly with aerial photography. According to market research group NDP, sales of drones were up threefold in 2016. And if a company like GoPro is getting into the market, it’s one to keep watching.

And then there are the established companies and startups, such as Facebook and Light, that are putting R&D dollars into developing cutting-edge software and hardware that go beyond what we’ve seen. Facebook is looking to lead in virtual reality content, building off its acquisition of Oculus and even releasing instructions on how to build a 360-degree camera for its platform. Facebook sees imaging as a big part of its organization. Its social network now supports viewing of 360-degree photos and videos, and it’s pushing live broadcasting with Facebook Live. But like many companies, it’s betting big that VR is the next frontier.

The L16, from Light, is a compact camera that delivers the power of a DSLR. Using 16 individual sensors that fire simultaneously, the resulting image is equal to a 52-megapixel camera. And, like Lytro’s light-field technology, the Light 16 lets you refocus afterward using what’s called computational photography. It’s one example of how compact cameras could evolve, using computing to overcome limitations of small sensors and optics, according to Lautenbach. (As for Lytro’s light-field technology, which was cutting-edge when first unveiled, the company is now developing high-end camera systems for capturing incredible content for VR experiences.)

“Cameras in the present are already becoming more like computers,” Lautenbach said. “The leading smartphones are all playing around with computational photography. By sheer virtue of the economics alone (so much cheaper to produce, especially at scale), we see computational cameras becoming the dominant category in five-to-ten years. The quality and versatility provided by these new cameras will only expedite that shift.”

The groundbreaking Light L16 camera shoots with an array of different sensors and optics, then fuses the final product into a massive 52-megapixel image. (Credit: Light)

The future could get even closer to the world of science fiction. Picture personal drones that follow us daily, capturing every part of our everyday lives; photos taken using iris technology; or even combining the smartphone and camera into a smartwatch. Whether or not these technologies are successful, imaging will be central to our future, and the camera –- whatever form it takes -– is key.

“Camera technology is going to continue to change,” Wendle said. “We’ll see who comes out with the next version of a camera that people really love -– I’m not sure who it will be, maybe it will be a traditional camera maker, maybe it won’t be. But I think cameras will continue to evolve, and we’re already seeing some of that now. We’re also seeing different kinds of software, and people have become more interested in printing lately. Drones are popular, and we have an area in our trade shows for VR and AR.”

As for the traditional camera makers, it’s difficult to predict where they go from here. It’s not improbable to see companies pull out — even highly profitable Samsung, which developed several cameras we loved, has called it quits. But many will be just fine. Companies that have diversified, such as Sony and Canon, will fare better, thanks to different business units. Sony has movie production and distribution, as well as video games, while Canon is investing in medical, security, and business printing –- areas that are profitable. The same goes for Panasonic, Olympus, and others that don’t solely rely on their camera business.

What happened to the camera industry is a story applicable to any technology company.

But a company like Nikon, whose entire business is entrenched in traditional camera products, could face a tougher challenge. Even GoPro, which dominates the point-of-view camcorder market, needs to diversify or risk becoming the next Flip – another wildly popular camcorder whose obsolescence was brought on by, you guessed it, the smartphone (hence, GoPro’s move into VR, professional broadcasting, and drones, like its new Karma). To thrive, the old camera makers need to seek new opportunities outside their comfort zones.

“I think the meetings that Nikon is having right now are a call for diversification,” Peterson said. “I’m very worried for GoPro, but what GoPro is doing is on the software and the experience side, and they’re doing a lot of stuff that’s behind the scenes that we can’t see right now. I know they are making good decisions and they’re going to come back around, but GoPro looks pretty scary.”

The camera companies are looking into the future. Nikon’s newly released 360-degree camera, the KeyMission 360, signals the company’s desire to enter the virtual reality market, an area that’s also being courted by Ricoh and Samsung. Canon recently demonstrated a VR headset that’s in development, as well as 8K imaging. As long as camera companies are able to finally innovate, survival is within reach.

But are these real attempts at innovation, or more knee-jerk reactions? Do all products have an expiration date — and this is simply the time for the pocket camera to go?

Many factors contributed to the stand-alone pocket camera’s near extinction, but the inability to evolve and respond to consumer trends was the main cause. Simply churning out “what’s worked before” won’t cut it. And with the arrival of better smartphone cameras and new forms of image-capture devices, even high-end cameras could follow the same fate. What happened to the camera industry is a story applicable to any technology company. Even the smartphone is poised for change. You may be a leader in your field, but the moment you put innovation on the backburner (which many are suggesting Apple is now doing), you open yourself to disruption -– and it comes quick.

“I honestly think that smartphones are going to go obsolete pretty soon too, that there’s going to be disruption again for this giant industry,” Peterson said.

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Les Shu
Former Digital Trends Contributor
I am formerly a senior editor at Digital Trends. I bring with me more than a decade of tech and lifestyle journalism…
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A retail box apparently showing DJI's upcoming Mini Pro 4 drone.

DJI appears close to unveiling the Mini 4 Pro, the successor to the Mini 3 Pro that launched in May last year.

First, as a reminder, DJI’s smallest and lightest “Pro” drone tips the scales at just 249 grams, a carefully considered move as it’s just 1 gram below the drone weight category that involves having to register it with the authorities. Sure, that’s no great hardship for most folks, but the fewer hoops you have to jump through to get your bird in the sky, the better.

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GoPro unveils its latest action camera, the Hero 12 Black
GoPro's Hero 12 Black action camera.

GoPro: Introducing HERO12 Black | Everything You Need to Know

GoPro is back with the latest iteration of its popular action camera. The new GoPro Hero 12 Black is the kind of solid piece of kit we’ve come to expect from a company that’s been in the game for years. That’s actually created a bit of a problem for GoPro, with many customers happy to hang onto their current model rather than upgrade. So it'll be hoping the latest version will be attractive enough to prompt a wave of purchases among current owners, while at the same time attracting a bunch of first-time buyers, too.

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