Why isn’t there a market for better mobile phone cameras?

Below are two photos from brunch today. One was taken by a friend with an iPhone 5s. The other by me with an admittedly rather bulky standard camera (Sony NEX-6 with Sony/Zeiss 16-70mm lens). The light level was fairly similar, on opposite sides of a table. It was fairly bright by indoor standards, with a lot of window light reflecting off white walls.

As you can see, the camera phone picture, despite having come from a state-of-the-art phone (iPhone 5s), is painfully noisy (“grainy” as we film dinosaurs might say).

I can understand the rage for thin and light phones but with more than 7 billion people on the planet I would think that there would be a market for a thicker heavier phone that could deal with indoor photography more gracefully. Samsung has tried in this area a few times (e.g., this Galaxy S4 Zoom camera) but somehow consumers aren’t buying.

[If you're curious to see more photos with this fairly new lens, I'm building up an examples folder. At first it seemed as though the lens would be unbalanced on the small and light NEX-6 body but I have gotten used to it.]

14 Comments

  1. sv

    February 10, 2014 @ 12:07 am

    1

    Nokia Lumia 1020 is just that (windows phone)

  2. Ed

    February 10, 2014 @ 12:17 am

    2

    The best camera you have is the one you have with you. The thinnest camera is far more likely to be the camera you have with you.

  3. lelnet

    February 10, 2014 @ 12:39 am

    3

    “Why isn’t there a market for better mobile phone cameras?”

    Because people who care about image quality use proper cameras, for which there is still a market, served by multiple price/performance segments. The only advantage of phone cameras is convenience, and if a somewhat better camera were to make the phone even slightly less convenient, that would be a net utility loss.

  4. Andrew

    February 10, 2014 @ 1:09 am

    4

    If that’s salmon carpaccio, I’d be delighted to learn where you brunch. I discovered that stuff in Paris about a decade ago, and haven’t seen it since.

    ObOnTopic: I think it’s a market volume issue. The share of phone buyers who would value the differentiation is low, and even they don’t necessarily want to bind their camera selection to their phone upgrade cycle. The added expense just doesn’t serve the broader market, and there are only two profitable companies in the phone biz who might attempt the experiment — one notoriously averse to expanding product lines, the other a bit overweight in the low end of the market.

  5. philg

    February 10, 2014 @ 1:38 am

    5

    Andrew: The salmon is from an exclusive store that is not open to the general public, i.e., Costco. The brunch venue is a place that has not as yet earned any Michelin stars. We call it “the apartment.”

  6. Neil

    February 10, 2014 @ 2:19 am

    6

    It looks like the iPhone photo is out of focus. It also looks like it’s heavily processed, denoised and sharpened.

    Judging by the photos, there is way less real-world dynamic range in the Sony photo, which is far easier to capture.

    There isn’t much less noise in the Sony photo compared to the iPhone photo (compare the white wall beneath the framed dog to the parts of the white sofa in shadow — there is plenty of noise in both.)

    What you are calling out is the less-than-stellar skin tones in the iPhone photo, which is probably due to focus, underexposure, and liberal in-camera image processing.

    -n

  7. Fazal Majid

    February 10, 2014 @ 3:27 am

    7

    Sadly the iPhone camera is among the better smartphones cameras, apart from the Nokia Lumia line. I guess the average consumer’s standards are not very high. I don’t think the average cameraphone photo is much worse than a standard consumer point-and-shoot using Kodak Royal Gold 400 or equivalent dreck was circa 1994.

    I only use my iPhone’s camera as the functional equivalent of a fax, for low-quality scans of documents, whiteboards or signs inside stores. For real photos, I carry a Fuji X100S in my jacket pocket.

    Sony is trying to tap into the market you propose with their QX series of “camera lenses” which are really full-fledged cameras except they use an app and the phone’s display as controls.

  8. J. Peterson

    February 10, 2014 @ 5:38 am

    8

    The Sony QX cameras are perhaps the best solution for this. Phone gets used for display, UI, sharing & storage, while the “camera” is reduced to lens+sensor. It requires a bit more set-up than a purpose built camera, but it’s more compact for the same optical quality.

    It’ll be interesting to see if anybody besides Sony picks up on this.

  9. philg

    February 10, 2014 @ 8:53 am

    9

    Folks: The Nokia cameras sound interesting, but I don’t think that they are practical photographic tools for typical consumers, who primarily photograph people. The reviews that I’ve seen indicate that the Nokia cameras are slow to start up, slow to capture an image, and have a long delay from shot to shot.

    [I have a little bit of this in my pocket, with a Samsung Note 3. The camera has been well-reviewed and has very similar specs and performance to an iPhone camera... as long as the phone is clamped to a tripod and the scene is a still life or a landscape. But the inconsistent and slow shot-to-shot performance as well as the general crumminess of the software make it an emergency-only photographic tool.]

    I don’t think the bag-on-the-side Sony QX idea is a practical one either. The Samsung Note 3 seems to be something that almost everyone is willing to carry. It weighs 168 grams. The Canon (mediocre) ELPH 330 HS weighs 144 grams with battery and flash card. The Sony (great) RX100 weighs 240 grams. People don’t expect an optical zoom lens in a phone, so it should be possible to make a 200-gram phone with pretty good camera performance (I did that calculation before checking on what the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom weighs and it turns out to be 208 grams).

  10. Mark F

    February 10, 2014 @ 10:45 am

    10

    I carry a Sony RX100 MK2 with me everywhere for taking photo’s on the fly. It’s compact, easily fits in any pocket and is light enough to carry around all day. No phone could ever match its image quality and detail. I only use my phone to make/receive calls, texting and web browsing, which are the functions most smartphones are usually good at, The QX range by Sony are a decent compromise but can be a little time consuming to set up, but will still take far superior images to the camera on any smartphone.

  11. Joshua Levinson

    February 10, 2014 @ 11:44 am

    11

    No replacement for aperture or focal length. Any trickery internally can’t change that.

  12. John O

    February 10, 2014 @ 12:15 pm

    12

    Phil,
    There are a variety of external, attachable lenses for mobile phones.Here is an article with 10 iPhone specific lenses:
    http://mashable.com/2012/08/17/iphone-lenses/
    and here is one for a Samsung Galaxy:
    http://www.amazon.com/Universal-Detachable-Magnetic-Samsung-Galaxy/dp/B0089IGTV4
    I think this serves the market better. I can pick the phone I want and, if I need a better camera, I can augment the one already there. I prefer this over choosing a phone based on camera, but then being stuck with a phone I don’t really like.

  13. Kourt Bailey

    February 10, 2014 @ 4:22 pm

    13

    Given that texting (and arguably email) is more central to the purpose of a smartphone, I also wonder “Why isn’t there a market for hardware keyboards on mobile phones?”

    More generally, it is disappointing that we seem to have less real choice as these markets mature.

  14. G Close

    February 12, 2014 @ 1:22 am

    14

    The iPhone 5 takes incredibly good pictures…in good light. I love the panorama, which is just plain magical. In poor light, that tiny sensor shows. If you try the “flash” in the iPhone 5, you’ll get some very green skin tones. Based on picture taking at my kid’s events and the photos I see on Facebook, this is “good enough” for most people. People who care go to something much larger, and this is not a large market segment.

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