Once upon a time, our cameras were big heavy things with interchangeable lenses that we lugged around in bags. OK, for some of us this is still true, but for much of the general population digital cameras are going the way of, well, film cameras.
There's always been something of a divide between point-and-shoot cameras and "serious" cameras like SLRs. But today that divide is less about the capabilities of a professional camera over its weaker cousin the point-and-shoot and more about one thing and one thing alone: portability. It pains me to say it, but the point-and-shoot is catching up and it's doing so in the guise of the smart phone.
Let's face it, smart phone cameras have a huge advantage over DSLRs and even over many of the modern point-and-shoots. The advantage is that you don't need to carry an extra device. Most people carry their smart phone around with them where ever they go anyway, and there's really not really a very compelling reason to bring a camera bag as well if you're someone who just isn't that concerned about bells and whistles. For many casual users, that phone is just more convenient. And though image quality doesn't quite live up to what you'd get from a quality DSLR, a lot of people just don't care. And the truth is, the quality divide between smart phone cameras and "real" cameras is just going to get smaller as the technology improves.
iPhone vs. Android phones
There are really only two different kinds of smart phones in the modern world, or at least ones that matter: Apple's iPhone and the Android (which is actually not a "phone" but rather the operating system that the phone runs on). Though Apple can certainly be considered a pioneer of smart phone technology, Android devices are starting to outpace the iPhone in market share and have one distinct advantage: Android is "open source", which means that phone manufacturers can be more innovative because they aren't bound by the limitations of a "closed" operating system. This is good news for camera geeks because it means that Android phones are more likely to have all the latest and greatest tech.
The Tegra 4
Here's an example: Nvidia recently announced its new Tegra 4 processor for smart phones and tablets of the Android variety, which is a good illustration of how innovation is driving the Android market. Tegra 4 (which isn't actually available yet) uses "one-shot HDR", a technology that is 10 times as fast as taking HDR photos on the iPhone.
To understand why this is an improvement you first need to have a basic knowledge of HDR itself, which stands for "High Dynamic Range". Dynamic range refers to the difference between the lightest parts of an image and the darkest parts. A non-HDR camera (or smart phone) can't cope with a high-contrast setting, so it will either wash out the sky or make the shadows so dark that no detail can be seen there. An HDR camera will take a series of images (usually two) at different exposure levels and then stitch them together, producing an image that maintains detail in both the highlights and the shadows. Of course there are some obvious problems with this technology, the first being that you can't really use it to shoot a person or moving object, since each of the two different exposures will capture the object at a different stage of motion.
Tegra, on the other hand, takes these two images at "almost" the same time, which makes the process a lot faster and also increases your chances of capturing a good HDR image of a living or moving thing (though until Tegra 4 is prime time it remains to be seen how much of a difference that "almost" will actually make).
NVidia calls this "computational photography," and fast HDR isn't the only thing it can do. If you've ever tried to use your smart phone to capture a running dog or other fast moving object and keep it in focus, Tegra 4 claims to have solved this problem for you - something the iPhone hasn't yet figured out how to do.
But the Tegra 4 is really just a slice of what future Android camera phones may be able to do, and don't forget that Android phones that are on the market today are already wildly capable devices that in many cases make a typical point-and-shoot camera completely obsolete. Samsung's Galaxy S3, for example, features an f2.6 lens, manually-selectable ISO from 80 to 1600, a panorama mode, touch focus with AF lock, 11 built-in filter effects, image stabilization and zero shutter lag. It also takes video and is capable of capturing stills during recording. At 8 megapixels, it doesn't have the resolution of many competing point-and-shoots, but for the average user who doesn't usually venture beyond the world of the 4x6, this limitation will probably go completely unnoticed.
Another advantage that smart phone cameras have over their real-camera rivals is built-in post processing. With an Android smart phone camera, you no longer need to download your images onto your computer and process them in Photoshop to get those cool lo-fi effects, to color correct an image or to remove red-eye. Or to share them with friends. You can do all of that right in your phone. And once again, Android's open source platform means that your choice of cool photography apps is only going to get bigger and less expensive.
Android devices and the future of photography
So what does all of this mean for the future of photography? Well, assuming that social media and image sharing remains as rabidly popular as it is today, it means a lot. Manufacturers are already beginning to come out with the first generation of Android powered cameras, which are essentially hybrids of your smart phone and your point and shoot. You won't be able to talk or text on them, but you'll have greater ability to control how your images look with real camera settings and features, and you'll also be able to upload them to Facebook just moments after you've taken them.
Will this make the big camera bag and its bulky DSLR occupant obsolete? Probably not. But you may find that sometime in the near future DSLRs will be Android powered, too.
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