The next time you’re at a social gathering and you mention the word ‘megapixels’, chances are that you’ll hear people talk about their cell phone cameras. This is hardly surprising since camera phones are ubiquitous, and the image resolution is often the make-or-break feature. But it’s been a well-known con for a while now that more megapixels on your mobile camera do not imply better image quality.
Yet, it hasn’t stopped phone manufacturers from touting double-digit figures – with a particular brand even offering a model in excess of 40 megapixels. Another brand has advertised its flagship phone’s photo-taking prowess on hoardings across the city. The innovative ads, which often feature sprawling landscapes in saturated colours, affirm that the photos were taken by the device in question.
With the cell phone companies distracted in their game of one-upmanship, an interesting new trend has emerged. The point-and-shoot camera, once the de facto standard for general photography, and later a relic of the early digital era, has made a slow but sure comeback. A new range of compact cameras, represented by models such as the Sony DSC-RX100 III, Canon Powershot G7X, Panasonic Lumix LX100 and many others, aren’t even aiming to compete with mobile phones any longer. While they are as portable, their iron sights are trained on entry-level DSLRs and other interchangeable lens cameras. These cameras sport image sensors that rival the former, and completely overshadow the diminutive sensors in the best phone cameras today.
With folks shelling out anything between `40,000 to `70,000 on high-end cell phones, these cameras can be had for, on an average, `30,000 to `60,000. It is not surprising then that their popularity is on the rise. For instance, online photo gallery Flickr.com’s camera page shows the Sony RX100 as the most popular compact camera amongst its users. Fujifilm and Samsung also feature in the top five.
Musician Anish Sood swears by his Fujifilm Finepix X10, adding that shooting on his Apple iPhone causes the battery to drain quickly. "The X10’s size is perfect for everyday use, and it has some really handy image modes and filters built in. Also, camera phones simply can’t match the sharpness and depth of field that today’s compacts produce."
Another segment of point and shoots, the big-zoom cameras – also referred to as ‘bridge cameras’ – represent the other end of the spectrum. While these won’t fit a pocket, their macro and telescopic zoom modes offer the versatility of a DSLR with multiple lenses. Anuraag Gambhir, category manager – cameras and accessories, says that these cameras – which start at around `9,000 and go up to `25,000 – have quickly filled the void left behind by budget point and shoots.
He adds, "Camera phones may have replaced entry-level compacts for the average consumer, but they lack features such as optical zoom, metering and the ability to adjust the aperture and shutter. Nikon’s latest big-zoom camera, the P900 offers an almost unbelievable 83x of optical zoom." Gambhir elucidates that bridge cameras are one of the most popular camera categories on Snapdeal.com and see sales in large volumes. "Our research shows that high-end compacts like the RX100 and G7X are typically bought by users who already own DSLRs. Bridge cameras, on the other hand, are more affordable, and typically see buyers moving up from camera phones," he adds.
While Panasonic and Sony shy away from stating sales figures in India, Gaurav Gharki, digital imaging product head at Panasonic says that the LX100 – the company’s newest high-end point and shoot – will be launched in India very soon. This camera has one of the largest image sensors available in any compact camera today and has already garnered highly positive reviews in the US market.
Kartik Mehta, who’s a partner at the Dadar-based camera retailer, J.J. Mehta and Sons, says, "In the past couple of years, the popularity of high-end compact cameras has risen significantly, especially of the Sony RX100 series. We currently stock all three generations i.e. RX100 I, II and III at different price points. The Canon G7X is doing well too. We sell around 40 such units every month."
Mehta’s observations are aligned with the compact camera timeline – Sony launched its first-generation RX100 model in mid-2012, which was the first compact camera to sport a large image sensor. It was lauded by the Time magazine then as the ‘best invention of the year’ and found similar reviews with other publications.
While mobile photography is undoubtedly here to stay, compact cameras are clearly on the rise again. They’re carving a new niche for themselves rather than taking an existing share of the pie. "The sales of compact cameras under `10,000 have drastically dropped," Mehta says, adding, "Similarly-priced camera phones have taken over this segment as they’re better in most aspects." But can the same be said about cell phones and big-zoom or high-end compacts? We think you know the answer.
Your camera’s ‘eye’
In a nutshell, one of the main reasons why DSLRs churn out great quality photos is because their image sensors (which detect light and convert it into pixels) are large. ‘Full-frame’ DSLRs like the Canon EOS-1D X and Nikon D4S have sensor dimensions of 36x24mm i.e. 864 mm2. The image sensors of most high-end mobile phones like the Apple iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy S6 range between 25-30 mm2, making DSLRs approximately 30x larger. The sensors of high-end compact cameras are generally between 100-250mm2 making them, on an average, 6x as large as those on mobile phones.