The cheap compact camera is on its way out. Affordable, small and increasingly stylish, they've come a long way since George Eastman made photography more accessible by bringing rolls of film and the Kodak box camera to the mass market.
But if accessibility is the issue, then smartphones have made the demise of the compact inevitable. Why lug an extra gadget around when the phone in your pocket can do just as good a job? The 8MP camera featured on the iPhone 4S may not match the pixel count on a budget Nikon Coolpix, say, but its improved lens means the phone can do a mean job of producing pictures fit for online posting.
Compact cameras have not traditionally been designed to capture the highest quality images. I had a Kodak disc camera when I was a kid, and a blurry pile of holiday snaps prove it was arguably one of the worst examples of a compact ever. The quality has increased hugely since then, but the point-and-shoot, autofocus functionality of basic compact cameras is available on every smartphone. While auto-programmes for every occasion have become standard issue on compact dials over the years (eg night-time, sport, landscape, portrait), manual control isn't something you'd expect from a budget model, nor is lens quality. For that, most serious amateurs would likely upgrade to a bridge camera, digital SLR or a compact system camera anyway. Some might even start using film.
With a camera constantly to hand to capture that decisive moment, we're all Henri Cartier-Bressons now - but would HCB have used a cameraphone himself? He famously employed a Leica because it was small and, importantly, quiet - he liked to be as unobtrusive as possible when photographing street scenes. Would the artificial mechanical sound of a cameraphone annoy him? Or perhaps we're so accustomed to people taking photographs all around us today that it just wouldn't be an issue.
He used a fast, 50mm lens, allowing him to shoot quickly in a range of lighting conditions, and he hated post-production: "Our job consists of observing reality with the help of our camera … of fixing reality in a moment, but not manipulating it, neither during the shoot nor in the darkroom later on," he said. "These types of manipulation are always noticed by anyone with a good eye." So no Hipstamatic for him, then.
But if convenience trumps quality, and 'fixing reality in a moment' is the most important thing, maybe Cartier-Bresson would have taken to the smartphone. As it is, he hung up his camera in 1975 and lost interest in photography, preferring to draw. "I never think about photography," he said in 2003. That would be hard to do today, in a world where if it isn't photographed, it didn't happen.