Digital Cameras & Camcorders: Looking Good

Smartphone Feature Beaters: Autofocus, Fast Action & Low Light

The latest digital cameras autofocus quickly and capture fast-moving action and low-light images better than ever before—features that Cameras & Camcordersthe latest smartphones still can’t handle. 

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The digital-camera industry continues to shift its focus, as smartphones continue to improve and carve away at the demand for a dedicated camera.

Pew Research Center says 77 percent of U.S. consumers now own a smartphone that has a camera, compared with 64 percent in 2015. The vast majority of smartphone cameras now capture images that are at least 8 megapixels, which experts say is a size that’s suitable for most users and for display on a high-definition TV. We also found that the latest smartphone cameras capture images in low light, take sharper and more-detailed images than ever before, and even replicate some of the high-dynamic range and soft-focus-blur special effects that only digital cameras achieved previously. In other words, today’s smartphones “fulfill the need for a casual-use camera,” says Anshel Sag of Moor Insights, which is a market-research company.

As smartphone cameras improve, the digital-camera market shrinks, says Ed Lee of market-researcher InfoTrends. Based on its research of the marketplace, Gap Intelligence found that digital-camera manufacturers introduced just 57 models in 2016, compared with 83 models in 2015.

In the past 2 years, longtime market participant Samsung exited the business entirely. Experts tell us that it’s plausible that other manufacturers will leave the market in the next 2 years, but no one would speculate on which company might be the next to leave. Meanwhile, Fujifilm, Olympus and Sony cut back their point-and-shoot lineups, so they could focus their efforts on mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras. As a result, most of the latest cameras cost at least $600.

Sag says most of the cameras that have come out lately are “prosumer” models, or ones that are designed for more-serious photographers.

Although we haven’t seen many new point-and-shoot models in the past 2 years, Ben Arnold of market-research company The NPD Group tells us that the market hasn’t bottomed out yet. He says consumers bought 1.9 million sub-$200 point-and-shoot cameras in 2016, which makes sense, given that 23 percent of Americans don’t have a smartphone that has a camera. Nonetheless, we found that today’s smartphone cameras still provide higher image and video resolution than what most sub-$200 point-and-shoot models deliver.

EVOLUTIONARY CHANGES. Most mirrorless and digital single-lens reflex (D-SLR) cameras (starting at $400) are superior to smartphones at quickly autofocusing and capturing fast-moving action, true depth-of-field image compositions and images that require tricky low-light exposure. Those features still aren’t possible on smartphones (or on point-and-shoot cameras) because of the small image sensors that today’s smartphones have.

Miriam Leuchter, who is a photographer and the former editor-in-chief of Popular Photography magazine, says small sensors capture less light than do large sensors. As a result, “the picture will be blotchy and have more grain,” she says.

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Most mirrorless and D-SLR cameras in all price ranges now use sensors that are larger than 1 inch, which create larger pixels and gather more light than do the 1-inch sensors that typically are used in a point-and-shoot camera or a smartphone. In the past 2 years, manufacturers tweaked image-processing chips to allow cameras that start at $400 to capture crisper images and sharper colors in low-light situations than ever before.

“Often, what the camera can do is a result of the key [components] in the camera,” says Mark Weir of Sony. “More and more, it’s being decided by the image sensor itself. The structure of the image sensor can have a profound impact on sensitivity and dynamic range.”

We also have seen innovation in the autofocus systems of premium D-SLR and mirrorless cameras that start at $1,000. All autofocus systems use focus points, or points in the frame where a camera trains its focus. If you capture landscapes or still life, then it’s fine that your camera has nine or fewer autofocus points, which was typical 2 years ago. That’s because the image that you shoot won’t move, so you can adjust your angle and the object’s position in your frame. However, we found that if you take action shots, then it’s beneficial to have a camera that has more focus points to ensure that the subject is in an area of focus. Typically, D-SLR cameras deliver 15 or fewer autofocus points in the center of the frame, which take up roughly 20 percent of the total frame area.

“Autofocus is a really big differentiator on the high end right now,” Leuchter says. “Autofocus systems are getting faster and more accurate, with better tracking of movement.”

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