Michael Homnick

How the smartphone defeated the point-and-shoot digital camera

It’s no secret that the smartphone has cannibalized digital camera sales. Market research firm IDC reports that smartphone sales topped 1 billion in 2013, up 38 percent year over year. CIPA (the Camera & Imaging Products Association) shows a 36 percent drop in digital camera sales over the same period: Shipments plummeted from around 98 million in 2012 to 63 million units in 2013, with the biggest losses coming among mid- and low-priced models.

Some consumers even swear their new phones are taking better pictures than their digital cameras ever did. When you see the comparisons, the quality does, indeed, look pretty darn close.

Has the average smartphone camera eclipsed the average point-and-shoot? We’ll start by comparing megapixels. Then we'll look at sensor sizes, and conclude by considering the numbers in real-world contexts.

The truth behind the megapixels

Megapixels have been debunked as an overhyped spec, but they still matter to a point, particularly if you’re making a giant print or cropping a small section of a larger photo. Average megapixels on smartphones have increased steadily since 2007.

The following graph plots megapixels over time for a few hundred of the most popular phones:

Megapixel growth among smartphones has been slow, but steady. Before 2009, there was hardly anything over 3MP. Soon after 2011, 8MP became the standard for most flagship models, though a smattering of sub-5MP handsets hung around until mid-2013. Meanwhile, manufacturers like Nokia, Sony, and Samsung have started making 13MP-plus phones since mid-2012—high enough to match megapixel counts on some DSLRs, let alone point-and-shoots.

To see whether the average smartphone officially caught up with the average digital camera, we also plotted megapixels for popular point-and-shoot models since 2002 below (based on a sampling of over 1,500 smartphones and over 1,400 point-and-shoots):

At a glance, the steady march toward giant pixel counts is even more obvious with digital cameras. In the early 2000s, point-and-shoots with less than 4 megapixels were common. In 2007—when smartphones were just starting to take off—the average number of megapixels in a point-and-shoot was just under 10. Now? That number is 16.5—nearly double the megapixels of the average smartphone camera today.

While megapixels in smartphone cameras have nearly tripled over the past seven years, the point-and-shoot family has done enough to maintain a distinct advantage. When it comes to pixels, you’ll still get a lot more out of most low-end digital cameras.

Sensor size matters

For most practical purposes, a large sensor is more important than high megapixels. That’s why most professional photographers ignore crazy MP counts and focus on sensor size instead. The size of a camera’s sensor determines how much light the device can capture for each photograph, which in turn allows for greater detail and more accurate images.

By far the most common sensor size for a point-and-shoot digital camera is 1 / 2.3”, which—by some surprisingly intricate photography math—works out to a diagonal of just under 8 mm and an area of around 28.5 mm. (Compare this sensor to a “full frame” DSLR camera, which is over five times larger by diagonal and over 30 times larger by area).

Meanwhile, today’s average smartphone sensor is about 1 / 3.2”, which in real-world numbers means a 5.7-mm diagonal and 15.5-mm area. To put these sensor sizes in context, see the diagram below:

sensor_size_popular_devices 

Next to a DSLR, neither the smartphone nor the point-and-shoot fare all that well, but the difference is still significant enough to earn the point-and-shoot another clear victory: that 28.5-mm area is, after all, over 45 percent larger than the smartphone’s paltry 15.5 mm.

That’s why a Canon PowerShot will still almost always beat an iPhone in low-light settings, where every extra millimeter of sensor size is critical for capturing light.

A dose of reality

So if the point-and-shoot still beats the smartphone in megapixels (the trendy stat) and sensor size (the more important stat), then why are digital camera sales tanking? A closer look at real-world use finds some potential answers.

Megapixels: enough is enough

It turns out that packing in extra megapixels quickly loses value somewhere after the 5-9 MP range. Last year, photography site DPReview set out to determine how many megapixels you really need in exhaustive detail. The conclusion: Even for the highest-resolution devices—like a retina-display iPad—a 3MP photo is the largest you’ll ever need. Anything beyond that, and your screen won’t be able to render the full resolution of the photo anyway.

For actual prints, the requirements are a bit higher. For a perfectly crisp, printed photo, a 3MP shot will produce a great 5x7-inch print. For a larger print—say, an A4 (similar to U.S. letter size), a 9MP shot would more than suffice. You’d start needing the resolution of a 16MP point-and-shoot only if you wanted a 12x16-inch print—the sort of thing most people won’t need more than once or twice a decade.

Smartphones haven’t caught up to point-and-shoots, but at this point, they don’t need to. The average phone’s camera now packs in enough pixels for 99 percent of your photography needs, and thus the smartphone’s megapixel deficiency becomes a moot point.

Sensor size: there for those who need it

Yes, the average smartphone has a smaller sensor than the average point-and-shoot. But increasingly, the flagship models have matched—or exceeded—their digital camera rivals. The latest iPhone still falls just shy of a point-and-shoot, but handsets like the Nokia Lumia 1020 and 808 Pureview actually beat the low-range digital cameras, and by a fair margin.

So for the truly picky amateur photographer, there are a dozen smartphones that boast solid sensors—yet another problem for the dying point-and-shoot camera.

But what about optical zoom?

It’s the final, “gotcha” argument for any point-and-shoot apologist: Digital cameras have built-in, zoom-enabled lenses, while smartphones must rely on digital zooming, an inferior technique that produces less accurate, lower resolution photos.

For bird enthusiasts and whale watchers around the world, it’s hard to deny this point. An old-fashioned digital camera is still best for capturing subjects from a thousand feet away. But for the flower-picking, baby-snapping, spaghetti-eating masses, optical zooming is simply unnecessary.

And so it is that the smartphone has cannibalized the point-and-shoot camera, despite its inferior specs. Sometimes, it’s better to be convenient than good.

Behind the Spec Sheet seeks to draw new insights based on hardware data. Produced by FindtheBest, a company that aggregates specs and features in a centralized database,guest column will share data-driven discoveries and surprises, and attempt to expose common misconceptions.

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