Welcome to the dawning of the age of the wireless, customizable digital camera. The first models are just weeks away, and with Photokina coming soon, I predict that there are more to come.
We are in the first phase of what I predict will be the Next Big Thing for photography: Smart Cameras. Three models—the Nikon Coolpix S800c , Sony NEX-5R, and Samsung Galaxy—have been announced within the past two weeks and in two cases, release dates are imminent and Adorama is already taking pre-orders on both models, the Nikon S800c and Sony NEX-5R. All have Wi-Fi. The Sony will offer its own proprietary set of apps to let you customize the camera. The Nikon will be using Android Version 2.3, nicknamed Gingerbread, while the Samsung is expected to use Android 4.1, also known as Jellybean. Let's call those "DroidCams." With DroidCams, you can not only add Android-compatible photo apps, you could add any app. Want to add Skype? You got it. Photoshop Mobile? Yup! Angry Birds? Game on!
Unlike smart phones, which offer picture-taking capabilities as an afterthought (yes, even the iPhone’s camera is an afterthought compared to a dedicated camera—just visit Adorama's iPhone Toolshed and look at all the accessories designed to make it work more like a camera!), these cameras are fully featured, complete with optical zoom lenses, larger sensors (compared to cell phone sensors), built-in flash, and more. Shutter releases and other controls are ergonomically placed for photography.
Six reasons why Smart Cameras will succeed:
1. They will make it easy to share images from a real, full-time camera
2. Image quality will be much better than Cell Phone Cameras
3. The shutter release will be in a logical place; no more finger contortions to take a picture.
4. More control: More advanced users will have manual, aperture or shutter priority exposure control.
5. A real zoom lens. (Most Smart Phones zoom digitally which means cropping already inferior-quality images.)
6. You can play Angry Birds on your camera.
But the big news here is easy online access and image sharing, the Smart Phone feature that has been making camera companies green with envy.
First, a historical digression
In the last couple of years, camera makers looked on from the sidelines as the iPhone, and then its mobile competitors, made sharing on social networks incredibly easy. The industry responded clumsily at first, adding “share” modes to cameras that still required users to hook the cameras up to computers. Success has been limited.
Then came the camera-as-bluetooth-device. Now you can automatically operate your camera from your smart phone. You could download images to your phone and apply image editing via apps, then send them on their way to the Cloud, or to image sharing sites such as Tumblr, Pinterest, Flickr, and so on. While this was a bit better (and is being used by some professionals who are operating their high-end DSLRs via their tablet computers, for instance), it was still an additional step.
Finally, the “aha” moment finally hit: Let’s make a full-on standalone camera with all the customization and connectivity of a cell phone, just short of a data plan. And so, the first Android cameras were born. All you need is a hot spot and if you can’t find one, you can use your cell phone as your photos’ conduit to the Internet.
Let’s look at the first three (four?) smart cameras:
Nikon Coolpix S800c
The first Android-based Wi-Fi compact digital camera to hit the market, the has generated buzz everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to USA Today. The camera, small and sleek, has a 16MP backside-illuminated CMOS sensor that at ½.3 inches is a bit larger than a typical compact camera sensor and considerably larger than the sensors found on most cell phones. It also offers a 25-250mm (35mm equivalent) 10x optical zoom lens, records 1080p HD video with stereo sound, has 18 creative filter effects, focuses down to 4 inches, and has a hi-res 3.5-inch touch screen. It will be available later this month for $350 in Nikon Coolpix S800cblack or white, and you can pre-order it now from Adorama.
The first interchangeable-lens Sony with Wi-Fi, the NEX-5R boasts an APS-C sensor and plugs into the Sony NEX ecosystem of interchangeable E-Mount lenses. As mentioned in this Adorama First Look, the NEX-5R doesn’t offer the universality of Android apps, but Sony, trying to walk the line between keeping everything within the Sonysphere and giving users customizability, is promising its own proprietary downloadable apps. The Sony NEX 5R is available for pre-orders now, and costs $650 body only. It is expected in stock next month but you can pre-order it from Adorama now.
A compact pocket-sized superzoom, the Galaxy offers a 21x optical f/2.8-5.9 zoom lens (23-483mm, 35mm equivalent), a 16MP sensor and the ability to record full HD movies and 120fps slow-mo videos. Its 4.8-inch touch screen is the largest of the trio, and should be great for running Android 4.1. Pricing and availability have not been announced, but it will be on display later this month at Photokina; as soon as availability and pricing are announced, you can pre-order the camera through Adorama.
A fourt SmartCam—the Polaroid SC1630—was unveiled at CES in January boasting Wi-Fi and Android, but it has limited photographic features (3x zoom isn't much competition for cell phone cameras) and, more importantly, has yet to see the light of day.
My bold prediction
I have seen the future of photography, and it is wireless and customizable cameras. Surely, other camera makers will announce their own Smart Cameras with built-in Wi-Fi and hopefully with Android.
In fact, I predict that by this time next year, WiFi Android will be rapidly adapted, and will be as commonplace among compact digital cameras as Face Recognition. In fact, I predict we will see more Smart Cameras introduced in a couple of weeks at Photokina, the world’s fair of photography. Smart Camera technology will become Just Another Standard Feature.
The next wave? Look for Smart Camera technology to make its way up the food chain. Within two years, I predict it will become a standard feature on most MILCs and DSLRs, which will of course be available from Adorama.
Why Android? Because it is a maturing open-source system; it is virtually free, and it works well. Apple is unlikely to share its operating system with any camera maker, and I don’t see any other mobile OS as highly evolved and flexible as either Android or iOS.
The challenge for App developers now is to make sure their software is compatible with the higher-resolution images produced by 16MP and higher cameras. Many image editing Apps crap out at 8MP or smaller. I am certain a cottage industry of App developers for digital cameras will pop up as sales of DroidCams shoot up.
So hang on—here comes the exciting future of photography; it should be quite a ride!