As smartphones threaten to rupture the camera industry, new camera formats are emerging to anchor cameras as the ultimate image-making devices.

The first two centuries of photography saw 80 billion photographs being taken until the millennium. Throughout the analogue era and coming all the way to the inception of digital cameras, photography was subjected to revolutions thanks to key products and services. In those times, image quantity was quantifiable. Now, nothing compares to the effect of the smartphone. No device has produced so many images and consequently caused so much disarray as the phone — its evolution correlating with the depletion of whole subcategories of camera (anyone remember point and shoot compacts?) And there’s no sign of dominance stopping with over 1 trillion images taken in 2018.

Before we write off cameras though, it is worth looking more closely at what photography involves: concepts that remain as true today as they did in the 1800s. There are three core activities: capturing, storing and distributing images. Historically, products which have enhanced these activities have made an impact. In the analogue era, Leica introduced the snapshot experience we’re familiar with today with portability and the ability to shoot 36 sequential exposures. Later, the Polaroid affirmed the appeal for instantaneous image distribution by processing and printing images on-camera. Digital automation brought screens, enabling live image-referencing, meaning settings could be suitably adjusted on-the-go to achieve desired results. Today, who can deny the joys of digital photo libraries, found on our iPhone camera rolls or online via Google Photos, that automatically sort and tag our images with ease.

The digital era has seen the parallel development of miniaturised optics, widespread connectivity and the subsequent rise of image-based social media. This has collectively led to the smartphone, which we all carry in our pockets, becoming the first mainstream digital device to facilitate all three activities. Constantly having a camera to hand has changed the way we use images — photography is a far more ubiquitous communication tool than ever before. Thanks to a shift towards ever-similar all-glass designs, cameras are now becoming one of the few differentiating physical features between phones. An arms race has ensued, visible in ‘Shot on iPhone’ and ‘Phone X vs Pixel’ ad campaigns.

Mobile giants such as Apple, Google, Samsung and Huawei are going all-in on cameras. In just two years, iPhone camera parts went from accounting for 9% of total component cost to 13% and this isn’t predicted to decline. Tech companies are also bringing with them knowledge in technological fields previously unknown to conventional camera makers. AI technology combined with optical development has created computational photography and through this, smartphones are mimicking sought-after characteristics of high-end cameras. There has been an explosion of features: depth-sensing cameras, advanced scene recognition modes, super zoom capabilities, post-image adjustable focus, and even controversial ‘beautification’ selfie post-processing. The pace of development hints that the game should really be over soon for camera makers, with this level of sophistication being applied to — what were once secondary photography devices — cameras in phones.

Established manufacturers such as Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm and Panasonic were clearly slow to respond to the smartphone disruption. Connectivity features such as on-board WiFi and notoriously clunky image transferring apps have been hurriedly integrated to cover on-camera distribution to social media. New camera makers have emerged over the years such as Lytro and Light, however, they have not been mainstream successes and their seemingly revolutionary technologies (such as adjusting the focus of an image post-capture in this case) has been transplanted into phones. New camera formats fall between two stools. They don’t quite replicate the speed of workflow users can enjoy on a smartphone or they don’t provide the adaptability of more traditional cameras.

Yet it is possible for cameras to exist alongside the smartphone, so long as manufacturers approach innovation from new angles. In recent years, aided by the launch of more compact high-performing mirrorless cameras (better image quality in smaller bodies), manufacturers have streamlined their portfolios to focus on the higher end. Sony, the first to make mirrorless cameras mainstream, has been dominating this new wave of cameras. Yes, total sales may still be down for almost all Japanese makers, but removable lens cameras have stabilised at much higher revenues than before whilst outselling fixed lens point and shoots. The owners of these cameras are also younger than ever before — and more likely to be female than before.

There’s clearly a stance being made amongst younger camera owners against ‘decision free’ photography as people look to learn a craft and create an aesthetic unique to them, away from the same filters everyone else is throwing over their images. Far from killing high-end photography, staple social platforms such as Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, even Airbnb, are becoming more image-reliant and this is creating a demand — both in consumer expectation and brand authorisation for the highest quality imagery possible. Everyone wants there to be devices which are dedicated to capturing the best images possible and it’s safe to say this gives plenty of space for new and established brands to play in.

Recently, a small number of brands have been presenting interesting approaches in hardware. Leading lens manufacturer Zeiss has attempted to combine the best of all worlds with the ZX1, their first digital camera which facilitates shooting, editing and sharing on-camera without the need for a smartphone. French startup Pixii is betting on an alternative approach with a minimal screenless rangefinder camera which prioritises getting images onto your smartphone asap.

Traditional brands are also playing with new formats — Hasselblad is a great example. Celebrating slow photography, the retro-looking $5,750 CFV II 50C allows photographers to use lenses made as long ago as the 1950s but with a contemporary image processor and touchscreen. Going where smartphones can’t go, Hasselblad has collaborated with a leading drone manufacturer to get their lenses in the sky. Fujifilm, who saw an industry-leading growth last year, has a new Instax camera which brings a digital twist on the current interest with the apparently defunct technology of film photography, by enabling users to view images instantly on their phone or via onboard printing. Lens-maker Sigma, has released the FP, combining impressive specs in a pocketable modular body, enabling photographers and videographers alike to adapt the camera to suit their needs.

Professional photographers tend to frown upon the multitude of ‘amateur’ photo-sharing platforms, but it seems like a new generation of services is finally coming to their aid. New services such as Meero are emerging to help companies seamlessly commission work by making finding the right photographer for a job simple. Portfolios can be browsed to help select photographers and the platform hosts all related communication between client and photographers, including image transferring. Unsplash, a user-submitted stock image site, has seen unprecedented growth, becoming the go-to destination for stock images that don’t look like stock images. Unsplash boasts over 1 billion photo downloads from a mass of over 1 million user-submitted images.

Of course, innovation is also happening in the smartphones space with complementary products like Moment and Shiftcam emerging. Both brands provide premium add-on lenses for smartphones, allowing users to create authentic effects as opposed to mimicking them. Determined to make phones better cameras, Moment has cultivated a community around photography. Moment uses their huge social media following to connect with their intended audience, uploading weekly YouTube videos and hosting regular photo competitions. It’s quite remarkable that no camera maker has ever managed to build a photography community that’s so visible, especially when they’re the ones offering the real cameras to ‘real’ photographers.

All these innovations in photography have happened because companies have enhanced one or more of the activities of capturing, storing and distributing images. Further innovation will happen when brands dissect the workflow of present-day photographers, both smartphone and standalone camera users, to uncover where they can play. To standalone camera makers, the smartphone should be considered as a device to build products around, especially to cater to those who want instantaneous results. Here manufacturers can recognise what users are already carrying around with them (like Pixii).

There’s a saying that the best camera is the one that’s with you, which apparently gives the smartphone precedent. But what if manufacturers think about how to keep the smartphone in people’s pockets by promoting considered capturing through dedicated hardware? What if people don’t want ‘decision free’ photography? What tactile controls could elevate the photography experience? Where could cameras go that smartphones can’t? Cameras can still be appreciated for what they are, designed to enable the capturing of images. The future success of the camera hangs on manufacturers creating products which people are enticed to buy and use. Cameras that continue to produce results distinguishably beyond that of the phone and provide superior photographic experiences.