Point-and-Click Cameras Move Up-Market to Avoid Extinction

Last Updated Jun 4, 2010 2:44 PM EDT

Smartphones are on the march to become ubiquitous. Advanced models like the Nokia (NOK) N8 show that such handsets present a danger to some existing product categories, particularly lower-end cameras. As my colleague Damon Brown notes, "how do you market a one-trick pony?" Especially when most people can get a picture that is good enough?

The answer for a number of camera vendors is to go beyond basics and find a new type of customer willing to pay top dollar. This new generation of point-and-shoots still share basic characteristics of their endangered brethren. Cameras are light, compared with more expensive DSLRs (digital single lens reflexes). Lenses are non-interchangeable. Point-and-shoots are generally small enough to drop into a pocket. However, the new breed differs in a number of ways:

  • Lenses are often from such name optics manufacturers as Leica and Schneider and are also "faster," meaning they can allow more light in and let consumers take pictures under more challenging conditions
  • There is greater flexibility in storing images, not only in compressed JPEG form, but in unaltered so-called RAW files that preserve all the visual information
  • Greater control over shutter speed, aperture, and light sensitivity
  • Larger sensor chips to improve image capture quality
What the vendors apparently did was to look back in history at rangefinders -- the first 35mm cameras once ruled by the name Leica and used by such photographers as Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of modern photojournalism. The capabilities of the more powerful point-and-shoots are beyond the need and even interest of most consumers, who are often satisfied with what a smartphone can produce.

However, they well fit the interests of the prosumer segment -- advanced amateurs as well as professionals interested in an easily portable camera that can provide the tools for taking better quality pictures. Additionally, the prosumer segment is willing to spend more money to get the technical abilities they want. Prices can run upwards of $500.

Some of the models have shortcomings. For example, from what I can see in the images of a Samsung TL500, there is no viewfinder, probably to reduce costs. Many advanced photographers want the ability to cradle a camera against their faces and avoid the imperceptible hand shake that occurs when they hold the camera in front of them and watch the display screen. The result is unnoticeable in small format, but can make images look fuzzy when enlarged.

On the whole, though, the camera vendors are taking steps to retain at least some market share and profit, as the more expensive units likely provide greater margin than the doomed low-end models. However, as there is a limit to the number of people willing to spend more money on a camera, expect to see consolidation among vendors and a reduction in the number of brands on the market.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.