I wasn't kidding when I wrote the other day that Apple's launch of iCloud should have the camera manufacturers worried. The iPhone 4 - which is 'just' a phone, remember - is already perilously close to knocking the Nikon D90 - a bona fide dSLR, natch - off top spot as the most popular camera for Flickr users. That's right. A camera phone is challenging a real life dSLR for top honours on the world's biggest image sharing site.
Who would have predicted that, even as recently as a couple of years ago?
Have iPhone, will take snaps...
It's not just the camera manufacturers who should be thinking about the consequences, either. Having spent years deriding the addition of token cameras to phones, I've found myself using the camera app on my iPhone more and more over the past 6 months. Initially it was just for family snaps and the like, but then one day I found myself arriving on location... without my camera bag.
Yeah, I know, that sounds terribly amateurish. In my defence the job in question wasn't primarily a photographic one. But anyway. There I was, a minimum 3 hour round trip from my normal tools, with a job to do and only my iPhone in my pocket. Figuring that I could get the bulk of the rest of the job done anyway, I decided to take the pictures I needed with the iPhone and then evaluate them back at base to determine whether a return visit was called for.
They were fine.
Train journey tedium relieved...
I should probably qualify that. The subjects in question weren't moving (at all), there were no complex lighting or depth of field requirements, and I knew that the resulting images would be running at less than 1/4 page in print. But still. I didn't do anything other than convert from sRGB to Adobe RGB in Photoshop and send them on their way. On the page you'd never know they were shot with a phone.
So I took that experience to its logical conclusion. The next similar job that came my way was even further from home but, knowing that my iPhone was up to the job, I left behind my camera, laptop and dictaphone too. Apple's tiny box of tricks helped me navigate my way around an unfamiliar city, recorded my audio notes, gave me web access when I needed it and recorded the images that I needed (which, at risk of labouring the point, will appear in print alongside images shot on my £3500 dSLR with £1500 lens).
I think that's pretty remarkable. And I'm not the only one to have used the iPhone's camera to earn my living. During a Twitter conversation the other day a fellow freelance bike journo admitted to having had iPhone images published in National Geographic Adventure. NG sets notoriously high standards for its images. Publishing iPhone pictures demonstrates both how times have changed and just how good, within its own limitations, the iPhone is.
Gale force winds not pictured
What makes the iPhone's appeal even more incredible is that a camera with an equivalent feature set (fixed lens, no exposure control, touch screen interface only, etc.) would hold no appeal at all for me. The iPhone wins me over in spite of its features, because it's there already. I carry my phone habitually, in the same way that I carry my wallet and keys. Carrying an additional compact digital camera means remembering another object, finding room for it, remembering to use it. Given that the iPhone is already adequate for the job - just - an extra camera would need a very compelling feature set indeed to find room in my pocket.
Which leaves the market wide open for Apple to exploit. The launch of iOS5 gives a hint that Apple is beginning to realise the potential of the iPhone's camera. With a direct shortcut from the lock screen and a dedicated 'real' shutter button, the iPhone just got a step closer to the ergonomics of a proper compact. Want to put money on the iPhone 5's camera functionality being a whole lot better still?
I'll not be buying a new compact just yet, I don't think. Not until I see what Apple's up to. Yep, I'm waiting for a computer manufacturer to produce a camera. Strange how things change...