Three and a half years ago, when Fotozones was first emerging as a forum for photographers who think alternatively about equipment, I wrote this piece called “Why aren’t camera makers thinking out of their boxes?”. Basically I was asking why a proper camera system couldn’t be built around the smartphone that I carry in my pocket everywhere I go. An interesting conversation ensued.
It seems that the camera company RED are actually in the process of fulfilling this wish right now. Those of you who follow YouTube tech reviews may be familiar with one Marques Brownlee (aka MKBHD) who reviews a lot of tech stuff and is also a passionate RED user. Earlier today he posted a video showing a prototype RED smartphone called the Hydrogen, which is apparently going to become part of a camera system built around it. The video is embedded below. Watch it and then carry on reading my thoughts below that.
So, we’re almost out of the box here. From what I can tell in the video and the limited information available on RED’s website, this phone is going to be able to be used with a variety of accessories that will enable the user to produce not only quality stills photography, but serious video too. According to Marques' video RED says it will be better than any mirrorless or DSLR video out there at the moment. If you skip to 5:06 in the video you will see the kind of modularity RED are looking at providing around this smart phone. This is great news for the camera industry because it will hopefully spark a reaction from the traditional manufacturers, who’s thinking on camera development has for decades been firmly planted in the box, albeit put there by technology limitations (which are rapidly disappearing).
What does this have to do with serious photography, you may ask? A smart phone is never going to replace the use of a Nikon D5 with a giant telephoto lens used on the planes of the Serengeti, but if the consumer market for cameras is all but moving into smart phones and the traditional camera makers are not looking to become a part of that market, they are doing themselves (and us serious photographers) a massive disservice. People love to spend money on phone accessories and what better way of creating a market for accessories is there than the gadget crazy world of photography and videography? The revenue from these accessories is ginormous and cannot be ignored by any company who are losing their traditional revenue streams to a market that has moved towards convenience in favour of traditionalism.
To illustrate my point I recently took out a cellphone contract for the first time in about 8 years so that I could get a new iPhone 7 Plus to use as my primary video camera for material I want to make on safari this year. I decided against buying the Olympus E-M1 Mk II which has very good video features, because it costs twice as much as the phone I got (not counting the fact that I would have to buy a whole new set of batteries and more, faster memory cards). A new Olympus camera would sit unused in my gear storage bins for 99% of its life, devaluing faster than water draining from a punctured bucket. With the iPhone acquisition I got a brand new, top of the range device that not only takes pretty amazing video and stills, but also runs my entire digital life for me. It’s big enough for me to no longer require an iPad either. And I got a data and calling plan all for less than the monthly cost of repaying an Olympus E-M1 Mk II had I bought that on my credit card instead. My old cameras still work 100% and hopefully they will continue to do so for as long as I need them to.
Here’s something else to think about; so far I have probably spent an additional 15% of the value of the phone on various accessories, including everything from cases to tripods, windshield mounts, microphone adapter cables and so on. I’m also giving very serious thought to buying a DJI Osmo Mobile which can track me if I am making a video and moving around my studio. The point I want to make though, is that buying just one device led me down a path of other purchases all related to that device, nothing related to my professional camera system. I might still look at buying an Olympus Air if I feel the need to pare down my system even further and make use of other lenses that I already own, but for the most part the upgrade money Olympus or Panasonic might have gotten from me has gone the way of Apple instead. Their device offers video I can use and not get bogged down getting it set up and ready for use. I choose my resolution and press record, which is all I really want to do. I don't want to know about any of the other things that movie makers need to have control over. I wanted convenience and quality and this little device delivers it.
The camera companies of the world need to wake up. They have to make smart phones a part of their business otherwise they are going to go the way of the dinosaurs. I will also say this; as computational photography gets better and better, the need for specialist cameras and lenses is going to disappear faster than a Bugatti Veyron does when you're looking at the back of it. Apple’s Portrait mode on the iPhone 7 Plus may not be perfect right now, but it’s still in beta and I can see that a couple of iOS updates down the line this will be something to take very seriously.
So, to end off I applaud RED for taking the initiative in this brave new world and I look forward to seeing not only the system they build around the Hydrogen, but also the competition’s response to it.