The future of hobbyist photography is still behind the smartphone lens

Scrolling through the comments section under the BBC’s coverage of the first camera phone in September 2001 says a lot about the effect putting that camera lens and sensor in the cellphone has had on society.

Glenn Broadway from the UK, wrote: “I can’t wait. There’s so much I’m looking forward to photographing … grumpy commuters, clouds, sleeping dogs, minor vehicle collisions in car parks, geese, steam, have-a-go-heroes, … and then presumably I’ll be able to email the pictures to all my friends.”

Stick around seventeen years, Glenn, and your steam-geese-grumpy-commuter body of work could be worth thousands. You could be an Instagram influencer and run sponsored posts for Steam Magazine. Or sell your photos online using blockchain rather than a traditional stock photo broker. The sky’s the limit – unless you have a drone, then it’s restricted airspace that’s your limit.

There’s no denying that introducing the camera phone ushered in a new era of hobbyist photography. According to analysts at Technavio, the global still images market is expected to grow to US$4.46 billion by 2021. By the time you’ve read this article, humans will have taken more photos than the number of photos in existence 150 years ago.

And it’s not just the volume of photos, a whole hobbyist arena has sprung up over the past twenty years – marketplaces and easy-to-use editing software, cellphone camera add-ons and big data fuelled content platforms. In two decades, user-generated content has become central to the way we consume the world around us. It’s also fueled disruption and dealmaking.

Building the perfect camera phone

In 2010, a decade after cameras were put in phones, Instagram launched, unequivocally changing the way we take photos and, perhaps more importantly, why we take photos. Group aesthetics, once linked to focused forums now proliferated, spread with hashtags and the “shareability” of imagery on Instagram. Influencers, that is users with large followings, became the target of brands to sponsor posts as inexpensive and wider-reaching advertising.

To capitalize on the trend, phone makers started investing heavily in the cameras and photo technology they put in their phone.

Between 2014 and 2017, Apple acquired three photo startups. First, it bought SnappyLabs, a startup run by a University of Melbourne Ph.D. student who invented a way to make the iPhone camera shoot full-resolution photos at 20 to 30 frames per second, faster than the native camera. Next, it snapped up LinX, a camera module maker promising DSLR quality out of mobiles. In 2017, Apple acquired Invisage, a startup that created a new image sensor technology that was supposedly four times more sensitive than current camera sensors.

Samsung made its own strategic investment in Israeli dual-lens next-generation smartphone camera startup CorePhotoniks Ltd. last year. Not to be outdone, Google paid around US$40 million for Lytro in March. Lytro makes a futuristic camera that lets users refocus an image after they shoot. Google is already running what is widely considered the best-in-class camera in its Pixel 2 phone but who knows what it has planned with Lytro.

In May, Sony announced it will spend $9 billion over the next three years, predominantly on image sensors.

Snapping up stock

Technology in hand, the question for hobbyists becomes what to with the photos. According to Technavio, stock agencies have been on a bit of a dealmaking spree lately in an attempt to get a hold of their microstock – stock sites fueled predominantly by amateur and hobbyist photography – and online sharing platform competitors.

“The concept of crowdsourcing has given rise to the concept of microstock, which has established itself as an ideal solution for the Internet age,” Sapna Jha, a key analyst at Technavio for retail goods and services research said in a release accompanying the report.

Earlier this year, Shutterfly paid US$825 million in cash for Lifetouch, a major player in the US school photo market serving over 50,000 schools and 10 million households. With the deal, Shutterfly gets access to millions of families ordering school photos.

In February, Visual China Group, one of the top image licensing companies in the world, acquired 500px, a Toronto-based online photography site and marketplace. A report in BetaKit pegged the acquisition at US$17 million, though VCG declined to confirm the number. The VCG acquisition marks further efforts by the company to press into the SaaS (Software as a Service) side of the business for visual creatives, opening the door to big data analytics.

And in April, SmugMug, a paid image hosting service, announced it was buying the formerly beloved Flickr image hosting site for an undisclosed sum from Verizon, as it continues to offload chunks of Yahoo (which paid US$25 million for Flickr in 2005, a year after the photo-sharing site launched).

SmugMug’s purchase of Flickr – once the benchmark for hobbyist photography sharing – is perhaps the most indicative of the changing sphere. Analysts have called the family-run firm’s purchase of Flickr “a lifeline” after Yahoo’s failure to see the platform for its innovation rather than its large database of users. Yahoo was on the right page when it purchased Flickr, it saw the future of photos, it just focused on integration rather than innovation.

A new perspective

It’s undeniable that the future of hobbyist photography lies in emerging technology like blockchain and artificial intelligence. Can you get your work out there more efficiently? Can you cut out the middleman sellers? Can you improve the way you shoot?

Zeepin, a “distributed creative economy” inspired by the cryptocurrency community, recently launched the beta for ZeeRights, a blockchain-backed copyright registration platform. And Wemark, an Israeli blockchain startup is taking out the middleman and letting users sell their photography directly over the platform using distributed contracts written.

Last year Apple quietly acquired Regaind, a French startup that designs technology capable of scoring photographs based on their composition, lighting, perspective, and other aesthetic qualities. In other words, you can become a better photographer with artificial intelligence.

Huawei is also using AI to its advantage. The company recently released the P20 Pro, a three-camera smartphone capable of taking photos in near darkness. The camera uses artificial intelligence to reduce blur.

The sentiment that hobbyist photography is going to stay glued to the lens of the rapidly evolving camera phone is perfectly exemplified in the comment section for another BBC article, this time a review of Huawei’s P20 Pro.

Soothseeker writes: “Friend of mine thought he’d try ‘getting into photography’. Bought himself an eye-wateringly expensive SLR camera body, a clutch of lenses each costing more than the camera, lens brush, filters, light meter, carrying case, tripod and silver umbrella. The whole lot cost more than my house and weighed a ton. Used it for a month, sold it all on eBay, and went back to using his phone’s camera.”



Andrew Seale

Andrew Seale is a Toronto-based business writer who contributes frequently to Yahoo Canada Finance, The Globe and Mail's Report on Business and The Toronto Star.