The rising popularity of smartphones has come at the expense of conventional compact digital cameras. The always-with-you convenience, along with the ability to process images immediately on the device, to modify it with software updates and additional third-party apps and to upload to the web from almost anywhere is a combination that's very hard for digicams to compete with. Simply offering slightly better image quality and the flexibility of zoom lenses isn't enough to overcome this convenience and connectivity.
However, camera makers have started to respond to this pressure by offering cameras that offer greater levels of connectivity, to try to wrestle back some of the convenience of a smartphone, while retaining their own inherent advantages. The latest appraoch, being embraced by most of the big camera makers, is to build cameras that co-operate with smartphones, rather than trying to compete with them. As a result, there's been a flood of cameras that will connect by Wi-Fi to smartphones, in order to piggy-back their inherent connectivity advantages. And this isn't just being seen in compact cameras - several of the latest mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, which offer the large-sensor image quality of DSLRs, now come with Wi-Fi capability.
So, if you want better image quality with smartphone flexibility, what are your options, what do they offer and how easy are they to use?
Cameras with Wi-Fi
Most of the models on the market are conventional compact cameras with some attempt made to add Wi-Fi capability to them. Beyond this, Samsung, keen to capitalize on its mobile phone and networking technologies, has included Wi-Fi in a wide range of its cameras, including all three current models in its NX line of interchangeable lens cameras, which it is branding as 'Smart Cameras.'
And the continued spread of Wi-Fi capability is no better exemplified than its appearance in Canon's EOS 6D. This $2,100 photography-enthusiast-targetted full frame DSLR couldn't be further from the tokenistic, middle-of-the-road compacts with Wi-Fi network connectivity that have lingered on the peripheries of the big electronic maker's camera lineups for many years.
The big change is the move to the use of smartphones as connection points (which are then designed to deal with the downstream details such as how to connect to the Internet), rather than trying to add the complexity of establishing Internet connectivity into a camera interface. And what's enabled this is not just the smartphones themselves but their app-based expandability. This allows the cameras to connect to a broad range of existing phones without the camera maker having to agree compatibility with phone makers, who are usually working to very different product schedules. All of the devices we've seen launched in the past year are compatible with Android and iOS, either from launch or shortly afterwards. Venture beyond these operating systems and support becomes essentially non-existent, so when we discuss smartphones, we're talking about phones based on these two platforms.
In each case the basic idea is fairly straightforward - the first time you try to connect your camera to your smartphone, you'll have to go through some sort of 'pairing' process, to give the devices permission to communicate with one another. To a large degree, the difference in how simple this process is depends on how well designed the app is. At its most basic, this involves engaging the Wi-Fi mode on the camera, pointing the phone to connect to the camera's Wi-Fi, loading the appropriate app and then confirming the connection on the camera. Canon's CW app makes the process a fraction slower by demanding you copy a five-digit network password from the camera's screen when you make the Wi-Fi connection.
What are they like to use?
The real differences come when you go to connect your camera for the second time. The best example of how this process should work is the Fujifilm Camera App. Set the camera to Wi-Fi mode and then start the app on your phone and it'll offer you a 'Connect' button. The camera will try to reconnect to the last device you uploaded to — if it finds it, press 'OK' to confirm the connection. Alternatively, if you're trying to connect with a different phone, press 'OK' and the camera will ask you to confirm the connection to the new device. It's extremely simple. And, if your phone is connected to a different Wi-Fi network (if you're at home or at a coffee shop where your phone has automatically reconnected to a known Wi-Fi connection), the app will open up your phone's Wi-Fi settings page, to make it easy to connect back to the camera.
The Samsung system also does this well (on Android at least), bypassing the step of needing to switch Wi-Fi connections entirely. It's less slick on iOS though — the Samsung apps will not load until you've gone off and manually re-connected the phone's Wi-Fi to the camera, instead giving a lengthy instruction to do so.
Despite the camera always using the same network name, we couldn't get an iOS device to automatically reconnect to the camera, so whatever you're doing, your first step always has to be to go into your phone's Wi-Fi settings. The Samsung makes the process more efficient by automatically trusting the last phone you sent images to - you only have to confirm the connection if you're trying to send to a different device to the one you usually use.
Canon's CW (Camera Window) app is the most laborious. Unlike the Samsung iOS app, it will load if you haven't connected to the camera, but gives you no route through to your phone's Wi-Fi settings. Worse still the network connections it makes with iOS phones are not set to automatically connect (you have to think to go in tell the phone to auto-connect). Otherwise you always have to manually re-connect the Wi-Fi on the phone. Furthermore, there's an extra step on the camera - every time you want to make a connection, you have to choose from a list of devices that you want to connect to, rather than the Fujifilm's much more laize fair approach. At present it's not possible to create an ad-hoc connection directly between an Android phone and the Canon cameras, so you can only connect if you have a Wi-Fi network to attach to. Some Android phones can themselves act as Wi-Fi hotspots, allowing a connection to the camera when you don't have any other Wi-Fi access, but many networks charge heavily for the use of this feature, so it's far from ideal. We hope Canon has worked these issues out for its more recent cameras, as this was the least satisfying of the cameras to use.
The push-on Wi-Fi units for the D3200 and D600 DSLRs offer a similar set of capabilities to the Samsungs, offering a live preview from the camera and the option to fire the shutter remotely. Unlike the Samsungs, all these features are offered from a single app. Sadly there's no control over any of the exposure settings - something promised on the forthcoming Canon EOS 6D. Worse still, on both Android and iOS the camera regularly dropped the connection to the phone (we weren't ever able to download a file taken using the remote view on the iOS app), and the only download options are for the full file or the 640x480 JPEG preview (Android version only).
Table of transfer options
Memory card Wi-Fi
The alternative to buying a dedicated Wi-Fi camera is to fit a Wi-Fi-capable SD card to your existing camera. There are two main options - the originator, EyE-Fi, which offers a range of cards with different speeds, capabilities and capacities, or Toshiba's Flash Air card, which is becoming increasingly widely available (but hasn't reached North America at the time of writing). The two cards have rather different approaches, so which you prefer is likely to come down to what you're looking to achieve.
The Eye-Fi card can be used in a number of ways, including automatically downloading all its contents to your home computer or up to Eye-Fi's cloud storage service. There are also options to share uploaded images with several popular social networks including Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. The function we're most interested in, though, is the ability to share images directly to an iOS or Android device. The process is fairly straightforward (though involves a small amount of card configuration on your home computer at the beginning). Once the card has been set to 'Direct' mode, it will broadcast a Wi-Fi identity, which you can then connect to, using an iOS or Android app. Once you've connected, you have three choices: upload all images to the phone, upload all to the phone and send selected images on to a social networking site or only upload selected images.
Using a clever hack, the card recognizes images that are marked as 'protected' within the camera as being selected — meaning you don't need a camera with any understanding of Eye-Fi for it to work. Once uploaded to the phone, the Eye-Fi software remembers having uploaded each file, so you can't easily get it to upload a second time. The other thing worth being aware of is that the card will only enter direct mode and communicate with a camera if you're away from any Wi-Fi networks that it's familiar with, but it doesn't do a great job of warning you this is why it's suddenly stopped working. Generally, though, the process is pretty slick - with the Android app you don't even need to redirect the phone to the Eye-Fi's Wi-Fi signal - it will make the connection, upload and disconnect without any further intervention. The iOS app isn't quite so clever and still requires you to manually select the card's Wi-Fi if you're connected to something else, but it's still one of the smoothest connection implementations we've seen.
There's no option to downsize the images before upload but you can specify different actions for JPEG, Raw and movie files. This means photographers happy working with their Raw files can set their camera to produce a small JPEG for transfer, then keep the full Raw file on the card until they get home, with the option to make it download to your home computer when you're back within range of your own Wi-Fi network.
The alternative option is the more recent FlashAir technology, developed by Toshiba. These cards broadcast a Wi-Fi signal and have an HTML server that you can connect a phone to, and then access the card's contents via a web page on the phone's browser. There's also an Android app (not yet available for U.S. customers) that also makes it easy to browse and download images and subsequently push the image up to the site or app of your choice. An iOS app is in development. The device seems to be clever enough to let you browse the card's contents using small preview images, so you don't have to wait for the full size image to download to your phone before being able to view it. However, unlike the dedicated Wi-Fi cameras, there's no way of downloading anything but the full-sized image across to the phone.
The recent Photokina trade show saw the launch of two cameras based around the Android operating system. The first, Nikon's Coolpix S800c, is a smartphone-like device that connects to its own dedicated app. This app isn't yet available but we're hoping that the camera's connectivity-minded operating system and its touchscreen interface make it easier to connect than the other cameras we've seen.
The real breakthrough device, though, is one that has not only its own Wi-Fi connection but also its own cellular data link, making it possible to do-away with the smartphone altogether (and blurring the line between cameras and cameraphones to the point that it's nearly imperceptible). Such devices are too new to have a well-accepted category name but 'smartcamera' seems the most likely to take off. Ironically, given it is calling all its Wi-Fi cameras 'Smart Cameras,' the first true smartcamera comes from Samsung. The Samsung Galaxy Camera is essentially one of the company's superzoom compact cameras melded with one of its smartphones. This means it offers a slightly larger sensor than most smartphones but, more importantly, it has a 21x optical zoom - helping mark it out as a more serious camera than you'd usually expect from a smartphone.
Unlike every other option mentioned in this article, there's no need to download apps or negotiate a connection to another device. Uploading images is as simple as doing so from your smartphone because, calling capability aside, the Galaxy Camera is a Samsung Galaxy S III: its latest Android-powered smartphone. And, while the Samsung WB850 on which the camera is based wasn't a stand-out camera in its own right, it should comfortably outclass most phone cameras and, in terms of simplicity, outpace conventional connected cameras. And that means there's a lot of catching-up for the rest of the industry to do.