Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Whatever happened to point and shoot cameras?

Louise in Italy with her Sony point-and-shoot camera.

Not everyone is interested in photography, but ‘most everyone wants pictures. George Eastman was perhaps the first to understand this, and built an empire around it with his first box camera pre-loaded with film for 100 pictures and sold with the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest.” 

Previously, photographs had been made on sensitized glass plates or single sheets of film in holders. The process was complex and required serious interest in photography to grapple with it. Film in rolls was invented by Peter Houston, a Wisconsin farmer, in 1881. Eastman bought Houston's patent for $5000, and in 1888 produced his first camera. The rest, as they say, is history. 

When all the film had been exposed the user simply mailed the whole thing to Kodak, who processed and printed the pictures, reloaded the camera, and sent it all back to the owner. Nothing could be simpler. 

Eastman Kodak went on, over the years, to produce cameras of varying complexity, and of course, film for them. Lots and lots of film. In fact, they didn't particularly care who built the cameras as long as they could make the film. But the heart of their business was always the casual picture-taker who was happy with a simple box with few or no adjustments. The focus was fixed, as was the shutter speed, and exposure variations were mostly compensated for by the latitude of the film. 

Vernazza. Photo by Louise with her Sony.

As time went on and cameras became both more capable and more complex, various kinds of automation were devised, such as auto exposure and autofocus, so that the only technical challenge the user continued to face was loading film. And even that was simplified with the 126 and 110 format cameras that featured film pre-loaded into cartridges that could be simply dropped into the camera. 

As ways were devised to make it simpler to load 35mm film into a camera, the 35mm point-and-shoot camera, often, but not always, featuring mid-range zoom lenses, came to dominate the market among those who simply wanted reasonably good pictures with a minimum of complexity. One hour photo labs grew behind every bush to service this emerging market, and making and selling point-and-shoot cameras became the bread and butter of camera manufacturers. 

(I still have a great little camera from that era -- a Canon AF35ML with a fine 40mm f1.9 lens, autofocus, and the most accurate exposure metering of any camera I ever owned until my Fuji X-H1. I could shoot slide film in it with no bracketing and no worries.) 

Harley and Schnoodles
with a Canon AF35ML and slide film

My beloved late sister epitomized that army of point-and-shooters, as she documented every detail of the life of her family and her large coterie of relatives and friends. Her house was awash with 4x6 prints (doubles, of course), as she contributed heavily to Kodak’s bottom line. In fact her decline in picture-making activity due to age and infirmity paralleled Kodak’s decline so closely I can’t help wondering sometimes if there could have been a connection. . . 

As we morphed into the digital age, camera manufacturers morphed right along with the times. Film point-and-shoot cameras morphed into digital point-and-shoots. I think the first digital camera in our family was a little 3-megapixel Fuji I got for Louise in 2003, and by the time we went to Italy in 2005 she had a five megapixel Sony with a mid-range zoom lens that took very good pictures. 

Meanwhile, in 2002, the first cellular phones with built-in cameras became available to the public. It took a while for them to catch on, but by 2010, sales of digital cameras had begun to drop, and in the ensuing ten years have dropped by 87%. And much of that decline has been in sales of digital point-and-shoot cameras, which as a category, is nearly dead.

Monteroso. Photo by Louise with her Sony.

 Why? Three things.  

1. Digital point-and-shoots are not easy to use. My wife got a very nice little Olympus point-and-shoot a few years ago, Does she use it? No, but she takes a lot of pictures with her cell phone. The Olympus menus are almost as complex as those on my professional cameras. Even I have difficulty with them, and I have mostly mastered the menus of an Olympus OM-D E-M5. 

2. Cell phones make it quick and easy to share your photos. Even faster than getting double 4x6's at the one-hour lab. Cheaper, too.

3. Cell phone cameras do everything for you. Reasonably good exposure, reasonably good focus, both good enough for most people. and "you just push the button and (the camera) does the rest." George Eastman's idea lives on -- in modern garb.

(Photographs copyright David B. Jenkins and Louise D. Jenkins, 2020)

Soli Deo Gloria
For the glory of God alone.


  1. My everyday camera is a Canon PowerShot S95, which is now ten years old. It is a fabulous workhorse and despite its age is still quite capable. I've learned its ways over time and can really make it sing.

    My iPhone is at least equal to it for routine snapshots, and is always in my pocket. But I can make the S95 do things my iPhone can't dream of.

    But I'm not just a snapshooter. I have specific uses for a point-and-shoot digital. I hope the genre doesn't go away.

  2. I understand where you're coming from, Jim, but I can't see much long-term hope for the P&S cameras. If the manufacturers had been far-sighted enough to concentrate on making them simple to use, it would be different. Snapshooters want simplicity and good results. They are not into complexity.

  3. I keep forgetting that my phone makes photos until I'm at the supermarket and need to send the missus a photo of something to see if it's the brand she wants. Maybe it's because I carry a 'proper' camera with me all the time and don't need to dig the phone out of my pocket.
    I am very impressed with the slide film photo of the dogs. I'm not sure my latest and greatest digitals could pull off the exposure as well.
    I started to feel all warm and fuzzy about film point and shoots after reading your article, so I got my Canon Prima Super 130 out of the cabinet and a roll of Portra 400 out of the fridge. No battery, though. I'll have to pick one up today somewhere.

  4. That'a pretty much the way I use my cell phone too, Marcus. And I do also carry a real camera with me.

    I did lift the exposure on the dogs a bit in Photoshop for blog publication. But just looking at the slides visually, they are fine. We shot slide film a little darker back in the day for better saturation. It seems that everyone shoots digital a little lighter. But the meter on my little Canon did great in what I would consider tricky light.

    Just curious -- how did you come to find my blog?

  5. I prefer slightly dark photos, but digital cameras seem to go for the bright and light. A former photo teacher once told me that Japanese camera makers went for slightly brighter exposures because that's what Asians like, whereas the German cameras made slightly darker photos because that's what westerners like. I'm not sure if that's true, but it's interesting.
    I found your blog through Jim Grey's Recommended Reading. I liked the photos and the writing so I added you to my bookmarks list.