The connected camera
10 years ago clunky digital cameras were used to take a few pictures in the hope you had something decent when you looked later on the laptop. Photos were still locked to the device, the film replaced with a memory card that was useless until connected to a computer.
But in recent years they’ve been come technologically-imbued marvels, opening up new avenues of photography, sharing and even revenue for professional photographers.
The addition of Wi-Fi, NFC and Bluetooth chips inside even mid-range cameras means that whether you want to watch live footage from a pro-snowboarder’s action cam or control your snapper with your smartphone, connected cameras have broadened photography’s horizons.
With the help of our resident expert, we’re here to look at how connected cameras are shaping the world of photography, and how they might adapt again to alter the way we take and share photos forever.
Quick photo transfers
Sharing your photos used to be a laborious process. After a day of snapping, you’d go home, wire your camera up to your PC, and twiddle your thumbs waiting for photos to transfer. Only then could you email them to friends and family or post them online if you could be so bothered.
Connected cameras cut out that wait entirely. Wi-Fi cameras have internet access if they’re in range of a router or hot spot, allowing you to transfer photos straight to your phone or laptop with no fuss.
The Canon 750D, one such camera, allows for automatic uploading to social media through a suitable Wi-Fi access point, and can also beam photos to your smartphone, prompted by tapping them together through the near field communication (NFC) chips embedded in both.
Nikon’s new D500 also features always-on low-energy Bluetooth that can share an (admittedly lower-quality) version of your snaps with your smartphone instantly should you be out of range of Wi-Fi, so you can post it online using your phone’s data connection.
The Samsung Galaxy Camera range went one further by running on the Android operating system, and featured 3G and 4G, giving you Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat at your fingertips.
However, the tech giant hasn’t updated the range since 2014, so the progress of mobile-connected cameras is something people are watching to see how (and if) it will progress, given users would need another mobile contract and a decent data bundle to use it properly.
And beyond instant uploading, cameras connected to other devices offer new ways to interact with the high end photography equipment.
Remote shutter release
Most connected cameras – including Nikon’s D5500 DSLR and its COOLPIX compact range – allow photographers to use their smartphone as a remote release for the camera’s shutter through their Wi-Fi connection.
That’s useful for a number of reasons, the most obvious of which – and the most popular – is selfies. Set up your DSLR, strike a pose, and tap your phone to snap your face in all its high-quality glory.
But it’s also useful for long-exposure photography, be that shots of stunning nightscapes or flowing water scenes. They both require a separate remote shutter release anyway, so why not do it with your phone?
It’s especially helpful when you don’t want to get too close to the action but still need cracking shots, as Rod Lawton, TechRadar’s camera channel editor explains. "Let’s say you’re photographing sport. You set the camera up, retreat to a safe distance, and work it from there," Lawton says.
The same could be said of photographing wildlife: instead of disturbing whatever animal you’re trying to capture by crashing around in the bushes, set up your tripod and wait away from the action for the perfect moment.
But it’s not just the remote shutter that’s improving sport, as connecting up our cameras has similarly improved photography from sporting events – and even given photographers a chance to enhance their income.
Sports photographers, as Lawton explains, have cameras that can beam shots instantly back to photo editors in comfy studios. "A lot of professional photographers are using Nikon or Canon pro DSLRs," he says.
"They have quite powerful Wi-Fi connections, but they can also plug directly into Ethernet cable sockets. The faster you can get it back [to your editor] the better. If you make it instantaneous, you’ve got the scoop."
Seeing the action live
Action cameras (strapped on to extreme sports lovers to give a real-time view of what they’re seeing) have become hugely attractive since they’ve added connectivity into the mix,by allowing users to stream footage live.
GoPro teamed up with streaming app Periscope just last month, and users will be able to switch broadcasts between their phone and action cameras on the fly.
But the popular action camera brand wasn’t the first to try it: Android-based Sioeye’s Iris4G launched back in December, offering live streaming over LTE. The Sony HDR-AS100V Action Cam also includes the same feature, posting updates to Facebook and Twitter whenever you start filming.
The benefits are there for both those using the cameras – sharing their live footage with friends, family – and for sports fans, who now can enjoy the prospect of riding along in real-time with their favourite skier, snowboarder, or skater.
Keeping you safe
Away from the glitz and glamour of WiFi, 4G, and live sports, connected cameras can also silently keep you safe: smart security cameras have been pouring onto the market over the last couple of years and are becoming cheaper and more usable all the time – we’re a world away from the ‘one frame of fuzzy monochrome image every 10 seconds’ of a few years ago, as that was all common yesteryear connections could handle.
As a base level, these cameras film your home while you’re away, and alert you if they detect any untoward movement. Withings Home streams 1080p video at 30 frames per second direct to an iOS or Android app, and sends you stills from its 5 megapixel lens if it detects movement or sounds.
Similarly, Nest Cam streams sharp, 1080p HD video from inside your home to your computer, phone, or tablet, and offers cloud storage and face recognition if you’re willing to cough up a little extra each month.
Panasonic announced Nubo last year, which doesn’t even need a WiFi connection to work – it will transmit 720p video to your smartphone over 4G even if the power’s out, provided you’ve paid for the data package.
It’s a growing market, and one that will keep on adapting and improving as connections in the home increase (crime, after all, never sleeps).
What does the future hold?
While they lack the power and quality of standalone cameras, smartphones are now the most widely used photography devices: point, shoot and you can share your snaps to Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter in seconds.
Lawton believes connected high-end cameras are not attractive enough with the social-media, instant-upload obsessed public – and perhaps never will be.
"If you want to take pictures and share them straight away, [you] use your phone," he said. But are smartphones ever going to pack the same power and smarts as a larger, more impressive camera?
Lawton pointed to the Panasonic CM-1 – a phone-camera hybrid with a 1-inch sensor – as "the closest thing to a way forward for high-quality connected photography."
The CM-1 failed to impress consumers, despite strong reviews, as while it had a camera comparable to most high end compacts it failed as a sleek, portable smartphone – but that might be because the market was not ready for it, Lawton says.
"Most smartphone photographers aren’t expecting much image quality. I think it will take a while for that market to figure out the quality can be much better, and it’s worth having," he says.
Panasonic announced last month that the next iteration of the CM-1 – the CM10 – will not be a smartphone, but a standalone camera (complete with LTE connectivity and a host of apps, but a camera no less).
That leaves the door open for, say, Apple or Samsung to succeed where Panasonic – inexperienced in the smartphone world – failed. While Nokia has previously tried to equip a smartphone with a sensor capable of being seen as a ‘proper’ camera (as shown in the Lumia 1020) it lacked the optics and zooming capabilities of a larger snapper.
Other attempts to launch a phone with optical zoom have been fleeting – perhaps the newly-announcedAsus Zenfone Zoom may herald a time when smartphones can finally have more compact camera-like capabilities, but it’s not a major manufacturer.
If any of the smartphone giants strapped a full-blown camera sensor on the back of a flagship, you’d be brave to bet against their success.
More 3G/4G DSLRs
Cameras that can share photos without tethering to a smart phone via Wi-Fi – specifically through mobile networks – clearly have the potential to completely change the world of photography. They would reduce the need to carry expensive equipment around to just set up a mobile connection, and could give all kinds of photographers the instant access they crave.
However, with Samsung still not progressing on its plans to add more data connections to its cameras, it’s hard to see big DLSR manufacturers following suit just now.
As such, it seems the world of connected DSLRs – the ultimate connected camera to many – is somewhat in limbo. Our cameras now have Wi-Fi, but until they have 3G or 4G connectivity as standard they’re not going to be able to satisfy the masses desperate for instant uploading and connections that mimic their smartphones – we’ll have to wait for one of the camera giants to take a leap of faith to achieve that.
But maybe they never will. The world of connected actions cams is servicing a strong need, smartphones are only a generation or two away from being good enough for many professionals and the connected home is increasingly thirsty for imaging sensors for security and simplicity. The connected camera is already here, and subtly changing photography.