Why will wireless camera phones revolutionize the photography industry?
May 2003

by Evan Nisselson

The digital screen in front of me says that it’s 3:32 AM London time; I am 38,000 ft above Greenland on my taxi between NYC and Milan. My laptop is plugged into the airline power system, I am about to order another whiskey, and I wish they had free Wi-Fi Internet access on the airplane like yesterday outside in Bryant Park, NYC.

For many years I carried a Nikon F around every day so I was ready to capture the next ‘Love the Living of Life’ moment to be able to share with others. However, in 1999 I stopped carrying my camera because it was additional weight in my bag. It wasn’t being used often enough to justify carrying it along with the laptop, PDA, cell phone, and associated cords.

A packed bag is the norm for working photographers but my reality was not for working in the field but rather trying to develop new digital imaging solutions. It wasn’t a lack of interest to make pictures but my mind was focused elsewhere.

However, every couple of weeks I would get frustrated that I missed a moment that I would have normally captured with my camera and communicated with others.

Now, the problem is solved, I have a cell phone camera.

Photography means many things to many people at many times. It’s a means of communicating at its core. People use photos to visually communicate with others about a vacation, a bike ride, a news event, a celebrity, or about your “totaled” car to the insurance company. The process of visually communicating is in for a drastic shift due to the arrival of cell phone cameras.

Professional photographers and consumers around the world have finally started to realize the benefits of making pictures digitally but it’s not going to compare to how wireless photography will revolutionize how people make, share, sell and communicate with pictures.

Nowadays, people around the world don’t leave their homes without their designer cell phones unlike with cameras. Professional photographers usually carry their cameras around everyday but there are times even they leave the house without their camera – but all take their cellular phones.

I had been waiting to get my first cell phone camera for years. Professional photographers say they are overwhelmed with the tools of their trade which need to be totted around like; a laptop, PDA, 2-4 camera bodies, lenses, flashes, film, batteries, smart cards, power cords, adaptors, satellite phones, back up hard drives, etc.

Carrying a combined cellular phone and camera is a totally different mindset than meandering around making pictures with a typical camera.

Even after buying my new cell camera, I continued to get frustrated that I was missing moments worth capturing because I didn’t have my camera and then at the last possible second - I would realize that I could grab my cell camera and capture the moment. Now not only could I capture the moment but I can also instantly share that moment with someone around the globe by sending it as a MMS within seconds. Once again I am ready to make pictures wherever I go as I used to do with my analog camera.

On the way to the office the other day, I was making pictures with my cell camera. I came across a war protest that was about to happen… I could have had the scoop but was late for a meeting so I couldn’t wait around. It will definitely be easier for the masses to capture news events when photographers are not present but the quality and legitimacy of their photos will always be an issue.

There are many people that I frequently brainstorm with about the present and future of digital imaging for consumers, professionals and businesses. Below are some of my more recent conversations that add perspective to how cell phone camera devices will revolutionize the photography industry.

Bob Goldstein and I were talking the other day on the phone between Milan and Los Angeles about his research on how digital imaging is revolutionizing visual communications:

One of the things that we’re saying is once you have something like [a cell camera] that’s with you all the time – you’ll end up reaching for it, instead of a pencil or a pen to write something down, instead of reaching for a keyboard to type something out.

Oh, absolutely. I’ve already done it twice. I’ve told you before. I definitely think the cell phone camera is going to revolutionize digital imaging for the consumer.

I think for everybody.

Well, yeah, you’re right, also for professional photographers and business folks. But when I think of the photographers out there, I think of the professional photojournalist, and then I think of the consumers making pictures. But you’re right. As far as visual communications, the business opportunities are tremendous. So I got back to the office today and I was in a meeting, and there was a blackboard or a whiteboard all scribbled. And I said, well, we can’t erase this because I don’t know if the person has copied it down. So I made a photo of it.

There you go....

… Saturday, when I was walking around the center near the Duomo in Milan, there were, I thought, a lot of people, seven to ten people that were doing the same thing with their cell phones that I was doing. And they all had three or four people looking around it after making pictures for instant gratification. So I downloaded all my camera photos, like a hundred of them, or eighty of them, and put them on my computer, but I kept the three that I really liked on the cell and shared them in the office on the phone. Everyone loved sharing those photos digitally. So the quality is horrible, but the concept that it will be at one megapixel and two megapixel and maybe even three by the end of this year proves the fact that the quality is just a matter of time. And the user experience is the big question – well, how does it do it? I was trying to figure out if people noticed me making pictures or was I a spy. Italians, I think, already have an idea that these cameras exist and they kind of don’t see it as awkward.

But they’re seeing it as a regular camera at that point.

Absolutely. Because the sole reason that anybody makes a picture, whether a professional, consumer or business is to communicate. That’s the sole reason; to communicate, share that communication, save a memory, and document history, which is just another communication for a later date.

And I’ll tell you something. When you said the quality was horrible, I’ve got to tell you – and part of it is I’m used to the palm-cam and all the rest of it – but in terms of you sending me a little what we would call a modern snapshot, several of the pictures, especially the first one that I looked at of the guy and the dog, I mean, the quality was completely acceptable considering, first of all, that it’s first generation, but also considering what it is. You’re sending me your impression of a moment on the street. And that was completely transmitted to me. I didn’t look at it and wonder what it was; I looked at it and went, wow.

Thanks. Yeah, yeah. No, I’ve showed it to many people, and they’re like, all the other ones are cute, but that’s a great photo…once I saw it, I knew I nailed it.

Right. So even with all the limitations, that still, that first impression, because you wielded it so well- I’ll tell you what I think also is happening, especially – I mean, this has been going on for a long time, but I think it’s really going on big time now – is in terms of quality expectations. We’re looking at hours of footage on TV now that looks like somebody puked on the lens and is underwater. (Exactly.) And so people are grateful for any kind of image. And again, in looking at yours [photo], I thought the quality was – considering that it’s still a, what, a 640-by-480 image – was astoundingly good. And as you say, rightfully so, within the year we’re going to have one megapixel cameras and up.

I am often talking about technology before it becomes commonplace and that is either a curse, blessing, insight or maybe all of the above. This time it’s no joke – wireless photography and more importantly, cell phone cameras are going to revolutionize how consumers and professional photographers make, share, distribute, sell and communicate with photos.

It has been fantastic to experience the transition from analog to digital photography in the last 10 years. In 1993 I was transmitting digital photos to SABA’s agents around the world with an ISDN line, 24 Hours in Cyberspace in ’95, then I created the first Internet broadband photography portal in ’97, today it’s cell cameras and tomorrow it will probably be photo blogs, personalized digital distribution and new marketing solutions for photographers - but that’ll have to wait until future articles.

The other day I was discussing with David Friend via email how cell phones with digital cameras will revolutionize photography and he wrote the following, which I totally agree with:

“What ARE the myriad applications? Sales people in the field connecting to the home office; photography scouts scouting shoot locations; many things Polaroid’s are used for now; grandkids/kids connecting with faraway parents/grandparents; disasters & breaking news events shot by local citizenry, EMS workers, etc....I think it's just a few steps away from Dick Tracy wrist-video phones.”

There are many examples of how businesses are using wireless photography to do their job better, faster and to save money. Insurance companies are sending people into the field to make and instantly transmit accident photos to corporate headquarters. The other day someone told me a story of a copier mechanic talking on a walky talkie to his office because he couldn’t figure out which plug he should adjust – they kept on going back and forth but the descriptions were not accurate enough. All of a sudden someone offered their cell camera to make a picture of the machine, asked for the office email address, emailed the photos from the cell and within moments the office said ‘WOW’ adjust that dirty red cord next to the blue cord to fix the copier.

The image quality of these cell cameras is 640 X 480 at best but we should have three megapixel cell cameras on the market within 18 months. Anyone who is complaining about the quality of today’s cameras are not focusing on the critical technological and cultural advances that are knocking at our door. Quality is a minor issue today and will be solved in time, as professional digital cameras are now good enough for publishing high quality books.

Additionally, most consumers tell endless stories and share tons of laughter from photos that are barely legible. These cell cameras will not replace professional cameras but they will be another tool just a like a web site, a wide-angle lens or analog film.

Can you tell which of the following photo strips were made with my cell camera?

I was trading emails with a photography friend and he was a bit outraged with my email that the BBC was asking their online audience to submit photos from cell phones, digital and analog cameras from Iraq war protests around the world. I thought this was a fantastic way for the BBC to develop a more global interactive online community but he took the following different perspective:

Now, now--it's quite rosy from your perspective but the trend amongst the media is transparent; cut costs and maximize profits, fatten up for our next merger, nothing else matters. I'm rather surprised that you don't recognize the BBC link as an exploration of potential free content.

In the future, I believe I will need to convince the editors and AD’s that they need something more than a chimp with a cellular camera, or I'm doomed to compete against the pizza-faced kids supplementing their part-time jobs at McDonalds! That kind of photo--or snapshot, whatever, from a cellular camera--will be so commonplace that there will be no budget for it.

I agree that the BBC probably had different agendas from saving money to interactive programming but I strongly believe that photographers shouldn’t feel threatened by consumer photographers because the creative eye and skills of most professional photographers are far superior. Publishers will always need them to succeed.
Professional photographers already compete with the public when it comes to photographing news events because publishers often publish public news photos. Cell cameras might make it easier for the public to make news worthy pictures.

I finally arrived in Heathrow at 9AM only to have a 5-hour lay over before my flight to Milan but thank goodness for the business center so that I could re-connect my veins to an Internet IV.

I just had an interesting chat via instant messenger with Damon Kiesow who is a Sr. Photo Editor working the early morning News shift today at America Online in Virginia.

evan: how do you think cell cameras have and or will affect professional photographers
damon: well - good and bad
evan: can you elaborate on both
damon: going to see a lot more "TV" like live coverage I would assume
damon: more photos less editing - but quick
evan: why will there be more TV like coverage from cell cameras
damon: live - instant transmission
damon: will drive live instant transmission with less editing or context generation
evan: oh yeah, I agree but that will be more video transmission? no?
damon: no
damon: but the still coverage will be more like TV is now - no context - just live images
evan: interesting, i think you are right about this type of news coverage
damon: the only advantage newspapers still have is time - breathing room and context
evan: in comparison to TV?
damon: yes
evan: what about from your vantage point as a picture editor at AOL
damon: will love it
damon: less use of TV screen grabs from breaking news events
evan: it seems like you would like the photographers to be able to transmit directly from their cameras so it hits the wires faster and allows you to visually communicate to your viewers faster than the competition
damon: well everyone wants that
evan: but what about the quality of the photography if all are trying to transmit their photos seconds after making them without editing
damon: well - that is the crux of it
evan: why
damon: the ability to transmit instantly - means photogs will HAVE to transmit instantly
damon: we are already competing with CNN and etc
damon: if we can transmit from our cameras the way TV can - we will
evan: AOL is already competing with CNN but photographers tell a different story than videographers
evan: it isn't really if but when
damon: not just AOL competing
damon: I mean the AP photographer competing with the CNN videographer
damon: to get the images out first
damon: CNN is already selling screen grabs to getty
damon: APTN moves screengrabs on AP
evan: right
evan: so, there is a great opportunity here for photographers to make better quality and visually stimulating images to compete with the distribution of screengrabs?
evan: this could be a great new revenue stream for news photographers even though they would have to change the way the make pictures?
damon: yes…..

Cell cameras will revolutionize the photography industry because they can instantly share photos from your camera to people around the world! The other day, a friend said that she had hundreds of photos that no one has seen because she is too busy with two young kids to even think about printing, uploading, and emailing the photos. The reality is that digital photography hasn’t made it easier to visually communicate, yet... The photography industry is in the first inning of the first game of a long competitive season.

Many industry analysts are forecasting that camera phones will outsell "standalone" digital cameras in the next couple of years!

Cell cameras will only successfully revolutionize the photography industry if it is simple to make and share photos with these new devices. Additionally, today’s pricing models with the wireless companies have to become cheaper to get everyone addicted like I am. It is so much fun to make pictures with my cell phone and then instantly share them with others around the world.

If the above is not enough to convince you that we are on the precipice of another major transition in the photography industry then the following two stories might help.

After arriving in Milan, I picked up my cell phone camera that I wasn’t able to use in the states because of Italian pre-paid service issues. Within one hour of using my cell camera again in Italy, I had sent 5 new photos as mms messages to friends around the world showing that I was back in Italy. Cell cameras are addictive!

I was at the Blue Note Jazz Hall in Milan and I wanted to share the moment with a friend in California who is a Jazz musician. I made a photo with my cell camera, recorded a couple seconds of audio from the show and then sent the photo, audio and a short text as a MMS minutes later.

Everyone at my table and the neighboring table were amazed, jealous and asked in multiple languages what cell phone camera they should buy! In conclusion, carpe diem and figure out how you should leverage wireless camera devices in order to either visually communicate easier and/or increase revenue for your photography business.

© Evan Nisselson

Evan Nisselson is a photographer and Founder/CEO Digital Railroad, Inc., a software and services company that is creating application services to help solve critical technical problems for creative professionals. He has worked in the photography industry for fourteen years and has focused on digital imaging applications since 1996. He has seven years experience at technology start-ups from VP Business Development, EVP of Content and Product Strategy, manager of product launches and content teams. Additionally, he has been a photo editor, software developer, lecturer, moderator, contest judge, a published photographer and a digital imaging consultant.
In 1997, he conceived and managed the first broadband Internet photography portal for Excite@Home. This became a multi million dollar joint venture with Intel. Evan has also worked at SABA Press Photos, as an assignment editor on photo book projects and he continues to work on his documentary photography projects. More images and specifics at Evan's web site.

[All photos made with the Sony P800 Cell Camera except one photo strip]


Write a Letter to the Editor
Join our Mailing List
© The Digital Journalist