galaxy_s4zoom_product_img_7By now we’ve probably taken a bajillion photos with our smartphones, number system be damned. We’re taking pictures of our children, our coffees, and ourselves. And we’re taking the shots with our smartphones, almost all of which come equipped with at least one camera. So it makes sense that both Samsung and Nokia would announce smartphones that blur the line between camera and smartphone — until you consider the way in which so many of us share and discover those photos, anyway.

Both the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom and the Nokia Lumia 1020, as the devices are called, go against current design trends towards ever thinner and lighter devices by looking less like smartphones and more like point-and-shoot cameras you might’ve bought from Circuit City in the early aughts. Both promise to take better photos than their competitors, which favor form over fidelity. And both are the result of our fascination with photos and the devices we use to take them.

Smartphones have largely replaced point-and-shoot cameras for many consumers. The top three most used cameras to share to Flickr are iPhones, as the New York Times notes in its coverage of the Lumia 1020. Instagram, which is only available on iOS and Android, has 130 million active users sharing 45 million photos each day, according to its website. ABC News reports that Snapchat users upload 150 million photos every day. Kleiner Perkins’ Mary Meeker reported in her annual “Internet Trends” presentation that 500 million photos are uploaded and shared each day; she expects that number to increase to 1 billion in the next year.

Samsung and Nokia are right to identify photos as an integral aspect of modern smartphones, then. But does the popularity of photos warrant better cameras, or are the Galaxy S4 Zoom and Lumia 1020′s powerful cameras going to be wasted on the way we use, view, and share images?

Many of those 500 million photos shared each day are viewed on itty-bitty displays. If they’re shared to Instagram or other photo-sharing services they might only be viewed through a filter meant to make the image more aesthetically pleasing. (And, by doing so, hiding the faults of many mobile cameras.) Photos shared through Snapchat are automatically deleted — or, at least, hidden — after just a few seconds. Even if they aren’t deleted, they’re often compressed to facilitate quicker sharing and reduce the amount of data required to share that cuppa with the rest of the world.

Taking a high-quality, high-resolution picture and then sharing it to one of these services is like viewing the 3D version of “Avatar” on a low-definition television. You’ll likely get the gist of what you’re supposed to be seeing, but there’s a lot of detail wasted because of the device used to watch the film.

The reason for taking a photo has changed, anyway. We used to take pictures to preserve memories. Time has made a habit of fading and stealing our memories, and photographs allowed us to stave off time’s invitation to oblivion and capture a single moment. Photographs were taken and then put in photo albums, placed in frames, or stuck into wallets. They’re still used in that way (for better or worse) but that is no longer the sole reason to take a photo. Now they’re often used as a communication tool.

This shift has been carefully recorded. The New York Times writes that images “form a new language online.” PandoDaily previously argued that Snapchat was a communications platform, not a mere “sexting app.” The New Yorker has noted the social Web’s new focus on ephemerality over permanence. We’re taking a lot of pictures, we’ve turned ‘em into a communications tool instead of relics of remembrance, and we’re deleting them when we’re done.

Those photos don’t need to be insanely detailed. They don’t need to be incredibly close-up or particularly well-lit. They might even be better off if they aren’t; there’s an authenticity to these services borne from their of-the-moment nature. And if they aren’t meant to be deleted, they’re often futzed around with and permanently changed by filters and other photo-editing software. Worrying too much about improving those photos would’ve been akin to Nero filling all of Rome’s potholes before burning it to the ground.

If more of these services displayed full-resolution photos on every device, if images were meant to stick around forever, and if the filters included in many applications (including iOS 7′s default camera app) weren’t so garish, the constant desire to catalog and share our lives through photographs might be better satiated by clunky-but-powerful smartphone cameras. That simply isn’t the case. Photos are often compressed, disposable, and altered after their capture. A better camera doesn’t matter nearly as much as it might have just a few years ago.

[Image courtesy Samsung]