ipad-camera

After three weeks of traveling through New Zealand I’ve come to an unexpected conclusion: tablet photography is here to stay. Moreover, I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing.

Blasphemy, I know. It’s one of several things that stood out among the mobile usage patterns I observed while spending extended time away from the US. (Another being that we’re in for an explosion in the use of voice dictation and virtual assistants. I’ll get to that in a moment.)

Time and time again, as I visited major tourist destinations across the country tablets (almost exclusively iPads) were in use in equal number as any other other type of camera. Sure there were smartphones, point-and-shoots, and (lots of) DSLRs, but to my amazement, tablets were just as popular a choice.

In my unscientific research, roughly one in three of the thousands of photographers I encountered were capturing photos on a seven- to ten-inch screen. Several even had tripods, or hand mounts to improve the process. The “offenders” weren’t of any particular demographic – old people and young, Europeans, Asians, and Americans (although less so) were all represented.

I struggled at first to come up with a theory for why this is the case and moreover why it’s not yet the case stateside. When traveling, portability is obviously a major priority. But this would lend itself to use of a point-and-shoot or smartphone as your camera of choice. It’s also common to hear people say, “the best camera is the one you have with you.” But this again lends itself to choosing a smartphone, which most people never leave home without, rather than a tablet.

Maybe it’s a nod toward versatility, as in, “rather than bring a laptop and a camera on this trip, I’m just going to bring the iPad and use it for everything.” The same logic could be applied at the point of purchase: “Rather than buy a laptop and a smartphone, or a laptop and a standalone camera, I’ll just buy a tablet and use it for everything.” This could apply even more to someone who has only ever owned a desktop computer or maybe never owned a computer at all.

The on-board cameras and software have finally gotten to the point where users are giving up less than they once were by going with a mobile device as their primary camera (although smartphones still produce slightly better photos). Like a smartphone, many tablets offer the option of mobile-broadband, making instant uploading and sharing of photos a possibility and setting them apart from point-and-shoots and DSLRs. Tablets, and specifically the iPad, are also better equipped for light photo-editing than a smartphone. But I’m not sure this is enough.

Above all else, I think it’s the ease of framing photos before capturing them and then the joy of viewing them afterward on a large screen that is the primary driver of this trend of tablet photography. While photographers were constantly craning their necks to ensure that they’d found just the right angle for smartphone pics, the iPad’s big, bright screen made this an easy question to answer. And more so than any other camera type, these tablet photographers were almost guaranteed to turn and share the resulting image with their travel companions.

Author and writer Shawn Blanc echoes this theory when describing how the gift of an iPad gave impacted his grandfather:

My Grandpa’s iPad has enabled him to do something that he’s been unable to do for as long as I can remember. The 9.7-inch touch screen has turned my Grandpa into a photographer.

The screen is large enough that he can see well enough to actually frame and take pictures. And then he has them right there, on that same large screen, where he can browse through them any time he wants.

Blanc called the iPad “the best camera [his grandfather] has ever owned.” Of course, not every would-be photographer is vision-challenged, and in many (many, many) scenarios the sheer size of an iPad could be unwieldy or seen as rude. But in just as many others, it seems like the iPad offers too many advantages to be ignored as a competitor in the camera markets.

The other thing that struck me while traveling was the sheer prevalence of voice dictation. Whether it was Siri, Google Now, or some app-specific implementation, people everywhere were speaking into their phones rather than typing. Like tablet photography, this practice was not limited to a single demographic, although it was far more common among Chinese and other Asian language speakers. (Ostensibly, because typing in script-based languages can be far more cumbersome than those using Roman characters.)

In the West, using Siri has become almost as passé as wearing a bluetooth earpiece in social settings – personally I only use it when doing long-form dictation while driving. At the same time, early implementations haven’t been fluid and effective enough to overcome this social stigma. But it appears that elsewhere in the world this same cost-benefit analysis arrives at a different conclusion.

My bet is that as speech detection technology improves and mobile (and wearable) devices become an even bigger part of our everyday lives, the use of virtual assistants will become ubiquitous.

Tablet photography and the using Siri have been the subject of plenty of ridicule. Some people will never come around to the idea of holding a 10-inch slab of glass out and saying “cheese,” no less the idea of walking around talking to our virtual assistants. But in both cases, this is technology solving real problems.

Like it or not, you should expect to see more, not less, of both.