The “Good Enough” Problem

(commentary)

I think everyone gets the fact that smartphones have basically killed a whole range of compact cameras from camera makers because they’re “good enough” for the types of casual photography that those products were used for. If your goal is output for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapshot, and any other Web sharing component, the bar isn’t high: even a 2mp camera ought to suffice used perfectly. At 8mp, well, you get some cropping room and maybe more. Good enough. 

As I’ve noted, this isn’t the first time the camera industry faced the “good enough” problem. The first time came with film, and there were two contenders that squeezed the camera makers: instant photography and disposable cameras. 

Much lip service has been given to Kodak’s failure to make the transition from film to digital, but in considering it more closely, I think Kodak’s failure was not recognizing that they were in the “good enough” business and understanding where that was going to go. It went from simple film cameras (Brownies) to eventually disposable cameras to compact digital cameras to smartphones. I’m sure it will continue to migrate. Kodak executives seemed to believe their own marketing message a bit too much (“Why trust your memories to anything less”, which is not a “good enough” message like the earlier “You press the button, we do the rest.”). 

But “good enough” is a tricky thing, because it is more than a monolithic problem, it has “good enough” components, too. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. How much image quality is good enough?
  2. How many pixels is good enough?
  3. How fast and accurate is good enough focusing?
  4. How much focal length range is good enough?
  5. How much low light capability is good enough?


The list actually goes on, but just in those five we find that “good enough” is starting to swamp the camera makers. For example: for anything out through 13x19” prints is there actually a camera on the market that has image quality that isn’t good enough? I’m not sure there is for most users. And that couples with question #2: 16mp is probably good enough, but certainly 24mp must be. 

Don’t get me wrong. Can I imagine a technology that would bust those particular good enough bubbles? Sure. We need to move past Bayer type capture. A Foveon sensor of the same size and basic pixel count (if we could agree on how to count them ;~) would have clearly better acuity than a Bayer sensor. That might move the “good enough” bar a bit, but it also might not. We simply don’t have a lot of output capability that needs more than what the current cameras have. So the problem isn’t just in the camera space: we need higher resolution output, too.

Using the latest mirrorless cameras has me thinking about what focus performance is “good enough.” Certainly a Nikon V3 hits that mark, but the Fujifilm X-T1, the Olympus E-M1, the Panasonic GH4, and the Sony A6000 have to be close if not already there. So do you need a DSLR? Fewer and fewer people do as more mirrorless and even compact cameras hit the focus good enough bar. 

In essence, all of the things that the camera makers have been marketing as the reason to buy a new camera are all either getting close to or have exceeded a basic “good enough” bar. The camera that comes closest to the EveryMan GoodEnough mark at the moment probably is the Sony RX-10. Good enough image quality. Good enough pixel count. Good enough focal range. A little short of the low light and focusing bars, but only a little.

The problem for the camera makers is that a majority of consumers will just buy the cheapest “good enough” camera in most scenarios. Yes, you could ratchet up the marketing or try to salt products with some special ingredient, but there will be makers that see the advantage of targeting the “good enough” customer and driving prices down, forcing the rest into a very small niche. This has happened in market after market, and I don’t see the camera market being unique to be able to avoid that. 

Again, don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that anyone give up on quality. But the emphasis now really needs to be on achievable quality. Sony, for example, missed that bar completely with the A7r when they stuck 11-bit compression on a 36mp sensor, in effect just pushing the pixel count up and leaving the real potential quality of that sensor unachievable by the user. The shutter shock problem didn’t help with that, either. 

Adding more menus and features to the cameras also isn’t the answer. If I have a camera today that has 75 menu choices (I do) and the camera maker gives me one with 100 menu choices, they’re not actually helping me extract quality, they’re obscuring it with more things I have to learn and wade through while shooting. And don’t get me started on workflow issues. Apparently not a single camera designer in Japan knows what workflow is. 

The answer is as I’ve stated for almost eight years now: we need to redefine the camera experience. At the low end you have to be able to transition smartphone users to a camera that doesn’t change the way they work, but also something that delivers clearly better results. That’s tough. But at the high end you need to create cameras that clearly deliver results that weren’t possible before, and do so with a useful and refined workflow. That’s tougher. 

If the camera makers want to survive, they need to embrace “good enough” and get well past it. Better or more pixels aren't exactly the answer. Those are always going to come via incremental engineering anyway. They’re a given. What isn’t a given is what you do with them. How you put them into a better package that will entice someone to buy something other than “good enough.” 

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