The Pro Camera Fallacy

(commentary)

Over and over I get emails and forum responses akin to “Nikon (or Canon) would never do that because it would hurt the sales of the D4 (1Dx).” 

While I’m sure both Nikon and Canon want to sell as many of their top product as possible, how well that line does or doesn’t do has very little impact on each company’s bottom line. You could double the number of Pro cameras sold by each company and it wouldn’t dramatically impact their unit sales, market share, total sales, or total profit. 

The Nikon 1 was an interesting test. The fact that “1” was the name seemed to indicate that Nikon was shooting for a huge hit. A V1 shot 60 fps, a wee bit more than a D4. It focused as well without the cumbersome mirror. Had it been priced right and had it had better image quality, the V1 would have been somewhat disruptive to D4 sales. Indeed, I believe I wrote at the time that every golf professional photographer should own one, as there isn’t any other camera they could have bought that would give them so many frames of a golfer’s swing without making a single noise to disrupt them. Plus, golf is usually played in good light ;~). 

I think Nikon (and Canon) would love to have a huge monster hit camera somewhere in their lineup. Something that resets the market and triggers new growth. It’s not going to be a D5 or a 2Dx. Why? Simple answer: price. Even if either company could completely move the bar with their next pro model, we’re talking about sales measured in the tens of thousands of units a month best case. A monster hit is hundreds of thousands of units a month.

Thus, the notion that Nikon wouldn’t offer a D300s replacement that challenges the D4s in some meaningful way (not in sensor size, obviously) is off the mark. I think Nikon would love to offer a D300s replacement that sells in vast quantities. The reason that they haven’t is that they don’t know how to do that. Either the technology hasn’t been mastered in a way that would allow them to do so, or they don’t know what the catalyst that drives such a product would be. I suppose we could add a third: management insists on the old way: new technology only gets introduced at the high end first. 

All of those reasons are what I’d call failures. 

But then again, Nikon tried something interesting with the Nikon 1. It didn’t fail because the technology wasn’t mastered or Nikon didn’t know what the catalyst that drives the product might be. It didn’t even fail because management insisted new technology can only be introduced at the high end first. No, the Nikon 1 failed because: (1) it was priced too high; (2) too much emphasis on automation and low-end features and no real user controls; (3) the small sensor is really a “bright light only” solution (much like smartphones); and (4) it didn’t solve any of the lingering workflow problems (indeed, made some worse). 

Here’s my take on things: we’re likely to get back to anywhere from 4-8m serious cameras sold a year (currently over 13m). Where on that scale we land depends upon whether some of the existing problems with cameras are solved and thus we get new users entering the market. But without new users, if the market is just current users replacing cameras, we’re going to be closer to 4m units than 8m within a couple of years. 

This argues that it doesn’t matter where you introduce something that becomes the monster driving the next revolution in imaging. Nikon got that right with the Nikon 1, though they failed in the details. 

I’ve been writing for years now that I believe convenience is the answer to the camera market woes. Just iterating more features is actually making cameras less convenient. And they’re already plenty capable of what we use them for (see Gamut of Cameras). Thus, we really don’t need a new camera, and we aren’t buying them as often as we used to.

Communicating makes a camera more convenient if it is done to solve workflow problems and connect into the modern imaging world, which revolves around the Internet.

Programmable makes a camera more convenient because a user adds/changes features the way they need them, not the way some spreadsheet in Japan has parceled them out over time.

Modular makes a camera more convenient because it can be reconfigured to be fully optimized for what you’re doing.

Add smaller/lighter, less laden with complexity, and ending of arbitrary feature inclusions amongst models, and you just might get people buying cameras that have given up. Last Camera Syndrome practitioners might start rethinking that word “last.” 

But to get where I’m talking about requires the same level of risk as the Nikon 1 did: all in. Only without making critical mistakes. 

Returning to my point: not only do you need to stop thinking and writing that only a Nikon D5 or Canon 2Dx will solve all the future problems of photography, but so do the camera companies. The market for US$5000+ cameras is dramatically small. The market for US$500-1000 cameras could actually start growing again with the right product(s). Aim for the heart of the market folks.

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