The State of Cameras, 2015

(commentary)

photogs

Can you identify the photographer?


At the risk of greatly oversimplifying:

  • Pros just want to make money.
  • Enthusiasts want to prove they’re as good as pros.
  • Consumers just want images they can share and preserve. 


So how’s the camera industry doing with those things these days?

The Pros
Pros are having a hard time making money. Four factors weigh against them. First we have the commoditization of image sales, even by their supposed partners such as Getty. A good image just doesn’t bring in nearly as much money as it used to. Second, one set of primary buyers—the editorial market—has been budget cutting for over a decade as newspapers and magazines (and even books) try to hold out against the Internet and the wide-spread notion that “free” is good. 

Third, we have the surging enthusiast market, who with the immediate feedback of digital finally learned how to really control exposure and composition, amongst other things. There are just more amateurs out there with good cameras and good technique now in more places than pros can get to. I’ve written before about any animal interaction in a National Park being more likely captured by an amateur than a pro. It’s a numbers game: there are more amateurs in the park with cameras than pros. And given the rise of smartphones, that has gotten incredibly worse, as basically a pro operating in public spaces trying to take unique images is now competing against everyone, not just other pros. 

None of those things are controlled by the camera industry, of course. But the fourth is: cost. More and more I’m hearing from pro shooters that trying to keep at the top of the equipment curve is an act of futility. Digital gear has been an incredibly fast moving target. Noise levels and dynamic range we thought were fine for pro work 10 years ago seem absurd these days, at least if we’re to believe all the Internet angst. Buying a new pro camera every two years (e.g. D3, D3s, D4, D4s) is absolutely out of the question, especially if you’re got backup gear and lenses to worry about. Indeed, I’d question whether or not the D4 and D4s actually did enough to justify their cost over just continuing to use a D3s for most pros. 

I asked one well-known DSLR pro what his budget was for gear this year. US$50,000. I then asked him how much image sales would net him this year: less than half that. The only way he was able to justify the expenditure was threefold: workshops (where he needed to look current to his students), some trade-in-kind work with his camera maker (image rights for free or lower prices on gear), and the fact that he was moving more into video work that required some of the new gear (video work pays more than stills work).   

It’s a tricky world when it comes to pros for camera makers. Those of us who review gear and teach workshops have strong influence on product sales (disclosure: Canon recently offered to send me one of their Pixma printers for free hoping I’d write about it; B&H sometimes lends me products hoping I’ll write about them). But buying a new camera doesn’t tend to really make us any more money on images we make.

To a large degree that was true of film, too. I remember Galen Rowell testing new Nikon SLRs, but almost always returning them and just using his old F4s: the costs of new gear really didn’t do anything to increase his income. I think we’ve pretty much hit that bar with DSLRs these days, too.  

That makes the whole brand/pro relationship even more important for camera makers, I think. They’re going to have to start doing more to subsidize equipment for the pros they really want to be associated with, I think. Curiously, Nikon seems to have gone on a young video maker frenzy in this respect. They seem to be trying to cater to the younger generation and appear more hip in their pro relationships, yet frankly, their gear just doesn’t live all that well in that world. While the Nikon DSLRs create pretty darned good video these days, that’s not really all that appealing to the folk that are buying the cameras. As good as a D750 is, it’s not “hip.” It’s a mature design with the latest small iterations that mostly appeals to the already converted.

Overall, the camera industry isn’t really helping pros with their goal of making money. If anything, the camera industry is insuring that there won’t be as many pros in the future as they drain their bank accounts.


The Consumers
I’m going to skip to the consumers for a moment, because I think they, too, aren’t really being well served by the camera industry. 

As I noted, the primary motivation here is “share and preserve.” That’s exactly where smartphones and tablets just decimated the camera business. Sharing is easy, and those mobile devices themselves are the modern presentation. When someone wants to show me their shots from last year’s wedding, vacation, clambake, or whatever, they’re almost always doing that with their phone or tablet these days. 

If you haven’t been paying attention, Apple’s intention within the next year is that photos are ubiquitous and retrievable across all Apple devices via iCloud. If your photo touched an Apple device, it’s available to them all, forever, preserved automatically in dated, sequenced, organized fashion. If you edited it on one device, the changes appear on all. That iPhone photo I took on Kilimanjaro in 2007? Instantly accessible. Apple’s goal is to encompass “sharing and preserve” all in one. 

That D200 photo I took on Kilimanjaro in 2007? Uh, not so much. I suppose I could bring my terabytes of DSLR images over into iCloud, but the camera makers aren’t doing anything to help me here. Indeed, had I been saving images exactly as they came out of the camera, I’d now have 33337 images all named DSC_0001.NEF, another 33337 named DSC_0002.NEF, and so on. You read that right. That’s what the camera makers have done for me in terms of preservation: nothing. 

Fortunately I recognized that potential problem from the beginning. Total number of DSC_0001.NEF images I could find in my image base? Four. Hmm. How’d those get there? Must have been asleep at the wheel those days. 

Sure, the camera makers have slowly added WiFi to many of their products, which they think solves the sharing issue. But have they actually tried their product versus the competition? It’s not a close race. It’s not even a race at all. One contestant is off in the distance winning converts (smartphones), while the other is still milling about the starting line trying to figure out which way to run (dedicated cameras). (I will give minor props to Samsung, who seems to have done more along these lines than the others to make sharing simple.)


The Enthusiasts
A large portion of this market is older, has plenty of time on their hand, has lots of disposable income, and is eager to prove themselves. Sometimes to the point of actively having the goal of “doing photography professionally in my retirement (or second career).” To make matters worse (for pros), they are a very large group, larger than what’s left of the true professional group. (Disclosure: I started in the pro group, transitioned to enthusiast group during my Silicon Valley career, then returned to the pro group.)

To a large degree, they are mostly what’s left of the camera industry’s paying customers at the moment, which is why the “buzz” in 2014 was all about:

  • Compact cameras with large sensors and fast lenses (Canon G7 X, Fujifilm X100T, Panasonic LX100, Sony RX100, et.al.)
  • Mirrorless cameras that are mini-DSLRs (Fujifilm XT-1, Olympus E-M1, Panasonic GM5/GH4, Samsung NX1, Sony A6000/A7, et.al.)
  • Highly competent DSLRs (Canon 7DII, Nikon D750, et.al.)


Enthusiasts are not extremely price sensitive, but they perceive any additional performance as helping them achieve their goal of creating images that look more professional. They really want to be able to say that they can replace the big Peter Lik photo on their living room wall with one of their own that’s as impressive. Curiously, more often than not they’ll invest in gear before training, though. And spend more on gear than they would for a Peter Lik print, probably, too.

All that said, the enthusiast market is the one that the camera companies are most catering to at the moment. The (mostly) price insensitivity means they can push product offerings up in price at the same margin or higher and thus cover some of their eroding sales numbers. As much as I’ve complained about Nikon’s recent FX proliferation, it does show one thing: Nikon understands that it is the enthusiasts that drove the brand, and Nikon appears hopeful that pressing them a bit will help them get from the DSLR era to whatever is next. 

Still, enthusiasts are a demanding and vocal group. Not only do they want the best, but they also perform deep dives into specialities and niches. Thus, overall the group can almost always find something that their camera maker of choice isn’t serving them with to complain about. In Nikon’s case, that would be things like a pro DX camera, fast DX lenses, and missing telephoto updates (105 and 135mm f/2, 200mm Micro-Nikkor, 400mm f/5.6, etc.).

Another problem with this group is that it can be niche-y. Landscape enthusiasts want something different (e.g. more dynamic range, easier HDR and stitching bracket sets) than do wildlife enthusiasts (frame rate, higher ISO, more telephoto options) than do still others (street shooters, event shooters, soccer dads, etc.). It’s nearly impossible to meet all enthusiast demands quickly with any new system (e.g. a new mirrorless camera/mount), and it isn’t even easy to do so with legacy systems, as Canon and Nikon have found: both systems still have plenty of gaps their enthusiasts want filled. Now. 


The Takeaway
The camera makers are surviving off the enthusiast at the moment. They have no clear strategy for the true consumer, and they’re running out of pros to sell to. The problem, of course, is that only a finite number of enthusiasts actually exist, so the fighting for their dollars is intense and will get more intense. Companies that fail to fully deliver for the middle group will find themselves without momentum.

So how’s everyone doing?

  • Canon — The GX 7 and 7DII hit the enthusiast target, but Canon has plenty of gaps and vulnerabilities in this realm. They need a much bigger effort to stay relevant.
  • Fujifilm — The X30, X100T, and X-T1 all hit the target reasonably well. The continued X-mount lens offerings all (mostly) point this way, too. One reason why Fujifilm’s sales are growing again is that pretty much all their new products live in the middle group now. 
  • Leica — The rich enthusiast is their customer, period. So pretty much everything they do fits into the middle group, and they’ve been considerably active as of late. It’s not surprising that they’re profitable at a time when only two other camera companies have had continued profitability.
  • Nikon — The FX side of things has been pretty darned good for the enthusiast. It’s DX and CX that still have plenty of problems that need addressing, and Nikon’s Coolpix offerings for the enthusiast have all had problems when they even catch their interest, at all.
  • Olympus — Note the recent new “Pro" lens offerings and the three DSLR-like OM-Ds. Olympus is clearly hoping the enthusiast will keep them in the camera business. Plenty of high-end gear here to appeal to that group.
  • Panasonic — An interesting mix. The GH4 is really a pro video camera in a still camera disguise. But the LX100 and GM5 show that they want to be the pocket enthusiast camera provider. Still, where are the lenses?
  • Pentax — Have they made a truly new camera or lens lately? ;~) I mean something that isn’t steeped in their backwards looking, film camera type updates? Yes, they cater (mostly) to enthusiasts, but it’s a pool of enthusiasts that has been slowly diminishing in size with each generation. Pentax more than anyone needs a breakthrough into a new future world of enthusiast cameras. Iterating old camera designs isn’t going to change their fate.
  • Samsung — The NX1 and the f/2.8 zooms said it all: Samsung wants to play in the enthusiast market. Whether those are enough to make a difference remains to be seen. But it was a good start.
  • Sony — Seems to be the company that’s nailing enthusiasts in the head (ouch ;~): RX (1, 10, 100), A (nee NEX) 5100, 6000, upcoming 7000, A (FE 7, 7s, 7r), with lens help from Zeiss, plus a modest updating of the key enthusiast DSLRs (A77, A99). Also I’ll give them extra credit for at least trying to figure out the consumer market (e.g QX). 


  So the things I’m looking for in 2015 are these:

  • Who’s addressing the Consumer market, and how? As I noted, Sony’s QX was an interesting attempt, though I believe fatally flawed in its current form. I didn’t see a lot of action here last year, and so any new action here is welcome, even when flawed. At least it shows that the camera companies are looking for future customers.
  • How well are the Enthusiasts being catered to? Nikon, for instance, needed a strong D300 followup. The D700 “followups” were good cameras, but not what the customer expected. The D300 followup still doesn’t exist. Pretty much every camera company has issues in the enthusiast realm. For some it’s the need for more lenses, for others it’s getting pixel count and dynamic range up, for still others its just iterating the right products the right way.
  • Are the Pros still relevant to the camera companies? We’re down to the Canon 1Dx and Nikon D4s as being the truly “pro” cameras. Yes, pros use 5D’s and D8xx’s, but they’re not the big workhorses we used to have, they’re really high-end prosumer type builds. They also sell in far higher quantities to enthusiasts than pros, so they’ve got a fair amount of cruft in them. Pros really want to stay ahead of the pack with to-the-point gear, but it’s gotten more difficult recently. 

  


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