We’re Going Backwards

If you don’t have an imagination, then all you have is history to guide you. It appears that statement is more and more true of most of the camera industry. 

The whole “retro” control thing made popular first by Fujifilm but later copied by others, is just one example. You’ll note further that companies such as Zeiss seem only to design 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm lenses, just like they’ve been doing for decades. (Yes, I know those are legacy prime focal lengths, but are you sure that Distagon and Planar are the only way to design a modern lens, and that 35/50/85 are still the go-to focal lengths?) Nikon, meanwhile, seems to find continued solace in the old 35mm film frame format (FX) with models such as the D750, while Pentax resurrected the 645D.

Plenty of hints of what’s next are piping through the channels at the moment. And it’s a litany of the past: monochrome (B&W) cameras, more rangefinder cameras (some MF), panorama cameras, and of course, copying the products of competitors that seem to be doing well. I’m betting that the next few years will look a lot like the 90’s, where we had the first full round of backwards-looking attempts to find niches. 

And that’s exactly what this is: niche finding. The big run-up that digital cameras had—larger than the film run-up at peak—is gone. Everyone’s scrambling to find some small piece of the puzzle they can hold onto, and most are reverting to form. 

The number of true disruptions in mainstream cameras over the decades has been relatively small: rangefinder, SLR, metering, autofocus, digital, mirrorless. It’s one reason why I keep writing that the way forward is communicating and programmability. A disruption has to solve clear user problems enough so that they abandon the old and buy new. 

One of my site readers had an interesting perspective on this: Kodak is no longer around doing the pragmatic R&D that once drove the camera business. As he pointed out, the digital camera workflow is basically the old Photo CD workflow, and it’s now up to the user to complete that workflow. Say what you will about Kodak, their failure wasn’t in creative, innovative, and consumer facing problem solving.

So we’re in an era where we have three things driving camera design: modest iteration, self mimicry, and product resurrection. 

  • Iteration is starting to fail big time. How many more trivial and minor features can you stick into a camera and get people to buy a new one? Apparently, none. Because right now with pretty much every type of camera I see at least two older generations still sitting on shelves and being sold at steep discounts. Here in the US, the best-selling DSLR for the past year hasn’t tended to be the most recent model, but a generation or two back. 
  • Unique and useful features/products are quickly copied. Any product that does get even a bit of sales buzz suddenly finds itself with multiple competitors trying to hone in on the action (e.g. RX10, RX100).
  • The easiest R&D is one you’ve already done. If you know how to make big mirrors in big bodies, that’s what you do. If you’ve got a medium format body that you used to make, dust it off and freshen it up. If people bought 20% B&W film in the previous era, maybe 20% will buy a B&W digital camera. If the new AF/UI worked on the 1Dx just put it in the 7DII.  

Meanwhile, all the real forward-facing action is now in smartphones and a handful of venture-backed or non-mainstream gamblers (GoPro, RED, Blackmagic Design, Lytro, etc.). Curiously, a lot of that action is in the video arena, where workflow from traditional makers is even worse than it is with digital still cameras. Ever tried to manage an AVCHD archive? ;~)

Let me start with a simple idea for the camera makers: abandon DCF. Let’s ditch the 8.3 file names. Next, let’s assign XML tags and data sets to every camera function, and allow “settings” files of XML to reconfigure a camera on the fly and then embed that info in the metadata the camera produces. But that might be beyond the software abilities of companies that can’t even populate an About This Program box.


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