Designed by Photographers, for Photographers

A conversation with an old friend from my Backpacker magazine days this past weekend got me thinking about the “designed by…for” approach. Certainly in the outdoor industry you find quite a few practitioners of outdoor activities involved in the design of products. Indeed, I’d say that this is the norm.

We see a bit of this in the photo industry, too. Particularly in bags and packs. ThinkTank, for example, was started by two designers and two photographers. Most of their early products were solely inspired by common problems that traveling photographers had in carrying gear conveniently into the field. Look at their mission statement:

"Think Tank Photo is a group of designers and professional photographers focused on studying how photographers work, and developing inventive new carrying solutions to meet their needs.”

Personally, I think that’s the correct approach. If you go “all design” you often start solving problems that aren’t really user problems, and may even create new user problems. If you go “all user” in your product development, you often get a belabored hodgepodge of things that don’t quite all merge together into a coherent whole.

I’ve written about “solving user problems” before. There’s no better way of knowing what user problems are other than talking to and involving users in the process.

For some reason, camera bags have long been the one place in photography where we seem to get a high level of user advice coupled with designers creating new products. It may have started with Greg Lowe and the origins of LowePro, it may have even predated that, but we have a long string of photographer involvement in camera carrying systems that continues to this day. Heck, it even predominates that product category.

My friend, by the way, is about to resurrect his specialized backpack and rain gear products, and he asked me about the things I needed. We’ll see where that leads. But that’s the right approach: consult users to find problems and design something that solves them.

But the more I thought about how involved photographers are in certain aspects of the equipment business—backpacks and carrying systems, for sure, but to some degree support gear, accessories, some forms of lighting and lighting modification, software, and more—the more I had to scratch my head about cameras and lenses. 

It’s not that photographers don’t interact with camera companies. We do. But not in very efficient ways. And for most Japanese camera companies, not consistently and continuously. 

Canon and Nikon seem to rely on CPS and NPS to relay photographer suggestions back to Japan. Besides the translation issues involved, we also have clear filtering issues, too. First, CPS and NPS are themselves filters. Then someone at the subsidiaries has to deem that an idea is so important that it’s worth the effort to translate and communicate back to Japan. In these days of constant cost-cutting, there’s a good chance that the people that are supposed to be filtering that information back aren’t efficient and effective conduits, as they now have extra other work that they need to do and there are fewer of them doing that work.

Fujifilm quickly formed a small panel of serious photographers and spent a lot of time and effort directly with them as the company developed the X series. It’s clear that there are photographer-inspired things in the X series designs, even in things as simple as “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” aspects of camera operation. 

The danger, of course, is that with a small, hand-selected group like Fujifilm's, the make-up of the group itself can eventually lead you into niche or narrower thinking than broad.

I find it odd that none of the camera companies actually have a feedback system in place. As much as the Internet amplifies concerns about Apple products into viral snipes at their products designs, Apple actually has a real feedback system you can log into and provide your suggestions and feelings to. I know that these are looked at. Indeed, the data is congregated and debated internally within Apple. That doesn’t mean that your idea will get acted on. It does mean that it was probably heard by the company.

That’s simply not true of Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, or Sony when it comes to cameras and lenses. There’s no clear mechanism at any of these companies where any photographer can provide feedback on products that were created, or offer suggestions of problems that need to be solved in future products. 

To put this into one of my oddball and forced analogies: the Japanese camera companies are a bit like fishing boats setting off in random directions thinking they know where the fish are. But they’re ignoring the fact that there are actually talking fish that might help them understand where they should be fishing. 

Or another analogy: because the primary mechanism by which the camera companies get customer feedback is sales, and sales only come after they’ve spent the time and money to create the product, it’s a bit like steering a car after you see what you’ve hit (or not hit). Very inefficient.

Bottom line: I’m an advocate for photographers being involved in the design of products for photography. Simple as that. I have been for some time, and I will continue to be in the future. You should be, too.

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