Winners and Losers at Photokina

One of the reasons companies go to Photokina is to make a splash. So what splashed in a good way that caught our attention, and what made a tiny or no splash before sinking in deep water?

For a brief moment, medium format is shining. Hasselblad tells us that demand for their new mirrorless entry is far greater than they expected, Phase One continues to introduce new options. And Fujifilm dropped the news of their upcoming “affordable” medium format mirrorless system. It seems that big sensors are getting big press. 

This is one of those things that it out of proportion with the reality of the business, though. Realistically, we’re not talking about much unit volume at all. Virtually every individual DSLR model will outsell the entire medium format market this year. 

But this just goes to show that perception isn’t always aligned with sales volumes. I don’t expect to see XCD and GFX systems being carried by others I find shooting alongside me, but I do expect some pros and high-end enthusiasts to buy them. 

Still, the excitement surrounding the medium format re-emergence—particularly Fujifilm’s upcoming offering—reminds us that there’s a small but influential subset of the market that is still interested in pursuing absolute quality if it reaches their purchasing capability. Dropping US$10,000 is not particularly out of whack for any hobby of the upper middle class, and I’ve known some in the middle class to spend well more than they make in one year on their hobbies, they just have to balance their cash outlay carefully, and maybe even buy on credit.

Moreover, look at the auto industry. Virtually all vehicles these days provide more than good enough transportation, but the so-called luxury brands are still selling plenty of products that are 2x+ the price of the average models being bought. There’s this inherent drive among many to “own the best”—though their definition of “best” isn’t always consistent—and medium format suddenly looks like the “best” of the dedicated camera systems to many. I have more to say about this in my other article today.

Meanwhile, m4/3 came out of the show looking like it will become stronger, with five different new cameras and six new significant lenses dropping at the show. The two powerhouse cameras—the GH5 and E-M1 Mark II—were both pre-announcements, but show that Olympus and Panasonic are throwing considerably engineering resources at trying to break beyond the box of the smallish sensor they’ve chosen. 

Olympus continues to prove that they’re willing to tackle really tough engineering tasks to push the performance of their products forward, though it’s becoming more clear that they’re doing this in leap-frog fashion rather than raising the full model lineup simultaneously. Thus, I won’t be surprised when the eventual E-M5 Mark III introduces something that the upcoming E-M1 Mark II doesn’t have. That’s a bit troublesome for dedicated shooters, as it means that the actual update of the camera you prefer is now stretching out to three years or more.

Panasonic, meanwhile, continues its 4K emphasis and is pushing towards something eventually higher, probably 8K by the Tokyo Olympics. Internal 10-bit 4:2:2 recording is something new in the DSLR body type and GH5 price point, too. It’s clear that Panasonic is leaning a bit more on video shooters more than still shooters to keep their m4/3 lineup healthy, but that’s fine. The GH4 was a remarkably good 4K video camera (still is, actually, and especially at its price; it’s the 4K video choice I’d tend to recommend to college students seeking a strong and versatile video camera without breaking the bank). 

Six strong, mostly pro-oriented lenses added to the already deep m4/3 lineup help put m4/3 in the winner category, too. Interestingly, we’re not getting “re-dos” in the new lenses, but things that fill in gaps or spaces in the existing lineup. In particularly this time, we have four lenses that are trying to bridge the gap between all out performance and consumer.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of the f/2.8-4 thing—Nikon did that with their 16-80mm DX lens recently, too. I’m not really sure how much it gains at the fast end while saving at the size end over just giving us an f/4 lens to complement the f/2.8 versions.  I need to talk to some more lens designers on this trend to see if this is giving us more real performance or is more tickling a marketing button. Still, choice is good, and my point here is that m4/3 is still winning the “adding lens choice” game.

Middle Muddle
Canon and Sony seem to fall into a category that’s about as exciting as a tie match in soccer. Yes, there were some nice plays. No, nothing really changed and nobody won. 

Canon clearly is completely committed to their iterative approach. New models of the same thing. Yes, progress was made (EOS M5 gets the EVF and new sensor, 5D Mark IV gets more pixels), but it was expected progress and certainly nothing that had all the press reporters firing up their Wi-Fi to push glowing praise to the Internet before the person seated next to them.

Canon seems happy with their current approach, their speed, and their product lineup. No big win, but no loss, either. 

Some will wonder why I don’t put the Sony A99 Mark II in the winner category. That’s because I’m not putting products per se into winning and losing, I’m judging company efforts instead, and market perceptions of product categories. 

Sony obviously is stuck with the sensor problem that resulted due to the quake that shut down their key factory. A number of Sony’s winning mirrorless cameras are in short supply due to that, but we’re now to the point where everyone expects Mark III’s of the A7 models, an A9 top end model, the missing A5xxx update, and more. Photokina did nothing to fix those problems, and it seems clear that was intentional on Sony’s part. They’re just not prepared with new sensors and products yet.

The A99 Mark II is problematic in this sense: it’s long overdue. So while it looks like a great update to the SLT lineup, Sony let the perception of SLT drag so far down that the customer base for the new camera isn’t exactly big; indeed, a number of them left the building. 

Coupled with the lack of much happening in the way of even recent lenses for the camera, the A99 Mark II is one of those good news, bad news problems. The good news is that if you’re still an aficionado of the old Minolta Alpha mount SLR/DSLRs, you’ve got a new flagship, and it’s pretty much state-of-the-art in every respect. The bad news is that aren’t many of you.

It’s not difficult to identify the losers at Photokina, though who they are is a bit surprising. Essentially it’s the companies that came with minor announcements or none: Leica, Nikon, and Pentax are the three primary ones that come to mind here.

Nikon launched its very late-to-market action cameras literally an hour before the market creator and leader kicked up more turbulence to overcome. In particular the KeyMission 170 has its work cut out for it against the HERO5 Black. To upset a leader in the market you either need to spend tremendous marketing dollars (not going to happen at cost cutting Nikon versus GoPro’s already huge efforts there) or take your product significantly further. Oops. The 170 doesn’t have raw still file save (think time-lapse) and the 5 does. It’s unclear to me exactly what the KeyMission 170 has over the HERO5, let alone what the KeyMission 360 has over the pre-existing Ricoh Theta. 

Maybe that will become clearer to me as the products ship and I can examine them, but we’re talking about losers at Photokina here. Nikon’s marketing did not satisfy the need to prove that KeyMission is the action camera of choice. That’s losing in my book when you’re last to market and the market itself is shrinking.

But let’s be serious for a moment: this is an odd year. Every camera maker’s plans were disrupted by the quake earlier this year, other than perhaps Canon. Some decided to go full on into Photokina and pre-announce, others didn’t. It’s entirely possible that companies that I’m putting in the losing category intentionally chose to lose because they think they can make bigger, better noise when they’re ready to ship.

Still, there aren’t many customer-oriented shows out there (CP+, Photokina, PhotoPlus Expo), and those—coupled with the more trade-oriented CES, NAB, and IFC—tend to be where the press gathers in enough mass that you can make or break perceptions. 

So “losing” means this: Leica, Nikon, and Pentax let customer perceptions of their innovation and up-to-date, leading-edge technology slip. “Winning” means that Fujifilm, Olympus, and Panasonic bolstered or increased customer perceptions of their product lines, at least briefly. 

In reality, a show like Photokina doesn’t determine much in the way of sales. I don’t think we’ll see a huge amount of pre-ordering come out the products announced at the show. We’ll see some minor blips in unit sales that shift market shares briefly and  perhaps even less that 1%. 

Still, perception is an ongoing game you have to play long-term. Let public perception fall once, you can recover. Let it fall twice, it gets more difficult to recover. Let it fall continuously, and you’ll find new customers difficult to come by and your loyal customers more likely to abandon you. 

We’re in the realm where some players are continuously bolstering their perception (Fujifilm and Sony come to mind), while other players aren’t. If that continues, there will be a shift in market shares. 

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