Existential Crisis

"The moment at which an entity questions the very foundations of their meaning, purpose, or value."

To a large degree, what's been happening in the camera business—and which has completely spilt over into all of photography now—is an existential crisis. The news about Nikon not seeing the DL models as profitable enough followed by Panasonic deciding it's time to huddle the wagons still closer certainly hasn't helped that. Heck, Samsung went running from the whole business. It really does appear that the camera companies are in full anomie. This isn't a midlife crisis the camera makers are having—they had that in the 90s—this is a full out "what did we accomplish" moment they're experiencing. 

We're just beginning the portion of the year where the Japanese companies all do their yearly fiscal reports and produce reorganization, management, or strategy changes (Canon does theirs a bit earlier due to a different fiscal year, and is just finishing up that). It's likely we'll hear a lot of bad news in the coming six weeks. 

But you know, that doesn't matter. We'll either have a few (or maybe many) camera companies get their lives and priorities in order and produce products that propel us forward or we won't. What's disturbing, though, is I see so many people who've attached their own photographic value to the gear they're using, not on the pictures they take. Thus, if the cameras are in crisis, so is their photography. 


We've never had it so good. Not only do we have a tremendous range of great current cameras and lenses to choose from, we could even just step back and buy one of the gazillions of film cameras and lenses on the used market and go back to the way we were shooting if we really wanted to. Or we could pick up our smartphone and shoot. 

And yet it seems that everywhere I go I hear various strains of new camera dilemma echo in the user base:

  • Company X hasn't updated their A model yet, I am doomed!
  • Why didn't Company Y give us better B, we are doomed!
  • Company Z is losing market share, it will die!

And yes, even I sound the horn a bit too much sometimes (buzz, buzz ;~), though I'm trying to point out areas where the camera companies tend to keep kicking themselves in the shin (or higher) in hopes that they catch on and stop doing that.

Let's put everything in perspective: twenty years from now, the way we take images will probably be clearly different than it is today. There are just too many lab experiments moving towards prototyping that guarantee some new product type will emerge to unseat the current gear we're used to. Smartphones started that transition as they showed how always having a camera with you that can immediately share images with others changes the common workflow for photos. 

I don't think smartphones are the final answer gear-wise, though. Remember, they're a convergent device, and convergent devices generally aim for commodity positions and simplification. That means they won't easily subsume many types of imaging needs and some other product will likely step in to fill that.  

Meanwhile, some go so far as to fan their fanboy fantasies:

  • Only Sony will have sensors now! (Uh, did you forget that Canon makes half the sensor for ILC cameras? Or that monopolies get lazy and bad over time?)
  • Fujifilm updates firmware constantly! Well, sure. More than half of those upcoming X-T2 firmware changes are things that attempt to catch them up to features and performance in competing models. Put another way, they're shipping incomplete products and then adding to them once they're out. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not the huge triumph some seem to think it is. It's just good business.
  • Olympus is so steady with IS that the earth's rotation is the biggest factor left in stabilization! Yes, very nice. But it would be nicer if they'd do a better job of documenting their IS system and all its nuances (and it has quite a few). 

Ultimately, taking photos is not about brand worship, though. It's about whether the gear you use can do the job you need it to. One reason why I have a couple of different brand cameras in my permanent gear closet is because I simply want the best tool for the purpose. Not a single camera company can claim to provide a full set of products that can match my needs, though a couple are close.

While I've covered the "noise" concerning the camera company's difficulties for some time—and will continue to do so because it is useful to know where we stand equipment-wise—the one thing that I want to make sure that you understand is that it really doesn't make any difference if we lose a company or two, a product or three, a lens or four. I dare you to walk through the camera section of B&H and prove to me that there's no product on the shelves that will allow you to take the photos you want. 

I don't see that changing any time soon, if ever.

Yet, as I noted above, a lot of people are letting the camera companies' existential crisis turn into their own. Some of that has to do with money: no one wants to ditch the gear they bought at great expense and move on to something else unless they have to. Some of it has to do with knowledge base. It really is a rude shock to have shot with a Canon SLR/DSLR for decades and then pick up an Olympus m4/3 camera and try to configure it to the way you want to shoot. Actually, more than a shock: you will have a headache before you're done, and you'll be 99.9% averse to ever doing that kind of switch again. 

That said, I'm getting more and more emails along these lines: "I guess I'm suffering from your 'good enough' syndrome. I'm 63 years old, my main photographic interest is wildlife and I'm shooting with a D5, D500 and D810 through the 400E and 800E. Throw in another $20K or so of lenses and accessories and I'm good for however long I continue to walk the planet. It's been a long journey since I laid hands on a Nikkormat Ftn back in 1969 but I have no regrets. Honestly, I can't imagine what Nikon could produce to get me to buy anything new except maybe the pocket camera they just announced they weren't going to make. Or some decent Dx lenses that would make my D500 kit easier to carry around buzz, buzz."

No existential crisis in that user. And there shouldn't be one in you, either. Go out and shoot photos. There's no excuse to do otherwise. Nothing that's happening in Tokyo is going to make that much better or worse in the short term, so there's no reason to have a crisis.

For me, I had already mapped out this year (2017) as one where I wanted to get out and shoot more. I wrote earlier that I was trying to make sure I had a different photographic challenge for myself every month, and I must say that a certain airline company is probably very happy to see my business as I bounce around from place to place pursuing that. I have more ambitious plans for 2018.

I've actually been thinking the opposite of many. It seems to me that now would be the perfect time for the next Magnum-type agency to appear. A small group of great photographers that control the use of their imagery and profit directly from that. 

It's time to turn our thoughts back to the images we take and why. Tokyo will either figure out their problems or not, but there's not a single reason why you can't get the gear you need to do what you want today and just go do it. 

We should all be producers of photos, not complaints.

We should all be collectors of images, not gear. 

We should all be promoters of photography, not companies. 

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