The US$1000 Camera Buying Dilemma

One way of looking at what's happening in the camera market is to slice it in a way that is more consumer-facing. I've chosen price as my slice mechanism today. Not sensor size, not camera type, not anything else other than price.

Jack and Jill Consumer tend to agree that they have a fixed amount of money they'd be willing to put into getting a new camera—at least the Jacks and Jills that still want a camera—and they walk into a camera store (or maybe a Big Box) thinking that's their primary decision mechanism: price.

In particular, for this article I've picked a price that I believe to be a key one to the industry's survival: US$999. Why that price? Because it's low enough to generate volume, high enough to allow gross profit margin. When we get down to the US$500 point, margins are really tight. When we get up to the US$2000 point, volume is fairly low. So US$1000 is my stake in the ground to see what's happening in what should be a meaty part of the market.

Technically, I've added a small range to that US$999, so I'll be writing about cameras that you can buy today at B&H (and most US dealers, stores) for US$900 to US$1100. Warning: you're going to see all the issues of the industry pop up in this sampling.

Let's first look at the "best sellers" (based upon B&H's current rankings at this price point as I wrote this):

  • Sony A7m2 with 28-70mm f/3.5.5.6 OSS lens. An earlier generation 24mp full frame mirrorless camera with a kit lens. Sensor is fine, ergonomics and lens are not. Features are missing from current generation.
  • Nikon D7500 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 and 70-300mm f/4-6.3 VR lenses. A current 20mp APS-C DSLR with two kit lenses. Other than the fact that Nikon removed some features from the D7500 when it came out after the D7200, this is a current camera with excellent performance.
  • Canon EOS RP body only. A current 28mp full frame mirrorless entry level camera. While the camera price rises the eyebrow, the quick question becomes what lens are you going to use with it? The only ones that will really buy into this at this price point are those who already have EF lenses and want to start to transition to mirrorless.
  • Sony A6400 with 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS lens. A current 24mp APS-C mirrorless camera with kit lens. Solid sensor, typical A6### ergonomics, which you may or may not like.
  • Panasonic G9 body only. A current 20mp m4/3 mirrorless camera. Full featured camera, but with a smaller sensor. Like the other body-only choices in this price range, it's going to appeal first and foremost to those already with existing lenses they can use, otherwise it jumps up into another price range.
  • Fujifilm X-T30 with 18-55mm f/2.8-4 OIS lens. A current 26mp APS-C mirrorless camera with slightly better than kit lens. Really solid sensor with a body that has features/quality cut down from its bigger brother. 
  • Nikon Z50 with 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 VR lens. A current 20mp APS-C mirrorless camera with kit lens. Solid sensor, solid feature set, lens well beyond expectations. Note that this is going up against a near-identical DSLR from the same maker.
  • Sony A6500 body only. A generation old 24mp APS-C mirrorless camera. This is where things get a little dicey for Sony, as they have a lot of gear all stuffed into this price point, some current, some older. The marketing message is dulled because of that. (Note also that the version with the 16-50mm kit lens fits just into the top of my price range.)
  • Canon EOS M6 m2 with 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS kit lens and EVF. A current 32mp APS-C mirrorless camera. Excellent sensor, poor lens is not a good match in my book. The removable EVF will be a plus for some, a minus for others.
  • Fujifilm X100F. Hey, something different! A current 24mp APS-C compact camera with an excellent fixed 23mm f/2 lens.
  • Ricoh Theta Z1 360 camera. Something really different! a dual 20mp 1" sensor 360 degree camera. 
  • Sony RX100 mVI. A current 20mp 1" sensor compact camera with a decent 24-200mm f/2.8-4.5 lens. The only thing in this price range that fits in a shirt pocket.
  • Canon 80D with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS kit lens. A previous generation 24mp APS-C DSLR. 
  • Nikon Coolpix P1000 compact camera. This is a small sensor compact camera that's not compact, because it has a 24-3000m equivalent f/2.8-8 lens that makes up most of the product. 

What a mishmash, right? Think about this from a more naive customer perspective walking into a retailer and saying they've got a US$1000 budget. You can buy everything from the superzoom to end all superzooms to a current full frame camera, but with no lens. 

If we throw out the compact cameras and stick to body+lens kits that are current, we get a much more restricted choice of:

  • Canon M6 m2
  • Fujifilm X-T30
  • Nikon Z50
  • Sony A6400
  • Nikon D7500

All the most recent ones mirrorless, all APS-C. Plus something that a lot of folk seem to forget or ignore: all image stabilized, though this is done in the lens, not the camera body. Of that group, I can recommend any of them, but:

  • The Canon M lens lineup is very short and not up to the new sensor.
  • The Fujifilm kit lens doesn't get you to 24mm equivalent.
  • The Nikon Z DX total lens lineup is two, even shorter than Canon's.
  • The Sony body design is a love it or hate it one for most.
  • The D7500 has a limited lens lineup and is by far the oldest in this list

In other words, a dealer is going to be able to steer a naive buyer by pointing out something negative right up front on any model. I should point out that spiffs—a hidden dealer selling incentive—are absolutely in play right now (Nikon just increased theirs on the Z50), so that dealer is usually steering Jack and Jill towards a sale that benefits the dealer. The dealer will maximize their profit, in other words.

But we're a long way from done. Plenty of other cameras, mostly older generation, fit into this same price range as I write this:

  • Canon 77D with 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens + 77D with 18-135mm and 55-250mm lenses
  • Canon T7i with 18-135mm and 55-250mm IS lenses
  • Canon T7i with 18-55mm lens and inkjet printer
  • Canon T7i with 70-300mm IS
  • Canon G1 X
  • Canon G3 X
  • Canon G5 X (also with Connect Station)
  • Canon G7 X with Pro-100 inkjet
  • Canon M6 Video Creator Kit
  • Fujifilm X-T30 with 15-45mm and 50-230mm OIS lenses
  • Fujifilm X-E3 with 23mm f/2 lens
  • Fujifilm X-T20 with 16-50mm and 50-230mm OIS lenses or 18-55mm f/2.8-4 OIS lens
  • Leica C-Lux
  • Leica V-Lux
  • Nikon D750 body only (refurbished)
  • Nikon D5600 with 18-140mm VR lens
  • Nikon D7500 with 18-140mm VR lens
  • Olympus Pen-F body only
  • Olympus E-M5 m2 with 14-150mm f/4-5.6 lens
  • Panasonic FX1000
  • Panasonic FZ2500
  • Panasonic LX100 m2
  • Pentax KP with 18-55mm lens
  • Pentax KP body
  • Ricoh GR III
  • Sigma sd Quattro H body only
  • Sigma dp1 Quattro
  • Sigma dp2 Quattro
  • Sigma dp3 Quattro
  • Sony A6400 with 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 OSS lens
  • Sony A6100 with 16-50mm and 55-210mm OSS lenses
  • Sony RX-100 VA
  • Sony RX10 m2
  • Sony RX100 mIV

Dear lord, we now have a really confused consumer if they're presented with all those options. Technically, we have:

  • 3 full frame choices
  • 23 APS-C choices
  • 4 m4/3 choices
  • 14 1" or compact sensor choices
  • 17 mirrorless choices
  • 11 DSLR choices
  • 20 compact choices

And this is in just one narrow US$200 price range. Any pricing slice I make tends to result in the same thing: one heck of a lot of product available to a dwindling pool of consumers. Plus the mishmash of older/newer product muddies the selection choice. 

In a rising tide lots of consumer choices works just fine. In the siphoning of the pool that's happening with camera market contraction, this extreme proliferation of choices at each price point is going to kill all players if things don't change soon.

Right now I see the three biggest players—Canon, Nikon, and Sony—all trying to do the same thing: (1) jettison older generation product at bargain prices to clear inventory and meet their sensor commitments; but (2) getting ready to launch plenty of new product right into the same targets. The likelihood that I can write this same article next year this time with the CIPA numbers showing even more distress is near 100%. 

When I wrote my proposal for Nikon's future product line, an unstated assumption was that all previous product inventory was completely cleared out. Moreover, I wanted my products to be compelling above and beyond the previous ones. Let's look at how compelling those four products I called out before are today:

  • Canon M6 m2: The sensor is finally a very compelling upgrade for Canon users (ditto for the 90D, which also uses this sensor but is a price point above). The ergonomics have been decently honed. But the initial "no 24P for 4K" was a total head-scratcher. Why was Canon taking features away when they needed to compel users to upgrade? The big downside here is that the Canon lens team gave us nothing. Zero. Nada. That great sensor resolves just how meh virtually all the M optics are. Grade: C
  • Fujifilm X-T30: Compared to the X-T20, Fujifilm gave us a slightly better sensor, plus better video capabilities and better focus performance. Not a big, compelling upgrade, but at least everything was moving in the right direction. Grade: C+
  • Nikon Z50: As Nikon did with the Z6/Z7, they aimed slightly lower than an equivalent DSLR in their lineup in order to protect the DSLR. This is exactly the thinking that I believe is wrong-headed. If the Z50 were the D5600 of the mirrorless world, Nikon would be on the right track. But unfortunately, Nikon seems to be more targeting the D7500 crowd, and thus took a swing and fouled the ball into the stands. Grade D
  • Sony A6400: Sony added a touchscreen capability to the A6300. Okay, there's some focus and feature changes that can be said to be improvements, but this feels like a "firmware upgrade" to me, not a model change. Grade D

So let me put this out there: if this round of "new" products is grading in the C's and D's, how likely are these models likely to be lingering around next year with sale prices? ;~) Sure, they'll drop a price point down when they do, but that just puts the same pressure on another group of cameras and buyers. 

I'm going to say this: the cost/profit panic that's going on in Tokyo right now at every camera company is producing self damaging results now. While the camera makers are putting out new cameras on somewhat the same schedule as before, the progress bar is being moved very little forward. Which means that fewer existing users see an upgrade as worthwhile and what new (or late-to-upgrade) buyers that are left in the market then get hit with the confusing medley of ill-distinguished product I just presented. 

This is the dilemma that the Hi-Fi industry faced: it didn't embrace the new world around them, while it iterated indiscriminately and poorly. That drove many to ruin and out of the market. Note that the Hi-Fi market still exists today. You'll find Denon, for instance, supporting Amazon Music and Alexa directly, as well as Apple AirPlay2 and Siri. They support Dolby Atmos and a whole host of other modern technologies, as well. In other words, they play well with modern music/audio standards and expectations, just as you'd expect a "system" to do. And yes, the specs and capabilities can go quite high end still, but still embrace lower end consumers. Denon's Receiver line currently runs from US$279 to US$3999, for instance. 

I don't know how many Japanese camera companies can get to the place Denon did. Maybe three, four? But right now they're all executing the Japanese Consumer Electronics Death Script (JCEDS) exactly as many before them have in other product categories. JCEDS is not the execution pattern you want to be in, because the key word there is "execution." Of you, the maker.

Those that don't learn from history repeat it. The Japanese camera industry hasn't learned anything from history. 

 

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