Friday, November 11, 2011

Shifts In The Compact Camera Market

I have written a few times about my thoughts on an APS-H successor to Canon's EOS 7D. Basically, I think that the entire camera market is either already undergoing, or a short time away from, a flatline. Some companies are seeing growth, but this has come to the detriment of other companies. The overall market has been long-since off of the upward spiral that started with the emergence of consumer digital cameras in the late 1990's.

This isn't really a surprise. It happens with every major technological shift in photography. The last one before digital was autofocus, which hit the big time in the 1980's. People bought like crazy until pretty much everyone who wanted one had one, and the market flatlined. Camera companies are not stupid. They know the nature of their business. They have been trying their best to combat this inevitability with an almost hilarious level of tiny, incremental changes.

For example, my first camera was the Pentax K1000. I had the special edition with the brown grip. *Thumbs up!* This camera remained nearly unchanged for over two decades. Compare this to my first serious digital camera, the Canon EOS 20D. Since its release in 2004, it has been succeeded by the 30D, 40D, 50D, 7D, and 60D. Yes, megapixels have gone up, but the vast majority of the changes are quite minor.

The newest generation of sensors from Sony represent the first real technological development that really changes the way we can take photos. The ultra-low noise floor and incredible dynamic range positively blows the old sensors, like those in the entire line of Canon cameras, so far out of the water that they would need a plane to get back to the beach. So, basically, we had the EOS 20D in 2004, and the Nikon D7000 in 2011. The only reason for releasing a gazillion cameras in that time frame is to try and stave off market stagnation.

Well, it's here anyhow. The only ways that I see to move forward from here are to more strongly delineate the market, provide each segment with strong reasons for being in that segment, and develop different technological directions. The APS-H sensor in the semi-pro Canon cameras is only one element.

I think that compact cameras are going to move up-market. Canon and Nikon have had their little enthusiast cameras for some time, then Panasonic showed that the playground was big enough for three kids. Then Olympus came and showed them all that it's the lens that really matters. And now we have Fuji, charging even more than the other four with the largest sensor of them all.

Nikon has a fantastic sensor for this market. They should take the V1/J1's sensor and put it in a fixed-lens body. It's small enough to maintain good DOF, but large enough to beat the pants off of other compact cameras. Selling that camera for $500-600 should be easy.

Likewise, Panasonic should put a 4/3 sensor in the successor to the LX5, which I assume will be called the LX7. This has problems in that the lens will be bigger and slower, but wide-angle shots will be much easier and DOF will be more dramatic. This will also allow them to achieve GF3-like size without removing all of the dials and pro-oriented features that people actually want.

Instead of doing this, both companies are fucking around with ILC systems, thinking that enthusiasts want that. Nikon is positively insane to charge so much, but they won't listen to anyone right now since their system launched very well (That won't last). All the while, Panasonic released the GF1, 2, and 3 over the course of just eighteen months. Along the way, they removed features and lowered the price. Instead of increasing sales, as lower prices usually do, combined, the GF2 and GF3 haven't sold as many cameras as the GF1 did. Constant iteration without purpose or development and crappy cameras will not succeed in this brave new market.

The entire market is being pushed up. The iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy S II both have amazing cameras. They are as good as, and frequently better than, any and all point-&-shoot cameras currently on the market. They are also the only cameras that act as platforms, allowing people to develop new abilities for the cameras. Hence we have Hipstamatic and its ilk.

This will kill low and mid-range cameras. There will be no cameras sold for less than $250 in the near future, and those that are will be Vivitar-branded pieces of crap sold on TV at 1:00am. This will also raise the public awareness of higher-end cameras and that market will likely grow. But for all intents and purposes, that market is at its technological peak. An engineer can only go so far with a tiny sensor.

Panasonic and Nikon are betting that the revolution will be in the form of ILC systems. This could not be more wrong. People upgrading to better cameras DO NOT WANT A SYSTEM. They want a fucking camera. They want to turn it on and press a button. To capture these people, make a fixed-lens camera of the utmost quality. Look at the Fuji X100. It's selling like hot cakes. Look at the excitement brewing over the X10.

The lens system makes a bit more sense vis-a-vis the enthusiast market... which is precisely the market that these companies are ignoring. Enthusiasts want quality, they want control, and they want quality. Did I mention control? Do not remove features. Even if the price is lowered as well, sales will drop. If increased sales are wanted, keep the camera identical and lower the price. Or do what camera companies have been frantically doing for six years: add little doo-dads every year and keep the price the same. Becuase ya'know how well that's turning out.

But back to the compact cameras. 1/1.7" is the new standard. Nikon shot straight to a 1" sensor, which would have been a HUGE deal if they had put it in a compact camera for $500. They didn't. They put it into a half-assed Micro 4/3 competitor for a minimum of $650, and that includes the crap lens.

Fuji's new X10 has a 1/1.5" sensor, which has already shown itself to have better noise characteristics than smaller sensors, but I don't think that it's enough to really whip the photography world into a tizzy. No, I think that Nikon's sensor stands the best chance of being the new standard for compact camera sensors in the future: 1" for compacts, APS-C for consumer, APS-H for enthusiast, and full-frame for pros. Large price differences between segments. Large differences in ability and quality. None of this crappy, quasi-differentiation designed specifically to confuse consumers and maybe milk a few more dollars from them.

Will it happen this way? Probably not. But with your average John or Jane Q. Public, who don't know jack about cameras nor do they care, consumed by the cameras on their cell phones, higher-end companies are left to deal with enthusiasts and pros. We do care. We do pixel-peep. We read reviews, talk to each other, write blogs, and are almost comically cynical. We do not make it a habit of falling for the shit that spews from marketing reps' mouths. We are photographers. And we are your new customers. You better get used to it.

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