Camera Evolution - The Coming Industry Sea Change

I've been watching the photographic industry for a long time, and I confess to being opinionated about it.  I've been agreed with and hated simultaneously for positions that I have taken, and rightly or wrongly, I've been proven correct more than not.  My topic for this article is Camera Evolution.

I recently published a piece where I took a strong position on not shooting for free.  A colleague asked me "why so angry?"  Because stupid pisses me off.  Just because someone buys a camera, it does not make that person a photographer.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a camera for snapshotting, taking pictures and even the malevolent narcissism that is the selfie.  None of those things are the creative art of photography.  Angry?  More like exhausted.

I've been thinking about the evolution of the tools of picture taking and of photography for some time.  Recently, well respected artist Tony Northrup made a video extolling the value proposition of consumer cameras.  In counterpoint, Andrew Reid, disagreed, and would be quite happy to see consumer cameras die off.

Because this goes on the Internet, this should be war.  Or at least that's how the zero attention span folks would like it, but it isn't.  I respect both Mr. Northrup and Mr. Reid, and on this subject, I tend to fall more on the side of Mr. Reid but with some different perspectives, some of which I fear may be true sooner rather than later.

The Point and Shoot Non-Market

While some OEMs continue to produce generic point and shoot cameras, the more intelligent amongst them accept that this marketplace is already dead and has decayed to the level of stench and rot.  Smartphones are much easier to use, are always around, are one less thing to carry and have substantially superior user interfaces.  The day of the sub $500 point and shoot is done.  Anything left around is already dead and only denial keeps it in market.  In fact, what we call "point and shoots" today are, with some delusional exceptions, a series of very verticalized deliverables.  There are the waterproof hardened cameras.  They do what smartphones cannot.  There are the superzooms.  They do something that smartphones cannot do.  There are the super sensors.  Smartphones cannot deliver this.   They use larger sensors and build in functions that true creatives desire in a smaller package.  These cameras have also come severely up the price scale, some to the point of what appears to be an LSD induced delusion particularly in the super sensor variants.  Leica has always been in that space, and they have a market.  A very small market.  In tougher economic times, the number of buyers who are going to spend well over $1200 on a point and shoot with a 1" sensor and a limited zoom range of 24-70 equivalence is very small.  I know this is true, because the super sensors are already on the back side of their lifecycle curve.  New models show up quickly, with marginal improvements if any, with the marketing departments hoping that some new bell or whistle will encourage a prior buyer to upgrade without getting full value out of the camera that the buyer already has.   I was in a store yesterday and in the cabinet were five different versions of Sony's RX100.  I believe that the RX100 is the alpha wolf in this market, but five different versions is not customer choice, it's customer confusion.  That there are five different versions all in market is not a shot at Sony, it informs us that Sony understands that the death bell is ringing and they will do everything that they can to maximize revenue before it falls off a cliff.

Consumer Market Cameras

The bell is also ringing for consumer or entry level DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras.  Canon's biggest innovation in this space is to offer an existing product in silver with poop brown faux leather accents for more money than the all black version that has been in market for a couple of years.  That is innovation spelled "stupid".  Nikon recently delivered the D3400, replacing the D3300 and actually delivering less useful functionality but with the addition of the alcoholism inducing disaster that is their proprietary SnapBridge and Nikon cloud storage.  Canon tried cloud storage three years ago.  It failed.  Nikon's will do no better, because the cloud offerings from Amazon, Apple, Google and the others who have done it longer, simpler and better have already established not just a beachhead but an entire infrastructure.  No buyer cares if the cloud that they use has an OEM sticker on it.  If the OEMs are actually building out their own cloud infrastructure, I have vastly overestimated their intelligence.  Sony announced the a6300 and in short order announced the a6500, a move that told a6300 buyers "haha fooled ya" but more importantly clearly showed their direction.  The a6500 is well over $1000 body only.  This is not a consumer entry product, this is now the introductory price level for an enthusiast product.  You may not like Sony's message, but give them credit for getting it right.  They's figured out that the sub $800 market's bell has rung.  They understand that they will sell far fewer a6500s than the old NEX-3, but they also understand that buyers for that low price point aren't photographers.  Those are people very well served by the still and video capability of smartphones.  The sales numbers show this has already happened.

Photo video retailers who don't figure this out, and who have committees on how to retain a market that is vanishing are going to get bled out.  Those who consolidate, which may include closing or downsizing outlets, who choose to put talent, not box movers, behind counters and who set the low bar at enthusiast products will outlast those who don't.  The retailers whose strategy is hope, are already in competition with big box and warehouse stores where the buyer is motivated solely by cost of acquisition instead of the service behind the counter are going to be taking a bullet to the head.  As an photography instructor, I hear very regularly that folks bought a camera at a warehouse store or big box store, didn't know what they were getting, still don't know how to use it but some have figured out that they can go into a professional camera store and get lots of free coaching and guidance, but when buying will still go for the lowest price.  It sounds like good customer service to some retailers to do this free coaching, but more serious enthusiasts will be put off and leave while the counter staff spend an hour teaching photography to someone who buys their gear elsewhere.  Sell that warehouse store shopper a camera course and move on to a customer who wants to pay you.

I visit many photography stores and regularly find a scenario that should be anathema to store owners.  It is well known that most camera store employees have side businesses.  This, in and of itself is a means to increase awareness of photography and contribute to personal income and is a very good thing.  Where it all goes horribly bad is when a store employee spends time behind the employer's counter extolling the virtues of their private business.  Such behaviour is not tolerated in any other sales environment and those stores that continue to permit this behaviour will be first to disappear because their clients become confused at who the seller is actually working for, and those waiting walk out because they are not being served since the seller is busy selling him or herself.  The big box or warehouse store looks more credible as a result.  Business owners need to put a stop to this theft behind the counter right away, or suffer the consequences.  Contrary to delusion, permitting this behaviour does not create store-customer loyalty, it creates private business owner - customer loyalty and also encourages those customers to burn up store selling time with the individual because they have already paid him or her money and because the individual wants to sell the customer more of their personal offerings.

The evolution of cameras as photographic tools continues, and like other evolutions, happens in fits and spurts.  We had no video, then we got video and we saw a surge.  Then the average video user, who makes up less than 2% of DSLR/MILC buyers figured out that shooting video on a still camera could best be done with the addition of thousands of dollars of add-on kit and the willingness to jab oneself in the eye with a sharp pointed stick on each use.  Video on DSLR and MILC cameras will continue, much as adding WiFi and NFC and GPS and myriad other smartphone proven features will continue, all of which are much harder to use than the smartphone already delivers.  Interestingly, dedicated video camera sales are on the upswing.  Not the consumer products, the smartphone does all that just as easily and sometimes better, but the enthusiast products, which have a higher price point, and thus lower volume, but also require more skill behind the counter than how many, what colour?

No OEM is going to come out and say that they are abandoning a market, just as none said that they were abandoning generic point and shoots while the smart ones quietly did just that.  A top end smartphone hits $1000 today.  If the buyer has $1000 to spend, will the buyer purchase a dedicated consumer camera or the phone?  For the non-enthusiast, they will buy the smartphone.  Thus the OEM and the store have not lost anything, because it wasn't theirs to lose in the first place.  Resellers who sought to combat this by getting into the phone business discovered to a one, that smartphones are nothing like photography or videography, and have gotten out or are getting out of smartphones because that is a guerilla ground war where only carriers have a chance.  And while buyers may love the smartphone, they equate any seller in partnership with any carrier as far more evil than whatever cultural representation that they may have for evil.

The smart OEMs will focus their limited resources as well as R&D on their higher end offerings.  Canon's 1Dx Mark II is the best camera I have ever used of its type.  Nikon's D500 is far and away the best crop sensor camera I have ever seen.  Fujifilm's X-Pro2 is an absolute joy to shoot, the only camera that I carried with me every single day of the review period that I had it, and the first non-Leica mirrorless that I will own.  When it comes to serious video, Sony's PXW family of fixed and interchangeable lens video cameras are stellar, and the easiest way to get to really superb 4K for the money.  In the OM-D E-M1 Mark II, Olympus has delivered a m4/3 camera capable of delivering in high pressure use cases, use cases previously only covered by the pro gear from Canon and Nikon.

What's common about these cameras?  None of them are consumer products.  They are all enthusiast products.  That's where the innovation happens.  That's where the margins are.  And that's kit that warehouse stores and big box stores cannot handle because the buy is not solely based on price.  At least not yet.

I get it that people hate change.  People railed against the automobile, the passenger aircraft and yes even the smartphone.  All have succeeded, and while all have commoditized to some extent, those that remain consumer oriented have done so in the absence of simpler and easier to use alternatives.  For photography and video, the simpler and easier to use alternative is already here, already has the beachhead and already delivers what the majority of consumers need and want.  As Von Clausewitz is purported to have said, "never fight an uphill battle against a superior army in winter".  The consumer space is lost.  Let it go, focus on where OEMs and professional sellers can thrive and move on.  By move on, I mean action and innovation, not a new colour, or some gimmickry from a smartphone that enthusiasts could care less about.

Thanks for reading.  The beauty of having my own site is that I get to share my thoughts.  It's more than fair for any reader to think I am crazy, and you are free to agree or disagree in the comments, just be polite.