Are the camera companies looking backwards?

What’s really new at the shows?

polaroid_sc1630

Is it a phone or a camera?

We’ve just seen the first big trade shows of the year (PMA/CES) and I’m slightly left wondering what’s really new?

‘Tons of stuff’ I’m sure many will say, pointing to masses of articles on sites such as DPReview , where to the casual observer it’s business as usual, with many compact cameras, mirrorless (aka CSC),  the new Canon G1-X and the Nikon D4 all catching my attention.

Behind the glowing optimism of the press releases there are a few reports that suggest to me that much of the industry is being quite wilfully blind to changes in markets.

I’m looking at this from two quite different perspectives:

One is my day to day job as a professional photographer, where I want top notch image quality in certain areas of photography, and a DSLR is currently the best way for me to get it from a business point of view. I don’t  take large numbers of images, and someone wanting their work the next day is a rush job.

My other view comes from many years research working in aspects of usability and how technology impacts on people and organisations – it’s one of the things I did before becoming a photographer (see my almost entirely true bio)

It’s about connectivity

I’ve an iPhone, that I hardly ever use as a camera – compared to what I normally shoot with, it’s pretty poor (some of my initial tries at using it). To many however, such cameras are more than ‘good enough’.

I’ve also relatively little interest in ‘sharing’ photos, unless they are what I think is good and worthy of inclusion on this site or otherwise showing in public. A shared photo for me is as much about some aspect of my business, as it is about any other concerns. The nearest I get to sharing casual photos are my travel blogs, when I’m driving round the US.

But, I do photography for a living, and I know that makes my attitude unusual. It’s relatively hard for me to see past technically bad photos …and I can find it uncomfortable when people ask what I think of their photos (I will only give ‘really’ honest answers if asked a second time with a stated desire for honest feedback).

In much of the rest of the world it is about sharing and connectivity – people are getting used to sending photos immediately to others and getting rapid reactions in turn. This intrigues me, in that people are using photography in a more ‘real time’ manner. It changes their perceptions of all other photography, and that is something that as someone who earns their living from it, I had better take notice of.

Last year, of an estimated 4.4 billion image capturing devices in use around the world, 4 billion of them were in phones.

Much as with the ongoing death of film (from a commercial POV, see - Film, the numbers say goodbye) there are a few professionals who lament this further ‘democratisation’ of photography as contributing to a lowering of standards and appreciation for professional photography. Whatever… get over it, plan your business models for the next 5-10 years, not a warm view of the 1980′s/90′s.  I’ve no difficulty in more people thinking they can make some money from their photography – I just need to be better. (see – ‘Are there too may pro photographers‘)

The numbers…

view camera

How long until your compact looks as old fashioned as this?

It’s clear that recent economic events have thrown many predictions and growth curves off-kilter but I note that the global camera market grew about 1% last year (figures from GfK in December), bringing overall sales back up to 2008 levels. Last year, sales of ‘smart’ phones have gone up nearly 130%.

Numbers of compact cameras shipped are showing the greatest fall. Higher end cameras are still showing some growth, particularly the ‘compact system’ category.

More numbers just released (Infotrends via PMDA) also point to changes:

“In 2008, mobile phones with cameras were cited by only 18% of respondents as the camera used most often but that percentage has doubled over the last 3 years.”

The reaction

At the moment we’re seeing more iterations of the same, it’s almost as if no-one in the Japanese camera industry is prepared to really run with anything fundamentally new or different.  I’m minded to currently add Samsung to the list [CES info]

At the top of the DSLR range, the  Canon 1D X and  Nikon D4  are strikingly similar in specifications, once you ignore the fanboys… I’m expecting many reviews and articles to compare and contrast  them, whilst the opposing armchair armies muster round their chosen flags.

I note with interest, Thom Hogan’s comments about the predictable nature of the industry, with everyone chasing after everyone else’s tail. I’m very much minded to agree with his comments that the industry is failing in innovation, marketing and software.

At a December conference, a Nikon spokesperson said that ‘proper’ cameras were quite simply better than smartphones and asserted that there was no evident demand from customers for network capable cameras.

I find this all too similar to the attitude towards digital, from many camera and film makers some 10-12 years ago (2001 being the first year that the global market in film showed a slight decline)

But what about the big splurge in ‘mirrorless’ camera announcements? Surely this is a sign of  something new?

Yes and no – it’s currently  the ‘big thing’, so there is plenty of space in the market and we’re still at that phase where a big player (Canon) hasn’t revealed its hand and Nikon can generate some buzz with their ’1 series’.

If  I look towards Sony and their NEX system, we see another slightly different approach, whilst Micro Four Thirds moves on, although I note the comments from Olympus that they are finding difficulty in getting new companies to join up.

BTW, that camera/phone at the top of the article, it’s the Polaroid SC 1630

Futures…

At some point in the next few years I’m expecting ‘connectedness’ becoming the next big thing in the camera market, and going through all the usual loops and iterations.

However, if there is one thing that camera manufacturers have shown in the past, is that they are pretty poor at the software side of things – aspects of what you actually do with photos once you’ve taken them.

There is a big potential for a disruptive technology here – an iPod/iPhone/iPad type change.   I know that I’d put more money on Apple doing this, than one of the traditional camera companies.

I might be looking forward to trying out the upcoming 1D X and D4 myself, but I know full well that the mass market for photography is looking in a very different direction.

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