How to save the consumer camera: DON’T!

This blog is in response to Tony Northrup Death of the Consumer Camera and the ideas in it.

For a long time I have thought about how to rescue the consumer camera market as we knew it, just like Tony.

And like everyone I had some ideas.

I am sorry to say most of these ideas are a complete waste of time.

Here’s why

The audience doesn’t care.

Most consumers didn’t want to learn photography in the first place.

The cameras were just a means to an end.

Snapchat, yes. Facebook live, yes. Photography itself? Not so much.

And this was BEFORE smartphones reached a good enough level to take over entirely.

Here’s hope

This will be the best thing that has ever happened to the camera industry.

I would love for the camera market to go back into its specialist niche as far away from the dispassionate mainstream market as possible and focus all its efforts on the people who actually care… for smaller camera stores to get more support, for these places to be all be about creatives, a haven full of passionate experts in every city. If the mainstream consumer camera market simply disappeared we’d lose some crappy low-end DSLRs and major retail store presence. So what? The manufacturers would lose a lot of money tempoarily before making it back in their medical / photocopier divisions the next decade, possibly also from new markets they will open up, ones they would not have bothered to investigate had the consumer camera market not gone tits up.

It’s now inevitable and there’s no mirrorless camera related ideas powerful enough to change the course of human history.

In amicable disagreement

Tony has given us a thought provoking video but I don’t agree with anything he says.

On the internet this automatically makes us sworn enemies and by video game logic we should hate each other now.

But let me say for the benefit of the doubt I don’t hate Tony Northrup. I only disagree with him. He says the next great Ansel Adams will be snapping away on Instagram with their smartphone, so “we need to make the transition to a more advanced camera easier for them”. Nope.

It may indeed be true that the next photography legend is right now starting off with a smartphone, but the transition to something more creatively advanced would be so obvious to anybody with that level of talent and enthusiasm, I cannot understate enough how much of a waste of everybody’s time it would be to mollycoddle them, putting a touch UI on a DSLR just because they started off with one on a smartphone.

This is exactly the same mistake the manufacturers have been making shoehorning existing smartphone features like WiFi and touch-menus into photographic tools to make them appeal to a larger audience. Physical controls are tactile and can be used blindly while looking at the scene or through the viewfinder. This is The Right Way. The touch screen interface was to Apple standard on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera and it didn’t cause a flock of Snapchat users to embrace Blackmagic cameras and Resolve!!

In reality a touch screen is only useful for selecting AF point or using Dual Pixel AF on the 1D X Mark II. If the next Ansel Adams cannot use a 1D X Mark II menu without finger based gestures then I not only fear for the future of art, I fear for the future of humanity.

In Japan they know the truth

The consumer market is history. The manufacturers know this already, which is why almost all the latest releases from Sony and Panasonic have been aiming higher and higher up. Higher prices and higher specs. Previous entry-level models from a few years ago such as the Panasonic G5 or Sony NEX range have new versions out this year but they are squarely aimed at enthusiasts and pros – the Panasonic G85 and Sony A6500. Even the Panasonic GH1 has gone from courting consumer camcorder users for $800 for the body and basic kit lens in 2010 to courting professional filmmakers and enthusiasts closer the $2000 in 2017 with the Panasonic GH5.

The Olympus E-M1 II shows the same trend with the pricing and most of the marketing so far being aimed at pro photographers. The manufacturer most exposed to the consumer market and low-end models was Samsung, and we all know how that ended.

Blackmagic’s entry to the market is the future blueprint for where we are headed and that isn’t such a bad thing. Blackmagic, a professional solutions company, entered the market with an affordable Cinema Camera and Pocket Cinema Camera, both of which went into a range of photographic stores on streets across the world. It was aimed at enthusiasts and pros but at very accessible consumer-level prices. From that they were able to build a growing presence in the cinema camera market and cement their existing presence in the pro market, both in terms of hardware (cameras) and software (Resolve).

Tony also says that memory cards, files and folders need to be eliminated, again this misses the point that it isn’t ‘ease of use’ that stops people stepping up to enthuisast products but savage disinterest. Added to that is broad satisfaction with their smartphone camera and apps that prevent them from pining for anything more. Indeed most of the public consider DSLRs to be obsolete and less functional than a smartphone because they’re completely outside the established app eco-system of Apple and Google, lacking LTE capabilities and people don’t have a second data sim-card to put in cameras. These three facts alone are enough to kill the DSLR as a consumer imaging device in 2016 and there is absolutely nothing someone like Nikon can do about it short of buying Google and Facebook. Wifi won’t fix it.

Future of enthusiast cameras is mixed

Although I am sounding a positive note on the future of enthusiast and pro cameras, there are storm clouds gathering here too.

I think the enthusiast market is over saturated and there’s a high level of satisfaction with existing models.

A lot of people are still rocking their 5D Mark II and they take photography very seriously. Even the combined efforts of Sony, Panasonic, Fuji and Olympus with billions of R&D funds have not managed to shift the majority of enthusiasts away from their Canon or Nikon lenses and bodies, despite the much higher level of innovation and number of solutions on offer.

With video there’s still plenty of progress to be made but even this is levelling out to the point where decent 4K is broadly available even on the cheapest mirrorless cameras.

With manufacturers all pushing into the enthusiast market at once more heavily than ever before as the low end disappears I think there’s a bit of a danger of a bubble forming and that things could be due for a correction.

This could begin to happen with the professional Micro Four Thirds cameras. Can Olympus persuade enough people to buy the E-M1 II at $2000?

Can Panasonic persuade ordinary enthusiasts to spend $2000 on a GH5 or will they most likely flock to the G85 instead?

Do enthusiasts really need to choose between an a7s,a7r,a7s II,a7r II,a7 ii,a6000,a6300,a6500,rx100 iv,rx100 v,rx1,rx1r,rx1r ii,a99,a77 ii,gh4,nx1,x-t2,5d mark iv and countless more every 6 months for however many years the manufacturers want to keep growing the market?! The answer is NO and that is coming from someone who has an appetite for new gear boarding on the insane and runs a blog about the stuff!!

There’s simply not enough enthusiasts to sustain this level of new releases.

Much as it pains to say it, Canon’s approach might be the future. Their boring 4 year release cycles and expensive $3500 enthusiast cameras like the 5D series are what we will be seeing far more of in the future especially as medium format cameras begin to take over from full frame as the new high end enthusiast cameras. These medium format cameras will be almost as compact as a Sony a7R II and the lenses will shrink too. They will shoot 8K HDR video for the home TVs of 2020, with 16 stops dynamic range and quite possibly have global shutters for both stills and video with no mechanical moving parts. Once we get to this level of performance for around $3500 it will be the end of DSLRs like the Canon 5D Mark IV but it is some years off. Anyway the point is, with this level of performance, why would you want a new model every year or even every 2? If we have this level of satisfaction with existing technology, how do the manufacturers continue to sell us the next step-up? There comes a point where the enthusiast market starts to level off and only a very select few people upgrade for small percentage gains and minor evolutionary features.

Japan needs to get serious about apps

One thing I DO agree with Tony’s video on though, is where he talks about apps towards the end. (22 min 30 sec).

Magic Lantern is a major selling point for Canon, as are custom image profiles. The software side of cameras has been neglected by the Japanese manufacturers because management people came predominantly from an era of Japan which was all about hardware. The country was a major industrial force and hardware was the most dominant thing. Now software is becoming more of a focus.

Sony’s effort on their cameras hasn’t worked because of a lack of third party support, but also because the apps didn’t give you anything compelling or better quality than what was already included.

Obviously this has to change. If smartphone app stores just offered calculators and worse notepad apps than what came bundled with the device, there would be no market and no money to be made. It is really hard to understand why Sony’s management cannot see how obviously the PlayMemories store fits this definition. It doesn’t even have Instagram. The user interface feels like it’s from 20 years ago when the internet first came to a 1990’s phone.

Whereas Magic Lantern gives us RAW video and nobody in Japan even bothers to reach out!!

Third party software is important.