Towards a bright future?
A colleague recently asked me a very simple question. Why do cameras still have mechanical shutters?
A simple enough question to ask, but the answer to needs some contextualising.
Before me I have two cameras. The both perform the same function – they take photographs, but they operate in rather different ways. The first camera, the older, uses light to produce latent images on photographic film. The second, slightly newer, uses a CCD sensor to convert light into an electrical charge.
The two cameras do the same job; they even look similar. The second, a Fuji S1 Pro looks remarkably like the first, a Nikon F60, but with a slightly deeper body to accommodate the extra batteries the newer camera requires.
One might even, recognising the family resemblance of the two cameras, conclude that the second camera has somehow ‘evolved’ from the first in the way that we are familiar with in car design. It appears, superficially that the Fuji is somehow a refinement, and improvement on the Nikon.
The truth is somewhat different. The Fuji is, indeed, based upon the Nikon. I’m told that if you take the Fuji apart, you will notice that, crammed with electronics, the film compartment can be clearly seen. Everything that is not part of the circuitry that makes the Fuji a digital rather than a film camera has been retrofitted into the body of an already existing film camera.
This makes a lot of sense, at least initially, for the camera manufacturers. Using tried, tested and relatively cheap technology it was possible to recreate the feel the tactile qualities and camera layout of the familiar, in a new digital form.
People familiar and comfortable with SLR’s adapted quickly to DSLR’s, and the benefits of the new technologies have consigned the vast majority of film cameras to the dustbins (or the hands of the enthusiasts who still appreciate the qualities of film).
Fast forward a decade and the big manufacturers are still clinging to the older aesthetics of SLR design while internally the quality of sensors, lenses and other technologies have progressively improved.
As a keen photographer for a number of decades, I have accumulated a number of cameras over time. While I still have the Fuji and the Nikon, the sad truth is that they stay at home while I take out different cameras. Another camera sitting on the shelf more and more often is my Nikon D300, although I still love the feel of the camera and the quality of the shots it can deliver. I find, however, that given the reality of lugging several Kilogrammes of camera equipment for miles on a walk, I pause and consider whether it’s worth the effort. The temporary solution for me was to buy a second-hand compact camera. As an ex-student a couple of years ago had produced some great work with a Canon G9, I chose this model.
After a few weeks walking, in Scotland, then on the East Coast, and finally on the South Coast, I realised that it was time for, well if not a complete change, then a change in direction. Many times the Nikon had stayed in the car in favour of the Canon, so I realised the decision had already been made. After considering options for a while I finally decided to buy a Olympus OM-D M5.
As a Compact System Camera it combines solid camera build with small size and outstanding quality.
There are things I do not like, or at least have no use to me, such as a touch screen, but that can be easily turned off. The electronic viewfinder was at first unnerving as it shows the preview of the image taken in the viewfinder, rather than on the rear screen of the camera. With my 40-150mm lens, the camera clearly ‘hunts’ for the best focus which can be disconcerting, but nine times out of ten delivers a correctly focused image. And, compared to my Nikon, it’s slow.
But, and it’s an important but, it’s small, light and very high quality.
I still have the Nikon, and there are time when it will still be the camera of choice, but those times are fewer than I would have initially thought.
An addition, its size has a massive unexpected side-effect.
This side-effect manifested itself in quite a negative way when I first took the camera out for a test. I was photographing a music event and, having official accreditation, was inside the barriers getting close-up and personal with the acts.
Another photographer, after clearly glancing down at my little Olympus, literally tried to brush me aside! Instead of a band of musicians in front of me, I found myself looking at the back screen of a Canon 30D as its owner tried to move me with his right arm.
The chain of thinking (I can’t call it logic) seems very clear to me. I have a bigger camera than you, therefore I’m more important in the hierarchy of photographers, therefore I can push you aside and occupy the position that you are standing in.
I freely admit I did not react well.
The diminutive size does have advantages. I no longer suffer from the perception by others that I am some sort of predatory threat to them and their children. Street photography becomes a real possibility again. The folding down screen of the Olympus and the fact that I can trigger the shutter simply by tapping the rear screen means that I can take photograph from waist level, without appearing to touch the camera controls at all.
If I was a paranoid parent, I should be more concerned with the Olympus than I ever should be with a bulking, ‘look at me, I’m a photographer’, Nikon or Canon. Even more of a ‘threat’ would be a camera that can be used without notice, produce good quality images, and has the capability of directly posting those images onto social media, or being sent via email.
Actually, as we well know, these devices already exist and their mass appeal constitutes a huge problem for dedicated camera manufacturers. The large players in the camera market have not only been on the wrong page of the book, but they are looking at a book of their own making, completely ignoring the actual needs and requirements of their potential market.
While the offerings from Nikon and Canon have got smaller and lighter, the emphasis has clearly been on quality. Brilliant quality lenses attached to extremely capable, multi-mode bodies that look and feel like ‘proper’ cameras, and capable of producing results unthinkable from a digital camera ten years ago. Photography has never been cheaper in real terms, and professional quality results are within the reach of every hobbyist.
Paradoxically, this emphasis on quality may be a mistake. Faced with the choice of a quality DSLR and a smartphone, many will vote with their feet and carry the more useful, smaller and lighter ‘phone. Faced with the choice of spending several hundred pounds on a camera, or the same amount on a ‘phone, many, many people will turn away from the camera.
The result for the camera manufacturers is a decline in sales. Consumer digital camera sales are down a massive 36% in 2013.
A vanishingly small percentage of photographs are printed at all, let alone to exhibition size. Images are for sharing in the digital world, and the easiest way of sharing is by using a smartphone! Throughout most of the photographic age, photos have been used for documenting special occasions and social lives. But now we do not need a dedicated camera to do this. As such most people do not have a use for a camera.
Compact digital cameras sold around 11 million units a months in 2011. By 2013 this has fallen to 4 million. As the quality of smartphones increases this trend starts to edge into the quality end of the camera market. In 2013 sales for DSLR’s and mirrorless cameras have fallen 10-15%.
From January to October 2013, year on year sales for Canon have fallen 23%. The figure for Nikon is 18% Manufacturers considered to be more fashionable by many users, Sony and Fuji have seen a 35% fall in overall sales.
Christopher Chute, from International Data Corporation (IDC) has predicted that Nikon might be out of business in as little as 5 years, ‘You’re talking about a 10-15% decline in DSLR shipments all over the world. Which is kind of shocking because that market has been growing double digits for almost ten years. Nikon recently said they have a five year plan to address this. And in my view, this five year plan should have come out five years ago. They’re not going to be around in five years’.
Indeed, while the (at the time of writing) recently released Nikon DF DSLR is a thing of beauty, it will not save the company as the market for a £2700 camera is never going to be large. (The News agency Reuters (http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/11/07/nikon-earnings-idUSL3N0IR39F20131107?type=companyNews)) . On the 7th November, 2013, Reuters report, ‘Nikon Corp cut its full-year unit sales forecast for high-end cameras for the second quarter in a row on Thursday, as a dramatic fall in demand among photography hobbyists that began last year accelerated faster than expected.
The company posted a 41 percent drop in operating profit to 21.9 billion yen ($222 million) for the six months ended September, saying overseas demand for pricy single-lens reflex models had remained depressed.’
Added to the woes of the large manufacturers is the impression held by many hobbyists and professionals that the major manufactures (such as Nikon) merely field-test new innovations on the buying public. When the D610 was announced, there was a ground-swell of users hoping that this new model would address some or all of the problems buyers had found with the previous model, the D600. Rushing new products to the market is not the answer, sorting out issues (particularly with software) before the camera is released might be a partial answer.
As most photos are shared on the internet, the requirements for high quality, large files, is vastly reduced. The internet actually requires low quality files for easy transmission. A photographic ebook available on the amazon website may be less than 1omb in size for the entire book. Users of images are more concerned with what you can immediately do with it than they are with the quality of the image.
Quality images on social media are not only irrelevant, they might be counterproductive. If the point is sharing, then producing technically excellent images are creating cultural distance between people. Competition rather than sharing becomes the order of the day, while, while of interest to enthusiasts, is simply boring turn-off to the vast majority of facebook users.
For the enthusiasts there has been a real resurgence of interest in the latest offerings, which interestingly, look back to a time when photography was an elitist pursuit of the few. The aforementioned Nikon DF looks and feels like a traditional SLR camera. The Olympus OM-D and Fuji X series cameras are creating interest through the desire of photographers to use cameras that give them the tactile experience of more traditional cameras. The question, of course is whether the enthusiasts can maintain a market large enough for the camera manufacturers to survive. Photography is now a cheap hobby. It is less expensive in real terms that it ever has been. For camera manufacturers to survive on an enthusiast-only market, then the reality is that camera prices will have to increase substantially. As the early sales of the Nikon DF camera show there is little appetite for expensive kit, this is probably not a sustainable position.