The August Doldrums

Now you know why I usually take August off from the Internet. The smart companies generally don't announce into prime US and European vacation time, particularly when this isn't a Photokina year where pre-show posturing comes into play. 

We'll have a few new announcements in the next week or two as the camera companies begin to come out of their summer naps, but there's more going on with the trickle of new products than at first meets the eye. Let's just look at 2013 to the present:

  • Canon 
    • 17 new cameras in 2013
    • 16 new cameras in 2014
    • 18 new cameras in 2015
    • 13 new cameras in 2016
    • 7 new cameras in first half of 2017
  • Nikon
    • 21 new cameras in 2013
    • 18 new cameras in 2014
    • 16 new cameras in 2015
    • 14 new cameras in 2016
    • 3 new cameras in first half of 2017
  • Sony
    • 20 new cameras in 2013
    • 17 new cameras in 2014
    • 8 new cameras in 2015
    • 7 new cameras in 2016
    • 1 new camera in first half of 2017

Just taking in the Big Three, the numbers from 2013 to 2017 work out like this (with first half 2017 multiplied out for a full year):

  • 58 new cameras in 2013
  • 51 in 2014
  • 42 in 2015
  • 34 in 2016
  • 22 in 2017

Figure out the trend, yet? ;~) 

The camera makers are ratcheting down. In particular Nikon and Sony. Putting (more) effort into fewer products. I'll have more to say on Nikon's influence on that after Nikon officially introduces the D850, but in general this decline in model iteration is, of course, inevitable. 

We hit peak digital camera in the 2011-2012 time frame, and have seen a significant drop in volume every year since. For sure that was going to focus the camera makers on models with traction. Most camera companies also talked about moving to more upscale products to improve margins, though this was as much posturing as far away from smartphones as they possibly could as actually trying to increase profits.

Still, the lukewarm (or lack of) updates we've gotten in the low-ILC range from Canon, Nikon, and Sony are a bit strange. The Nikon D3400 now looks more like a placeholder than any attempt by Nikon to increase or even hold onto sales. Things Nikon could have done to improve that camera, they didn't. So is it any surprise that it isn't selling as well as older Nikon entry DSLRs? But lest I just pick on Nikon, Canon's 2017 DSLR introductions aren't exactly racing off shelves, either. 

It really feels like most of these companies are like large tanker ships that just discovered they're in a strong cross current amid heavy seas and not going to get to their port without some change in direction. Only it's unclear how much to change direction, plus you can't change direction very fast with big tankers even if you know where you want to go.

That about sums up the camera business right now: not sure of their exact direction, and not maneuvering quickly to get there. 

I know I'll get some pushback from Fujifilm and Sony fans on that last statement. Sorry, both the supposedly hot and innovative Fujifilm GFX 50S and the Sony A9 had a modest set of takers, but in general, whatever demand there was has already been mostly met by both models. That's part of the issue of going upscale too far: yes, you can innovate and win some customers, but this isn't a huge batch of customers we're talking about. After all, we're talking about US$4500 and US$6500 camera bodies, and for many thinking about those products, you're also talking about having additional lens costs, too. It's not a surprise that Sony is already running promotions (US$500 bonus for trade-ins), as we're talking a pretty high entry price. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm glad both companies extended their product lines as they did, and both the GFX 50S and A9 seem to be fine products with clear interest within the niche they occupy. But this is the Lamborghini and Ferrari problem: high price and high capability means low volume. 

No camera maker seems to have a handle on how to proceed in the US$500-1500 price range. That's the exact price range at which they should be targeting smartphone users. So far what we really see is the Japanese camera makers trying to run as fast as they can from smartphones. Superduper lenses (e.g. Coolpix P900), higher-end cameras (e.g. A9), plus more performance and more features to the point of absurdity in some cases (as much as I like the Olympus E-M1 Mark II, it clearly is over-engineered to the likely market). 

The more I think about this dilemma, the more I believe that the answer is simple: embrace the smartphone, but outperform it with flexibility, direct control, and image quality. What we really need is the FM2 of the smartphone era: a modest cost, dirt simple camera with high flexibility, direct control, and—given the digital sensor that would be used today—high image quality.  The real irony is that a truly retro camera (e.g. control dials instead of complex button+dial and menus) that was fully integrated into the smartphone world would likely rock sales big time. The same thing is true in both the still and video worlds, actually. 

I note that RED, which did a lot of what I suggested in my 2008 Communicating/Programmable/Modular article, is now working on a smartphone of their own, and likely because they're trying to tie smartphone and video together in some way. While not a lot is known about what they're really up to, the things that caught me eyes were: "... will also integrate into the professional RED [cameras]", and "new high-speed data bus." If that means that I can enter metadata to be saved on my RED RAVEN via smartphone and control the camera and review video from the camera with the smartphone, I'm in. 

So, we're not just in the August doldrums, we're in the "waiting for Tokyo to figure things out" doldrums, too. While we wait, we'll get more tour de force offerings with low-level engineering that eeks out new performance from the image sensor, the focusing system, or from something in the existing camera platforms. I'm all for that, but...I don't think it solves the sales problem for the camera companies. It just gives the well-heeled user a reason to upgrade their existing gear.

The problem with the upgrade market is well known. We had that issue in the late 80's and 90's in the film camera market: even big performance changes weren't always getting existing owners to upgrade their perfectly competent cameras. And that's where we are again: it's taking bigger and bigger changes before any DSLR (or even mirrorless) camera user is going to upgrade. Especially when those "upgrades" cost more.

Unless, of course, you find that one change that reignites the market. The last one of those was the change from film to digital. The next one will be the change from file-based and exhaustive workflow done via sneaker net and post processing to full on, truly mobile, instant image sharing.




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