How Much Choice Do We Really Have?

I was tooling around B&H’s site the other day trying to find something by brute force—the search wasn’t pulling it up—and hit the main Digital Cameras page. I noticed that the summary was saying 208 compact cameras, 132 mirrorless cameras, 300 DSLRs, and 32 medium format cameras. Those numbers have some duplicates and oddities, but I was struck enough to spend some time browsing through to see what the real situation was.

First, the full category results from B&H:

  • Canon 220 cameras
  • DxO 1 camera
  • Fujifilm 34 cameras
  • Hasselblad 11 cameras
  • Horseman 4 cameras
  • Ion 4 cameras
  • Leica 28 cameras
  • Lytro 1 camera
  • Mamiya/Leaf 8 cameras
  • Minox 2 cameras
  • Nikon 127 cameras
  • Olympus 30 cameras
  • Panasonic 30 cameras
  • Pentax 42 cameras
  • Polaroid 20 cameras
  • Ricoh 9 cameras
  • Samsung 3 cameras
  • SeaLife 1 camera
  • Sigma 14 cameras
  • Sony 69 cameras
  • Vivitar 13 cameras

Let’s leave off medium format gear and the oddball small sensor gear and do some further analysis. I’ll do it in alphabetical order. Also, I’m looking solely at the US market. Some of the camera makers produce additional models that they designate and distribute only regionally, particularly in Asia.

Canon produced 52 compact cameras, 9 mirrorless, and 159 DSLRs according to B&H’s site. In actuality, there are only 33 compact cameras in the current Canon lineup, and some of those are quite old (e.g. PowerShot N). In mirrorless we have 2 current models, while we have 15 DSLRs.

Fujifilm produces 11 compacts, and 23 mirrorless if you believe the B&H search. In actuality, Fujifilm currently has 10 compacts, and 7 mirrorless.

Leica’s a little tricky, as they repurpose some Panasonic products plus produce unique ones. Moreover, I’m not 100% sure how to count all their limited edition type models. I’m going to go mainstream here and not count the Panasonic rebranded products, nor any but the major mirrorless endeavors. I see that currently as 2 compacts (X-U and Q) and 7 mirrorless models.

We also have a bit of a problem with Nikon, as they have long-ago-announced-but-not-shipped cameras. I’m going to count those here. B&H says 25 point & shoots, 12 mirrorless, and 90 DSLRs. But the real numbers according to NikonUSA are: 26 (!) compacts, 7 mirrorless, and 13 DSLRs.

We can already see that B&H has a lot of bundle and extra deals, so I’m going to drop their search numbers and just go with the manufacturer’s own data:

Olympus provides 4 compacts and 7 mirrorless currently.

Panasonic produces 7 compacts and 5 mirrorless currently.

Pentax/Ricoh lists 7 compacts, 1 mirrorless, and 5 DSLRs as current.

And finally, Sony nets us 22 compacts, 10 mirrorless, and 3 DSLR at present.

So what is the final tally of our current camera choices?

  • 111 compact cameras, with 74% of those choices coming from Canon, Nikon, and Sony.
  • 46 mirrorless cameras, with a number of earlier generation products still listed (half of Sony’s are previous generation).
  • 36 DSLRs, of which Canon and Nikon offer 78% of the choices.

So now for some absurdity. If you’re arguing that Canon or Nikon has the best DSLR, there’s a 39% chance you’re right just because of randomized model selection. Heck, there’s a 25% chance you're right no matter which brand you pick ;~). Yes, yes, I’m playing Trump-like with numbers here. These are faux statistics with no content. Still, I couldn’t resist poking fun at those claiming brand superiority.

Realistically, on the DSLR end we’re at almost 60 years of continuous evolution if we’re allowed to count the SLR evolution (which I’d argue we should). In that time there have been two major disruptions that reset the market and triggered a lot of re-buying: autofocus and digital. Some might count a third (automatic exposure metering), but that came so early that it didn’t really trigger the sort of resurgence that autofocus and digital did. 

So we’re back to the question I’ve been asking for almost 10 years now: what real change are the camera makers going to make that triggers a truly new re-buying wave? Because that’s what it’s going to take for us to get something other than incremental and mild evolutionary changes to our cameras now. The overall buying is going down, the model count is going down, and we’ve even managed to lose a camera maker or two along the way (e.g. Samsung). The model count is going down because the money to invest in R&D has to go down when the buying goes down. So this is a self-fulfilling death spiral short of some company investing in something radically new that breaks the cycle. 

I’ll repeat what I’ve written for a decade now in a slightly different way: there are sophisticated computers inside every camera. Unfortunately, the only ones that get to program those computers are the Japanese camera companies, and they simply are adding too little, too infrequently (and sometimes too much that we’d never actually use). 

It seems that the imagination in the software circles in Tokyo is exhausted. Which is too bad, as that means we’re not likely to get the next disruption that will revive the industry. 

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