Thursday, August 27, 2015

Rebuttal to "How Mirrorless Cameras Could Save the Photo Industry (But Probably Won't)"

Perhaps less a rebuttal than more informed counterpoint. Michael Heath, a University of Pennsylvania IT product analyst, was frank enough to divulge early in his article regarding the decline of the camera industry that he is not a working, "professional" photographer (and I insist on using quotes because the definition of "professional" is an ambiguity at best in today's market). By contrast, I've kept my head buried in the bosom of the camera market nearly 15 years, watched it change and evolve in the thick of the "digital renaissance" of imaging, developing and growing among the first generation of photographers for whom digital is the most accessible medium (versus film). Many of Mr. Heath's points make perfect sense, but arguments of causality and correlation inspire a little pushback from somewhere deep in my gut.

I'll start first with possibly the only point outright refutable (which I believe to be an error of shortsightedness, not looking far enough back in the timeline of camera sales). Mr. Heath presents a chart that I've seen far too many times mirrored on various camera industry rumor sites (43Rumors, MirrorlessRumors, etc.). The chart portends to show declining interchangeable lens camera sales in regular cycles since 2012, which certainly is not incorrect (whee, double negatives).

DSLR vs Mirrorless Camera Sales from July 2012 to January 2015,
generated from CIPA aggregated data on

This chart has always struck me as little more than superficial competition fuel for the inane DSLR vs Mirrorless camera feud plaguing the already brand-loyal tribalist realm of the ILC consumers. Cameras in these categories are not broadly competitive with the smartphones it is suggested they're up against. What is more telling is reaching back to when the original iPhone was released and analyzing the brutally fast disappearance of the compact camera market, the true competitor to the smartphone.

CIPA Camera Production aggregated data from 1933 to 2013,
presented by from Sven Skafisk.

It should be telling that the smartphone category of cameras extends well beyond the confines of this chart so as to make it at all reasonable to fit in a rectangular, web friendly box. By 2013, the smartphone portion of the digital camera market extends to nearly 1.3 billion units. In the 6 years it takes for the smartphone market to mature, for iPhones to find competitors in Android devices, for apps markets to present offerings like Instagram and Vine and trigger an intense focus on the quality of mobile phone video and photography, it takes only 3 years for the compact camera market to crash from a sales "high" of ~100 million units down to under 30 million, a more than 70% decline.

Now, by comparison, the DSLR and Mirrorless sales manage to remain fairly consistent through this period of smartphone growth. Among consumer digital imaging technologies, they are still relative new kids on the block, and among working professionals there will always be a market for these higher end bits of technology. However, being more working tools in nature, they are purpose built for the accomplishment of very specific goals, namely the intent to produce a higher-end image, and though the working man may certainly abuse his tools, they are nevertheless built to last (else he wouldn't buy/use them).

The camera Mr. Heath describes, the cheap, simple, unobtrusive brick that takes the deliberate thinking out of the equation in the capture of an image, already existed, and has already been overcome by the Darwinian consumer culture of the tech market. Perhaps Michael had never seen this data aggregated before, but it's perfectly clear (to me) that the rise of the smartphone and advent of digital image sharing on the mobile device clearly correlates with the blisteringly quick decline in compact camera sales. With smartphone cameras featuring up to 1" sensors, bright and fast f/2.4 lenses, brilliantly coded software tricks to expand the potential for mobile image capture, and the pertinence of a voraciously media consumptive culture that images be shared immediately, it's not surprising at all that $200 bricks with 1/2.3" sensors, sub par LCD screens, slow boot times, small batteries and no direct web connectivity fell into obscurity and vanished as internet culture evolved beyond their relevance.

Complexity of modern camera designs is certainly off-putting to the typical consumer, but that is because the typical consumer is no longer a viable target audience. That class of consumer has very clearly made its bed with the smartphone and unless camera manufacturers begin partnering with mobile phone manufacturers in maturing the designs of smartphone cameras I don't see camera manufacturers ever courting the typical consumer again. Which is to say they could possibly learn a lesson from DXO in their release of the DXO One, assuming they're even interested in trying to get that market share back.

Producers of Mirrorless ILCs are at an awkward sort of advantage in the current market, the same sort of awkward advantage enjoyed by their predecessors once upon a time. Canon and Nikon have long had firmly entrenched market popularity being the progenitors of autofocus in consumer cameras and the first big engines in the digital age of imaging. That popularity (and profitability) led them to conservative business practices for fear of upsetting their own stability in the established market, hence why compact digital cameras were allowed to atrophy so steadily with the smartphone's rise - they were unwilling to engage in necessary risk to retain market relevance.

Mirrorless camera makers have no such established market for the typical consumer. While more approachable with revolutionary designs and touch screens, they are by and large intended for the photography enthusiast, much like the entry level DSLR designs of Canon and Nikon. Having once placed enormous faith in the viability of the typical consumer market to carry them with profit-by-volume, Canon and Nikon remain unwilling to bend in established design trends for fear of destabilizing even their "prosumer" markets, and thus even that market will be allowed to atrophy and slowly whither. Mirrorless manufacturers have nowhere to go but up in their camera divisions, given that they never had any established market position prior to 2008 (just before compact camera sales took their nosedive). The freedom of no expectations or established trends allows for greater innovation in Mirrorless cameras, seen in unique processing engines, innovative shooting modes and integrated connectivity to the smartphone (just look at Olympus' E-M5 Mk. II and its art filters, story mode, high resolution shooting with IBIS and amazing WiFi app). Mirrorless may thrive just fine ignoring the typical consumer, maintaining focus on the consumer with a preconceived goal of learning photography as opposed to the guy who just wants to tap a screen, share on Facebook and be done.

My friend Rob's E-M5 Mk. II, alongside a Sarnac Pale Ale, because no self respecting
photographer fails to properly imbibe prior to shenanigans.

Mr. Heath is absolutely correct that "every mid to high-end camera... is, essentially, a complicated evolution of the film camera", but I maintain that is by intent and for the best of those cameras and their intended market. I don't suspect the typical consumer would want to use any sort of boxy touch screen device with some phallic optic extending uncomfortably forth from its body. The form factor alone simply does not align with the expectations of an imaging device set forth by the mobile phone market. It's simply not a war worth fighting, and that's okay. Capitalism may emphasize the value of vigorous competition, but in this situation I believe technology would benefit greater overall by the collaboration of camera manufacturers and mobile phone manufacturers. The availability of such powerhouse rendering engines such as EXSPEED or TRUEPIC integrated in a mobile phone, with tailor made optics and a great underlying sensor to match, would be fantastic.

That said, the camera market is indeed " the precipice of a permanent contraction", and personally I find that both true and inevitable for the likes of Canon and Nikon. Like the big banks of 2008, they're used to a lavish "lifestyle" funded by compact camera sales that they'll never get back, and their conservative approach with their higher end camera designs is losing them market share slowly and steadily among working professionals. For the likes of Olympus, Panasonic, hell, even Leica and Pentax, they never developed a crutch out of their compact cameras offerings, and were more than willing to cut that fat from their manufacturing budgets in the last couple years. They are more than sustainable with their appeal to the prosumer and higher end camera market, and at least in the case of Olympus, even profitable.

Sony I choose to abscond from in comment. They make the imaging sensors used by the majority of the market anyway, so making cameras for them is more or less masturbation.

A final note, I'd like to address the multitude of comments decrying the human species for became fat and lazy and incapable of wiping its own ass for sake of not wanting to learn how to use the toilet paper roll. Photography, as a social ecosystem, is remarkably dense and ultimately unaware of itself. It feels unfair, to me, to hold the Average Joe up to the same standards of curiosity and desire to figure things out, to "do it right", as I hold myself to (and as I've assessed, most photographers hold themselves to). It is no new thing that Mr. Average Joe wishes for doors to open for him, for the toilet to wipe his ass (I believe it's called a bidet), and that his camera will do the picture taking for him. Being denizens of this tight ecosystem of curious, DIY-minded people, we've come to expect such enthusiasm toward the exertion of effort as we find for ourselves, but that's simply not the case. This is not to say we are "better" people for our insistence on learning the intricate, underlying workings of how a machine operates and how to operate it most efficiently, simply different, because frankly not all things require such exhaustive study and often times we wind up reinventing the wheel (just because you did it differently does not mean your did it better).

On the whole, a good read from Mr. Heath, and I appreciate his vicarious motivations to get my mental gears a-turning!