The weekend of March 16th to 19th will see the UKs biggest camera and photography show, imaginatively titled “The Photography Show“, held at its regular venue in the heart of England at the Birmingham NEC. It has been through different organisers and names, but the formula has remained basically the same – stands from most of the major manufacturers, lots of stands for everything photographic from lenses through accessories to printing and framing services, and a few manufacturer sponsored talks to promote their brand. I first went with a colleague who was also a keen amateur photographer some years ago, and I have attended every year until this one, when I’m simply not interested enough to be bothered.
To understand why, let’s look back at the brief history of cameras during my time as a photographer. The single lens reflex (SLR) camera rose in popularity in the 1960s, when the innovation and convenience of being able to compose and take a photograph through the same interchangeable lenses combined with the affordability of Japanese mass production. Over the decades the cameras were refined with metering systems, programmed exposure modes, TTL flash, and autofocus, until they became highly capable general purpose tools. By the 1990s SLR cameras had fully evolved with models to cover every price point and niche, and what had started with innovation had followed the typical product lifecycle which ended in small incremental development. Although each of the major Japanese brands had a different culture and took a slightly different path, some more innovative and some more conservative, they all ended up at more or less the same place, with a lens mount, a range of cameras and lenses, a user base and an ecosystem to feed them.
By the 1990s, there was a disturbance in the force, as a market for digital photography had started to evolve, often coming first from leftfield and niche manufacturers who didn’t have a lot of history in camera systems, such as Kodak and Casio. At first, the major manufacturers made high end, high cost sub-frame SLR cameras aimed at the professional market, until gradually the innovation that had come from companies at the sidelines gave way to the conformity of the major brands as they simply took their SLR film camera systems and adapted them for digital capture, until lower prices put them into everyone’s hands.
So what has any of this to do with whether I attend the photography show? For that, we need to reflect on more recent history. During the development of mass market digital SLRs for everyone, there was another disturbance in the force, or rather two. Olympus and Sony, who had largely been left behind by Canon and Nikon and realised they could never launch a successful conventional assault on the big two, innovated and realised that if they took away the mirror they could make cameras that were much smaller than SLRs with similar image quality that were easier to manufacture and could appeal to consumers who might want something that was better than their mobile phone, which was fast becoming the de facto device for them to take photos with. The (micro) four-thirds and NEX E mount systems were born, and offered something very different to the conventional SLR cameras on offer elsewhere.
The other pair of disturbances in the market were the innovation of mirrorless and the growing importance of video. Whilst many DS readers will no doubt eschew the significance of video in still cameras, one must reflect on the fact that with the exception of stratospherically expensive Hollywood cameras, most digital video cameras had really tiny sensors, whilst the growing selection of digital stills cameras had much bigger sensors (m43rds, APS-C, FF). This gave the stills cameras significant advantages over dedicated video cameras as they could give that “cinematic” look associated with larger formats and shallow depth of field, plus the added benefit of much better control over noise and the ability to shoot in available light without the use of a Hollywood lighting rig. DSLRs were not well suited to video since their mirrors prevented focusing when shooting video, whilst mirrorless cameras which had already done away with the mirror had also had to deal with the issue of focusing without one, and so were much better suited to live view and video.
The challenger brands clearly realised there was a perfect storm of innovation, changes in consumers buying habits caused by mobile phones, and interest in video and live view, and devoted significant effort and resource to capitalise on it. What happened was a product development lifecycle that compressed several decades of slow incremental development in SLRs into less than a decade of mirrorless. The original Sony NEX-5 was released in 2010, and arguably by around 2017 they had a full frame camera with abilities that matched or surpassed most SLRs, with other challenger brands matching with similar innovation. As sensors became ever more powerful or cheaper to manufacture, there was also an explosion of new fixed lens cameras from pocket models like Ricoh’s GR1 and Sony’s RX100 through Fuji’s X100 to do-it-all utility knives like Sony’s RX10 and Panasonic’s FZ1000. It was arguably another golden period for camera buyers, perhaps like no time before when a market in chaos combined with significant innovation, to create new camera systems, formats and form factors as the manufacturers tried – sometimes desperately – to find things that consumers wanted to buy. During this time, I could visit the Photography Show every year and be guaranteed to see new cameras and lenses, as new camera systems with new lens mounts always needed new lens models to satisfy every focal length and every perceived need. In addition, there were new cameras in new form factors and with capabilities that most of us could probably never have imagined.
Now you can buy a tiny camera that will easily fit in your pocket with a very good quality fast 28-100mm lens that shoots excellent 4K video without pixel binning and can capture 20+ frames per second. Arguably, the maturity of the mirrorless camera was signalled last year when the 2 incumbents Canon and Nikon finally entered the market with their first serious offerings. With the significant benefit of waiting whilst everyone else innovated and solved the technical problems of a new technology, and putting pointless minor nit-picking and spec sheet comparisons to one side, they released capable and relatively mature products, which in a segment that had already matured so quickly, actually managed to seem somewhat… well… boring. Lacking any significant innovation. A bit… “me too”.
So now, with what seems like all the major innovation in mirrorless camera systems complete, we have mature products which iterate on longer product development cycles. Enthusiast models are now released every 2 or 3 years, rather than every year or so, and consumer models often don’t get refreshed for half a decade. The result is less to excite us, and an ever decreasing list of reasons to make us want to upgrade. Having been through a series or upgrades that took me from a Sony A850 DSLR to a Fuji X Pro-1 and Sony A6000, I now own cameras like the A7S, A6500 and A7R2 which are so capable that I have no burning reason to replace any of them. Whilst I know that for many amateurs wanting a new camera is driven more by desire than need, I think my lack of interest in attending The Photography Show is because on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs I’m already there quite near the top. I suspect even Canon and Nikon will find that once they have fulfilled the initial demand from their brand devotees who want to convert from DSLR to mirrorless, demand will probably fall away. People who simply wanted a mirrorless camera will already have switched brands, and the big two offer little to differentiate their products that will entice users back.
There surely is only so much innovation which can drive sales before we are all so generally satisfied that the law of diminishing returns sets in and nobody bothers to upgrade any more?
Full disclosure – I’m waiting patiently for a Sony A7S3 with a new sensor – hopefully a higher pixel count and even better noise management than the original 12Mp sensor. For me it could come with enough resolution and the low light performance to be the universal camera. In the mean time I’m using my tiny Sony A5100 as a surrogate mobile phone for random snapping and enjoying the touchscreen and the simplicity of point and shoot whilst I continue to not be bothered enough to use any other camera.
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