Blame Tony Northrup for the dire thought.
What happened to the digital dream? It came true. You’re looking at it.
Digital opened up avenues for exploration. And some adventurous manufacturers explored. Some actually brought really interesting ideas to the market. Sigma, Sony and Ricoh come to mind.
But innovation is diamond shaped and realist consolidation always follows creative divergence. And norm got the better of inventiveness. In photography, of all industries.
Much as in the automotive sector (check out Adrian’s post comparing the two worlds) those interesting ideas came packaged in weird and “wonderful” shapes that strayed too far from convention for their own good. When electric cars became the new Eldorado, most models introduced were so ugly it took a good look at a politician’s agenda to bring the design fiasco back into perspective. The same thing happened to some oddly shaped cameras (which is kinda worrying for the Zeiss ZX1, by the way).
And their performance priorities, at odds with rapidly coalescing market consensus, hit the final nail for them.
Because, yes, somehow, in a art-based industry, performance became the fulcrum on which success and undoing eventually hinged.
For what it’s worth, the photographs on this page were made using a second-hand Hasselblad camera that has the overall speed of fingernail growth (but is utterly brilliant in areas that actually relate to picture making). And a 45mm lens that’s not that optically fast either, come to think of it. I hope that doesn’t put anyone off reading the rest. Because now comes the link to photography-as-Art. And to mathematics, one of the ultimate artforms. And to farming in China, as a free bonus, because why not?
Performance-based marketing led every manufacturer with a death wish to basically pay huge lumps of money to shout out to a message-saturated audience : “Hey, we are introducing a camera that’s exactly the same as all the others on the market”. Because performance is so closely tied to internal components, they were basically shouting “Hey, Sony inside”, just like everyone else. And guess who became quite good at having Sony components inside? And who’s doing rather well in today’s deflating pudding of a market?
The irony, of course, is that so much of this performance (and more) can be achieved through the brute force computational photography abilities of the devices in our pockets. Oh, worry not, this is still in its infancy. It’s not quite there yet. It’s far, far, far, more convenient, but only 50% of the way there, when it comes to IQ. Give it a few years, though, and you may expect profuse, phone-induced, poultry roosting. Reaping what you sow, I guess?
Performance-base appreciation of gear has had far more interesting consequences than winner-takes-all market dynamics can capture, however.
The ever indispensable Ming Thein recently re-posted an article describing the influence of sensor format on rendering. Every photographer in the world interested in photography as a creative pursuit (yes, all 28 of us) should read this 10 times, 100 times. As many times as it takes to fully grasp the implication of what Ming is writing.
Many things and, most important of all, that all formats are interesting and useful for different things, which is distinctly at odds with what those hideous machine tests – spewing out metrics that have more in common with car radios than photographs – jabber on and on about. A pox upon both your houses, lab tests and tech metrics 😉
It’s not just photography, you know. Variety matters. Everywhere.
In China (and probably elsewhere) farmers are pollinating their trees manually because all the bees have been killed by intensive practises. That fact is similar to Tony’s Northrup excellent roundup of the photo market. It’s just a warning of things to come if we continue to kill off diversity.
I’ll miss fanboys. At least they root for different brands for very human reasons, much like football players supports different clubs. Nothing is worse than the single-metric approach that is performance-based evaluation of cameras.
Robert May, an Australian born scientist, made great contributions to theoretical ecology, putting into simple maths a model of the evolution in time of the number of existing species or individuals in a species. Very simple maths. Stuff most 10 year olds could do on a calculator.
In this work, the “richness” of one generation is linked to that of the previous via an equation containing both a damping factor (simulating competition for limited resources, for instance) and a fertility constant (which he called lambda) that plays a spectacular role:
In that sort of world, that most controversial of scientific phenomena becomes possible and useful: emergence. ie, the apparition of a mechanism that is not contingent on any preceding mechanisms or factors (cue Zarathustra).
Chaos Theory pioneer Mitchell Feingenbaum studied those equations, and others found everywhere in nature, and showed that a thriving, diverse world such as the one we are blessed to live in today walks a very narrow path between crystallized stagnation and nonsensical randomness. Move the constant too far to one side or to the other and it’s goodbye forever. Irreversibly so.
In the photo world, it’s not hard to imagine what chaos could look like. Just look at the grips and rear backs of most cameras today. Not totally chaotic, but, if you’ve used a 30 year-old film camera more than 2 seconds, you can see where I’m going with the analogy.
Emergence can be illustrated by the mirrorless revolution. Sony brought it to the mass market, but the concept emerged seemingly from nowhere and received huge traction, in spite of what Ricoh are now saying. No diversity, no mirrorless emergence. We’d all still be slapping slabs of glass about and perfecting damping techniques, whether we liked it or not.
As for stagnation, I invite you to view Tony’s conclusions and extrapolate a few years.
So, what’s the lambda constant of photography?
It seems to me that 30 years ago, we were shooting perfectly nice cameras and looking at 6×4 prints that ended up in shoe boxes. Today, we’re shooting cameras that are often perfectly nice, looking at 6×4 images on our screens that end up inside the silicon shoe boxes of cloud servers. What’s changed is mainly that we make more. Many, many, more.
Hmmm … full circle status quo?
And you can count on today’s incumbents to try their darndest to keep brand variety at the lowest possible setting, with the help of flaccid specialised media. We need variety.
To me, we now live in that strange old world where cameras used day-in-day-out, by people who get paid 10 large for a print, are deemed unfit for amateurs, based on a machine-led evaluation, because of a metric so utterly unrelated to creativity that it actually seems alien: speed. Screw speed!
But don’t! That’s just my bias speaking. What matters is variety.
For some, speed is both important and enabling. For others it’s fast glass. For others it’s slow, light glass. For others it’s sharp glass. For others it’s old, characterful glass. For others still, it’s tone subtlety. For others: robustness, weight, viewfinder clarity, WYSIWYGness, tactile pleasure, evocative power, price, size, noise … and any combination of a slew of other criteria that are completely unrelated to the currently dominant market forces but totally in line with personal desires, creativity and the etymological meaning of art: making personal stuff.
Art is the expression of human feelings and ideas through making stuff. By its very definition, art is exclusively about diversity. How gear is built, reviewed, and purchased should mirror this at all times.
If photography was art, surely we’d see diversity grow, not dwindle, right?
So, what if …
What if we gave our lambda constant the boost it so desperately needs, before all that’s left are one mirrorless brand and smartphones?
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