#1049. Whodunnit? (segmenting the revival of the photography market)

By philberphoto | Opinion

Oct 16

Among the multiple trends that move the photo gear market in the hope of finding enough GAS-filled pockets to fuel a revival, I see 3 around which the industry seems to be consolidating. And, no, they may not be what you think.

1. It is the numbers who dunnit, that is who!

Trend N°1 is quantitative. That is the obvious one. More means better. More pixels, more DR, more ISOs, more features, more buttons, more slots… More cameras too, as companies going down that route hyper-segment their offering. Cheerleader of that trend is Sony, obviously, but Canon is right up there too. To wit, the lastest Sony A7C. One more camera chasing the same (and falling) number of customers. Another fine example is the Canon R5. Previous video-centric cameras had low resolution (like Sony A7Sx), but no longer with Canon, and the 45 Mp it sports. And when thinking video, it is no longer content with 4K/60, or glimpses of 6K. No, it is 8K-time! Boom! Even though there are essentially no 8K TVs. And already rumor has it that Sony is readying a would-be R5-killer with -of course- more fps! More is better, I tell you! Though to be fair this trend is not new. The “race for more” has been on since day 1 of digital photography. But now it continues as though the law of diminishing returns did not exist…

2. It is AI and automation who dunnit, that is who!

A totally separate trend is to replace the human factor by automation and artificial intelligence (AI). To wit, the latest Luminar post-processing software, called Luminar-AI. The company is actually pivoting its product quietly. It started out as a RAW developper, then a RAW developper with so-called cheater features (such as replacing the sky as a whole with one in totally different light conditions, thus creating a scene that never was real), then a RAW developper with cheater features in very few clicks thanks to AI “selecting and optimizing” image components. Now it is also available as a plugin for Adobe and Apple. Gone is the RAW developper centricity, now the product is AI-centric. Use AI to get the absolute best image possible in an almost effortless and certainly identityless and talentless way. Interestingly, this is almost the same promise made by the totally different Arsenal II add-on hardware cum software cum AI. And the novel UK camera-to-be Alice… And the new version yet-to-be-released on Adobe’s Photoshop Elements, or of NEAT software. AI does it faster, better, easier, I tell you! Though, to be fair, this trend is not new. Automation and the lightening of the technical burden have been a factor since the halcyon days of film. Automating the light-measuring devices. The film drive. The focus. Actually, modern AF systems are algorythm-driven in how they select the subject which the algorythm “thinks” is the one you want to bring in focus, so they are, in essence just the same as AI…

3. It is the ‘tog who dunnit!

The third trend is the fully manual one. Never have so many fully manual lenses been releasedsince the invention of autofocus. If you think this means only low-grade, low-price Chinese lenses, think again. Yes, there are quite a few of those, although their quality and performance are getting better and better. But there are also very good Chineses lenses, like Laowa, that can sometimes give the world’s best a run for their money. Also think Voigtlaender, releasing ever more full-manual lenses, many of them superb, empowered by the visual aids a mirrorless design offers manual focusing. This can be extended to the camera if you opt for a rangefinder design (Leica M, and now also Pixii), which does not offer autofocus. Full manual does it better, I tell you. More heritage, more intent, more control, more craft, more fun!

4. The 400lbs gorilla

I announced 3 trends, yet you see 4…. You did read the 3 Musketeers, didn’t you? Well, here is the 4th trend, except it is not really a trend, more like a tsunami. It is the smartphone of course. Basically, it combines the “race for more”, more pixels, more built-in lenses, more in-camera processing, more software, and AI. Lots of AI. At this stage, it tries to mimick some aspects of the manual exeprience, such as re-creating a defocused background and such, but this aspect is still in infancy.

5. And the winner is!

I believe the only answer must be: all of the above! Let’s look at cars as a comparison. The numbers-and-performance segment is that of supercars and now hypercars. There used to be essentially 2 players, Ferrari and Lamborghini, and now the number is closer to 12…

Then the AI segment, which looks very much like that of cars with autonomous driving, led by Tesla. Algorithms delivering results even if the driver is incompetent.

Then the manual driving segment, with cars where one can switch off all electronic driver assists, if there are any, in order to give the driver full control and a very tactile experience. Caterham, Lotus, Dodge Viper, but also Mazda Miata, here they come!

If there is an equivalent to the smartphone, it is that of ride hailing, ride sharing, etc… The way to get where you want without owning a car.

6. In conclusion, the loser is: whodinnadunnit!

Basically, if there are 4 segments that cater to legitimate customer wants, each one spanning the relevant price points of the market, it seems to me that there is a very large segment indeed where the losses will be felt. The segment that ticks the box: “other”. Not outstanding in any category. Which does not mean that this segment is made up of bad gear, and that owners/users of said gear should tear their hair out and go into mourning. Such cameras can be quite competent and make fine images. Just, in a sharply down market, it is not like the Olympic Games, there is no medal for second place. Being “competent enough”, or “good enough” is no safe harbour from the storm. Neither is being “time-honored”, “having a large installed customer base”, or “having a great legacy”. Whereas being “best at something relevant” most definitely is. No names are necessary, all the more so as one faithful reader commented recently that “he resented” my categorisation of a camera company as a “failed loser”. So, no heartburn this time around!

You will also note that my approach is not the customary one, by price Vs features and benefits. It is built on customer experience and lifestyle. The first one is what got the market to its present -sorry- state. The second one is what could/ought to/will bring about a revival. A revival which may get some in many ways unfortunate support. Our world is going through times which cannot but be called hard, except if you want to use harsher language. Such times magnify the need for pictures and photographers, to document, memorialize, inform, share…. That means cameras and other gear, of course. There will be a tomorrow…

 

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  • Dallas says:

    Excellent article Philippe, not much to add except the Red Clock “Wilson”

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Not sure whodunnit when it comes to camera gear – but it’s obvious whodunnit when it comes to the images which accompany the post. Youdunnit, Philippe, and you did it well, as usual. I especially like the yellow mannequin and the “AI” image. Well written post, too.

  • Jim says:

    Excellent synopsis. Thank you.

  • Cliff Whittaker says:

    Kind of reminds me of the days of the “muscle car” mania. Longer, lower, more chrome, but always more horsepower. I had a Malibu 396 SuperSport with 350 HP and a Hurst floor shifter. It would ignite the tires and leave pedestrians in a cloud of smoke and awe. That is, until the 442 eclipsed it with even more horsepower. Two four-barrel carburetors and a garden hose for a fuel line going to each one. Guaranteed to pass anything on the road except a gas station. And then the gas shortage hit and it was the end of the line.
    Every product goes through the same stages, I suppose. Innovation, expansion and decline. Cameras are no different. There comes a point when there is no where else to go with practical development that will increase market demand. R&D kills itself. They are flopping about like a fish on the bank, trying to come up with some type of life saving innovation. Mirrorless was a drowning man’s grasp at a straw. A solution without a problem. No thank you, don’t need it, don’t want it, won’t buy it. So, where do they go now? Only thing left is a hand-held Hubble or a return to basics. Might be easier to sell the “new” elite basic concept for the person who stands apart from the crowd and “really understands” photography. ??????

  • JohnW says:

    Nicely done Phillippe. Put a hard copy of this in a safe place. In 10-20 years you’ll be able to update it and republish it.

    Look at any era of photographic tech, and you’ll find a similar arms race … the specs may vary, but the pattern’s the same; more of this; bigger that. In the 60s when I got started it was the millimeter and fstop arms race … what was the longest/shortest lens you could make and what was the biggest fstop lens you could make. Canon won that one with a 1200mm lens and an f.95 50mm. Nikon made a 8mm Cyclop that’s now a collectors item with the ludicrous price to match. And so on …

    • philberphoto says:

      Thanks, John. I agree with your mords of wisdom. Plus, as I wrote to Ian just now, change, any change, shifts us temporarily into a more attentive, more focused mode, and so this thirst for this “increased state of consciousness” may be one of the drivers behind GAS… and improved numbers could well be just an excuse on which to hang our hat…

  • Jean-Claude Louis says:

    Those tones and colors…gorgeous!!

  • Claude Hurlbert says:

    Philippe, I have long admired your photography. I feel like I am always learning when I look closely at your work. I include this post. If I were out with my camera I might have walked past the photo in your “4. The 400lbs gorilla” section, and it would have been another mistake for me. The textures of metal and wood and rubber and lace–the shapes–light and dark–“Keep your eyes open when you are carrying that camera!” it reminds me to say to myself. The red in the photo in the 1. section is magnificent! And beyond this post. I can never take a picture of a riderless bike without thinking of you (who could?). Your presence in the world is stamped in my consciousness. The result is to my benefit. When I raise my camera to take a photo of a bike, I tell myself: “this photo had better be worth it.” And every time I walk past a greenhouse on my street, I think, “what a good idea it was to take photos from the outside!”

    Everything it seems is in flux. The music industry. The automotive industry. The housing industry, etc. The camera industry, too. We need map makers, observers and interpreters to make sense–to better know where we are standing. Thank you for this map. Yes, the people at Skylum are pushing AI to the forefront in processing (It’s not for me, but for those for whom it works, great). I agree with your manual conviction. I shoot with the Sony a7rii–I might actually like the camera if all the video stuff were not included. Elegant simplicity; the beauty of good design. I don’t want everything on it (as some people like to order their food here in the United States–though, again, if it works for them, that’s great). I feel a certain pang of respectful jealousy when I read Pascal writing about his Hasselblad. I don’t seem to be able to take a decent photo with my phone. (I read something somewhere recently where the writer said it was so quaint of us to call these things “phones” anymore.)

    Your last paragraph resonated wth me. The times we live really accentuate the need for photographers “to document, memorialize, inform, share….” True words. Thank you for the photos–and the writing.

    Claude

    • philberphoto says:

      Claude, your mords made me blush like a young girl fresh out of a nunnery…. Many thanks, kind words matter to me. And knowing you are out there, who your self are one of the DS community whom I admire, only make me more demanding when shooting and culling…

  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    For some strange reason the series star trek and the Borg springs to mind when i read GAS articles or view photography youtube channels these days. I can easily equate these trends to a GAS guzzling collective that consumers have turned into. But hey if you have the money and it makes one happy , knock yourself out and trade up every 2 months , after all a shroud has no pockets as they say.

    Has the average consumer/purchaser of equipment become numerically illiterate as to no longer see value for money in the market place and instead become addicted to getting that 1 extra MP or F stop or whatever fix at all costs one wonders ?

    Seems like manufacturers are like very street wise dealers !

    • philberphoto says:

      Good question, Ian! one of the answers I can offer is this: when one changes something to one’s practice, one shifts into a more attentive, more focused mode, less of a routine mode, because the practice is no longer so usual, well-known and comfortable. There is this old story that, if you want to improve the productivity of a workshop full of people sewing to make garments, a totally repetitive activity, increase the lighting intensity, and productivity will increase by 15%. Then over 6 weeks it will creep down again to the level it was before the increase. Reduce the lighting to where it was, and productivity will again rise by 15%, for a few weeks, before it falls again. Change introduces a different mindset, and that “will to change” may be driven by the fact that every time you change you shift into this “more attentive mode”, and that influences how you feel and your results. For a while at least…:-) Just my $0.02

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I am a luddite — no, actually that’s not true — I just like playing with “old cameras”.
    Until quite recently I owned one from pre-World War 1 – I think it must have been made in Germany, but it was badged and sold as a camera produced by a camera shop in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia – shooting 6 postcard sized images on 616 roll film. And a Zeiss Contarex from the early 1960s. A 6cm square Bronica. A Pentax. And a huge collection of lenses, magazine backs, filters and all the other junk.
    After experimenting for a while with other things, I’ve settled on two Nikons – a D500 and a D850 – again, with a huge wad of lenses and other accessories.
    My wife uses her cellphone for most of her “photography” but she also insists on using her Olympus Tough when she goes on holidays.
    She’s been showing me some of the results, this afternoon. OK – as long as you don’t blow them up too big, they’re mostly fine. But funny thing – her cellphone camera seemed to be simply incapable of taking some of the shots, even though they would have been dead easy on mine.
    So yeah – the world is changing – some of us are morbidly fascinated by the changes and will go out and buy everything that’s offered – some are amused by the parade and continuing on their own path. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s called “difference”. If we were all the same, the World would ba very dull and boring place.
    What I AM finding, though, is that the people who persist on using “cameras” are producing superb photos. The point here has nothing whatsoever to do with cellphones.
    The point is simply this – the ones I am thinking of are producing their “superb photos” using “cameras” – not cellphones. They don’t take themselves seriously. They don’t see themselves as being up their with Ansel Adams. And yet . . . . ?

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