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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