One of the things that I often ponder, while on long drives to weddings and wilderness adventures, is this quote from Winston Churchill:
Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it
This is very relevant to the camera industry right now. Why? Because the camera business has seen some big changes recently, and I think there are more dramatic shifts just around the corner. Sure, change itself is usually good. What I’m talking about is the effect change has on an industry and its businesses, and which ones survive while others go under.
If you happen to be some sort of professional market analyst, this article will probably sound like it was not written by, well, a real market analyst. You’d be correct. However if you’re like me, just a curious photographer who enjoys a good discussion, then read on!
(If you’re an expert and would like to weigh in, please feel free to contact me directly or leave a comment below, this is meant to be an open discussion!)
Why All The Hype About Competing With Newcomers?
The question I want to mull over today is the one that seems to start all the flame wars online: Why are we so hyped up in the first place, arguing about how certain major camera companies desperately need to try harder to compete…or else they’ll go out of business? Canon and Nikon own almost the entire industry; how could they possibly be unable to keep up with newcomers?
As I’ve disclaimed before, I’m no expert on market analytics. I’m just a photographer who enjoys reading up on history, and pondering what the future may hold.
Rapid Change In The Digital Camera Industry
In recent years, the entire industry has struggled to keep up with consumers’ rapidly changing buying habits. Cell phone cameras rapidly destroyed the market for small point-n-shoot digicams. Today, although beginner DSLRs are still selling well, it seems like nobody talks about them as excitedly as they do about compact, mirrorless cameras.
Lastly, pro-quality mirrorless cameras have started popping up and they’re receiving quite a lot of praise from many review sites, yet we haven’t heard even the slightest rumor or whisper about something similar from Nikon or Canon.
Although both Canon and Nikon have thus far been able to maintain their place in the top two positions in most markets worldwide, dramatic changes can still take place overnight and this is why I worry. The last couple years, in particular, have been very interesting, to say the least.
For example, Canon announced their first mirrorless camera, the EOS M series, nearly four years after the very first mirrorless camera appeared. (The Panasonic G-1) Then, when the first EOS M camera didn’t sell very well at first, Canon cut back and the EOS M2 is currently not even available in the USA. It is as if they just dipped a toe in to test the water, and then panicked at the first sign of trouble.
Meanwhile, Panasonic is releasing their umpteenth mirrorless camera, the GH4, which offers 4K video recording and other features that are not seen on traditional DSLRs.
Sony is also topping the charts with the popularity of their A7 series of full-frame mirrorless cameras, one of which offers (external) 4K video recording as well.
So, why does all this new stuff matter so much? Why don’t all the complainers just shut up and buy that camera they’re so jealous of? Most photographers are happy with their current DSLR system, cameras that will keep on doing their job very well regardless of any new whiz-bang technology that comes along.
Unfortunately, I just don’t think consumerism and the global market work that way. New technology steam-rolls over the old, eventually. People buy the latest, greatest, coolest new thing- that’s just what they like to do!
With that being said, I think that stories like that of Kodak are a big warning sign to current industry giants. What happens when you ignore red flags, and put your trust in a status quo?
The Warning Signs Of Kodak’s Downfall
If you read the Wikipedia page about Kodak, you can catch certain shocking hints here and there:
Japanese competitor Fujifilm entered the U.S. market with lower-priced film and supplies, but Kodak did not believe that American consumers would ever desert its brand.
If that’s not a red flag, I don’t know what is!
Kodak passed on the opportunity to become the official film of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics; Fuji won these sponsorship rights, which gave them a permanent foothold in the marketplace.
Oops! The moral of the story? Never rely on brand loyalty, especially if you are a very large corporation. Consumers are fickle and will “jump ship” for almost no apparent reason other than something being new and exciting, or of course price. Brand loyalty can only buy a few years’ safety net.
In the late 90’s, Kodak’s net earnings fell off a cliff, (again according to Wikipedia) from over 1 billion dollars to just 5 million dollars, in 1997. Keep in mind that the late 90’s, digital wasn’t even a major player yet; film was still king then. (The Nikon D1 was announced in 1999, had 2.7 megapixels, and cost $5,500.)
So even in the latter days of film, an industry in which Kodak is probably still the most recognized name in the world, there were already warning signs. Then again, why should they worry? The world was calling memorable moments “Kodak Moments,” and even Paul Simon had (literally) sung the praises of its most famous slide film, Kodachrome….in 1973, that is.
Like I said, brand loyalty can only carry you for so long, and change is inevitable. Speaking of inevitable change, how did Kodak handle the digital revolution? Again, the red flags are decades old:
Although Kodak developed a digital camera in 1975, the first of its kind, the product was dropped for fear it would threaten Kodak’s photographic film business.
WHOOPS. Kodak had the biggest head start in the history of digital imaging, (in fact they owned some of the earliest patents in digital imaging!) …yet they decided to ignore it because (once again) they were too scared to cannibalize their existing “cash cow.” Sound familiar?
Of course this is not the whole story, and there were other factors that eventually brought such a massive corporation to the point of bankruptcy. Bad management in general played a role. Then again, it always seems to. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.
No, I’m not ready to predict doomsday just yet, so don’t start accusing me of writing all this for shock value. Today’s market conditions are not critical just yet, and there is plenty of room for any (or all) of the major players to survive and thrive for many more generations in the world of digital imaging.
However, in my opinion, some changes do need to be made in the current market leaders’ strategies and product lineups, and relatively soon.
Thus, I give you my prediction: If “the big two” camera makers continue to hold back at their current level with regards to ignoring the popularity of new systems, formats, or technology in general, then one or both of them will inevitably suffer the same fate as Kodak within the next ~10 years.
I know this sounds crazy, and I honestly hope I’m wrong. Either way, I’m kind of already assuming the best possible outcome, just because I’m an optimistic kind of guy. I’m just fascinated by these types of discussions.
The Canon 6D, Nikon D800, Sony A7R, and Olympus OM-D. All relatively professional-grade cameras, yet they differ considerably in features, cost and definitely in size!
Canon & Nikon Versus Sony
So far this has been just a bunch of theoretical “jibber-jabber,” as Mr T. would say. As a real-world example, here’s what I think Canon and Nikon must do in the next few years, in relation to what Sony and similar companies are doing:
Compete directly with cameras like the Sony A7R, the new Sony A7S, and the Panasonic GH4. We need to see a mirrorless Nikon D800 that costs about the same as the D610 and weighs less. We need mirrorless lenses that offer significant weight and (moderate?) cost savings over current DSLR systems. (Remember how small 35mm rangefinder lenses were?)
We need to see a mirrorless DX Nikon D5300, with that fantastic 24 MP 1.5x crop sensor, not just the current teeny-tiny 2.7x crop sensors.
We need to see hybrid AF that can be as precise and consistent as contrast-detect is, yet as blazingly fast and reliable in low-light as phase-detect.
And while Nikon has been using Sony sensors for years now and owns many of the top spots on rankings such DXOmark, Canon definitely needs to bring their A-game with regards to sensor performance. Landscape, editorial, and similar types of photographers are flocking to both the Nikon D800e, and now the Sony A7r. Sony A7r (left) and Nikon D800e (right)
Same sensor, (almost) yet ~1 lb lighter and ~$1,000 cheaper.
Although it could seriously harm current DSLR sales, I feel that calculated moves are far less damaging in the long run than un-controllable or un-expected market share loss. By then, it will probably be too late.
Speaking of “by then it’s too late,” one of the main reasons photographers still use traditional DSLRs is quite a valid one: lens selection. There are tons of DSLR lenses available, and by comparison the Sony E mount has barely any native lenses.
However, this will change far more rapidly than most people think. Third party companies like Rokinon and Sigma often announce new compatibility in large batches, and over the course of a single trade show, a dozen or more lenses might become available natively in a new mount. Again, by which time it’s almost too late to catch up.
Canon And Nikon Versus Sigma
Speaking of Sigma, talk about an 800lb gorilla! Sigma’s “ART” lens series seem to be rapidly changing everyone’s stereotype about Sigma and third-party lenses in general. It’s not just about sharpness charts, either. Sigma’s entire buyer experience is improving rapidly, from the nice padded cases that every EX lens ships in, (far better than any Canon / Nikon padded case!) …to customer service and quality control.
In other words, Sigma has nothing to lose and they’re going full throttle. It isn’t far-fetched to think that soon Sigma will stop being considered a “third party,” and will become many people’s primary choice across numerous lens mount systems.
Nikon and Canon already have loads of great lenses, but they might want to step up their customer support and some of the other little details that Sigma is using to lure customers away. We could also use a new Canon 50mm f/1.4 that doesn’t cost a fortune, too.
Night Sky & Shooting Star, Canyonlands National Park
Nikon Df, Rokinon 24mm f/1.4, FotoPro C5C Tripod
3-image Vertical Panorama
Canon And Nikon Versus Rokinon
Last but not least, Samyang / Rokinon / Bower are also going full throttle. Their target market and strategy is definitely very different from Sigma’s, or anyone else’s for that matter, because they’re (currently) 100% manual focus and have relatively cheap construction. Basically, it’s just amazing image quality at an amazing price.
Despite being of average build quality, “Roki-Bow-Yang” already dominates the rapidly growing scene of astro-landscape photography. The Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 is an expensive behemoth, and both the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L mk2 and Canon 24mm f/1.4 L could almost be described as abysmal for astro-landscape photography, despite their decent general performance. I won’t even mention the Rokinon Cine lens kit families, a category all by itself offering geared focus and aperture rings for serious movie makers on an indie film budget.
Either way, at the rate they’re selling lenses they (Roki-Bow-Yang) could quickly turn around and fund a serious change in quality, customer service, or whatever they think might help them increase their market share even more. (Autofocus, anybody?)
What do Nikon and Canon need to do? I don’t think they’re about to start churning out lenses as affordably made as Rokinon et al. but I think they do need to consider competing a little better on price, and re-making some budget lenses in the same prime ranges. Canon for example has always been very proud of its L glass lineup, yet the likes of the 28mm f/1.8, 50mm f/1.8, 85mm f/1.8, and 100mm f/2 could really use an update.
Isn’t Competition Good For Business?
How can the likes of Sigma and Rokinon truly pose a threat to Canon and Nikon? There is currently more than enough room in the industry for everyone, and a certain level of healthy competition is always good for business. It keeps each company from sitting back and relaxing too much, that’s what the whole “leapfrog” game is about. Canon and Nikon have safely been leapfrogging each other for many camera generations now, despite Canon being a far, far larger company than Nikon.
While competition is indeed good for business, a perfect storm of new technology and newcomers in the industry can still happen. If Sigma, Sony, Panasonic, Rokinon et al. keep going at their current speed and direction, and if Canon and Nikon stick to their current systems, we’re in for one of those perfect storms indeed.
Anyway, now you have a pretty good idea of what I think our near future could hold. 2014 and 2015 in particular will be very interesting, because we’ll see how the industry responds to all these new cameras that have really begun to hit their stride in the last year or so.
History suggests two things pretty strongly. The first is that when change comes, people invested in the status quo (that would be us photographers when discussing the photography market) have a strong desire to deny it. Things have never been better. There is no need for change. And this is a stupid change that nobody would ever want. Well, nobody who is serious about photography would want it.
The second thing history suggests is that there’s no accurate way to guess which companies are going to thrive and which will fail during a time of disruption. If being first were a huge advantage, we’d all be shooting Minolta digital SLRs. If being the biggest or most profitable were a huge advantage, we’d all be shooting Kodak or Polaroid. Sometimes biggest is really a disadvantage. As they say, it takes a long time to turn a battleship.
So, dear Nikon and Canon: Please don’t fall into this mindset! It would be a shame to see either company have a significant decline in the next 5-10 years.
Why do I care? After all, it’s just a bunch of large corporations making cameras. If another company comes along and makes a better camera, then how is that a loss for me? It’s not like Nikon will give me free access to new technology they develop in 2 years- I’m going to have to pay for it one way or another. And to be honest, I don’t care too much what the name on the front of the camera says. (Otherwise I’d be shooting a Leica or a Hasselblad, right?)
So, the answer to the question “why do I care?” is simple: I like where the buttons are.
I’m used to the system I have. To me, comfort and familiarity are huge reasons to stick with (and root for) the system I’ve already invested a decade or more of my life into getting acquainted with. Unfortunately though, they’re not big enough reasons. The geek inside me is happy to learn a new interface, and adopt a new system. Eventually.
Take care, and happy clicking,