Every camera manufacturer is blaming the failure of the compact camera market on the growing use of smartphones. No doubt, the iPhone and Android camera capabilities are pushing the boundaries of the compact camera market. In practical use, it seems the iPhone has taken over the sheer volume of images captured today, as evidenced by the images uploaded to Flickr.
That said, I blame camera manufacturers themselves for part of the downfall of the camera market and, more specifically, the compact camera market. Again, there is no doubt that the iPhone and other smartphones make those casual snapshots so much more convenient today; however, new cameras aren’t what they used to be – in a couple of key ways.
First off, imaging technology has leveled off from the boom we saw a decade or so ago. It used to be that every 6-12 months resolution on cameras would increase by 50-100% – and that really meant something to overall image quality. When you bought a 2MP camera in 2002, you know that the new 3.2MP camera in 2003 would be a big jump . . . and it was.
Innovation was easy because the advances in technology were visible at first blush by looking at the image generated by the camera. Chasing “film quality” was still an ardent goal of camera manufacturers. Everyone wanted the next best thing because it really was something that was measurably better than what we had last year.
Somewhere along the way, we hit the 6-8MP boom of compact cameras. Manufacturers released a dozen or so new models every 6-12 months. Image stabilization, optical zoom, low-light performance bumped up marginally from the prior generation. The dust was starting to settle; however, marketing machines continued to push out the need to upgrade the latest and greatest. And people continued to buy these cameras.
Then, at the end of June 2007, Apple dropped the iPhone. The mobile photography market was born. Camera manufacturers continued to play the same game. The 2MP camera in the original iPhone, apparently wasn’t enough to cause camera makers to think different. The same, lazy upgrade path continued with a plethora of compact cameras released on a regular cycle. More megapixels remained the major drum beat across all market segments.
This brings me to my second point on the camera market’s implosion: manufacturers got fat and lazy. Over the next few years, the camera release cycles continued to drive the market until the upgrades became so incremental that annual upgrades are barely noticeable as upgrades from the previous generation of cameras. This observation applies throughout the consumer camera market to include mirrorless and entry-level DSLRs.
The image quality of cameras released in 2010 is so marginally lower than current models that consumers simply don’t need to upgrade every year. People still buy compact cameras and entry-level DSLRs. However, consumers that purchased a new camera in the past 3-5 years have such a high-quality camera that there is no need to upgrade to the latest and greatest. I know plenty of people who still use their 2008-era Canon Rebel XSi.
These entry-level consumers (for the most part) are not the pixel-peepers found in photography forums that dissect luminance and chroma noise among cameras at ISO 3200 and above. They are, however, the ones who are the driving force behind the market. For the most part, they don’t really care that the 2013-model Canon Rebel T5i (aka, Canon Rebel T4i Mark II – don’t even get me started on this one…) has a great touch screen interface.
Camera makers have run out of gas in the megapixel race and no one cares anymore. 8MP or 18MP? It doesn’t matter. If it is nice enough for Facebook or for those moms and grandmas still keeping a 4×6 family album, it doesn’t matter what other features camera makers pack into their annual vomit of new cameras.
The point is further demonstrated by taking a look into the most popular point & shoot cameras used on Flickr as of today.
The number 2 camera? The Canon PowerShot G12 released in 2010. It was replaced over a year ago by the Canon PowerShot G15. The G15 added more megapixels (up from 10MP), 1080p HD video (up from 720p) and a bigger LCD, along with a few other improvements. All those G12 users? They don’t care.
The Canon S95 comes in a number 3. It too was a camera released in 2010. It has since been upgraded by Canon with the S100 in 2011 and the S110 in 2012. Both updates were solid cameras in their own right; however, S95 users have zero reasons to upgrade their already excellent cameras.
The Sony RX100 is the one stray in the group. It is a new camera, released in June 2012. An upgrade, the Sony RX100 II, was announced just a couple months ago.
So how do we explain the RX100 in a group of “old” cameras?
The Sony RX100 did the exact same thing we saw back in 2003 when cameras jumped so much in image quality from the previous generation. No one has really done that with a compact camera since that era until Sony brought the RX100.
While the RX100 features a 20MP sensor, it is not the number of pixels on the sensor that make the camera so desirable in a sea of compact cameras. Sony did something no one else had done to date and stuffed a 1″ sensor inside of a pocket camera.
People fell in love.
Who cares that it was $650? It was awesome. Everyone was raving about it. A year later, no other manufacturer has touched it.
A year ago, Sony laid out the blueprint for what is required in the camera market of the 2010s: Stop being lazy with cyclical upgrades and make a product that people notice because the product is awesome.
I don’t mean to love on Sony too much though. Just how different is the Sony NEX-5 from the NEX-5T? Or, the NEX-3 from the NEX-3N. I still get along just fine with a Sony NEX-C3, which Sony hasn’t given me a reason to upgrade yet.
Smartphones may just end up pushing camera makers out of their own market. (They have sure done a great job so far.) However, camera makers have (for the most part) been asleep at the wheel for the past few years. If camera makers want to roll over and die, they can just keep doing what they’ve been doing.
Or, they can pick themselves up, dust off their bum and start wooing us with products like they did a decade ago. More megapixels (or pretty much any feature or spec that marketing departments vomit out with each cycle) are not the answer. Make cameras that are obviously better than what you did last year and people will flock to them.
It is so easy to cry that the camera market has been victimized by idiot smartphone users. What have camera makers done for themselves though?
Stop the whining and start innovating again.