Camera makers – where are they taking us?

April 28, 2011: Several of the more independent-minded US-based writers on camera technology and photography got together this month for a wide-ranging exchange of views on the future of cameras from both a technological and marketing perspective,

Thom Hogan (www.bythom.com), Mitch Aunger (www.Planet5D.com), Vitaliy Kiselev (www.gh1-hack.info), and ‘Andrea’ (www.43rmors.com) went at it over several thousand words, presented as a three-part blog feature.

We’ve attempted to pick the eyes from the discussion, passing over some of the more esoteric technological chat and focussing on what might be of interest to a typical Photo Counter reader (whomever that may be!)

The conversation started off with some general observations on what’s blooming and what’s likely to fade away in the near future.

Smartphones the future?

Smartphones found an apostle in Thom Hogan, who noted that ‘Smartphones are generating more and more images and videos than compact cameras and getting them where the user wants them faster and more efficiently.’ He anticipated that they will obsolete and cannibalise the compact camera market.

Vitaly Kiselev and Mitch Aunger begged to differ. Mr Kiselev predicted that compacts will remain competitive ‘in their niche’, and that the smartphone market will be taken over by Chinese manufacturers and become a commodity, except perhaps for the very top end. He expected their picture-taking capabilities would remain much as they are today, with fixed focus lenses and tiny sensors.

He noted that the Chinese were already giving Apple some competition, and made a humble side-bet that the ‘iTunes store won’t save Apple. [The] whole empire will be disintegrated in next few years.’

Mr Auger said that shutter lag remains an issue – more so in camera phones. ‘Point and shoot and smartphone cameras have always had a delay when pressing the shutter button. DSLRs do not. To most pros and serious amateurs, that’s a big deal. Maybe down the line if that gets fixed, then people will be OK with smaller cameras.

Mr Hogan said that engineering will eventually solve the lag problem in smaller devices.

Mirroless versus DSLRs

There was a lot of support for mirrorless interchangeable technology, which to date hasn’t been mirrored in Australian sales figures. (Mirrorless accounted for just 3 percent of the Australian market in the latest GfK figures.)

Andrea predicted: ‘I think we will see mirrorless growing and less entry-level DSLRs. In a very long term, 90 percent of the market will be mirrorless. Full frame DSLR cameras will be the last to die.’ She agreed with Thom Hogan that in the snapshooter category, smartphones are the future.

Reciprocating, Mr Hogan said that ‘mirrorless cameras will eat the high end of compact cameras and the low-end of DSLRs.’

Mr Kiselev differed on the rosy future for mirrorless cameras, noting that ‘not all is so easy for mirrorless. Significant progress in EVF is still required. And entry-level DSLRs – they still have some space to cut prices.’

Cameras and Japanese culture

A theme which was regularly returned, to, particularly by Thom Hogan, was what he saw as an intrinsic lack of innovation among Asian, and more specifically Japanese, camera manufacturers, which was holding back the photographic industry.

‘I really hate to sound like I’m racial profiling here or generalisng too much,’ he said, ‘but the problem has traditionally been that the tech future of the recent past has had a tendency to be invented by the West and produced by the East. The problem with compact and DSLR cameras is that we have the East inventing and producing.

He compared that to what US-based Apple was doing in technology:

‘The condemnation of the Japanese camera industry is that we have no Apple-like company leading the way. We instead have a dozen companies all looking at each other and mimicking one another, thinking that they’ll discover some superpower that’ll allow them to steal market share while just copying.’

Hogan identified a fundamental problem in camera design, which is not addressing the challenge of mobility:

‘The same thing that compels me to text or send an SMS or Skype or any of the other “mobile” tasks that involve moving data from where I am to where someone else is actually one of the key problems with images. I’m taking an image “here” and I want it to be seen “there.”

‘The camera companies have zero answer for that problem, yet it is at the core of their market’s need.’

More of the same

The discussion turned to the increasing sameness of models from one year to the next

‘Compacts have gotten on the “once a year” wagon. That means that the complete life cycle for them is less than two years now. But that means that the 2011 models aren’t all that much different from the 2010 models, as you don’t have much time to change big things. And so the camera makers just keep putting themselves into a deeper hole.

‘Nikon would be better off with a single Coolpix model that was programmable and communicating and done right than it is with 10 that just iterate the hell out of the same narrow list of items (lens specs, sensor specs, menu additions). You don’t see Apple doing 10 random iterations of the iPhone. They don’t seem to have any problem selling more of them than Nikon does Coolpix.

There was not a lot of support for the latest innovation in digital cameras – 3D photography.

‘The whole thing behind 3D is that the Japanese companies are looking for a patent changer,’ said Mr Hogan. ‘In technology, every now and again you have a disruption that occurs in media, and it usually creates a new patent pool. Ever since Sony/Phillips dominated the CD patent pool, the Japanese companies have been circling around any perceived new media. We saw that fight with Blu-Ray versus DVD HD, and it was 100 percent patent fight. Same thing is happening around 3D.’

The next big thing?

Asked what they wanted in new camera design, Mr Kiselev said he would like to see a ‘global shutter with very flexible setup and 1:1 aspect. So, you could shoot at any aspect without turning the camera and select any part of the sensor.’

He said such a system would require very high resolution sensors of around 150 megapixels, from which the photographer would make relatively small digital files of around 15 to 20 megabytes.

Mr Aunger noted that Canon has already demonstrated a 120-megapixel sensor along these lines with which you could ‘blow up sections and even set some sections of the image to record HD (since the resolution of the sensor is so much higher than current HD 1080), and anticpated it would be in working technology in a few years.

Mr Hogan added that the Panasonic GH2 already offers something like this capability, but felt that ‘the real future is multiple sensors, not sensors with more megapixels.

‘Again it comes down to CPU power and bandwidth. One of the problems with small sensors is quantum physics: photons land randomly, so there’s always “noise” and if you aren’t collecting many photons it will be a major component. But that noise is distributed randomly. So if you were able to have, say, nine adjacent sensors arrayed in 3×3 that all captured the same scene…and then you took the nine inputs and melded them, you’d average out the randomness of the noise and make it effectively disappear.’

He said that some photographers already did something similar with non-moving subjects by taking multiple images then stacking and blending them.

There was speculation that higher resolution in digital cameras would lead to a demand for higher than HD resolution monitors.

Going direct

The merry group of gurus next touched on the photographic supply chain, with speculation on which, if any, camera makers will move to a full-scale direct-to-consumer model like Dell.

Andrea nominated Sony, but Mr Hogan disagreed, noting that their Sony stores haven’t connected with consumers like Apple stores have. He also noted that in the US, Sony is putting renewed effort into winning over its camera dealers.

He nominated Olympus as the first supplier likely to give it a try, and also mentioned Leica and even Hasselblad as candidates for a direct model.

Still camera video versus camcorders

There was speculation that modern camcorders may be replaced by ultrazooms with video shooting ability, but also consensus that dedicated video cameras will always do a better job shooting moving images than HDSLR. (Much like still cameras always doing a better job of taking pictures than mobile phones?)

The boldest prediction in this part of the discussion came from Vitaly Kiselev, who said: ‘Consumer camcorders will be completely eliminated in 5-7 years.’ (Replaced by still ultazoom cameras.)


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