DSLR's OR SMARTPHONES - WHO NEEDS MIDDLE OF THE ROAD? - THE 'MIRRORLESS SQUEEZE'

First off, I've mentioned this a couple of times before and I'm not the only one to notice this. This is from - http://nikonrumors.com/2015/06/08/spike-in-dslr-camera-shipments-in-april.aspx/

WHO ARE CIPA? -  http://www.cipa.jp/guide/aboutcipa_e.html

Now I have no wish to turn into the Bloomberg channel and I'll leave market analysis to those who are actually interested in that, but there some easy to spot trends in the figures illustrated in the graphs and charts shown in the article above.

  • Stand alone camera sales have fallen, across the board, over the last two years, though this years sales seem about the same as last year.
  • There is no indication that after making some initial inroads into DSLR sales that MCE (Mirrorless / CSC / E.V.I.L) cameras show no signs of superseding, replacing or eliminating DSLR's. The ratio is still approximately 2 DSLR's sold for every 1 MCE.
  • In fact in the latest figures (April 2015) DSLR sales have actually risen higher than MCE sales.
  • MCE cameras have a larger share of the market in Japan and the far east than Europe and the Americas.

Why is this important? In a falling market there is likely to be less R & D, less investment in new products and therefore less choice in what we are offered. In extreme cases it could lead to brands disappearing. There is also the likelihood that prices could rise as companies attempt to maximise profits. Now the figures are still huge. In April 2015 the Japanese camera industry, which is of cause virtually the entire camera industry, apart from Samsung and Leica, shipped well in excess of 1,000,000 DSLR's and just under 300,000 MCE cameras worldwide in April 2015 alone. On top of that, the supposedly dead and buried, smartphone challenged fixed lens compact camera sector still managed to ship over 2,000,000 units. (Source - http://www.cipa.jp/stats/documents/e/d-201504_e.pdf 

Smartphone sales are obviously somewhat different. Unlike the stand alone camera industry, which is mostly Japanese, the big players in the camera phone market, including Apple (US) and Samsung (Korea) are not and also include a lot of Chinese and Russian companies. Now when you look at Smartphone sales worldwide, your eyes begin to water. These are huge. In fact I had a look at some figures and it seems that in 2014 in excess of 1,000,000,000 (one billion) were sold. Just on my very rough calculations for every one DSLR / MCE sold there are 100 smartphones (all with a camera included) sold, so 100:1. And in terms of all stand alone cameras this is about 50:1. So it's not hard to see that the vast majority of people taking pictures are using their phones rather than a stand alone camera.

Now this, as far as I'm concerned is a good thing. Because it means that more pictures are being taken. I saw this amazing statistic (I think for 2013) that said more photographs were taken in that year than every other year in history combined, which is mind boggling. And making photographs is now an important part of people's lives which has obviously been dramatically affected by social media that provides an almost instant and easy way for these pictures to get published and viewed. Considering that only a few years ago photographers were perceived in some circles as sinister figures of suspicion (terrorists and paedophiles) that has now changed dramatically and now we are all photographers, or at least we all take photographs. And I have noticed this change. I snap away happily and unchallenged (usually with my smartphone it has to be said) in places I would never have dreamt of doing so before. And I've even been encouraged to see the number of people who approach me when I'm using my more noticeable cameras to talk about what I'm photographing and also the number of people who are also taking photographs at the same time that I am. 

One particular incident springs to mind. Ann and I were wandering alongside a river and we went into a boatyard with lots of narrow boats and houseboats moored. There were lots of Private - Keep Out notices everywhere, but as usual in such places my temporary inability to read English revisited me! and I started taking pictures of the colourful boats. Then one of the owners approached us. Here we go, I thought it's 'You can't do that here' time. However, it was exactly the opposite and instead of telling me to go forth and multiply the man came to show me the location of a kingfisher that I might like to photograph. And things like that keep happening. I no longer feel like an outsider with my camera. People don't walk in front of me when I'm photographing anymore and if they do they apologise. One couple actually hid themselves as I was photographing a part of a world famous garden so as not to 'spoil' my photograph and after I got my shot a friendly conversation ensued. So I'm all for the 'smartphone revolution' and have decided to embrace it as a photographer. I carry one smartphone camera with me everywhere and often two. On some occasions I've gone out to 'work' with three of them and have left my 'proper' cameras at home. 

So where does that leave us? The hobbyists, the enthusiasts, the recreational photographers, the pro's, the semi-pro's and the weekend warriors. Because here in our small corner of the internet (and it is VERY small) the things that we think are important and argue about, are in fact, very small fry in a photographic world that is dominated already and probably irrevocably by those phone call making, texting, internet browsing, social media connecting devices that happen to take a pretty decent picture as well. So the notion that MCE or mirrorless cameras are somehow going to sweep away all opposition is patently not true and in the scheme of things, irrelevant anyway.

Just a small digression. This term mirrorless. Like much language on the internet, this is an inaccurate and meaningless piece of shorthand that has become accepted as meaning a certain type of camera. Firstly, the only cameras that use mirrors for their viewfinders are DSLR's. So mirrorless cameras include compact point and shoot cameras, smartphones, rangefinders and even digital backs attached to 5x4' view cameras. Unfortunately we are stuck with it because people can't be bothered to write a more satisfactory description. For example. m4/3 is more accurately described as a non-reflex interchangeable camera system, but nobody uses that term. In fact organisations like CIPA have now accepted mirrorless as the term to use. Even the more accurate Compact System Camera has been jettisoned in favour of the least accurate and most misleading term. But then that is the nature of things I guess. 

Back to the post - I put the images at the top of page together for a reason. Firstly, this is a representation of the choices I'm making in terms of what cameras I take out with me these days and also to put forward an alternative theory as to how the camera market progresses. Instead of a gradual erosion and eventual replacement of DSLR's as the 'serious' camera for those who take photography seriously, what about if the opposite happens? That mirrorless cameras themselves prove to be a short-lived phenomenon and the DSLR reasserts itself as the dominant choice in this market? So cameras basically split into two, smartphones and DSLR's. The 'mirrorless squeeze.' In fact, it's actually already happening. Far from DSLR's starting to look like and function like mirrorless cameras, the opposite is taking place. The big hyped up mirrorless camera launches these days are for DSLR lookalikes. And by all accounts these are actually very successful. The Sony FE series, the Olympus OM-D's, the Samsung NX1 and the Fuji X-T1 are all apparently selling much better for their respective companies than the steroid enhanced compact camera / faux rangefinder look that characterised much of the early development of MCE (Mirrorless / CSC / E.V.I.L) cameras. 

And it's not just the cameras. MCE lenses are getting bigger and heavier and it's now perfectly possible to put a DSLR camera and lens next to a MCE camera and lens and the latter is bigger. All of which is somewhat confusing to the smartphone user who is somewhat dissatisfied with the limitations of what they are using and looking to move on / up. I usually imagine some salesperson in a camera store attempting to explain the difference between a DSLR and an MCE system. And in the early days of m4/3 and NEX that wasn't that hard to do. But these days it's not so clear cut. And yes, on the whole MCE systems do have a (getting smaller it has to be said) size and weight 'advantage.' But by how much and does it really make that much difference? I'm still convinced that if a smartphone and / or compact point and shoot user is looking to upgrade, then their natural inclination is to think this means a DSLR. And specifically a Nikon or Canon DSLR. Because what do photographers on the TV or in the movies use? Nikon and Canon DSLR's. We don't see the ranks of assembled photographers at news and sports events pointing X-Pro 1's, Olympus Pens or even Sony A7's at politicians, celebrities and sporting superstars. And whenever characters in movies get the camera out, it's pretty clear what the film makers think constitutes a 'proper' camera. 

And of course this constant bickering, brand bashing and all the other related nonsense that goes on in this small corner of the internet is irrelevant and a complete waste of time. And more to the point achieves absolutely nothing. It really doesn't matter to me and I suspect the vast majority of the potential camera buying public whether a camera has a reflex mirror viewfinder system or not. And when you analyse it, why should it? I find the almost religious fervour that advocates of each system adopt bewildering, amusing, annoying and frankly ludicrous. Now some make a career out of those differences, which is fair enough, but on the whole it just gets in the way of what's important. And I don't mean taking photographs which I take as read. I actually mean that this differentiation between camera types, which in most cases is insignificant, gets in the way of us actually getting better, more efficient and cheaper cameras for what we want to photograph. And the companies who make this stuff are just as bad. Sony made this great announcement that they weren't going to make DSLR's any more, Instead we got DSLT's and MCE's. Presumably this was because they felt that they couldn't compete with Nikon and Canon. Well there is a simple answer to that, why not make a better DSLR?

And from what I've seen, this reason 'We can't compete with Nikon and Canon' seems to be the entire raison d'etre for the decisions that these companies make. Whereas surely the question these companies asked themselves should have been 'Why CAN'T we compete with Nikon and Canon?' In the end however, this decision to go in a different direction has produced some interesting results. The Fuji X retro style, Olympus and their digital recreations of their small but perfectly formed OM film cameras and the re-emergence of Leica as an innovative company merging style, history and modern technology into a heady mix of luxury and classic photo-journalism referencing. And that's as it should be. I'm less convinced by Sony and their FE system, but it seems from recent statements by the company, it isn't holding them back financially. So even though I'm not a fan, it seems a lot of others are. 

And surely this is what SHOULD be happening. Companies should strive to be innovative and constantly amaze us with what they come up with. And those partisan viewpoints should be consigned to where they belong. The trash!! Because the four cameras that have impressed me the most over the past year are the Panasonic FZ1000, the Leica T (Typ 701), the Olympus OM-D E-M5 II and the Nikon D750. Four seemingly very different cameras but in real terms when you see pictures from each published on the internet or on a printed page, more similar than you might imagine. Personally, I'm not that excited by MCE cameras becoming DSLR lookalikes, but again lot's of people are and I've got plenty of other options to explore anyway. And I have the option to explore my admiration of what Leica stands for without compromising on the benefits of modern technology. But then I can also walk around with my Olympus or my Nikons and get a buzz from what they offer. And of course I can turn into (or at least look like) a happy snapper with my smartphones.

So as you've guessed by now this isn't some kind of DSLR's and smartphones are great lets rubbish mirrorless post, but something quite different. However, regular readers will recognise the theme, which I return to again and again. THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN CAMERA SYSTEMS DON'T MATTER. REALLY. I don't think it's exaggerating to say on the camera / lens front I've used more than most. And if I had the money (and the space) I would have happily kept most of the cameras I've bought over the years. True they would probably have sat in a display case, but I'm sure they would have come out from time to time for a photographic excursion. And all of those picture taking devices have 'covered the waterfront' in terms of format, pixel count, functionality and aesthetic (or otherwise) charms. And am I really so different? Does the fact that I can embrace all these different manifestations of what a camera can be make me the exception or the rule? Often when I read what passes for discussion in this part of the internet I think I'm very much the former. But then it could well be that the partisan fanboys are just a noisy minority and that most people are as open as I am to the possibilities that different systems can offer.

If this article does have a point, it's this. If you've made the decision to buy a MCE camera system, then that's fine. Enjoy it for what it gives you. And there really isn't any need to attempt to convince yourself that what you are using will replace anything else. If you still want to use a DSLR, or a rangefinder or even a film camera, then do so. It's just great that you are creating images, no matter what you choose to do that with. And in many ways this article isn't only aimed at photographers. It's aimed at people like me who have the arrogance to think that others will be interested in what they write. Let's have a more open and honest approach to writing about gear. Let's not attempt to whip up controversy and split camera owners and users into tribes to benefit financially from that. Above all let's be a little more circumspect and dial back on the pontification whether it's honest opinion or placed out there with a hidden agenda. Because photographic gear and indeed photography benefits from diversity. And do we all want to use the same brand, the same format and create images in a similar way? In the words of Groucho Marx - "PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION. I DON'T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT PEOPLE LIKE ME AS A MEMBER".

Now that sums up many of my attitudes and ways of working quite nicely. I've never been known as a 'team player' and the idea of thinking and / or doing what everybody else does fills me with a sense of dread. But then isn't that the nature of creativity? To see new possibiities, to constantly change and evolve, to question the status quo, make our own decisions and explore as much as we can in the short time we spend on this planet. Because often I see the photographic internet and what's written within it as the dead hand of dogma, closed thinking and following rather than leading. And though it may seem trivial to apply this to a discussion of photographic gear, we all have to start somewhere!!