I guess we can't blame the camera industry for being greedy. After digital took a hold they started shipping a lot of cameras. Unfortunately they underestimated the smartphone / social media phenomenon and either ignored it (if they didn't make smartphones) or hoped it wouldn't take too much away from their camera business (if they did) Unfortunately sales of smartphones and a rapidly improving collection of smartphone cameras are showing no signs of tailing off. The small, cheap, compact camera market is already in terminal decline and Apple aren't lying when they claim the iPhone is the worlds most used camera. So what do these companies do to combat this loss of business?
Well, they release too many cameras, hype up the very small differences between them and resort to installing all kinds of gimmicky dross to persuade us that what we really need is more complication and a pile of marginally entertaining junk tech. that may amuse us for a day or two but ultimately get ignored. Now to a large extent, many people who bought a budget DSLR or a mirrorless camera are probably better served by a smartphone camera anyway. They enjoy using it more and it gives them the opportunity to publish their image on the social media site of their choice or share the pictures with friends and family. The whole idea of downloading images to a computer, editing them and then doing the above has been taken over by smartphones who do it simpler, quicker and cheaper.
I've written several times recently that I can see sales of stand alone cameras, particularly the interchangeable lens systems, going back to film levels in terms of sales, to serve the professional and serious amateur markets, much like 35mm SLR and Medium Format manufacturers did at the end of the last millenium. However, unfortunately that doesn't seem to have impacted on many manufacturers yet. They still seem inclined to release too much, too often. I've already written about the Panasonic GX80, a decent camera I'm sure, but ultimately pretty pointless. Surely what the manufacturers should be doing is concentrating on fewer new products and when they do release something new, it should be special.
As usual we have a fair number of new cameras this year already. Yes there are some improvements, but nothing that has anything approaching a 'wow' factor. A few extra pixels here and there, lot's of 4K and some marginal speed improvements. But the Fuji X-Pro II still produces soft images in Adobe raw conversion and the Sony a6300 is as ugly as the a6000. m4/3 is still hovering between 16-20MP when everyone else has bigger sensors and more pixels, Nikon and Canon DSLR's still look the same as they did 10 years ago and are as clunky as ever. The new Hassleblad mirrorless MF camera is interesting, but expensive and with only two lenses available for it. My particular current favourite is the Leica SL (Typ 601), but it's 'native' lenses (only 2 so far) are ridiculously heavy and ridiculously expensive. I get round it with some old MF lenses, but not everybody wants to do that.
I don't write about them much, but I'm still using smartphones a lot. And I have to say that two of them in particular have astonishing image quality. The Panasonic CM1 with it's 20MP 1' sensor produces seriously good images (though it does have the worst live view screen ever manufactured) but my current favourite is the Microsoft 950X which for a micro sensor camera is just astounding. I'd love to see some of these 'photographic gurus' on the internet take a blind test with this and a mirrorless camera. A great camera (and I don't need to put the word smartphone in front of that) OK it's got a bank of Zeiss micro-lenses which help, but if something like this can produce jaw dropping colour and seriously sharp files, why can't the mirrorless and DSLR manufacturers come up with something better than they currently offering?
Because to a large extent what I see as available currently is all a bit dull, a bit old and much the same. And if I'm right about the future of camera sales what should camera makers do to stave off the inevitable decline in sales?
Well mostly, we need some serious mirrorless cameras from the big companies. Leica and Hassleblad are just too expensive and too specialist for most, so Nikon and Canon HAVE to step up and release something that equals the Leica SL but is cheaper and has their DSLR lens mounts. And Olympus, Panasonic and Sony have to 'pro up' the GH5, A7/FE series and OM-D EM-2. No more micky mouse batteries, no more compromises on speed and flexibility and broadcast quality 4K video functionality. Fuji can (and will) stay in their 'lookaleica' mode. It works for them and their users, so why change it. They sell to a committed enthusiast market anyway. Mirrorless is a temporary future that may be good for a few years if these companies do it right. Eventually smartphones or something like that, WILL take over the mass market, but there will always be a market for aesthetically pleasing, well designed high specification cameras. But they have to be special and they have to be a genuine step up from what we are currently being offered.
Will this happen? Probably not.
Most of these companies are stuck in the inflexible hierarchies that seem to typify far eastern electronics giants. Top down decision making is the order of the day and 'we know best.' My feeling is that they will stick with what they know and what they have come up with already. Because it's all about profit (usually short term) and anything resembling a risk is normally frowned on. So expect more incremental improvement and more mediocre upgrades like the GX80. But then I guess it keeps the review sites and the blogs ticking over, until the death knell finally sounds and we are left with no choice at all. I would like to think that one of the major manufacturers of photographic gear will amaze me in the next year. However, I'm not shaking with anticipation at the prospect of that. Which is a shame, but probably realistic.