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Wednesday, 27 March 2013

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Camera sales to me are doing very poorly, it's been years.

Duh. Cell phones, and their variants, are subsuming all small cameras very quickly. Only camera geeks drool over chip sizes, lens bokeh, and all the other photo arcania any more.

The rest of the world just takes pictures.

While I appreciate Thom capturing the data, you cannot actually determine a meaningful statistical trend by comparing only two time points, e.g. the year ago sales. Making decisions based on looking at "year ago, year ago quarter, etc. numbers, is, ass Donald Wheeler points out, very risky with respect to making meaningful forecasts and comparable to driving a car down a twisty mountain road by only looking in the rear view mirror. The differences may only be, as Nate Silver or Don Wheeler points out, only noise. The only stastically meaningful way to plot this data is to have a large enough data set, e.g. the last five years by quarter, and plot the data in the proper control chart, e.g. an IM-R chart. Control charts are specifically designed to show you whether or not there are true signals in your data, or not to get falsely alarmed when there only noise in the data.

Interesting report. What would be additionally interesting, but probably much harder to obtain, would be the gross margins of the three types of camera systems listed? While volumes are down, revenue from compacts and DSLRs are almost identical and mirrorless trail in both categories. Gross margin contribution to the manufacturers are as important as revenue in making future product roadmap decisions.

Since I sell cameras for a big box retailer, this is no surprise. We are actually doing pretty well in the camera department, but it has all been on the high end. There are compact cameras that would have been $259 three years ago that are now $59 - and they are not selling. Interestingly we no longer have any micro 4/3s cameras on display - leaving a free run for the Sony NEX and Nikon 1 (not that we are selling that many of them).

The camcorder section is pretty much dead too, except for the GoPro's which are flying out the door.

But what do I know? Most of my pictures are taken with my iPhone!

-Tom-

Not very surprising. Smartphones and Instagram seems to be the new wave... Time to dust off my old Kodak Instamatic 126 film camera. I took photograhs that look almost as crappy as the "instagrammed" photos.

The biggest surprise to me is the sluggish sales of mirrorless cameras. One would think from reading TOP that everyone and his uncle is using them, but TOP's readers and contributors are obviously not representative of the general public. There is no denying that the ubiquitous cell phone cameras have dampened the fires of camera lust for many people, which is just fine, as long as manufacturers continue to innovate and produce desirable cameras for enthusiasts and professionals.

It doesn't surprise me that mirrorless camera sales are flat in the USA. I'm the only one who uses one in my camera club. Many people are curious about them, especially the OMD, but when they hear the price, and the fact that they aren't the best things for wildlife and sports, forget it. People want good deals, even at a size penalty, and the perception is they'd be giving up all around performance for a mirrorless camera (and I tell them they are right).

I think that photography has been on an unsustainable wave since the late 90s.

When digital first came out it offered real benefits but also had a lot of issues.

Every year the technology got better and there was real reason to keep upgrading.

I think we are getting to the theoretical limits of what is possible. We still need to double or triple resolution and ISO by getting rid of bayer filters. Today's sensors work better if light hits is at a close to 90 degree angle which limits how small you can make lenses. This needs to be corrected.

After that I think most of the improvements are just going to be applying more computing power to process your pictures. Often you can do this in Photoshop instead of the camera.

I think that with each generation more and more people are going to find that what they have does everything they need.

I think that even if there were no cell phones the market would move to where it was in the 1970's.

You buy a camera for years. New ones come out with improvements but at a much slower rate. If you want to stick with the same camera for 10 years its okay.

An indirect indicator of margins on mirrorless cameras is that Olympus [which is almost compeltely relying on mittoress sales] had to write off substantially on inventory for the last fiscal year. That means [to me, I admot to know only hlaf of what I should know about accounting] that the cannot sell their product for the price they really need for it. Thom Hogan wrote about that: the need to sell old stock competes with the want to sell new models. All of that sounds like a contacting makret.

Mike. This ended up a far longer ramble than I'd intended. You could relocate it to the "Ask Mike..." section under:
"Mike, do you think we have too many cameras available" or something similar of your own devising.
Or you could just delete it. Unlike my deep-sixed attack on the British "Royals", I wouldn't really care.

As I get older and my personal database reaches a size that my cranial data-mining hardware has trouble with, I often think about the way that we've become so accustomed to crazy proliferation of very similar products. I'm perfectly prepared to accept that demand-driven competition between manufacturers generates steady product improvement - up to a point. But there's an awful lot of fictitious competition out there and an equally wide range of nonsensical product differentiation. Buying a new electric toothbrush recently I was confronted with about 40 models...

Way back when I had to study the quasi-science called "economics" (that voodoo discipline whose principal function is to reinforce the status quo) as part of a degree course, soap powder was always used as an example of something where the inflated price of essentially identical products was largely determined by the cost of the competitive saturation advertising that the manufacturers indulged in. This was one of the few elements in the course that I could wholeheartedly accept.

A parallel example might be found in the retail insurance game. Here in the UK we have a completely absurd situation where a couple of insurers of the last resort (I'm not certain how to characterise them otherwise) bear the "risks" whilst a host of "insurance companies" and agents "compete"to sell the same policies packaged in microscopically different ways via a hideous contest of repellent and expensive TV advertising. So, for example, a policy purchased through "Saga" (an old folks policy specialist) is actually written on the "Automobile Association" (AA: not to be confused...) Who in turn mailshot Saga policy holders with offers to undercut the same policies which they are selling via Saga. Upon investigation it turns out that this offer is spurious since to bring the policy up to the same level of cover also, unsurprisingly, raises the cost to almost identical level.

Now given that there are actuarial tables that are constantly revised to give a statistical breakdown of likely outcomes in every area that is insurable - and car insurance would surely be entirely forecast-able - what benefit to the consumer is this spurious "competition" actually contributing? I would argue, nothing at all. A single insurance organisation - possibly a state entity - is all that's required. I think the savings would be enormous.

The camera business has some of the same characteristics. Whilst Canon and Nikon had/have most of the DSLR business to themselves they seem to be acting as an informal cartel (the banking "industry" functions similarly but on a gigantic and positively evil scale) never upping the ante too much. The resolution "battle" is still hypnotising people but not to the extent it once was even though these companies seem to take turns at holding the current record.

Meanwhile we see a phenomenon in this sector that could be described as decadence - high-ticket cameras which omit features that have been seen as indispensable for decades, such as interchangeable lenses and, absurdly, offer optional viewfinders at breathtaking prices.

Currently I own a D700 and an OMD plus more than enough lenses (ok, almost enough). But the best snap I've taken for a very long time utilised the universally damned-by-faint-praise Olympus 12-50 kit lens. A case of the quality of the image rather than the "I.Q." that we all get our knickers in a twist about and which reaches its apogee in the angels-on-a-pinhead investigations of Lloyd Chambers (and I admit to enjoying them quite often too.)

I'd like more exposure range, greater sensitivity less noise - and maybe even a bit more resolution than the 16Mp of the OMD - but I'm really beginning to feel that I'm simply no longer prepared stump up the cash for marginal improvements. Every time I pick up my D700 it's very obvious that DSLRs in general are cumbersome dinosaurs. The OMD for all its ergonomic faults is close to precisely what I've wanted for years.

As an aside, for anyone interested in product development in general I recommend "The Gun" by C.J. Chivers. This contrasts the development processes of the AK 47 (depressingly, perhaps the most successful manufactured product of the 20th century) and the M16 derivatives. Given the, to put it mildly, contrasting economic environments in which these two products evolved, the outcome was anything but predictable. Or maybe it wasn't.

And no, despite being something of a fan of Slavoj Zizek, I'm not a Marxist: neither am I a non-Marxist.

Roy

Most people who buy DSLRs don't really know that much about photography, they just have extra money to spend on a toy, and they have some vague notion that a DSLR will give them "better" photos. Mirrorless options just aren't on the radar for these people.

My cousin said he we wanted a DSLR, and my advice was to buy a Panasonic LX7 instead. This week, I find out that he actually took my advice, but he doesn't understand what all the modes are for, and what he's supposed to do with the aperture ring, or what aspect ratio setting he should use.

I don't know if I gave him bad advice, but I doubt he would have found a Canon Rebel any easier?

I'm always amazed at the output of the newest iPhone and iPad cameras, I actually swear whatever they're doing, the color is more accurate than my Nikon on AWB, the mac stuff is scary good.

I just saw my artist sister's 500 photos from her recent trip to Northern India (viewed entirely as a slide show on her computer, which was great), and for the life of me, if you weren't trying to professionally generate sales based on file size (which would encompass using a telephoto for portraits), I don't know why you would drag anything along in addition.

I can see how this kind of stuff has really impacted the general public wanting to drag additional stuff around. Can't tell you how many times I've heard about people wanting to get a "little bit" into a higher grade of photography, buying something like a Canon Rebel, only to see them six months later just using their iPhone camera again 'cause they got tired of carrying it around,a nd they're just showing the stuff on a screen anyway...

...my buddy's huge TV also has an SD card slot on the side, and he can take his card out of his pocketable Nikon, and watch them like slides, and the quality is stunning...goodbye prints...

BTW, it's hard to believe that, minus the need for sports or wildlife exceptions, it isn't going to go mostly mirrorless anyway, regardless of chip size...

The ease of picking multiple formats, especially the 4X5/8X10 friendly 4:3rd's, and the 1:1 square, is a no-brainer. The chance to pick focus anywhere on the screen, ala using a view camera, is also a no-brainer. My recent foray into 4/3rd's mirrorless, has made me feel better about my output than any of my previous Nikon APS-C cameras.

The lack of full prime lens development for APS-C, the concentration of "amateur" bodies with similar specs in the APS-C size, and the development of the Sony NEX series of mirrorless, points to a reassessment of what will be happening in that area. I can see full blown, full feature, full frame cameras for sports and wild-life pros, with mirrorless creeping into almost everything else, it's will certainly be cheaper to make high end digital viewfinders than mechanically intense mirror boxes as an eventuality.

I still maintain, a decently sized chip camera, with a short zoom of high quality stuck on it, ala the Canon G series, would certainly suffice for even most pro uses, if some of the feature set was fixed.

As a pro, the number one area of development for me is still in the software area. I need a camera where I'm not running tests and guessing on sharpness, contrast, saturation etc. Stuff I can't even see on my little computer screen. I need a camera where I set "Ektachrome E-100 G", or "Tri-X", and that's what the jpeg, or hopefully tiff, comes out as, period.

...and to Ed's point, I agree most whole-heartedly. The digital work-flow drove almost 75% of the small, advertising and commercially oriented boutique studios in my small area out of business. Day-rates were slashed in half, because the clients didn't think the had to pay a lot because there was "no-film". BUT, a studio could no longer run a 4X5 and 8X10 view camera, and a Hasselblad for 30+ years, they had to replace to upgrade technology.

None of those studios were doing their own transparency or black & white lab work, and now, because in my small area there were no "color services" who could do raw file post processing, they had to invest in computers that cost more than darkroom equipment and need constant upgrade. So they didn't...

The amount of people that took in-house jobs and closed their studios, was staggering.

It's hard to invest in any new technology when your market won't pay for it before it's defunct; and it's hard to invest in the "best" when you see the proliferation of media buyers accepting Instagram photos and other "down-tech", and even the NYT last week had an article talking about how wedding photography, the last refuge of many pros, is fast becoming an amateur field with friends doing most of the photography.

The last the years have not been good for the professionals, and may have been the paradigm shift that kills the industry as we knew it 25 years ago!

Mike I'm not saying they shouldn't develop at all. What I'm saying is they should develop where it matters. Take for instance the flood of GF1 clones Panasonic produced which was only topped by the flood of PEN's Oly clones spouted out. And the next GF that made sense (better sensor was the GX1) the next PEN that made sense well were the once bolted on the OM-D GH3 sensor. Al the rest of the "improvements" were either irrelevant or could have been achieved with software updates.

Nikon and Canon couple generations more or less to sensors and that at least to me makes some sense (allthough I wonder wether I'll see improvements when upgrading a 5D mark II to a 5D mark III). But Nikon is great in cripling camera's. Why the you know what does a D600 have 3 steps EV bracketing while my dad's D200 can do 7. That is bogus, we the camera buyers can live without. That is not development that is MARKETING (excuse the capital's marketing and capitals are somewhat linked).

And all that using generation times of years or even month, not decades. I'm willing to invest some top euro into a system if that lets me do my job for time to come.

Dutch photographer Pim Ras once said in a Dutch magazine. I always use the new top model Nikon's because I have to give my customers top quality. Now that is very well, but does that imply that his D3 shots or D3x shots (he uses Nikon) published in papers and magazines were crap. Off course not. But that is how "clients" think these days. I don't need to take a architecture shot for a A4 magazine with a D800....nor a D4.....as if IQ is all there is to photo's.

@Crabby: I think media magazines accepting Instagram photos depends on what was in the shot. Maybe some people still think creativity beets IQ and photographic tooling. Now I know it sucks from the perpective of the pro....but in fact it's not alltogether a bad sign. Maybe more people should smell the coffee.

But to get back to micro 4/3 acceptance. Nikon, Olympus and Canon (and Leica) in the film age sold us camera's that lasted a decade or more and IQ was determined by film and lenses (and skill). Now how did they make a profit? By selling us glass.....glass is, was and will be the determining factor.

So lets agree that 16 Mpixel is as far as it goes. That 3200 is all the iso we need and the OM-D and GH3 are enough camera to get the job done (for now) so don't bother us with GH4 or OM-D EM-6 unless they have some earth shaking improvements (foveon sensor and global shutter would be a no brainer here).

I for me will invest in glass from now on. And here a perfect lens, more or less stays a perfect lens.

Greets, Ed.

A few responses:

@stephen scharf: while I point to only one month in the article, I wasn't entirely clear about why I pulled that month to write about: the previous month also showed weak results. A weak December doesn't tell you much by itself, as retailers and camera makers are busy with what's already been shipped into the channel, and if they over indulged on inventory (low or soft sales) they won't take the time to bring in more at the last minute before Christmas. However, generally that's still falled by some restocking in January.

I wish I could pull out more than one year to look at with mirrorless, but the data wasn't broken out until last year. But looking at DSLRs going back many years, there wasn't much different in those numbers from previous years other than the sustained drop in growth. Thus, mirrorless was an anomaly, and the reason why I reported it as such. When we get the full quarter's results, I'll look again and update my comments. However, other private data sources I have access to show a similar slide in the US, and sustained, for mirrorless: we continue to buy new high end mirrorless at about the same rate, but low and middle products aren't selling, which is why you're seeing things like the GX1 sell for US$13 above the lens only price.

@Eamon: 20-30% would be low for GPM, but decent for operating margin. But, if Nikon's operating margin on DSLRs is 20%, then their operating margin on Coolpix is probably 0%, given their financials. Low end cameras are akin to low-end automobiles: tough to make a profit on when all costs are bundled.

@Tom Kwas: the lack of lens development for crop sensor DSLRs still mystifies me. All I see is self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don't make it, they won't come. One theory is that Canon and Nikon want everyone to buy full frame (i.e., if you don't make it, they'll buy your more expensive offering). But note the results on my latest survey: 18% of my site visitors have owned a m4/3 camera. In other words: if you don't make it, people will go somewhere else.

Frankly, I chalk it up to laziness and low assumptions on crop sensor DSLR buyers. The laziness is "we can get buy with our full frame lenses supplemented a bit." The low assumption is "consumer crop sensor DSLR buyers aren't sophisticated enough to want/need/buy anything more." You never get very far underestimating your customer.

@michael: "We're fine as long as we keep paying for it, but if the day comes when demand grows sour." But this always happens in tech. It's happened in cameras before, too. Digital basically saved the camera businesses in Japan. Without it, we would have been down to two players, Canon and Nikon, and Nikon would have been marginal, at best. When I forecast the future of digital back in 2004/2005 (numbers through 2011 were pretty close, within 10%), I was actually using the data from the film era to make the prediction.

You have early adopters (in Nikon terms, D1, D1h, D1x, D100 users). Things then catch on and you have dramatic growth (started with the D70 in the Nikon DSLR world and ended with the D90). You next reach a plateau of very modest growth (we're on that now), and eventually you run out of new users and sales fall because upgraders aren't doing that fast enough to keep sales up (they'd have to buy every cycle to keep sales flat when there aren't any new users).

The only way out is to disrupt: reinvent the camera completely enough that it is perceived as different, better, more desirable, and attractive to new users again. DSLRs did that for film SLR users. The question is what will do that for DSLR users?

My answer many years ago was "communicating, programmable, modular." Ironically, cell phones got to the first two of those first, and the attempts by the Japanese high-end makers (mirrorless, DSLRs) to do those same things have been pathetic, at best.

Here's another way to look at it: at the stage where anyone with enough money can go to the open market and buy the hardware components to make a camera that's competitive, the hardware (camera) is now a commodity and will be driven solely on price moving forward. On the other hand, using commodity hardware and innovating in software is a way to move forward. Do we have an example of that? Yes, we do: RED. RED did exactly what I'm saying: they're buying commodity components and bundling them with proprietary and well-thought out software. They completely discombobulated the high end video camera industry because of that.

It will take that level of thinking to save the digital still camera industry, I think. Yet none of the camera companies have shown that they even remotely understand software at the disruptive level.

Thom Hogan...

...as to your response about APS-C, I have to say: "I don't get it either".

My "rememberance" with APS-C, was that the camera companies could get a much higher "yield" of excellent chips with that size vs. full frame. My expectation was that the camera companies would have focused on making primes, especially f/2.8 primes, for that format, since they already had a full range of primes for the full frame cameras. I waited and waited and waited, and nothing happened. In fact, I started to wonder why huge lens makers like Sigma, that has literally dozens and dozens of offerings, some zooms even with ridiculous over-laps; didn't identify this market and go after it. Sigma certainly saw the intelligence of this in the M 4/3rd's market. I finally gave up and bought a Lumix G-3 and I'm very happy with the lens selection.

Not to over-simplify, but as I understand it, to some extent, 16 megapixel, is 16 megapixel, is 16 megapixel, especially under 400 ASA, the differences are mostly in noise, altho some can make a case for lens sharpness vs. pixel size, it's un-noticeable in magazine reproduction. Therefore you can certainly buy APS-C sized cameras that have un-noticeable differences in reproduction vs. full framers.

If Nikon, or even Sigma, had made APS-C designed f/2.8 primes in 16mm (24mm), 24mm (36mm), and 55-60mm (90mm) (Nikon makes a very nice, cheap 35mm for APS-C); I would have never gotten involved in M4/3rd's. The very fact that they didn't, has forced me to experiment with M4/3rd's, and fall in love with the multi-formats and better focusing selections available. Good for the M4/3rd's contingent!

If Canon and Nikon were Microsoft and everyone else was Apple and Google, then it's easy to see how packaging and software cunningly applied to off the shelf parts (as Tom implies) rapidly creates value and upsets market share, at least in the consumer segment.

Microsoft still dominate the business sector (by far) but are on the back foot in the consumer sector and PC sales are declining as well. It is probably a matter of time before they stem the decline - but they will need to tie up with a hardware maker (Dell) and start listening to customers. However, IOS and Android are here to stay and the humble PC will never be the dominant force it once was, just like the venerable, clunky SLR.

Canon and Nikon and the SLR have dominated the enthusiast camera market for some time. Conservative buying habits, and lack of a true killer product from the competition, will allow the domination to continue....for a while.

But SLRs are mechanically constrained in many ways. Mirrorless cameras are only electronically constrained. Moore's Law implies that such constraints will disappear relatively quickly, in which case mirrorless will exceed every performance parameter of an SLR at any given price point.

On-sensor PDAF, faster AF processing, less EVF lag and a global shutter should allow mirrorless to easily exceed the tracking ability of SLRs. It's just a matter of time (and processing power). I give it 2 years.

So surely Canon and Nikon just have to switch to mirrorless?

Sure, they will, but therein lie a few challenges (for them).

1. A huge legacy base of SLR lenses which people have spent a LOT of money accumulating (read legacy Windows apps).

2. Nothing like the range of lenses and accessories already built up by the competition (read downloadable Android and IOS apps)

3. They will effectively legitimise a market, thus removing barriers from new users who would previously have bought an SLR but now have several mirrorless makers to pick from (read Surface).

4. Almost NONE of the hardware in their cameras will be proprietary. They will be dipping from the same parts bin as everyone else, therefore struggle far more to establish a clear USP (read Surface).

5. How do they replace their high-end range topping products which create their mystique and fund the innovation lower down the chain?

This does not mean they will not continue to dominate - badge power is immense - but they have to time it right (before too many switch) and hit the market with the right products and lenses from the word go.

And they also have to be legacy compatible.

Just catching up on my favorite reading today. I was in a place over the Easter weekend where there was no internet connection (I am still suffering from withdrawl symptoms!) But if R&D and manufacturing (eventually) of dslr's come to a halt because the general public doesn't buy them anymore I suppose there will always be Leica. Just more expensive and as the last one left standing their sales will even increase...

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