A View of the Photographic Industry From 30,000 Feet
Trade shows are always a good opportunity to gauge the state of health of any industry. Walking the aisles and talking with both exhibitors as well as attendees provides insights into what people are thinking as well as what they may appear to be doing.
With this as preamble, here are some highly subjective observations on the current (March, 2006) state of the photographic industry. No gospel here, just opinion.
Canon 20D (IR Modified) with 24-105 f/4L IS lens
The great Megapixel Race appears to be over. From the roughly 3 Megapixel Nikon D1 and Canon D30 of late 1999 and early 2000, to today's mainstream 6 – 8 Megapixel and top of the line 12-16 Megapixel models, we now seem to have reached a point of equilibrium. More Megapixels aren't what most photographers need. We need better Megapixels, and the manufacturers seem to have realized this.
The 6 – 8M range provides amateurs with enough to make A3 (11X17") prints, while 12-16M let's pros and advanced amateurs produce double page spreads and 13X19" or larger display prints. These were the outer limits of 35mm film in any event,, and so anything bigger is rightly the realm of medium format, just as it always has been.
To the industry's credit we are even seeing digicams with somewhat lower Megapixel counts than last year. Even camera makers now realize that 6 million clean Megapixels are better than 8 million noisy ones. Given that most digicams have slow lenses, people were shooting at high ISO settings, and were dissatisfied with image quality, even on wallet-sized prints. Mother Nature applies the laws of physics to how many photons can be captured by an individual photo site, and even the best image processing firmware can't create something out of nothing when the pixels get too small.
The implications of this are that while we may see small incremental increases in Megapixel count over the next few years, we will now see camera makers focus their attentions instead on further reducing prices and enhancing their camera's other capabilities.
Alliances and Shakeout #2
Departures and consolidations continue among camera makers, with more likely to come. Last year and early this year saw the demise of Contax and Konica Minolta, There may be others in the months ahead. Mamiya is looking particularly frail at the moment.
To forestall this there are new alliances forming. Sony has allied itself with KM's technology, while Olympus has teamed with Panasonic to keep the 4/3rd format moving forward. Panasonic has also created an alliance with Leica, and Pentax has joined forces with Samsung. We saw Hasselblad get absorbed by Imacon, and also farm out some of its design and manufacturing to Fuji.
The name of the game is survival. The camera business has become the consumer electronics business. Companies like Sony, Panasonic and Samsung, giants of this field, see that camera are now no different than other electronic devices. Their prime components are microprocessors, and so if this is the business that you're in, why just two-step your components when you can market end-products directly?
The only company that is master of its own fate when it comes to cameras is Canon. They design and manufacture their own sensors. So does Sony, and so does Panasonic. Others need to form alliances. Nikon is big enough and strong enough to remain in the game even though they must source their sensors from elsewhere. Then again, even Canon has sourced sensors from companies like Panasonic and Sony when it made sense to.
Panasonic is now making Leica lenses in the 4/3rd format in Japan, without the Panasonic brand, but marketed by Panasonic. Leica sells and will continue to sell Panasonic made digital cameras under the Leica brand. Apple laptop LCD monitors are made by Samsung, and desktop screens by LG.Philips. Contax lenses used to be made by Kyocera. Samsung puts Schneider lenses on its digicams and Sony puts Zeiss lenses on theirs. Panasonic makes the aspheric elements that go into Nikon and Canon lenses, and Sony supplies sensors to almost every camera maker for one model or another.
Am I making my point? All of the brand zealots that hang out on the forums need to take a pill. Globalization isn't just something on the 6PM news, it's all around us and in the products that we buy.
Shows and No-Shows
I'm always curious when I attend trade show to see who's there, how big their booth is, and what their "story" is about this time. Conspicuous by their absence were quite a few companies. Mamiya was a no-show, along with Leaf. Hasselblad / Imacon did not have a stand on the floor of the show, only a private meeting room.
It may not be appropriate to draw too much meaning from this. Quite a few other companies were also absent, including all of the large format and specialty camera makers, and a number of accessory makers. Sometimes not attending a show is more a statement of ones security of market position that any sign of weakness. But this equation falls apart the larger companys become, and then their absence feels like a negative rather than a neutral statement.
Samsung surprised by having a booth as big as the traditional photo industry big boys. This company has clearly decided to play hardball and claim its seat at the table. The Pro 815 and the GX-1S ( a rebadged Pentax) show that it is going after more than one market segment. Keep your eye on Samsung. They're going to be a player.
Nikon seems to have hit its stride. The D200, even with its initial banding problems, has turned out to be a winner, and is causing a lot of grief for other camera makers. Canon struck a false note with many of its faithful with the just-introduced 30D. Following as it has on the heels of Nikon's D200 (intentionally or not) it seems, like its name, to simply be a marketing rehash rather than a fresh competitive offering. The Canon design paradigm just feels like its getting a bit long in the tooth.
And so with the Megapixel wars now over, camera makers are going to reap the whirlwind that they spent the past 5 years sowing. Here's what I mean.
From 1999 to 2006 camera buyers came to expect new models every year or so. These would have more and better Megapixels along with lower prices and improved image quality. But the semiconductor industry has now moved off the sharp slope of the curve onto the softer, more gradual shoulder. They won't be able to offer us than much more, that much better, and that much less expensive each year, as they lead us to become accustomed to.
For many this will be a relief, because a lot of photographers have been overextending themselves financially in an effort to always have the latest and greatest. New and improved models every 3-6 years, as during the film days, were welcome. New models that made one feel outgunned every 12-18 months is a financial burden that many have come to resent.
So camera makers need to take a deep breath, as do photographers. Will they though? Expectations have been set. Time for a reset.
Epson has done more to advance the science and technology of photographic printing over the past 10 years that anyone else. They are to be commended for this. But, its been a one horse race. With its K3 Pigment inks, and current generation of photographic printers, Epson owns the fine art and professional printer marketplace.
But that's about to change. Both Canon and HP have decided to challenge that hegemony with their own wide format pigment ink printers. Of particular interest is Canon's imagePROGRAF iPF5000. This is a wide carriage 12 ink printer, introduced at PMA, that will retail for less than $2,000. Individual ink cartridges are large, heads are self cleaning and user replaceable, and paper paths include roll, front, rear and paper tray. In addition to the usual Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Light Cyan, Light Magenta, Matte Black, Photo Black, Light Black, and Light Light Black cartridges, Canon has added Red, Blue and Green. No cartridge changing is required when switching from matte to glossy papers.
11 and 12 ink printers are not new. They have been used in the high end fine art printing trade for the past few years, and image quality is stunning. The iPF5000 though is the first printer to bring this level or technology together with pigment inks and a price within reach of most fine art photographers. Like I said, Epson finally has a real challenger to face.
HP has tired of being a non-contender in the pigment ink fine-art marketplace, and has introduced the Photosmart Pro B9180, its first pigment ink model. This will compete directly with the Canon Pro 9500, another new entry in the 13" desktop market. Both are targeted at the same market segment as the Epson R2400.
People seem to get so much pleasure out of it when I'm wrong. If that's the case then I must give a lot of pleasure, because I'm frequently wrong. Who isn't sometimes?
If I was wrong all the time my opinions as a critic wouldn't be worth much. But, fortunately for me, I'm right more often that I'm wrong, so as long as my batting average remains above 500 I'll keep doing what I do.
Back when the Olympus E-1first came out I opined that the 4/3 format was an evolutionary dead end. I appear to have been wrong.
It does look as if it will survive after all, especially now that Panasonic has climbed aboard. What's happened as well is that we've come to a point where about 8MP is sufficient for most amateur needs, and Olympus et al have been able to get decent image quality from small sensors with this high pixel density.
The problem that Olympus had initially, in my opinion, is that they aimed the E1 at the pro market. A few pros adapted it early on, but as the competition produced cameras with larger and higher quality sensors Olympus had problems with their marketing approach. Since they've since segued over to the consumer side they've done much better.
Pros need files, much of the time, which are larger than 4/3rd cameras can provide, even at 8MP. The big stock agencies demand minimum 11MP files, and some like Getty have stated a 16MP minimum for the past couple of years, though now will accept very high quality images with somewhat lesser pixel counts. Ad agencies need to be able to handle double page spreads and still allow for cropping. Most find that anything less than about 11-12MP starts to hurt when this is done.
This says nothing negative about 4/3rd cameras other than the fact that they aren't suitable for some pro applications because they will always suffer from a smaller sensor. Any technology that improves image quality on a 2X sensor will be even better on a 1.3X or 1.5X or 1.6X, (let alone full frame). In the hands of amateurs, and even some pros like wedding and event photographers, they do a fine job though.
My concern though continues to be that the weight and size savings that were promised have failed to materialize. One look at the new Panasonic L1 makes that clear. And Olympus' lenses, though very high quality, are also high priced, which is problematic for the amateur market that they are now going after. The new Leica 4/3rd lenses aren't going to be inexpensive either.
So in the end 4/3rds isn't going away, and neither will 1.5x and 1.6X APS C sized sensors, nor will full frame. There's room for all. So, yes I was wrong. Won't be the last time either.
Medium Format Digital
Tough times are ahead for some, equipment makers as well as photographers.
Few pros are shooting film any more. Sales of MF cameras therefore are in decline, and have been for several years. Bronica is gone, Contax is gone, and if industry rumours are to be believed, Mamiya isn't in the best of shape. The ZD seems to be in some sort of limbo, with a few cameras shipped in the Japanese market beginning in December '05, but nowhere else, even months later. Could the ZD be like the ill-fated full-frame 6MP Contax 1N Digital, which finally shipped after 2 years of promises, but then quietly disappeared?
Who's left then? Only Hasselblad. That's it. No one else. So what do Phase One and Leaf put their backs on? Imacon effectively runs Hasselblad and tries to sell an Imacon back with every H1 and H2 that they can. Sure there are still lots of Mamiyas, V Hasselblads and Contaxes out there, but when it comes to new sales – its a virtual black hole.
Interestingly Phase One claims that back sales are better than ever, and having visited their factory recently, and having waited months in a back-order line for my P45, I see nothing to contradict this.
But what does the future hold? That's a fascinating question, and one which we'll see unfold in some surprising ways over the next six months. In the meantime it's a tough market, and because of its small size and demanding technology not one that is likely to see the kind of price reductions that have been evident in DSLRs.
Medium format digital will survive, but the number of players will continue to reduce, and it's likely to very much become a case of last man standing.
Update – Within hours of first publication a number of readers wrote asking why I had omitted Pentax. I agree, it was an oversight. I suppose in part because I had been underwhelmed by the (yet another) preproduction prototype shown under glass at PMA. At 18 MP it's hard to see a role for it in the broader pro marketplace, as it will have to compete with the 16MP Canon 1Ds MKII, and whatever else is likely to be announced at Photokina in September. Because of the read-out limitations on the Kodak chip being used shooting speed will be substantially lower than the Canon, as will autofocus speed, while bulk will be greater.
Medium format digital has now essentially moved into the 30-40MP region. That's its raison d'etre. The only people that I see this camera satisfying (in its initial incarnation) are current Pentax 645 and 67 lens owners.
Update – I have also been taken to task by Europeans, pointing out that I omitted Rollei, with its 6008 system. This was not an oversight, just a recognition (and a sad one) that Rollei's days seem numbered. The Sinar e-Motion back and a special order Phase One P20 are available for the 6008, but they're a niche player at best, and essentially nonexistent from a marketing perspective outside of a few countries in Europe.
At the risk of annoying a number of people, I'll make the following prognostication: The days of Photoshop's dominance of digital imaging for photographers are coming to an end. The reason is – Lightroom and Aperture.
Notwithstanding its name, Photoshop never was designed for photographers. For most of its 20 years it's been a tool for graphic artists and pre-press professionals. Photographers took to it when scanning film got hot in the mid to late '90s, and then at an increasing pace when digital cameras came on the scene in earnest about 5-6 years ago. But it's a bit of a Swiss Army knife, with lots of tools, not all of which are the most appropriate ones for what photographers need doing.
Sure, Camera Raw and Bridge have their place, and are designed for our needs, but they are built on top of an edifice that needs to be rethought.
That rethink has been taking place over the past couple of years in two places, Adobe's own back yard, and at Apple. When Lightroom ships this Fall, and when Aperture fixes its most pressing database limitation at around the same time, these two programs will come to dominate the marketplace for photographers. Of course we'll continue to use Photoshop for some tasks, but increasingly these two programs will be found to address the real workflow and productivity needs of both pros and amateurs alike.
I know that the vast majority of photographers who don't use Macs currently don't really understand why this will be the case. You can't yet use either Lightroom or Aperture. But when Lightroom Beta becomes available for Windows this summer, the compelling logic of this argument will become clear. Really. Wait and see.
Next Stop – Photokina
This is a Photokina year. Since 1950 every second September Photokina is held in Cologne, Germany. It is the World Fair of photography. Be there, or get out of Dodge, to coin a phrase. Any company in the industry, or with pretension of participating in it, has to be there, in force, and with their party shoes on.
I'll be there this year and will have live reports each day from the show. It certainly will be fascinating to see how things unfold.