Saturday, 24 December 2011

2012: The Dust Blows Forwards

Disclaimer: I've deliberately avoided reading any of the other "end-of-year, roll-on-next-year" articles that tend to appear around this time. I don't have to; I can form my own opinions. You're lucky I'm here to help you. The following is entirely my own mind, folded out flat and laid onto the page.

And the Dust Blows Back
Another year is upon us, apparently the last one. The final great sale before the shop closes forever. If you had dreams, you have twelve months to make them real. And then, in a laboratory somewhere, a scientist will complete the final invention, and the timewave will flatline into a cardiac explosion of novelty. There will be light, and then there will be darkness. But how will the camera market fare? Read on, as I ponder out loud.

The big new fad of recent months has been the Interchangeable-Lens Compact. Teeny little cameras that harken back to the rangefinders of yore. Women love them. The basic concept seemed obvious in the early days of digital photography, but for a number of reasons it took years for camera manufacturers to do anything about it. They are mostly a solution in search of a problem, although they are a very attractive solution.

From a manufacturer's point of view, interchangeable-lens compacts are a godsend, somewhat akin to the tablet market. They're a great way to sell the same basic electronic hardware that goes into a digital SLR, in a smaller, cheaper body, at an equivalent or higher price point. Thus we have the Nikon 1 and Pentax Q retailing for more than the price of a good entry-level digital SLR, whilst the Four Thirds consortium appears to have abandoned conventional SLRs entirely in favour of teeny-tiny Micro Four Thirds bodies. No doubt the world's mirror manufacturers will have a fallow Christmas.

All of these designs have an interchangeable lens mount. In practice, most consumers buy a body with the kit lens, and no other lenses. The denizens of Digital Photography Review and photo forums all over the internet probably see things differently, but they are to the camera market as Linux fans are to the mainstream of society. From inside the glass bubble they see their reflection everywhere they look, but from the outside the bubble is a tiny speck, floating in a mass of much larger bubbles. In a dark room. The floor lined with pins. And the mass of bubbles shop in Jessops or the local supermarket, and are no more than the sum of the things they consume. They own houses, and cars; the government courts them, not you. They see a mirrorless compact and they see a cute little posh-looking camera that's somehow better than a compact, according to the man in the shop. The wife likes it. It's less noisy at ISO sixty sixteen hundred oh oh, which is some kind of engineering certification that building firms have.

This isn't a new phenomenon. It was quite common in the days of film SLRs for people to buy the body and its 50mm lens, and never buy another lens. Or, because 50mm is a bit in-between for most people, nerdy dads bought one wide and one telephoto and a cheap flash, which mostly remained in the back of the cupboard. A Soligor 28mm f/2.8; a Hanimex 135mm f/3.5; a Vivitar flash. That was the kit of the common man, destined one day to end up on eBay for £49.95, no buyers. Ever since zoom lenses became the standard kit lens, during the 1980s, there was no reason to buy a second lens at all, and the same is true of interchangeable-lens compacts.

And so, ultimately, as far as the consumer is concerned, interchangeable-lens compacts are expensive cute-looking luxury cameras with a lens that can be taken off and then put back on again. And there are lots of them. Almost a glut, which is worrying, because gluts are never a good thing. That's why they're called gluts. The situation is a little bit reminiscent of the run-up to the great videogame crash of the mid-80s. Not so much in terms of games, but games systems. For a few years in the early 1980s, every electronics company with the nous to package some basic components into a plastic case wanted to put out a video game console, because it seemed an easy way to make money. In practice it was a ruinous farce for most, and even the greatest of the first wave ended up looking like Malcolm McDowell in Britannia Hospital.

But the mirrorless glut is less severe than it seems. In fact the real problem is a surplus of basically identical models from Olympus and Panasonic, who - to be fair - have had a head start on the other companies. Nonetheless their attempt to over-segmentalise a niche product has reached absurd levels, and especially given events on Mount Olympus I cannot see space for more than three bodies apiece. Not eight.

Ah, Olympus. A titan in the medical equipment business that also sells cameras. Their photographic business got off to an anonymous start in the 1930s, but in the 1950s they stumbled on genius designer Yoshihisa Maitani, and gave him the money and space to get his freak on, engineering-wise. For a good twenty years Olympus was the Leica that Leica might have been, if Leica had gone with the CL instead of the Commemorative Edition Jesse Owens R4*. The Pen, the OM, the XA, all legends. Faded away in the 1980s, fits and starts in the digital market, came back strong with the E-P1. Maitani died. A few months ago it seemed a safe bet that Olympus would have a rocky but otherwise non-lethal 2012 - what with its glut of models and reliance on an ageing twelve megapixel sensor - but of course the situation since then has developed not necessarily to Olympus' advantage. Now the evil tentacles of the asset-strippers twitch with glee.

Let's take a few moments to adminre that paragraph, by the way. Titan in the second sentence, an obvious allusion to Greek mythology - Mount Olympus, which ties in with the subject. And the references to Emperor Hirohito's 1945 surrender address, and tentacles, and strippers, equals Japan. The seamless, brilliantly-executed switch from proper sentences to terse summary mid-way through, and back again. The abrupt, sad way that "Maitani died" is a separate sentence by itself. The use of non-lethal instead of uneventful, because the company was in trouble anyway. Honestly, the writing is superb, and I should know because I wrote it. Complex, well-thought-out, precise. Witty, clever. Incisions worthy of a brain surgeon or a master swordsman. I swept that leg the hell out. And yet, father, I am not their leader. Instead, their leaders are fools. Vain men, their hands stained with hair dye. I will live to see them dead, but their mediocrity is relentless.

Whether Olympus continues to function, only time will tell. The medical business is very profitable, "too big to fail" in the words of Reuters, so something of Olympus is likely to survive, just as the aeroplane part of Saab remains whilst the car division has died. Whether its camera division remains is another imponderable. The Olympus brand name is a good one, a bit old-fashioned but globally recognised, and nowadays it even has an edgy air of gangster chic.

If the camera business is sold off, who will buy? It always had a Saab-y air to it, neither posh nor mass-market; sophisticated, cold. Despite attempts to target the high end, its quasi-professional SLRs have always seemed perfunctory. If the buyer also has an imaging division, it will have to decide whether to junk its own products or those of Olympus. The idea of an Olympus-branded Samsung NX is hard to swallow, and a Samsung-branded Olympus doesn't make sense. Olympus is not posh enough to remain as a niche high-end complement to a company's existing line, and Olympus fans certainly don't want it aiming at the Casio crowd. A Panasonic Olympus would be a Panasonic; the idea of a Fuji Olympus is seductive, but what would Fuji want with Olympus? The company has its own set of Russian dolls, it doesn't need any more.

* A real product, really. In real life Jesse Owens would have found it hard to afford a Leica. And Leica never gave him one for free. Not in 1936. Oh no.

In a wider sense, the camera market is tiny, and none of the major camera manufacturers derive the majority of their revenue from their camera business. In some cases - Panasonic and Sony, most obviously, but also Samsung - the cameras are just there to fill up gaps in the company's portfolio, rather than because the company has a passion for imagemaking. If Olympus becomes just a name it will have interesting consequences for the Four Thirds system. Originally launched by Olympus and Kodak, with Panasonic and other companies joining in slightly later, Four Thirds will become a Panasonic-only thing, most probably a Panasonic-only Micro Four Thirds-only thing. It was supposed to be the wave of the future, but now it seems stuck in the past, stuck with a sensor format too small for more megapixels and too large to put in a truly pocket-sized camera. It has been comprehensively beaten size-wise by Sony's NEX system, which admittedly is hobbled by an extremely unimpressive set of lenses.

Why do the major manufacturers bother with interchangeable lenses? Why not simply market an APS-C camera with a fixed lens? The camera would be slightly smaller and slighter cheaper than the current crop of mirrorless compacts - not by much, but a little - but the problem is that it would still be larger and more expensive than a pocket-sized compact, and the average consumer would have no idea why he should pay extra for essentially the same thing. Sure, the sensor is larger, but what does that mean to most people? The war is fought in offices and shops, with billboards and hoardings, and television advertisements, not on the pages of DxOMark.

Sony actually tried the idea in 2005, with the DSC-R1, but that was aimed at the high-end enthusiast market, with a top-quality Carl Zeiss T* zoom lens in an oversized body. It is fondly-remembered by Sony fans, but had very little impact and Sony never repeated the idea. Sigma had a similar stab a few years later, with the DP1 and DP2, but they were niche products. Do you remember the DP1? It was the talk of the town back in 2008. Lots of talk.

Still, interchangeable lens mounts exist as a kind of necessary evil. They help to sell a larger, more expensive camera than most people need. Because some people have a dream that, one day, they might buy a second lens, although they probably won't.

EDIT: About a fortnight after writing this, Canon launched the G1x, a compact camera with an APS-C sensor and a fixed lens. A similar concept as the DSC-R1, but in a smaller body. It remains to be seen if it sells. The body is ugly and dated in an angular 80s style and it doesn't seem much smaller than a small SLR; if Canon expected to trump the Fuji X100 then something went wrong somewhere.

The Future, circa 1979

Sony will survive 2012. Oh yes. Even an atomic blast would not stop Sony. An actual atomic blast. After wonky starts, the SLT and NEX systems will most definitely survive, at the expensive of the company's traditional clicky-clicky SLRs. Sony's full-frame range is another matter. Their current full-frame bodies have already been discontinued, leaving those lovely Zeiss lenses on the shelf, pining for something to latch on to. It seems vanishingly unlikely that Sony will put a full-frame sensor in an NEX body; the existing full-frame lenses would be an absurd fit, and there's really no advantage to doing so. But a full-frame SLT model seems like a no-brainer, and would give the whole system a credibility boost. The SLTs are still perceived as something of a toy system, aimed at wives and daughters, but a metal-bodied full-frame SLT, with an overhauled autofocus system, would neatly undercut professional sports SLRs from Canon and Nikon, with equivalent functionality. Photo forum people would still pooh-pooh them, but ordinary normal people would put them to good use.

EDIT: "It seems vanishingly unlikely that Sony will put a full-frame sensor in an NEX body" - which is exactly what they did, in September 2012, with the Sony RX1, which has a fixed 35mm f/2 on an NEX-esque body with a full-frame sensor. Shows you what I know, eh?

Ordinary, normal people. Not you. Will Canon survive? Yup. The company seems to have lost its mojo over the last few years, but still retains an enormous market share. Nikon will also survive. The two giants will trade blows. They are like Batman and The Joker, big strong heroic Canon versus snivelling weasely evil Nikon. They need each other. It's boring to write about them because they're always there, barring some gigantic account scandal. Will Canon launch a mirrorless camera? I have no idea, and neither do you. I do however have a hunch that they will ponder the market and decide against it. Canon plays to win, and it doesn't play stupid sports like triple-jump or javelin throwing, it plays to win the one hundred metre sprint. The only one that matters. That said, the company's conventional SLR range has an air of something that ran its course a few years ago; in a market that thrives on novelty, who is going to be excited about yet another Canon XXD with slightly more megapixels and a few more video options? And yet they sell in huge numbers, and that's what matters.

Good old Ricoh. I've never understood why Ricoh bothers with the camera market. Their cameras sell in Leica-like quantities to people who dream about photocopiers. They have nice bodies but awful image processing systems. And there's the GXR, which defies rationality. Ricoh's recent purchase of Pentax is a golden opportunity to launch a range of Ricoh-branded Pentaxes, or just drop the Ricoh name from cameras entirely. It's a silly brand name that means nothing to youngsters and reminds old folk of Edward G Robinson in Little Ceasar. No-one would miss it, not even Ricoh's accountants; the company makes a fortune from office equipment. In my dream world of magic and wonder they will launch a new GR digital camera, using the technology of the Pentax Q in a Ricoh body, festooned with control wheels, with a new electronic viewfinder. The new Pentax-ised GR digital will get good reviews, sell in tiny quantities, have no real impact on the wider world, but the next GR digital after that have some foundations to build on. Panasonic was a nothing until the LX1 came out; not much when the LX2 camera out, but the LX3 sold like hot cakes. Perhaps Ricoh could launch a Pentax Q module for the GXR, and then quietly set fire to the system and send it off down the river on a barge.

If the company still decides to keep the Ricoh name, and if it has any sense, it would use the Pentax name for a higher-spec, higher-end version of its Ricoh cameras, although curiously the company seems to believe that Ricoh itself is the prestige brand, which is nonsense.

Samsung will survive 2012, and so will the NX. What kind of insane world is it, that Samsung and Ricoh and Panasonic and Sony are all players in the camera market? It's not right. Still, after a long period of cooperation with Pentax, the new NX200 has an in-house Samsung sensor at its heart, which will presumably be recycled for years to come in Samsung's subsequent models. It can't have been cheap. Samsung has the money to drop the system entirely without flinching, but it's early days yet. You know, there was a time, a while back, when it seemed that the megapixel race was on the wane, but it seems now that twenty megapixels is the new fourteen, the new twelve, which was in turn the new six. It's madness, given that the majority of photographs are uploaded to Facebook or photo sharing applications, where they are viewed on telephone handsets, or computer monitors. Twenty megapixels is nice, but in practice it has led to a situation whereby people upload huge photographs to websites that size them down again. It's just a waste of time.

But, er, Samsung. Another company that makes its money elsewhere; it essentially is South Korea. It sells cameras to fill up gaps in its retail portfolio and has only just started to flex its muscles.

What of the others? Casio will continue to be Casio, selling competent, technically interesting cameras to people who aren't interested in cameras. They're never reviewed in the camera press, but they sell. Less than before, mind, because people take snapshots with their mobile phones now. Casio makes mobile phones, but not many. If they have any sense they'll fix that. The websites will post their reviews of the Sigma SD1, which will continue on sale for several years before quietly going away. In future it will be written that the SD1 was announced, and then launched, and then discontinued after a lengthy period of silence, and that will be the SD1. There will be no new Autobots. And, in the immortal words of Mark Prindle, I decided not to come up with an ending. One will come. It will not be of my choosing. Unless it is.

"And you, poor creatures - who conjured you out of the clay?"

And, this Christmas, spare a thought for poor old Kodak. You might not remember Kodak. Your grandparents used Kodak film to take photographs of your parents when they were young, so that they would not forget. Fat lot of good that did them.

Kodak invented the Bayer matrix used in almost every digital camera ever made, and with their work on digital sensors during the 1970s and 1980s they essentially invented the modern digital camera. Back in 1991 they launched the first professional digital SLR, and dominated that market for a few years. At the turn of the millennium the company had a higher market capitalisation than Canon. Now it's a patent repository that has a little camera business on the side, hanging from its body like a colostomy bag. Apparently a profitable colostomy bag, because (a) the cameras are cheap and (b) people recognise the Kodak name. The name is the only thing left. And the logo.

"Hanging from its body like a colostomy bag", that's another superb turn of phrase. In France I would be on television all the time, and the government would have given me my own institute, with an acronym. The ECPMT, or the ENPS or something. Instead I am wasted in a culture that values stupidity. Fools! They will suffer oh yes oh yes.

They say that the only sure-fire way to make a small fortune is to start with a large fortune, and waste it, and by gum Kodak have done more than any company in the camera market to illustrate this. They went from a period of having all the money to having none. The company's compact cameras are aimed at the same market as Casio, and have consistently sold well, but profits in the commodity sector are slim. Casio is fleet of foot and can survive on scraps. Kodak is a Tyrannosaur that needs large quantities of red meat, but the sun is blocked with ash, and the plants that once fed the apatosaurus have died. The future belongs to little egg-stealing rats, that will one day walk on the moon. OpenWriter's default spellchecker wants me to replace "apatosaurus" with "brontosaurus". That amuses me.

Ordinarily no-one would care. About the failure of Kodak, that is, not OpenWriter's default spellchecker. Large companies fail, it happens. But Kodak has romantic appeal. It still sells film stocks, to a small but vocal market of male photo students and old men. Dreamers with untidy homes, untidy clothes, living in fantasy land. Voyagers into another world, who periodically return bringing novelties to delight the eyes. Kodak's name and logo appears in shop fronts all across the world and it has a rich past. Its films fought Hitler, spied on the Soviets, went into space. For a while its digital cameras went into space as well, but no more. Now the company has a bleak time ahead of it. No-one will want to buy the consumer digital business. The film business will eventually stumble to a halt, and when a thirty-ton dinosaur falls over it doesn't get up again. The flesh is stripped and the bones are shuffled around by the tide.

The dust etc.

EDIT: A few weeks later Kodak revealed that it was on the verge of seeking bankruptcy protection.


And, finally, a plea. Let's all stop saying digital this and digital that. Digital SLR, digital compact, digital etc. They're all digital nowadays. It's an SLR. A compact camera. A rangefinder. Not a digital SLR, or a digital compact camera, or a digital rangefinder. Everything is digital. Digital is the new normal. It's the other things that are novelties.

EDIT: Looking back on this in 2014 it's interesting to see how my writing has... if not changed, then at least it's interesting to see my writing as it was two long years ago. I am driven by pure adrenaline, and when I hit "SUBMIT" I metaphorically collapse into an exhausted heap and never look at the text again. I hate going back and editing my writing.

As a consequence the article reads like a Hunter S Thompson-esque cocaine-fuelled joyride, with lots of tiny but embarrassing typos ("it reminds to be seen"). That's what comes of a talented writer who does not have an editor, or indeed any kind of guiding influence; the result is self-indulgence and sloppiness.

Still, the analysis was pretty sound, and I'm honest enough to admit my mistakes. And some of the individual sentences are very good; "[Kodak is] a patent repository that has a little camera business on the side, hanging from its body like a colostomy bag" is excellent. "From inside the glass bubble they see their reflection everywhere they look, but from the outside the bubble is a tiny speck, floating in a mass of much larger bubbles" has probably been written before and is problematic in that I tend to associate a speck with dust rather than bubbles... so perhaps I should have said "a tiny dot".

To what extent is this blog a record of the past, or a collection of articles intended for a general audience at any point in time? I will probably never answer that.