Selective Focus: Growing the Market for “Real Live” Cameras

Selective Focus: Growing the Market for “Real Live” Cameras

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Various and sundry industry associations have finally arrived at an agreement as to what to call non-DSLR interchangeable-lens cameras: “mirrorless.” While there are some holdouts, such as the Technical Image Press Association (TIPA) that up to now has stuck with CSC (compact system cameras), the mirrorless appellation defines something by what it lacks. It’s like assigning paper airplanes to the motorless flying craft category.

Then again, few knew what single-lens reflex meant, so perhaps it’s not the name that counts. What does count is the expectations of the buyer as to what their hard-earned dollar will get them and, as important, how the industry can differentiate the benefits of a real live, interchangeable-lens camera (RLC) from a smartphone.

To me, the issue is not a choice between DSLR or mirrorless but how we get the public to adopt our exciting, innovative products and how we can best emphasize and discuss image quality. As to the decision the consumer makes between the two, that should simply be a matter of qualifying the customer and finding out what best meets their photographic and lifestyle needs.
I have no skin in the game of touting one type over the other. I do have a vested interest in the industry’s health and the ability of photographers to create expressive, creative images. And that’s where RLCs, with reflex mirror or without, come into play.

Some Stats

Speaking of health, let’s take a quick look at the RLC market. For this quest, CIPA is a good source. While we’ll probably not soon (or perhaps ever) return to the heyday of fall 2013, the latest figures show overall RLC shipments (interchangeable-lens cameras) up nearly 30% from the dismal days of last winter (that West Coast dock strike didn’t help).

This tracks with last year’s spring spurt and equals or is slightly below 2014’s not-so-sterling numbers. In other words, the figures show cyclical growth and pullbacks over the year (and last winter was a doozy for all sectors), but not a year-over-year major retreat that characterized the 2013/2014 debacle. So, while the bleeding may have stopped the wound is still not healed. The category that has taken the biggest hit, as we know, is the compact (integral lens) models. We can thank the smartphone for that, not the lack of fun and easy cameras on offer.

Class Warfare

I look at interchangeable-lens cameras as a single class—one that spurs accessory sales such as lenses, flash, tripods and bags—that is all good for the industry. But in the forums and chat rooms, there is a consistent drumbeat of mirrorless being a “DSLR killer” and an often acrimonious rivalry between the two RLC types. Lines are constantly being drawn and sides are taken. In early summer there was a burst of enthusiastic industry reports from the mirrorless clique touting the growth in “sales value” of mirrorless cameras. That’s good, and figures show mirrorless gaining nearly 50% and DSLRs dropping 9% (CIPA). Keep in mind, however, that sales value is newspeak for “what it costs”: higher sales value means more expensive.

While this value (and hopefully profit) consideration is important, the inconvenient truth is figures still show new camera sales volume dominated by the DSLR. In the U.S., DSLRs hold a near 5:1 advantage. This may speak to pricing as much as to the legacy lens issue discussed in my January 2015 column in DIR. DSLRs, at least on the starter and enthusiast level, have gotten smaller, lighter and more feature rich, thus compete well with the touted mirrorless advantages. True, some enthusiasts have taken to mirrorless with a passion, and for good reasons. But I still scratch my head as to why industry folks tend to see this as an “us versus them” scenario.

A good bet is that this is a fight for survival among the various companies in the mirrorless sector. There is a lot of choice in the interchangeable-lens camera showcase these days, and mirrorless market shares are slices of a smaller pie. Choice is good, but some are now positing that the proliferation of models from the players may be part of the overall problem.

There are by some counts almost 200 different cameras on offer from a variety of makers. Cameras are coming out in “Versions” like software, if you will, denoted by a Mark II this and a Roman numeral III that. Updates usher in new models for the addition of 4K video, GPS and connectivity of different sorts, plus increases in ISO sensitivity. Indeed, just one or two of these new attributes rates a new model and version name. Some newer offerings replace older, but more often than not stocking overlaps occur.

As one who is in the game and sees press materials and does camera reviews and test reports, I can just imagine the confusion this must instill in the potential buyer. A scorecard is definitely in order when trying to sort it out. While some websites cater to those who enthuse over every new model wrinkle, the buying public must be at odds trying to figure out what this month’s version has over last month’s, and if the model offered at Target is the most current manifestation.

Tech Overload?

The intense competition among makers has resulted in a kind of fracturing of market offerings, where tiny splinters of change and features have to be digested by potential buyers before they can make a decision. Making a sale has turned from a pitch to a seminar, and we seem to be constantly changing the rules of the game. First it was the megapixel race; then the pixel-size race; then the sensor-size race (and subsequent need to factor in focal length/sensor magnification ratios); then connectivity and which type of smartphone will work best or at all with their camera. Then we sprung 4K, pixel-shifting sensors, high pass or no high pass filters, hybrid focusing, postexposure focusing and more, I’m sure, to come.

While this speaks to amazing advances in imaging options, of which we should be proud, it also speaks to some window dressing and a good dose of tech overload that can lead to consumer confusion. There’s no doubt in my mind that RLCs serve a real need, one that will continue to appeal to those who want to make quality photographs. Look around and you’ll see that customer still out there. And indeed their numbers could be growing if we could just get out of our own way and deliver a message that makes sense without loading up our products with technological curveballs and avoid the proliferation of niche updates.

Step Ups and Differentiation
Let’s face it—when someone wants to make a still or video simply for sharing with family or friends or whomever, they reach for their cameraphone. It could be a vacation selfie or what they had for lunch or a clip of some street musicians in Istanbul, but the cameraphone handles those jobs exceedingly well. That game is settled, over and done. But if we make the advantages of RLCs apparent, we might just bring more users into the world of expression and engagement that makes photography a great hobby, a lifelong passion and even a profession worth pursuing.

Once they come “inside” they’ll discover all the great things they can do, but it’s getting them in the door that is our challenge. In the past, the differences between a 110 and an SLR were apparent, and customers looking to step up had a clear route. It’s our job to once again make step-up customers understand they have a home in the photo industry.
One question we might ask ourselves is: what kind (and quality) of images can our products deliver that can only be delivered by our products? The question to ask the buyer after we show what RLCs can deliver is: “Are you that kind of photographer, are these your kind of images?”

Show folks great images, and say: “Now, let’s see a cameraphone deliver that!” We know the difference but seem hesitant to point it out. Show side by sides in low light; show wedding and portrait pro work done with RLCs; bring some heavy-duty zooms and super wides into play. Show folks making great shots on a photo safari; display some incredible reportage work—in short, tout the real differences between the cameraphone and the RLC and make the distinctions that are meaningful to the step-up buyer.

For those so inclined, Corinthians 13:11 might come in handy as well: “When I was a child I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up I put away childish things.” If so, dear photographers, DSLR or mirrorless or even a handy integral-lens model, what’s it going to be?

Let’s stop the internal strife and concentrate our resources and energy on making the camera industry a united front. Let the customer decide which type of RLC best suits their needs, and let the chips fall where they may.

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