Selective Focus: The DSLR/Mirrorless Sales Conundrum . . . with Connected...

Selective Focus: The DSLR/Mirrorless Sales Conundrum . . . with Connected Cameras Thrown into the Mix

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With the recent sales figures on DSLR and mirrorless models putting a smile on no one’s face, and with compacts basically falling through the hole in the floor created by smartphones, we might want to pause and take into account just what we are presenting to the public as options to capture their images. And see how we can rebound and at least meet our expectations for camera sales growth.

We all might be yearning for those simpler days, when the recording medium was the same and all we had to do was figure out if the customer wanted to have a camera with an interchangeable or integral lens. It was fairly easy to qualify customers and point them down a certain road. Nowadays there’s little wonder that there is confusion and consternation among the camera-buying public, with various formats, configurations and constant product churns.

It’s the Economy . . .

Of course, the elephant in the room, aside from asking the consumer to wade through our fast-changing models with sometimes minor and mainly competitive upgrades, is the economy. One of the themes in camera intros of late, especially in interchangeable-lens models, is sticker shock. Many companies are rushing for the “premium” buyer, the 1%ers of the camera crowd. And while prestige sells, I suppose, the ranks of those capable of constantly chasing the hot model of the day are somewhat thin, and thinning. The young hipsters at the recent WPPI convention I attended might have been flashing high-end mirrorless cameras on their hips instead of Leicas, but they’re not going to be the ones pushing up sales figures for these models, at least in a way that will make up the recent collapse.

Look at any economic stats and the squeeze on that elusive middle class continues, which means less discretionary income, thus less camera buying.  And with the price of cameras rising, along with everything else, we as an industry have become “discretionary.” Not a great place to be. Frankly, what’s “new” doesn’t seem to be turning on folks enough for them to replace their “old” gear, despite the supposed allure of GPS and some sort of Wi-Fi. The question I always get from folks who like to share images right after they’re taken (and that’s a vast majority) is: why should I use a (real-live) camera to do that when my phone does that already?

Image Quality
The industry answer is “image quality,” but that’s kind of a red herring, especially when you consider that images from smartphones are more than good enough for their intended purpose. Only a very small minority of smartphoners consider the pictures they take as more than throwaways and postcards, and rarely ever consider them “printable” or even care about prints. These would have been the 110-format shooters of the past, but in that case at least there was the print business to feed the kitty. Besides, who wants a camera that needs the intercession of a smartphone to get the image to sharing sites anyway? Why carry both? Why would folks want to use a smartphone to set aperture and shutter speed and release the shutter on their camera? Why carry both?

I recently worked with a Samsung NX, and I have to say the image quality was great, the videos and sound were very good, access to the whole Android mélange was interesting and the large screen was a great way to show images. But at the end of the day, it was more interesting as a camera device than a “connected” device. To me, Samsung has taken the lead in this department. However, I still had to give all sorts of info to get started, and the constant notifications of necessary upgrades and all the associated linkages got in the way of me enjoying it as the very nice photographic instrument it is. I have a handy iPhone for all that other stuff and frankly am content to leave it at that.

In short, most smartphoners have figured out how to send pictures of their family picnic to folks who couldn’t attend. Yes, those images will probably be lost to future generations, and yes, Facebook posts essentially give that company the right to resell folk’s images without regard to privacy or royalty rights. And yes, the smartphone is essentially a pipeline for your most intimate secrets right into database marketers' coffers. And yes, the phone tracks you as you stroll the mall. But this is not about smartphone paranoia; it’s about whether the photo industry can beat, let alone compete with, a device that has all but captured that segment of shooters.

Sellable Advantages

One smart move on the industry’s account is the renewed emphasis on bridge and “tough” cameras. No one’s going to take their expensive smartphone skiing or snorkeling or hiking to places that might pose environmental challenges. And we might take a hint from the booming action cam business in terms of real imaging benefits that blow the smartphone out of the water. And the ultrazooms recently introduced really do give great access to images that are a stark contrast to the horrendous digital zoom shots smartphones produce. Now those are real, identifiable and sellable features and advantages.

What has the interchangeable-lens camera category offered of late? And what should we make of the shocking (to me), less than enthusiastic reception mirrorless has received, at least in the USA? While our poll of readers at Shutterbug is more anecdotal than scientific, we asked the mirrorless versus DSLR question: while almost 40% said they would certainly consider a mirrorless for their next purchase (though we did not ask when that might be, and keep in mind those readers tend to be early adopters), an equal amount said they preferred the DSLR form factor and saw no real reason to switch. Perhaps as interesting were the remainder of folks who said they like the “idea” of mirrorless, but they have so many lenses and accessories for their DSLR that it made, in essence, no sense to switch.

That survey was finalized late last year, and I checked back on previous Shutterbug surveys done on the topic; it turns out one done six months earlier had essentially the same responses, albeit with a slightly different question. In short, whatever the industry did to promote mirrorless did not budge the numbers. (Having worked with a number of these models, I have to say I am a fan.) For example, we later asked readers about whether a “full frame” sensor in a mirrorless might sway them, and the numbers stuck there too (with an even split on diehard DSLRers and those tempted by the upgrade); but this time, 30% were hesitant to commit because they said they needed to learn more about what that meant for their photography.

Making the Case

One way to interpret this is that we have not fully made the case for this new breed of camera, let alone a newer DSLR—at least among those committed to photography as an art and a craft and a favored hobby. There is a large base of those on probably their third DSLR, but what should compel them to not only switch lens mounts and formats but even upgrade to their next DSLR?

In too many instances, that factor has been added connectivity (which seems a duplication of what smartphones offer), minor upgrades with HD video (in a world where maybe 5% have the slightest clue how to edit them or see a difference), or elimination of the low-pass filter. We even tried 3D. Add to that the proliferation of new models every few months, when folks are already trying to catch up on what was introduced right before. I’m sensing a bit of technological weariness out there, and a kind of wariness to make sure what they buy today will not be obsolete tomorrow because of some minor upgrade.

We are not seeing hockey sticks in sales charts like the mass migration from film to digital created years back, and we should not anticipate that in the near future. But even with more modest expectations, we’re in the midst of a highly competitive world that could be termed a “grind” period, where innovation is bumping into market share and the buying public has become more skeptical about shelling out their shrinking discretionary dollars. That’s a much grimmer world than the halcyon days of digital photography’s youth, but when features and true benefits align and when we can communicate the benefits that go beyond the already invented “connected” wheel, we might rediscover our place in this image-crazy world and see growth on the horizon.

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