An open letter to all camera companies (or, if I were CEO, part one)

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Gratuitous image: any given camera company in a nutshell: ducks not lined up in a row, and not entirely clear what they’re to be lined up against, either.

For a moment, let’s say that I – we, collectively – had any say in how a camera company was run. Let’s go further to assume that we not only had say, but we could do as we pleased. There are two considerations here, which I think the existing companies tend to see as separate: making cameras for photographers, and making cameras that sell. They aren’t: if you make cameras that photographers want to buy, then even the non-photographers will want them because of the power of association, the halo effect and all of those other things that turn on the marketing people. A good example is Leica: very few pros shoot exclusively Leica now, but they did in the early days: this created a halo effect that’s existed to this day. If money is no object and you’re in the market for a camera or want to take up photography, then chances are you’ve considered a Leica. It’s also the sole reason why they manage to sell any of the rebadged Panasonics.

A separate but no less important, issue specific to this intellectual exercise has to do with what a startup company would look like as opposed to streamlining an existing one: the main difference to factor would be your existing user base and legacy system support. For the purposes of this article, let us assume we are talking to one of the brands that currently has a good spread of products from compact to pro and a legacy system. And if this article might seem to come from a bit left field for a photographer, then I suggest you read my previous analysis on the Sony-Olympus deal, and bear in mind that in my pre-photography life, I used to do this kind of thing for a living.

With that cleared up, let’s begin.

All for-profit companies have one primary objective: to stay in business. To do this, you need to add value: take raw materials or components, do your thing, and then sell it on to an end customer. Ideally, you want to maximize the amount of value you derive between the input and output stage. But fundamentally, you need to offer a product or service that people want to buy: either you make something they want before they know they want it (the Apple model) or you listen to your customers and make exactly what they think they want (the Boeing model). I think a good company needs to do both: the former is necessary to drive growth of sales and create new demand; the latter is for you to maintain/ retain sales and customers, respectively.

  1. To be successful, there has to be a certain…drive and pride embedded in the corporate culture: your employees should be proud and care about the product they create. A culture of excellence is necessary, not optional – there’s plenty of mediocrity out there already fighting for a shrinking sales pie. Cultivate a culture of meritocracy, not mediocrity. Involve your staff in development and idea generation – they’re already working for you – chances are, some of them may well be photographers.
  2. Define your target market and listen to your customers – and where things make sense, implement their suggestions. They may no longer be king, but they are the ones holding your future paycheck. Think of it as free consulting and market research insight from the people whose opinions actually matter.
  3. Don’t be afraid of change: if something isn’t working, admit it, and move on. I wouldn’t continue to sell mass-market compacts if the long term prognosis is bad, nor would I waste money trying to enter niches that are foreign and to which I’m a late entrant (dedicated video, for instance) – unless the absolute pie up for grabs is worthwhile. If there are painful decisions to make, like abandoning a mount – it’s best to do it sooner rather than later, and to continue supporting the outgoing mount if possible. (EOS is a good example: the value of FD glass suddenly disappeared overnight, but at the same time, it would have been impossible for Canon to incorporate emerging technologies otherwise
  4. Marketing should help you to sell a product, not create a product. There’s a difference. This should also help to keep promotional spending down, which leaves more in the kitty for…
  5. …Investing heavily in R&D: this is a source of competitive advantage, new ideas, and ultimately, revenue. You need to have created it in order to sell it.
  6. Embrace your heritage, but don’t let it cripple you – making a digital camera whose form doesn’t follow its function just so it can look retro is bad engineering: the original was designed that way precisely because it was an engineering decision, not an aesthetic one. There is value in purity of design.
  7. Where it makes sense, cut out the middleman: cutting costs will of course increase margins, but there are limits to how low costs can go. However, vertical integration and R&D can help you to both maximize the margins on existing products, as well as create niches for new ones where a novelty/ uniqueness premium applies.

Though these are generalist principle that would work for pretty much any tech-based business, I have a feeling that the further technology moves past the point of sufficiency, the more purchasing decisions are going to be made on emotional bases. At very least, qualitative differentiators will play a much larger role than quantitative ones. New cameras won’t sell simply because they have 10% more pixels than the outgoing model, or a a few times more zoom, though admittedly we’re still in the middle of this game – or perhaps it’s the tail end.  We’re already seeing qualitative factors at work: the minute a camera is offered in more than one colour, it’s appealing to the irrational side of the consumer who might just be tipped into buying one if it happens to be in their favourite hue.

Even large sea changes in technology may not be enough to convince customers to open their wallets; they have to be convincing home runs that are very close to being fully mature products. Not only does the disruptor have to convince potential buyers of its merits, but it also has to surmount the twin barriers of familiarity and development a more conventional product might have. (You’re almost not going to adopt something properly if it’s only good in one area, but lags behind what you already have in everything else – simply, nobody pays more money to downgrade.) Two good examples of revolutionary technology having less than the expected impact in the photographic industry are the Foveon sensors and Lytro. The former is as much a victim of poor (in some cases, no) promotion and distribution as it is of its own operational limitations; however, I have a feeling that if it were Canon rather than Sigma who launched it and advertised the hell out of it, we’d be seeing them in the hands of a lot more photographers. As it is, I can only think of a very small handful of people who’ve bought them; a lot don’t consider them because they simply have no access*.

*I don’t have one because the limitations are of significance to me.

Lytro, on the other hand, was hyped plenty but poorly implemented; the device and viewing software/ engine are simply not geared towards the kind of people who would be interested in buying it. As a result, there are far fewer around than you might have expected for a technology this impactful. This can be traced to a disconnect caused by not understanding the target market: it isn’t the mass consumers that are going to be buying it; they probably wouldn’t understand the implications or how to use it to begin with. Yet the people who would find this technology interesting are left in the cold because it offers almost zero control over some aspects of the photographic process (exposure), yet an astounding amount in others (focusing). I’m sure if they’d managed to retrofit the optics of the camera to say a high end compact-camera body and interface, the sales results would have been a lot more positive. MT

In part two of this article, we’ll continue to look in more detail at the key points that apply to the camera industry.


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  1. I really wish Nikon (or someone) would come out with a high resolution digital version of something like the Nikon FA or FM3a, a lightweight DSLR with only the basic controls, a shutter speed dial, A, P, and S modes, single shot vs. continuous and quiet frame rate control, ISO dial, white balance button, AE/AF lock, a good 100% viewscreen for manual focusing, a good rear screen for live view with zoom to pixel level, no built in flash. Basically a lighter, simpler version of the D800/E, without all the limitedly-useful features that most serious still photographers never use, would please me.

  2. I have to agree with you here about Lytro, even though they do have a limited (but not terribly usable) manual mode, They tried to go the mass market route with the technology, but it’s not simple enough for your average mom and dad to take picture of their kids with.

    While I really do like the technology, I wish they went with a large sensor model with a more modest zoom first so they could have better image quality. I think they would have had more success if they followed the Tesla model of coming out with a high performance product first, then working their way down to a family car later after showing success there.

    That said, from what I’ve seen / heard they are coming out with a larger sensor version soon – hopefully it works out some of the quirks of the initial product. They also could have done a better job of creating a community of users online to keep the momentum going between products.

    • I actually think they’d have made more money by licensing the patent out to the bigger brands and letting them take the marketing burden. Similarly, their IP grab of images when using their viewing software – and there is no other way to view them – is ridiculous and will prevent any serious photographer from even bothering. I can focus myself just fine, thank you. And I’d rather not have somebody messing around with my composition afterwards by changing the point of focus.

      • Yes, the Lytro viewer interface is a barrier to adoption for sure. Long page load times, difficulty embedding in social media, & lack of mobile support make Lytro a lot less appealing in the current market place.

        Their team is quite nice (met them at SXSW) and probably receptive to your ideas for them…. first photo company business consulting clients?

  3. Tom Liles says:

    definition of marketing as the work of identifying needs/wants of a market (what to create) and how to get outputs distributed to the market

    Interesting Thomas.

    I work for a Japanese ad agency, mostly retail business clients so this might be unrelated, but… the work of identifying needs/wants of a market (what to create) they call “Merchandising” [the MD dept., here at least, also thinks up things like point-of-purchase displays and promotional goods]; how to get outputs distributed to the market is mostly taken by the sales guys [as part of distribution plan, part of business plan/pitch; they seem mostly bothered about what timing? which shops? => which customers?].

    And they call both “Marketers” which seems to be a catch-all, almighty term that incorporates, product planning, promotion, merchandising, sales, etc, etc…

    It seems the only people who aren’t “marketers” are the graphic designers.
    [the sales guys do have plenty of other names for them though 😮 ]

  4. “Marketing should help you to sell a product, not create a product. There’s a difference. This should also help to keep promotional spending down, which leaves more in the kitty for…”

    Ming, long ago I learned a disciplined definition of marketing as the work of identifying needs/wants of a market (what to create) and how to get outputs distributed to the market. This was sharply contrasted with the street-concept of marketing as being “advertising and promotion”.

    Since that time a few of the companies I’ve done work for had cultures that discouraged R&D-driven products because (colloquially) the propeller-heads in R&D don’t know anything about what a real customer wants. [Those companies did not become Apple … or even Boeing..]

    I still experience that marketing as a term is very often used when advertising and promotion was in mind

    Given your M&A background I’m curious what boundaries/definition you put on the term, or at least how you meant it in the discrete context above… it makes a difference in how I try to consider what you wrote.

    • Identifying the needs of the market is correct: but most of the time, they survey the wrong market, ask the wrong questions, or misinterpret data. Or worse, invent so tent based on their own limited perspectives. I’ve been on both ends of this – participant in focus groups and surveys, and running agency teams or surveys of my own. Marketing should certainly identify under served niches, but it shouldn’t make them up if it doesn’t understand them.

      In the camera business, it’s become self-serving and self-reinforcing: you need more pixels for better quality images, or ever increasing ISO numbers – never mind any definition of pixel quality or SNR. These may not be concepts that the majority of consumers understand, but marketing’s role is as much to make them understand via education and promotion as to offer something they want to buy in the first place.

  5. Ravindra says:

    I bought my first camera in 1984. The Canon AE-1 Program. It did what it was supposed to. Nicely and consistently. Manual focus, but not one blurred image that I can recall. It did landscapes, street, portraits and sports. I never had read lack of ability of a camera to do things like bokeh and low light capability and noise. To such an extent that I never bothered to keep up with the moving industry trends till in 2005 when it died.
    I am searching for something that is as straight forward, simple and give me what I want. Good photographs!
    WiFi and GPS? Argh. At the cost of a viewfinder? I know I will be attacked for this as soon as I press ‘post comment’

    Ming: Sony is taking a step back to get back to the drawing board and start all over again (well, almost). I hope they read your article and hire you as a consultant.

    b.t.w. I like your style of photos so much so that I can tell this one is from Ming.


    • Sorry, I have bad news for you: what you want has ceased to exist a long time ago. Consumers now want more megapixels and the ‘pet smile beauty retouch mode’. Honestly…your best bet is to look on eBay and buy another one of those AE-1s. It’d be a whole lot cheaper, too.

      People got better images out of their cameras back then because they were forced to think when they used them. That isn’t the case today. Our mass instant gratification society wants it now, bigger, better, more spectacular…nobody is willing to put in the effort themselves, but throwing money at the problem is just fine.

  6. Zerberous says:

    Nikon, Canon, Panasonic, Sigma, Ricoh, Sony(Minolta) and Olympus are all Japanese companies. To really understand how they function – one must be Japanese, or at least lived and worked here. One thing I can say is that they are very conservative in general but sometimes tend to be over-fixated on technological issues – the customers do not care about, or do not even know. For cameras things seem to go well for them – other electronic companies struggle a lot.

    • Defining and concentrating on a technical problem – real or imagined – is much easier than something vague like customer experience or UI…

      • Tom Liles says:

        And a few sales right now is almost irresistible—particularly when weighed against tons of thought and effort for undetermined gains that certainly won’t be today, tomorrow or the very near future…

        [Not to mention “me too” mediocrity: my competitors have put some thing out, I must too; they’re doing it, so should I, etc…]

        Again, this is what happens when people who themselves haven’t stood on a shop floor and having to sell stuff get to call the shots [and set expectations].

  7. Michael Matthews says:

    So true. The 6 and 8 megapixel shots made by professionals photographers in that era are indistinguishable (in their intended use) from the same shots made today with 24 or 36mp.

    A few weeks ago something inspired me to resurrect my 12-year-old Canon G3 and make a picture of a small, blue flower in my backyard. I then did the same with a Nikon D80 and an Olympus E-PL1. Moving from 4mp to 10mp to 12mp. The results were essentially the same.

    For those of us who will admit to shooting JPGs and who love Olympus for its JPG color, it might be of interest to learn that the blues and greens rendered by the Canon G3 were even more pleasing. This was/is unsettling.

    • You missed the most important thing in this exercise. What did they look like at 100%. 🙂

      • Michael Matthews says:

        Oh, there’s nothing remotely rigorous about the comparisons — no amount of 100% crop viewing would yield anything meaningful.

        The amount of true detail, obviously, will vary directly with the pixel count. My handheld technique is wildly suspect; the lenses are a grab bag of different constructions and characteristics; the in-camera JPG renderings were tweaked after the fact in Lightroom.

        What surprised me was that given minimal post processing, all three images as seen on-screen (their intended use in this case) were practically identical.

        My gear lust may diminish. Maybe.

    • Unless they were printed very large. Part of the reason for what you see is increasing sloppiness because of ‘room to crop’ – so you never know if you’re seeing the entire image or not.

      Color should have improved significantly now – I definitely find it to be the case – providing you’re shooting raw and viewing it on an appropriate display. If you’re expecting the camera to deliver significantly better color within the confines of 8 bit jpegs or a narrow-gamut display, that’s not likely.

  8. About the Foveon sensor, I was shopping for a new camera a few months back and was kinda interested in the Sigma SD1 now that it has gone down in price. I have a Sigma DP1 (a compact with a prime lens and a Foveon sensor) and love its incredible sharpness, but hate its speed and other limitations. So, I was at a local photo trade show and went to the Sigma booth, asking to take a look at the SD1, to see if they could convince me that the limitations were worth it. They didn’t have one on hand — too few people asking for them they said. I figured that if Sigma themselves didn’t believe in their system enough to show it, I would be a fool to invest any money in it.

    I went with a Canon 6D instead. Great camera, I love it. Honestly, I think camera manufacturers are their own worst enemies: SLRs are now so good that I don’t really see the point in upgrading nearly as often. Unless my needs change radically, I don’t see why I would have to upgrade my camera body until it breaks down.

    • The truth is that even the entry level stuff is more than good enough for pro work – 24mp was undreamed of ten years ago, and we were making images just fine with 6 and 8 – yet we now get it plus 5fps and 11-point AF systems in the lowest level bodies. What more do consumers want? Easy: joy. Using a camera should be enjoyable, not a technical challenge and an IQ test. Some may enjoy that, but for that there are larger formats and film…

      • True. My 6D may be marketed as an “entry-level” full frame, but it’s superior in almost every way to the 5D mkII, which was a pro photographer staple for many years (and still is, for that matter).

  9. Your point on not making a cameral look retro for the sake of style seems like a slap at the Olympus OM D with which you do so much beautiful work. I don’t disagree with this idea in the abstract. I like the smaller and older EPL-1 better in terms of how it feels. More like a Leica IIIg. But the slightly larger OM D with its better image stabilization, sensor, and built in EVF come out way ahead overall. With a 14mm Panasonic pancake it is just about perfect and always in my pocket. I hope Olympus hangs in there – I really like their cameras. My only other comment is that I think the sea change to m43 is underestimated by the DSLR incumbents – Canon and Nikon. I think the market is headed for mirrorless and either or both of these companies would be well served by competing in the the m43 market sooner rather than later. Better for them if their m43 cameras cannibalize their own DSLR sales. The also rans like Sony or Pentax might be well advised going m43 taking some of the business that Canon and Nikon are leaving on the table. Looking forward to you next installment.

    • Simple reason for that – it was a slap at the Olympuses and Fujis – all of these extra superfluous design flourishes weren’t flourishes when that style was the cutting edge; they were functional. Now they just add cost, drive price up, and in the case of the OM-D – the decorative grooves actually serve to collect dirt and moisture, which is at odds with its supposedly professional position in the lineup. I know because I’ve experienced this myself – my Nikons collect far less water than the OM-D…

  10. Max Shtein says:

    Ming, I enjoy your blog and your work quite a bit. Kudos on what you’ve done.
    Pertaining to this particular post, the imaging device is just one part of the “puzzle” – and Thom Hogan has written extensively about the need to communicate the images (and with the images) to others via the myriad new channels, which most existing cameras are bad at. That is, if we discount the most prevalent kind of existing camera – the one in your cell phone.
    Perhaps relevant to this discussion is a question of what caused the death of Kodak. Many would say it was digital imaging, poor management, etc. There are lots of counterexamples to those explanations. The strongest argument is that Facebook killed Kodak. It isn’t the imaging technology per se, it’s the vastly more scalable means of sharing the images (electronic, rather than printed) that created rapid growth in a different area, where Kodak had no expertise / input. In fact, it isn’t so much that Facebook killed Kodak, it’s that Facebook (and others like it) created a better universe for sharing images, and people migrated en masse, leaving the old guard to whither away.
    (Shameless plug… We write about these dynamics in our new book, “Scalable Innovation” which ships from Amazon starting next week. You can pre-order it online, if you like 🙂 … and in a rather ironic fashion, we went with an old-school publisher who wouldn’t make an e-book available first, so it’s selling in paperback. Go figure.)
    – Max

    • I think it’s the fact that Kodak didn’t keep up – they had tons of patents, but weren’t willing to take the risks. No even in the film days, they were a film company first, and a camera company second…

    • Tom Liles says:

      Hi Max

      it isn’t so much that Facebook killed Kodak, it’s that Facebook (and others like it) created a better universe for sharing images…

      Yes, OK. You started making [internal] sense here, because:

      Facebook killed Kodak

      Is a completely anachronistic argument. Kodak was dead/dying WAY before we all had FB accounts. But I disagree with you and Ming [to a lesser extent Ming, and that’s not being artificially kind].

      Kodak killed Kodak.

      They invented the digital imaging sensors that, it turns out, all but murdered their core business. But it was in their hands; on first principles, the opposite should have happened. We know it didn’t. What happened was customers — who are ALWAYS left behind in these analyses, even though it is so simple: you have to sell stuff to be in business, ergo customers always unfailingly decide the ENTIRE thing — customers didn’t, wouldn’t, don’t and won’t associate the brand name “Kodak” with “digital.” It’s all about perception. Don’t tell me it isn’t. It is. “Kodak” was such a strong brand it was, and still is, indelibly associated with “film,” the same way “McDonalds” equals hamburgers [though half the menu is not hamburgers] or “Starbucks” is coffee [though half the menu is… etc]. You can’t successfully pitch “Kodak equals digital” into the punters head. This isn’t my opinion, we have the smoldering embers of Kodak infront of us to prove it.

      All they had to do was the old Proctor & Gamble model, what Toyota did with Lexus, etc. Start up a new company, with a new brandname, from scratch. Sell the digital stuff with that. Keep the film business film, under “Kodak.” Two, or more, business and two or more, brandnames not the path of least resistance; but doing things this way is why the human race managed to survive pre-history—we were capable of putting off a satisfaction payoff now for sustenance later [we didn’t eat all the food at once and stock-piled for winter]. It does work.

      I stake my reputation that the plane wouldn’t have hit the mountain like it has, if at all, if Kodak’d done it this way. It’d certainly be a different camera market in 2013 if they had.

      Doesn’t happen because you get hotshot master-of-the-universe corporate overlords with their MBAs and theories and egos AND ZERO EXPERIENCE OF STANDING ON A SHOP FLOOR AND SELLING SOMETHING TO A REAL LIFE PUNTER. Honestly, you have to laugh at most of these self-important theories and models and etc., etc—invariably invented by people who’ve NEVER had to sell something, actually stand there and take a person from zero to sale; people who’ve only ever the seen the till from the other side of the counter. They don’t have a great track record. Kodak is a good [bad] example.

      • Good point with your last paragraph: almost none or the hotshot MBA consultants I worked with – and was one of – have any practical experience in the real world. When I moved ‘client side’ – and incidentally I HAVE worked for McDonald’s – things are really quite different. Let’s just say there’s a reasons why the Golden Arches make all management – I was a senior director – go through several months of floor training at the outlets. I didn’t see the sense in it at the time, but it made a lot of sense not long after I started. If you don’t understand it…how can you make good decisions?

        • Tom Liles says:

          Many MBA types can be good salesmen: with powerpoints and coffee and biscuits and bods in suits and ties pretending to listen. But those are not the punters that make the business go round. Dealing more, not less, with the people who actually provide the bottom line can only be beneficial [to the business]. Sounds like Mac understand this.

          I forgot to mention — and this is real l’esprit de l’escalier — but the strongest argument [aside from the anachronism] against Max’s theory that “Facebook killed Kodak” or even “a better universe for sharing images, and people migrated en masse” did it, is this:

          You can’t pick a “facebook” up in your hand and take or record a picture with it.

          So how did any sharing infrastructure kill Kodak?
          [they are symbiotic, should strengthen each other, if anything!]

          Kodak killed Kodak, and if we want to split hairs: then I’m OK with the watered down orthodox version that Nikon and the D1 killed Kodak… or certainly banged a few nails in…

          I’m actually RIGHT THERE with Max though on:

          it’s the vastly more scalable means of sharing the images (electronic, rather than printed) that created rapid growth in a different area

          Agree 100%. I’ll be checking his book out—via an MT referral? 😮

          • Arguably, given the early lead modal had in digital imaging, they should have been the market leader in sensors by now. A lot of medium format cameras *still* use Kodak CCD sensors….

            • Tom Liles says:

              Interesting. I’m not familiar with “modal” is/was that a brandname? As for Kodak, isn’t what was left of the sensor division now Teledyne Dalsa? I can’t keep up with it all…

              Perhaps not quite the case for modal, I’m not sure about the brand, but the general rule is: being first to the marketplace isn’t what matters; being first in the mind, is what does.

              Who made the first MP3 player? It wasn’t Apple…

  11. Michael Matthews says:

    You’re hired. And that’s without waiting for Part Two.

    Unfortunately, I don’t own a camera company. In fact, I can barely afford to own a camera. The E-P5 (or E-M6) will have to wait until the price comes down. Of course, that could happen very quickly if your latest news on Olympus turns out to be fact. Pray that it does not.

    One of the things grinding away at the enthusiasm of would-be buyers is the tendency of camera makers to partially cripple their lower cost line of products in order to support the higher-margin upper tier. I doubt there is any true cost justification for withholding on-sensor phase detect autofocus from the Olympus E-P5 in order to offer it as a significant advance in an upcoming higher priced model. This sort of thing induces a partial market paralysis in addition to abrading the goodwill of the consumer.

    Maybe the best long term outcome will be the mushing together of the two brands to give birth to the Sonympus.

    My term, however, may not be that long. And the younger generation is losing interest.

    • I actually think Canon is the best example of this: you had to buy a pro DSLR at one point just to get spot metering!

      Nikon doesn’t feature cripple – it launches whatever it can put in at the price at the time, which is why the decidedly midrange D7100 has better AF coverage than the pro cameras, using the same system over a smaller area, and higher frame rates than the D600, or the D800 has more resolution than the D4 – which itself is actually the lowest resolution but most expensive camera in the lineup now. But admittedly it makes for a very confusing choice for the consumer, and perhaps that’s the real reason for the tiering.

      As for PDAF in the E-P5 – I suspect it wasn’t so much because of future models, but rather it simply wasn’t ready.

  12. Hi Ming,
    If I interpreted part of your Sony/Olympus article correctly, you alluded to the fact that companies like Olympus and Sony survive (at least in part) due to the fact that there is some level of conglomerate “collusion” or market sharing in Japan, by Japanese camera companies.
    – Quote from your article:
    “Now, if this were any country other than Japan, I’d say this is the beginning of the end for Olympus. …And being Japan, the conglomerates and cartels have existed for as long as business has been done; it might not make sense on initial examination, but ensuring the competition stays at a relatively similar level means that every stage of development can be recouped and monetized to the maximum*…”

    I used to work with Aerospace companies in Japan, and I entirely agree with this assessment. Whether due to direct discussions or “implicit understandings”, companies in Japan will often divide up the marketplace and never truly compete ruthlessly or openly with one another. Model A will compete with Model B, but is only marginally different. Put another way, does it really make sense for Japan to have three Prime Aerospace Aircraft manufacturers? The same goes with camera companies.

    I think the biggest problem with this business model or environment in Japan is that it stifles innovation and prevents companies from following the 7 very rationale points you mentioned above. The Japanese companies, in general, are very smart, very conservative and plan ahead. The question is always asked: “why doesn’t Nikon/Canon, etc. produce the camera I want?” They are smart. It seems like a no brainer. The only thing I can think of is lack of true market competition and some level of collusion.

    Now, at some point, I’d argue that a company like Nikon has to be slightly more aggressive than other camera companies, because a huge majority of their profit comes from dslrs and cameras. They can’t rely on the medical field or other optics sales to make up the difference. Hopefully, this gets us the camera we want/need…!

    • Hopefully. But Nikon’s main business is still photolithographic steppers, which are used in the fabrication of silicon chips – or at least it was a couple of years ago, I have no idea what the current revenue split looks like.

      The latest news on Olympus is that they may well run out of cash within the next two years if things don’t significantly turn around – and somehow I can’t see Sony bailing them out again. A cut and sell outcome is more likely.

      • Tom Liles says:

        Sad news about Olympus. Off the south exit of JR Shinjuku station, there’s a building called “JR East Building.” Olympus had a HUGE neon sign above this building. It was a real landmark [second sign down on the link]. It’s one of my first memories from arriving in Tokyo as a 21 year old and has been a background feature of my life here ever since—it changed colors in the most pleasant, mesmerizing way. I work near Yoyogi, but I’d often make the walk, one station in the wrong direction, to Shinjuku to catch my evening train home from there. Just so I could see it and bask in the blue, green, yellow glow as I strolled…

        They dismantled it some months back.

        • There was a similarly large one on the side of a bridge in Kuala Lumpur – that one went shortly after the initial debacle…

      • You got it in reverse: Nikon is 3 parts camera 1 part stepper now. Olympus is the other way: more medical than camera. Nikon lost the stepper business for sitting on their behind.

  13. I find your article interesting in that the current compact camera market is taking a serious beating. Over a month ago Apple launched a new advertising campaign and ended that TV commercial claiming their iPhone is number one in stating: “Every day, more photos are taken with the iPhone than any other camera.”

    For the P&S photographer I would have to believe its the after photo workflow that has killed sales and I don’t see any way they can recapture that now. Who carries their P&S camera with them all the time. But they do their smartphone. Smartphone cameras are only going to get better and the photo apps for these phones will too.

    At the top end between Nikon and Canon, the company that makes it easier to move an image you’d like to share on one of the popular social media sites could definitely add an advantage. But of course it would depend on how this is implemented. Its just incredibly easy from an iPhone. That’s where implementing a RAW+JPG workflow with the ability to sync the JPG “easily” to your smartphone. When I mean easily I really mean easily, like automatic once setup. It should be brain dead stupid easy and not like trying to set the time on your VCR days.

    • Olympus are already doing what you just described over wifi with the E-P5. Given that the camera also makes outstanding jpegs, I think they have their target market sewn up. I can never imagine myself using such a feature, though – wireless tethered shooting to an ipad to preview might be useful for some client or critical focus applications, but that’s about it. And it’d have to be able to move raw files around, too.

  14. Tom Liles says:

    Agreed. I think me and a lot of other serious/enthusiastic/etc amateurs are going the “yesterday’s pro spec” route.
    [You’ve been a trusted voice on this issue, but, really, we passed the line of sufficiency a while ago?]

    I’ve read and reread your “Inspirations from older Cameras” piece on the D3, and the D700 send-off, like a million times now. So ready for either…

    Next I think we’re due a tongue in cheek article: Shiny Objects & Dealing With Your Better Half: The Dos; The Dont’s 😀

    Have a great weekend Ming, all. Cheers!

    • “Next I think we’re due a tongue in cheek article: Shiny Objects & Dealing With Your Better Half: The Dos; The Dont’s ”

      I like this thought as well. The comments can be about things that HAVE worked and those that didn’t. Educational for everyone.

    • Very much so. Even the compacts. But then again, I brought the CFV-39 on holiday. :p

      The trick with the spouse is you do it so often they can’t keep track, or you do it for work and write it off as a work expense…

      • Tom Liles says:

        The trick with the spouse is you do it so often they can’t keep track…

        No, that’s actually seriously good advice.
        I can conform it works with lenses.

        Will I pull off the d7000 –> d3 metamorphosis?

        [Of course I’m joking: I know which side my bread’s buttered on! My strategy, be up front, sell-in, co-opt, work hard, grovel, earn it. Most of all — and this is a GEM of shop floor sales, I got it from one of the best in the business — you don’t pitch good reasons why you should/would like to buy… You remove all reasons not to buy. QED.]

        SUPPLEMENTAL IDEA FOR ARTICLE [to be published in discerning women’s glossy]

        On Holiday With Ming Thein: 10 Things To Do When You See Him Packing The CFV-39

  15. Tom Liles says:

    Great article Ming. Looking forward to part 2.

    There are two considerations here, which I think the existing companies tend to see as separate: making cameras for photographers, and making cameras that sell. They aren’t: if you make cameras that photographers want to buy, then even the non-photographers will want them

    Mmm. Assuming there’s such a thing as “the good old days” — and I doubt anyone would disagree that we don’t hear photographers say, on the regular, how it used to be better, less commercial, slower product cycle, more photog oriented, etc., etc — then doesn’t where we’re at now disprove the above? Non-photographers haven’t followed and bought what photogs have.
    [Though what photogs rate, these days, seems like a mystery wrapped in an enigma; there is no public, open forum/voting outlet for this, except for the retail market that is (though how you’d segment that data to capture only the slippery concept of “photogs” I don’t know). I remember we spoke about the paucity of inter-photog exchange when it comes to what photogs want in the comments on your user-poll/consumer research article.]

    I agree camera co’s seem to be considering things separately. I just question the underlying assumption in the quote that non-photographers are interested in following photographer’s lead. Facts on the ground don’t seem to support this. Another anecdote: every professional photog I’ve ever met [and that’s a few] doesn’t shoot video/motion. And has precisely no interest in doing so [they are professionals, such features are for play]. Yet this feature is de rigeur, now. Who bossed that design feature: the photographers or the non-photographers?

    I see the professional grade stuff getting more niche; consumer grade stuff getting ever sillier… ramping ever up in a spec war that won’t end until 100% crops are revealing the atomic structure of the ink on the chart, etc.

    I doubt the twain shall meet. We’re seeing the opposite, no?
    [i.e., the natural flow of things is divergence not convergence]

    As you know, I’m seriously considering a resolution downgrade [but a sensor size upgrade]. I’ve found the d7000 is too much for me—and this coming from a guy who owns two Foveons [and I loyally support the Sigma brand, my local heroes!]. It’d take a paragraph to fully explain the whys and wherefores — and please breath a sigh of relief, I’ll save you all my gas bagging tonight: it’s Friday! — but I’m amazed that consumers, not pros, weren’t [aren’t!] complaining more about 16Mpx on an ASP-C, let alone the user immolating 24Mpx on the new d7100.

    At very least, qualitative differentiators will play a much larger role than quantitative ones

    I hope we’re there now, and I hope they will. Then I pray that what camera co’s choose as qualitative differentiators are things like haptics and… no… actually,

    Just the haptics.


    [I want full pro body haptics: size, buttons and button placement, viewfinder—but not full pro innards and menu functions. Pro basics coupled to amateur spec. At moderate price. That is all.]

    • There are a lot of pros I know who are dabbling with video either because the commercial photography market is lean and the video barriers to entry are higher for amateurs, or because the clients are asking for it. It’s happened to me a couple of times already; I won’t shoot but I do direct and storyboard.

      As for what you’re asking for – I think it’s basically a digital FM3A. But if they made it, it’d be very niche, and very expensive – read right outside amateur budgets. Your best bet is still a D700 or D3.

  16. I liked your comment about marketing. The design should come from what your customers are demanding they need(or in some cases what is believed can be best utilized creatively.) Too much time currently seems to be spent putting features in that seem to be band-aided on because marketing believes they will sell and then when they don’t they aren’t put on a product where they might do well. (I’m thinking of GPS and others) Product development should come from what the product needs, not what might sell it.

    • I think it’s pretty simple: either give the customers what they don’t know they need, or what they want. And whatever the case, the product should be easy to use and what I like to think of as ‘transparent’ – intuitive.

    • As a Director of Marketing and Product Manager in a technology company, I can tell you that my experience is that all those extra features are put in by engineering. I do a lot of customer site visits to see what the customers want, and many times these don’t get into products because R&D cannot deliver what I tell them the customer needs to solve his problem. It is possible that what you write does occur as a result of “marketing” but having worked at three tech companies over the past 15 years, I beg to differ.

  17. Write …so not to stay stagnant (passion or product)(a release even if no one read)
    this to engage and exchange (fan base in all directions)
    a product’s market pie better not be pondered by anyone outside the circle (avoid mis-….that hold fan awhile but not lasting)
    the lens designer offered a possibility,the market respond with own demand and creativity,the course free-flow…everyone adjust
    whatever new gadget with image making coming up next…less problem as demand freewill and conscious,,,,, lasting though
    just may be what Eiji Shirota san’s “Hello again, everyone” approach to touch, interact, explain….hit a spot
    it is an education that most user tolerance less perfect but value explore and endurance with a passion to create
    simply direct from the producer’s desk and little expenses (Thanks to MT too. Ha…Ha…Ha…)

  18. I believe for a long time all these companies are talking to each other, collaborating and dividing profits…..what’s the right word for it….): ??? How come nobody investigate it yet?

    • Collusion? Cartels? Quite possibly. Who knows? The timing of new releases is suspiciously close, too close for the latecomer to be a hasty response – product development takes time. There are very few direct, head-to-head competitors. In fact, the only ones that come to mind are the Coolpix A and Ricoh GR…

  19. I think you are having withdrawal symptoms from your investment banking days!! Good article! (like your photos!)

    • Not really. Just frustration at the seemingly meh volume of releases, and the death of great names in the industry due to shortsightedness and not understanding the end consumers properly…hopefully I will have some small influence over that once I start producing the surveys and reports.

      • Iskabibble says:

        All I need is my Nikon FM2 (or Fuji GA645) and a good roll of film. The rest is ALL fluff.

        • There’s one problem with that: if it were the case for everybody, nobody would be making new cameras – they’d have all gone out of business. There’s also a sustainability issue here…

        • Tom Liles says:


          Won’t you need a lens too?…

          Wide, mid, tele?
          3.5 or spring for the 1.4?
          Go for a zoom?
          Will just any old film do?
          DIY develop?
          Which scanner?
          Which PC?
          Which monitor?
          Which printer?
          Which inks?
          Or print at a print shop?
          What’s their ICC profile like?
          Need software to proof with it…
          Which paper?

          We’re ALL into the fluff Iskabibble. People who have as clear an idea about what they want/like as you do, definitely so. Otherwise you’d be inartly snapping a disposable P&S or your phone and developing at the supermarket if you even develop at all. Those are the people to who all this is fluff.

          The instant you start caring about the outcome, or the process, or both—you step right into Fluff-ville.
          [that’s to say: it’s not “the rest is all fluff,” it should be “it is all fluff.“]

  20. One thing they really need is honest marketing. There’s too much hype and dazzling of consumers. Most people just want good enough snapshots, but they get lured into spending on ultra zoom, hyper waterproof cameras with tiny sensors and slow lenses, and wonder why their pictures turn out grey and fuzzy. The average consumer must be constantly disappointed and never faithful to any brand as a result.

    • Agreed, but the honest truth is that all the tech wizardry in the world isn’t going to save lousy composition, nor can it make artistic exposure choices for you. Camera makers should embrace that education is really in their best interests, and will help consumers to appreciate the value of better tools…in turn selling more cameras.

      • David Babsky says:

        “..all the tech wizardry in the world isn’t going to save lousy composition, nor can it make artistic exposure choices for you..”

        ? Who are the camera companies selling to? They want volume sales. Their punters (..sorry; “customers”..) want, for the most part, s n a p s h o t s. Customers in a (UK electronics or camera chain store) Jessops, or Dixons/Currys/PC World don’t want great composition or artistic exposure. They want their snaps to come out right, so that the faces are in focus, the pictures aren’t blurred or too dark or whited out, their sunsets look OK, and faces indoors – in front of a window, or standing in shadows – are clear and recognisable.

        That’s why camera companies fill their compacts with the ability to recognise scenes (“I’m in close-up now”, “there’s a big sky, so this is a landscape shot”, “there’s lots of white, so this is probably snow”) and to recognise faces, and to adjust accordingly to deliver well-exposed shots, not “artistic composition” or “artistic exposure”.

        Moving a face into a golden mean intersection isn’t high, I don’t think, on the camera companies’ agenda.

        We all want great exposure in low light – so Fujifilm (F500/600/700 series compacts) and Casio (ZR-1000) – and others – have done great things to rapidly snap a series of stabilised shots in very low light and then blend them together to give clear, sharp, hi-res results with very little noise. That’s what customers want: clear shots in all circumstances. (And the manufacturers have done that with 12x, 15x and 25x compact zooms which deliver great results in -t-e-e-n-y- cameras!)

        You’re looking at the situation as a “premium purchaser” ..someone who buys expensive, high-level, (semi-)pro equipment, and whose aim is to create very sharp, high resolution, “artistically”-composed photographs.

        You’re not the average camera buyer you know full well.

        But look at the OM-D. There’s a camera which..
        1 Almost never shoots a “shaken” shot, because it has such great built-in stabilisation
        2 Focuses very fast (with dedicated Olympus lenses)
        3 Gets the white balance right almost 100% of the time
        4 Gives great results in low light (at high ISO settings)
        5 Has low shutter lag after squeezing the button
        6 Is enormously configurable (if one actually understands the shamefully poor instruction manual)
        7 Can be fitted with almost any lens ever made (by using adaptors)
        ..and has obviously been designed and manufactured with great attention to what customers want.

        I think you’re doing many camera companies a disservice; I think you’re generalising too much. Many companies, or brands, are working hard to provide innovative products which do address their potential customers’ needs and aspirations ..Fujifilm, Olympus, Ricoh, Casio, Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, Sony, Samsung ..they’re all going flat out to offer a range of products to fill every niche.

        On the other hand, Sigma looks a bit lost (with sometimes daft pricing) and Leica is only a little less unworldly than it has been since the 1960s. (Lord knows what silly device they’ll deliver on the 11th ought to be a smaller size full-frame M-bayonet camera without the (now unnecessary) optical rangefinder, but it’ll probably be another APS-sized X1/X2 with a short zoom. They should be making a 21st century small body ‘CL’ equivalent with live view, but perhaps that just doesn’t occur to them.)

        For the most part, though, I think camera companies are innovating like mad ..or, at least, improving like mad.

        For true innovation – the camera world’s equivalent to an iPod or iPhone – which I think is what you’re asking for, they’d have to start from first principles: what will take perfect pictures effortlessly? Liquid lenses (changing shape instantly without mechanical turning or extending), hi-res low-light organic sensor, human eye or thought controlled (Google Glass?), and really very tiny.

        I’ve just gone back to 2004, and my (secondhand) Contax iR4 does almost all of what I want ..but – unfortunately – it won’t zoom!

        • Maybe I phrased it incorrectly: what consumers want – and are increasingly expecting because of the glossy marketing material – is something that the cameras cannot automatically deliver out of the box. None of them are going to be smart enough to decide if a backlit scene should be a high key portrait or a silhouette of a vase; pattern recognition is something humans do very easily, but is almost impossible to program (I know because I was involved in this for another project).

          Marketing wants to make consumers believe that each generation of cameras is incrementally smarter and able to deliver to ever increasing and unrealistic expectations – when the reality is a little education (possibly even included in the price of the camera) would go a long way further.

          I don’t think I’m doing the camera companies a disservice at all. If anything, I’m helping them from making promises they can’t deliver: the number of non-photographers I know who’ve bought really good equipment and given up because it didn’t meet expectations is very, very high; they revert to point and shoots because they can’t extract enough difference to justify the weight or cost – but this doesn’t mean they’re happy with the output. Yet any of the equipment they own would be capable of much better images if the user understood something about exposure or composition or the limits of automation and exposure envelope of the camera…

          • David Babsky says:

            But what equipment (..apart from a Leica, which generally comes with a free pass to a Leica Akademie photo-educational session..) comes with “..a little education (possibly even included in the price of the item)..”?

            Do video cameras come with lessons on “the grammar of video” and how to light, shoot and edit movies? Do cars come with educational material about driving? Do word-processing programs come with instructions about how to write that novel, or how to structure a letter to your bank manager?

            What “recreational” equipment comes with educational and instructive material? ..Watches? ..No. Washing machines? Yes ..but people hardly buy washing machines as, let’s say, “aspirational” items.

            Paint and brushes? D’you get a free course in how to create a masterpiece when you buy a camel-hair paintbrush? I suppose you could be automatically enrolled in painting classes, but could the price of a simple paintbrush realistically cover that cost? Maybe if you buy two dozen Winsor & Newton paint tubes you DO get the offer of a painting course ..I don’t know. Leica, as far as I know, is the only camera company which does offer free instruction and education with every M you buy, and Apple – whom they’re trying to copy – offers as many free courses (in using their software) as you can use whenever you visit an Apple Store which has a “theatre” (like the store in London’s Regent Street).

            “..what consumers want – and are increasingly expecting because of the glossy marketing material – is something that the cameras cannot automatically deliver out of the box..” ..but I think that’s because customers do not read the instructions. And I know that, because I teach photography every year (for a holiday company) and no-one who’s come to a course has ever read their instructions: they take the camera out of the box and want to get started ..of course! And most instructions are thoroughly impenetrable anyway!

            But most cameras now CAN discern “..if a backlit scene should be a high key portrait or a silhouette of a vase..” if you press the Menu button in ‘Scene’ mode, and then scroll through the options to choose either “High Key” or “Silhouette”.

            So what camera manufacturers need to do is to make that choice more easily accessible: to offer voice (whisper) recognition; the camera says, when it sees a high contrast image “D’you want the foreground nice and bright, or d’you want a silhouette?” and the photographer whispers back “Bright Foreground!” ..and the camera does it.

            Most customers do NOT scroll through the Scene modes to find what they want ..even though what they want is built into the camera. They don’t even KNOW that Scene mode is there, or what it does.

            So the camera makers need to put on the box, and in the advertising, “Speak your Shot!” that their potential customers ask in the shop for “..a ‘Speak your Shot’ camera, please!”

            Cameras DO have all sorts of wonderful capabilities built in, and “..each generation of cameras is incrementally smarter and able to deliver to ever increasing … expectations..” ..but it’s just that customers don’t know about these facilities and capabilities or how to invoke them.

            The technologists who put the capabilities into the cameras are doing just fine, but the instruction manual writers and the marketing people don’t know how to succinctly and successfully convey these capabilities, and there seem to be no “ease of use” specialists in the camera companies to specify how these myriad capabilities are drawn to the attention of the customer, and made simpler for them to use.

            “..the number of non-photographers I know who’ve bought really good equipment and given up because it didn’t meet expectations is very, very high..” ..yes, I’m sure.

            Customers are disappointed not because cameras can’t do what the customer wants, but because the customer has no idea about the great capabilities which may be buried away in obscure Menus inside the camera, and how to choose the right item from one of those Menus.

            Picking up a camera and saying “Perfect portrait” should deliver a perfect portrait, whatever the lighting or composition, if the camera understands what the photographer wants! Simple as that.

            • None. And I think Apple is probably the only company that got that bit right, too. Having to tell the camera what kind of situation you’re in assumes the consumer has knowledge of that to begin with; let’s not even go into all of the possible variations in terminology. If they did know, then it would be faster to dial in a couple of stops of compensation rather than scroll through the endless list of every possible scene mode to find it – by which time, the moment has passed – as you say, most people don’t even know it’s there because they don’t read the manual. It’s gotten to the point that I’ve stopped answering questions of this sort because I wouldn’t have time to do anything else if it did!

  21. Tom Kavanagh says:

    This is a brilliantly insightful article and I hope it sits on the CEO’s desks.

  22. Mark Olwick says:

    Disagree (somewhat) about the fact that you must listen to your customers in order to develop new products. Here’s a great quote from Steve Jobs:

    “This is what customers pay us for–to sweat all these details so it’s easy and pleasant for them to use our computers. We’re supposed to be really good at this. That doesn’t mean we don’t listen to customers, but it’s hard for them to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it. Take desktop video editing. I never got one request from someone who wanted to edit movies on his computer. Yet now that people see it, they say, ‘Oh my God, that’s great!’”

    • That’s true ONLY if you are doing a good job with new products – for the most part, the industry simply isn’t. There is no photographic company that’s even remotely close to Apple in terms of innovation, design or even user interface. So, we can only conclude they still need help…

    • Steve Jobs was a visionary. His greatest strenght was the ability to give the customers what they want before they even knew it. And he wanted to keep the operating procedures for them as simple as possible. After seeing Apple make some questionable decisions, i also believe he was the one who limited the company in a positive way for us customers, by not presenting every year a successor to every product they want to sell us. Although it’s kinda funny for me that this great man thought i would have liked to edit movies on a computer, but not that i want to get my pictures of my children on my tablet or smartphone without the cloud. Btw these are products which you can’t put into operation without internet access. But as mentioned first: Steve Jobs was a visionary.

  23. Awesome picture and caption!

  24. Reblogged this on Galeri Nayha .

  25. Reblogged this on baraputrakelana11.

  26. I wonder if another issue which stopped the Foveon gaining more (much deserved, IMO) success is that it’s in no way an all-rounder. It does one thing – take shots with incredible resolution in good light. Most people aren’t going to want something that “specialised” until they understand a certain amount about cameras. It’s almost like having a car which can reach world record speeds in a straight line but can’t take corners well (and gets about five kilometres to the gallon!). It’s only going to appeal to a certain set of people, but they are more likely to be fanatical about it.

    • Very true – but you need the fans to support your brand and do your marketing indirectly, I think.

    • Tom Liles says:

      Mark, hello 🙂 Sorry to bump in here, but I just got home from the park with the kids, have 10 minutes before the wife gets back and my “double trouble” are safely glued to the telly [watching ‘Anpan Man’ = crack-cocaine to the little people]; so I popped back to MT’s blog for a time killer. Noticed your name in blue, gave it a click.

      I think we’ve got a bit in common: not only where we live, but on the X3 Foveons. I have a DP1M and a DP2M; I can’t afford and wouldn’t go for the DP3M — and the Merrill shooting style isn’t really my thing at that focal length — but it was really interesting to read about how you’re getting on with yours on your blog. Happy customer? Do you think you’ll trade in again in the future?

      I’m so deep in the GAS now it’d be just as tiresome to roll it all back as to carry on [to paraphrase Macbeth]. But I am probably heading for a cull soon. The Merrills are really close to my heart, the DP1M was my introduction to all this [what a completely stupid camera to start with; but this is the joy of life not being logical] and for all the frustration, I rate them because you do get truly unique results [which makes perfect sense, the sensor architecture is truly unique]. I find the highlights clip in that unmistakably digital way, now you see them, now you don’t, this might just be my bad shot discipline; but the color sensitivity, the [off kilter] palette, and the monochromes they give [without any skill on my part] are all worth it. When it comes to the DPM series, there’s the quality of the fixed lenses [lens-sensor combo]; but as Ming has said—when you can’t change and it’s a lock in, they had better be good.

      This said, something has got to go. My DMC-L1 and two lenses can go [if I can find someone who’ll take them!], I suppose can try and live with not having the Epson R-D1s [though I really feel a connection with that nutty contraption]; the Sigmas… besides the above, I live pretty close to Sigma HQ and want to support the brand… can I get rid? I just don’t think I can…

      Perhaps I’m on the road to fanaticism? 😀
      [care to join me!]

      Cheers. Tom.

      And sorry again for the interruption!


  1. […] at Sound Image Plus + why are people bothering with compact cameras? at Petapixel + if I were CEO Part #1 and Part #2 by Ming Thein + on camera pricing by Thom Gearophile + street photography and medium […]

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