The beginning of the end?

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Yesterday, Olympus announced that it was selling off the camera business – which for most photographers probably seems a bit strange seeing as that’s their primary association with the company; after all, if a camera company doesn’t make cameras, what’s left? As it turns out, medical and scientific divisions account for nearly 78% of revenue; scientific a further 13+%, and cameras – just 6.1%. It’s also the only loss making division – and loss making for some time. And let’s not even begin to talk about the corporate scandals of the last few years. From a corporate point of view, no matter how storied, you look at the numbers and it becomes pretty difficult to justify continued operation especially in light of a global photographic market that is itself contracting and stagnating. I’m going to try and answer three questions now: what happens to Olympus next? What does this mean for M4/3 and its user base? And what could this signal for the rest of the industry?

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Photoessay: Morning at Charlottenburg

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Charlottenburg Palace was built at the end of the 17th century as the seat of King Friedrich I – and subsequently made even larger and more ornate by his son. It was heavily damaged during the second world war, and most of what stands today has been reconstructed or heavily rebuilt. It is currently a museum housing the crown jewels and an extensive porcelain collection; some rooms have been restored to their former state and serve as a snapshot of life in the period. Perhaps intentionally, the building lacks the sense of scale and massiveness that these kinds of buildings typically have; the rooms and passageways felt very much sized to human scale and not something you’d expect either of royalty or that level of wealth. That said, the decoration was so heavily done – in true baroque rococo style, of course – that that I wouldn’t be surprised if the undersides of the tables were also gilded. Still, it proved to be an enjoyable diversion for the morning, as well as yielding some interesting details thanks to strongly directional light streaming through the tall windows. MT

This series was shot with a Nikon Z7, 24-70/4 S and 85/1.8 S lenses, using my custom SOOC JPEG picture controls.

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Photoessay: The texture of geometry

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Every image but the last one in this series is a (limited) study in interior texture of one city – Berlin. It’s interesting that despite the difference in eras, buildings, purposes, constructors, architects, designers and users – there remains a very strong Bauhaus feel to all of these places. It really felt as though one was surrounded by the minimalist, functional spirit. I’ve personally found this kind of interior to be very finely balanced – too minimalist and it feels spare and clinical; too many details and it loses the Bauhaus-ness. Even though many of these details are ornamental and not even rectilinear, the order of detail and plain, pale colors manage to suggest and retain the feeling of functional minimalism to a global level of coherence I’ve not really seen elsewhere. I suppose one could put Japan into that category, but as distinctive as such places are, it doesn’t feel as consistent because there is a much wider spread of ages of buildings (or at least ages of design). I feel there’s also a potentially deep conclusion to be made here on the convergence of culture, vision and design, but right now it eludes me… MT

This series was shot with an iPhone 11 Pro, with processing via Photoshop Workflow III.

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Photoessay: Cliches and observations

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During the time I was in Berlin, I found it difficult to escape the history and cliches of the war – though nearly 80 years ago, the memory seems to be still raw in the collective mind of the city, if not really surfacing when actually talking to the locals. I can’t help but think the aftermath and societal guilt is something that has become so deeply rooted now that it will forever become part of the city. I suppose in a way this is rightly so, but I couldn’t help shake the feeling that the Berliners took everything just a little too seriously as a result – and any fun was very much hidden underground (there’s probably something in that, and bunkers, too). I don’t pretend to understand or appreciate any of this beyond the most superficial level afforded to a visitor, nor do I honestly ant to care the baggage. All in all, a very curious-feeling and not easy to visually capture experience, to say the least. MT

This series was shot with a Nikon Z7, 24-70/4 S and 85/1.8 S lenses, using my custom SOOC JPEG picture controls.

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Short term pain, long term gain

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Exotic beasts. Yes, the 100MP cameras have been shipping for some time now; yes, that one is mine – the door gifts at HQ are amazing! – and yes, I’ll be posting a report once I’ve had a chance to live with and use it for a while.

I’m writing this on the way home from a very intense tour of Europe – a visit to see my brother, review and refine design for the second generation of bags (yes, there will be a smaller one!) visit some clients, meet some alumni and check in on the status of a couple of other projects. Since I was broadly in the right area – and because it’s a bit of a trek otherwise – I had to make a pilgrimage to Hasselblad HQ.

It turns out I arrived at precisely the peak of activity. Yes, there’s been another announcement; yes, there are necessary changes, and yes, it appears that the DJI deal was true – the silence being deafening. Many things were taking place during my visit that were restricted to high level management. In any case, I was much more interested in the historical prototype lens cabinet.

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A visit to Zeiss and thoughts on the Milvus line

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The mothership

I was fortunate enough to spend the last three days at Zeiss with Lloyd Chambers (update: his blog entry is here) – with a level of access that I suspect that has never been granted before to independent external parties. They were gracious and first class hosts – I don’t think I’ve had that many types of non-alcohlic beer before. We asked every question we could think of and more, and received answers which we had never expected and at a level of depth that has left me deeply, deeply impressed with what the lens team is doing out in Oberkochen. This may seem like a strange way to talk about the new announcement, but bear with me for while; there is method to the madness. 🙂

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Photokina 2012 commentary and opinions

The rush of product announcements is over, the collective giddy fanboy-like enthusiasm has died down somewhat, and presumably some serious business is being discussed in the back meeting rooms and dingy service hallways of the exhibition hall in Cologne, or over giant pretzels at the local bierhaus. It’s about the right time for a bit of serious reflection and commentary on some of the more interesting announcements from the last week.

The beginning of full frame for the masses.
The Nikon D600 and Canon 6D are squarely aimed at the space which the Nikon D70 and Canon 300D battled over nearly eight years ago; enthusiast-level cameras with serious image quality and a reasonably good feature set. Granted, the price point is a bit higher, but then again, inflation has moved things along somewhat, too. I actually think both of these cameras are far more capable than the average user needs, but people will buy them anyway. Commendably, Nikon actually had cameras in stock, and for sale at dealers on the day that was announced; this seems to be a rare exception in days of ‘pre-announcements’ months ahead of actual availability. And there weren’t any shortages, either – my dealer (admittedly one of the largest in Malaysia) got 60 bodies, compared to two(!) D800s. The D600 is an extremely refined camera that has no major issues anywhere – and I’m pleased to see that QC is much better this time, too; even though the camera comes from Nikon’s Thailand plant instead of Sendai. I’ll be doing a full review the D600 in the coming days, so stay tuned.

Breaking away from the traditional fixed limitations to camera software.
Nikon’s S800C is the first attempt by a large, traditionally-camera (I don’t count Samsung) manufacturer at doing quasi-open firmware; I think its success will depend on two things – the ecosystem around apps, and the level of integration with normal photographic functions. I don’t think it makes sense to have a camera that’s touch-screen only, which requires you to navigate some menus before you can even take a picture; instead, perhaps the ‘camera app’ could be loaded and running over the base OS by default, with other functional configurations loaded as required. They’ll need to retain buttons, too. And I have no idea how Android handles image processing, especially for very large files.

Wireless, wireless, wireless
Nikon, Canon and Olympus have gone big on wireless file transfer this year, each taking slightly different approaches. Nikon’s is dongle based, and allows ftp of files to any server, which is great for working professionals; Canon’s is built into camera (why aren’t they all like this?) – I haven’t used one, so I can’t comment on functionality. Olympus is card-based and requires an app on a tablet or smartphone to work, but is very well integrated with social media. I think the strategies actually represent their respective companies quite well; Nikon is still conservative and photographic-focused; Canon is a bit gadgety, and Olympus’ target market is very much the blogger and casual user. I hope that at some point the wireless standards will be sufficiently fast and well-defined enough to allow transfer of any file to any other device, or direct upload from the camera itself; Olympus’ implementation seems to work the best of the lot (as far as speed and multiple users go) – unfortunately there’s no way of having it send anything other than a jpeg to a tablet.

More mirrorless
There were a slew of offerings here: the Fuji X-E1, Panasonic GH3, Sony NEX-6/ NEX-5R, Olympus E-PL5 and E-PM2. It’s clear that smaller sensors are here to stay – remember sufficiency for the masses – and viewfinders are becoming an increasingly rare spec. The X-E1 is probably what the X-Pro should have been in the first place; I honestly found the hybrid finder in the X100 gimmicky after a while, and landed up using the EVF most of the time for more precise framing. If AF is improved as much as they claim, Leica will have competition on its hands, but then again, they probably won’t mind because they’ll just sell more lenses. The GH3 now occupies top spot in the M4/3 pyramid, and appears to be a notch above the OM-D in both spec and price. The asking money – $1299 – isn’t cheap at all. Fortunately, sensor quality in the new M4/3 cameras more than justifies it. Sony is more of the same – a cheaper NEX-7, and an evolution of the NEX-5. The hybrid AF technology with phase detect points in the imaging sensor itself was surprisingly low-key; I would have thought that something this useful would be deserving of more fanfare. Olympus’s lower-end cameras have been updated with the innards of the OM-D (though not the 5-axis gyro stabilizer). The E-P3 remains in the lineup for now, though I don’t see why anybody would buy one given the price and older sensor. I’ve got an E-PL5 here for testing, and it’s a pretty impressive camera – this is what the original E-P1 should have been. It’s fast, responsive, very nicely built, and pocketable with the body cap lens; I’ll have a full review up in the coming days.

Sony A99
Sony’s different approach to mirrorless has meant some unique value propositions at the low and mid range, and a slightly odd product at the high end – the A99 shares a base sensor with the D600, but is positioned at the price point of the D800E. At that level, you get higher fps than either camera, an excellent EVF, but a slightly odd control layout and user interface. General operation is fast enough, but I have no idea whether tracking AF is up to speed with conventional DSLRs or not; this has traditionally been a weak point of Sony cameras. I don’t think the package is compelling enough to attract new photographers to the brand, but videographers might be convinced by the quality of the output; the RX100 is seriously impressive, and that sensor is a fraction of the size of the A99’s. I still don’t think EVF’s are anywhere near good enough for critical applications, though; it’s not so much about resolution as dynamic range. I previously had a hands-on preview here.

Carl Zeiss
It seems that they’ve come back with a vengeance: first the 2/135 APO, and then the 55/1.4 Distagon, not to mention AF lenses for the X-Pro and E mount – a 12/2.8, 32/1.8 and 50/2.8 macro. It seems odd that they would skip over the much larger M4/3 market at first, though the relationship with Sony might have something to do with it. On the SLR front, although most of the lenses are capable of excellent results on even the D800E, the 50/1.4 Planar and 85/1.4 Planar have left much to be desired. It’s interesting to see that the 55/1.4 adopts their wide-angle Distagon formula; I suspect this is going to be an outstandingly good lens – it had better be, given the size (82mm filter!) and likely price. It’s apparently the first in a range of very high resolution DSLR lenses that will sit above the current ZF.2/ ZE line.

More M4/3 lenses
Olympus 60/2.8 Macro, 15/8 body cap lens and 17/1.8 announcement; Schneider’s 14, 30 and 60mm primes and Panasonic’s 35-100/2.8 were all announced. Serious glass is a good sign for system maturity. Whilst I won’t be buying the 17, Schneider 30/ 60 or Panasonic 35-100, the Olympus 60/2.8 macro has proven to be one of, if not the best lens I’ve used on M4/3, and one of the best macro lenses ever, period. I’ve acquired one for myself, along with the 15/8 body cap – it’s a fun toy, makes my E-PM1 an interesting pocket option, and is a very good street shooter thanks to huge DOF and a mechanical focus lever. Being a 28mm lover, the Schneider 14mm is definitely on my list, though the expected price tag is eye-watering. I think they will have to lower prices for this range of optics to be a success; I simply can’t see any quantity of people willing to pay this much for lenses relative to the cost of the rest of the system.

Enthusiast compacts with small sensors are still going strong
There were several announcements in this category: the Olympus XZ-2, Canon S110/ G15, Nikon P7700, Panasonic LX7, and Fuji XF1. All were evolutionary rather than revolutionary; the most exciting thing was the mechanical lens on the rather compact (and surprisingly large 2/3″ sensored) XF1. I think for this category of camera to survive, they’re going to have to get smaller and more versatile with lenses, or cheaper; Sony’s RX100 makes for stiff competition given its much larger sensor and reasonably fast lens – and it’s compact. I see the Canon S110 and Fuji XF1 doing reasonably well because of their size; the LX7 has that f1.4 lens; the rest are probably going to wither.

Aside from the new, confusing naming, Leica did what we expected them to do (and probably should have done quite some time ago) – brought live view to the M, along with a much improved LCD. Although I’m sure they’ll sell in droves anyway, what will make or break this camera as a professional tool won’t be price – rather, the quality of the sensor from the new Belgian supplier, as well as the reliability of the electronics and other parts. At least we don’t have to worry so much about rangefinder alignment; however the EVF makes things somewhat ungainly and also impossible to use flash or a thumb grip (not that that will work anyway, with the ergonomic modification and extra control dial). The M also loses one of its windows – frame lines are now LED illuminated, which is a big deal because it means much easier viewing under difficult light conditions. The M-E is a stripped down M9; I suppose there were a lot of leftover components to use up. I’m curious about the color, but that’s about it. The S has received a supposedly new sensor, though the pixel count remains the same; let us hope image quality is improved, then.

The wildcards: Sony RX1 and ‘that Hasselblad’
Perhaps this section should have been called ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’; or ‘beauty and the beast’. The RX1 appears to be a masterpiece of innovation, even though the camera isn’t as small as it appears to be, and the price is rather high. I think it’s now only a matter of time before we see great compact full frame cameras in the vein of the older Ricoh GR1v and Olympus Mju II. That can only be a good thing for those of us who don’t always want or need to carry around a D600. The Hasselblad Lunar, on the other hand, is either a masterpiece of capitalistic genius which will make them a boatload of money from the taste-challenged Middle Eastern and Chinese markets, or the beginning of the end for the brand. I suppose this is what happens when a bunch of financiers who don’t understand photography take over a camera company; for shame. Granted, Leica is doing the same thing with its rebranded Panasonics, but at least they look better than the original versions. The Lunar is so hideously ugly that it appears to have been designed by a five-year-old, rendered by a fifth form graphics design student, and then posted on April 1st. Except, it wasn’t, and it seems that nobody within Hasselblad can see that the emperor’s new clothes are missing. Having said that, a technology partnership with Sony makes perfect sense: look at the technical prowess required to create the RX100 and RX1. If anything, they could breathe new life into medium format. However, rebranding the company’s existing cameras is definitely NOT the way to go.

A note on marketing strategy
For whatever reason, companies seem to choose to announce all of their products at the same time – this is stupid. As a result, none of the products individually get the attention they could otherwise have managed if the announcements were spread throughout the year; Photokina should be an industry show where things are on display and the reps are there to answer questions and do business. I’d consider myself a fairly avid follower of the industry in general, and yet I keep finding things that I simply overlooked in the deluge of announcements – the Nikon P7700 was something I wasn’t even aware of until today, for instance. And the Zeiss and Schneider announcements got lost against the noise against the Hasselblad Lunar. Fifteen minutes of fame, yes – it just doesn’t make sense to fight with your competitors for the same fifteen minutes so that everybody at best gets five seconds each. Leica did it right with their May 10 event; I suspect the impact was much stronger than at Photokina, and they certainly got more attention in the blogosphere.

Overall, the theme for this year has been evolution and lenses; there are a lot of solidly interesting products out there, some of which I’ll review, some of those in turn which I’ll buy – but the list isn’t that long, probably just the Schneider 14/2, Zeiss 1.4/55 Distagon and 2/135 APO. I don’t see anything dramatically different or improved over what we’re currently using, but better lenses are always worth lusting after. MT


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Observations and commentary on the state of the photographic industry

The photography industry as we know it is changing. In this article, I want to examine some of the dynamics of the ‘old’ industry, and the ‘new’ industry – and how we as photographers can survive commercially. In some ways, this is the state of how I perceive the actual roles of the various job titles in the past, and how they’ve now evolved to fit the new ecosystem.

In the pre-digital era, and up to the transition point – oh, I suppose 2004 or so, when DSLRs became accessible to the mainstream:

Camera companies – Made cameras and lenses only. Made money from both of these; product generations were long (10+ years!).

Camera shops – Made money from selling photographic equipment to individual consumers.

Film companies – Made film for those cameras, and sometimes cameras and lenses too. Made money from this.

Amateur photographers – Bought mid-level cameras and film, used services of labs, publishers, photo schools etc.

Professional photographers – Bought cameras and film, especially the aspirational products; used services of labs, publishers, galleries, taught at photo schools. Made money by charging for images and prints.

Stock agencies – Held large collections of high-grade images for licensing; made money through royalties. License fees in the same order of magnitude of cost as hiring a professional for the job (usually).

Printing companies/ labs/ developers – Processed film, made prints, made money from this.

Publishers – Produced books, magazines, etc; made money through advertising and sales.

Galleries – Exhibited and sold prints.

Photo schools – Made money through selling courses to amateurs.

Today, the landscape looks very different (old guard remains in bold):

Camera companies – Made cameras and lenses only. Some now make sensors and electronics, too; have begun a battle of attrition killing each other on price in the hopes of increasing market share. We’re in the odd position of having CSCs that cost less than some compacts, and CSCs that cost more than some DSLRs. Money is made on the lenses and accessories, rarely on the camera bodies, and almost never on the compacts. The smaller players who can’t compete on price or incredibly short-lived generations have and will die or merge (e.g. Ricoh Pentax, Sigma).

Camera shops – A lot of the larger brick and mortar chains have gone; sunk by huge overheads that can no longer be sustained by narrow margins or price wars with online companies. In developed markets, people go to fondle, but not to buy – the prices are poor, and the service is abysmal – usually, nobody has any clue what they’re selling. In developing countries – like Malaysia, for example – only the large volume dealers survive; again, it’s a price thing; we are an even more price-sensitive environment than the US. RM50 ($15) can often make the difference between selling an M9, or not. Even the rich here – perhaps especially the rich – are very, very price sensitive. To make things worse, the local distributors give bonus payouts if a certain volume threshold is met; in order to meet the volume, you have to lower prices…you can see where this destructive spiral goes. It’s possible that these places may form small chains, but unlikely because it doesn’t make sense to have multiple physical locations if you can serve a lot of customers via the internet. Basically: the days of your corner pro shop are long gone. Interestingly, the lack of availability for niche models means that even more attention is paid to what’s written on the internet by pros and so-called ‘experts’.

Film companies – Kodak has gone under, and sold off the digital business – need I say any more? Although it seems that film is making something of a revival in amateur circles, I don’t see the businesses supporting it – there are only two proper pro labs left in Kuala Lumpur that can handle slide film well; even finding a minicab that can handle normal color negs is becoming challenging. The reality of professional work these days means that it is not a viable option because of falling rates and increasingly demanding throughput and deadlines.

Amateur photographers – Now represent more sales of ‘pro grade’ equipment than professionals; photography has become in vogue again. Consumers of content, makers of content, some excellent, some utter rubbish; supporters of the voracious demand for teaching and new product. Often swayed by marketing gimmicks – first it was more pixels, now it’s higher ISO numbers and ‘art filters’ or ‘scene modes’. This market is by far what keeps the camera companies in business.

Professional photographers – There are many breeds of pros these days – assuming the definition of pro is ‘makes all or most of their living from photography or related activities’. There are those who work for studios, or as press photographers – i.e. drawing a salary. There are those who shoot weddings and events; in this part of the world, they are mostly amateurs who charge for their work, but do not deliver consistency of quality or reliability. Unfortunately these people are the group the public interact with the most, and frankly, give the true pros a bad name – even those in the same industry. There is a small group who shoot for stock, or international agencies. Finally, there are the commercial photographers and studio owners, whose jobs are increasingly being supplanted by the huge quantity of stock out there, or worse, being taken by the amateurs who vastly undercharge, do a poor job, and generally threaten the sustainability and image of the industry. The reality is that the jobs that pay well – commercial work, advertising – are both shrinking and being heavily guarded by the established photographers; and the portion of the work that’s evergreen is becoming commercially unviable – there are event photographers in Malaysia who charge about RM50 an hour (that’s US$15) including processing (assuming they do any at all) for a huge number of images. In this price sensitive environment, that’s death. Needless to say, at those rates, it takes you 20 hours of work to pay off a D3200 kit; you’re not going to be having backup bodies in case things fail, nor are you going to be able to produce anything indoors except with direct flash.

The upshot of all of this is that the smart pros are doing many other related things – notice the increasing number of workshops and seminars offered; product endorsements; sponsored or ad-driven blogs; etc. You can’t just produce photos for money anymore. About a third of my income is from teaching; I’m staying away from advertising because it affects my credibility; but I will use other unique tools like the Email School of Photography, paid competitions and Amazon referral links.

Stock agencies – The old guard of stock agencies is still charging an arm and a leg, for (admittedly) higher quality images; however, they’re also giving the photographers a rather lousy deal. Getty takes between 60 and 80% of the royalties for each of my images it sells; ouch! The alternative is no money, or micro stock – where you get 20-30 cents, and hope like hell you sell a lot of images. The question is, would you rather have nothing, a bit of a lot, or next to nothing?

Printing companies/ labs/ developers – Almost dead, at least in this part of the world; the labs that survive are focused on digital printing; there are good ones, and bad ones, and few who really understood the transition well enough to be considered master printmakers. I’m lucky to have one here in Kuala Lumpur who takes care of my printing and is also a HP Master Printer. (Wesley Wong @ Giclee Art). Online print-on-demand bookmakers like Blurb are doing very well – there have been more and more of these emerging, though quality is somewhat hit and miss – even with Blurb, who appear to subcontract the actual print work to many different vendors. Getting replacements usually isn’t too difficult, though. And you can now print small runs instead of hundreds, as was the norm for offset printing.

Publishers – While amateur photography magazines have proliferated with the increase in interest in the hobby, they’ve also suffered stiff competition from websites, who can put out more content in a more timely manner – and offer things like full size files to play with – that the magazines simply can’t compete with. The magazines are trying to maintain their edge based on content quality, but I feel even that’s eroding. (I used to be Editor of a photography magazine here; finding people to produce quality content was so difficult that in the end I was writing and shooting nearly 90% of the magazine myself.)

Galleries – I can’t speak for overseas, but there just isn’t a market for photographic prints in Asia. While there seem to be a lot of galleries in Europe (at least there were on my last trip there) – I don’t know how they make money; it isn’t from print or ticket sales. I suspect that most are sponsored by camera makers or wealthy patrons.

Photo schools – Nothing much has changed here, but there are now more of them – though a lot of the ‘photo schools’ in Asia are just one-man shows who hire some seminaked models, set up some lights, and charge for entry. Needless to say, you’ll learn nothing. On the other hand, there are a number of very good pro shooters who’ve now turned to teaching to supplant their dwindling professional income; I’m one of them. You have the opportunity to learn from people who perhaps five or ten years ago, would have jealously guarded their secrets and techniques. Choose wisely, is all I can advise – looking at the quality of the person’s portfolio is an excellent way of doing this.

Photography blogs and news sites (like this one) – The majority of sites exist to satisfy the desire for content – reviews, validations of personal equipment choices, or information on whether one should buy camera X or camera Y. Preferably yesterday. Traffic spikes are huge when exclusives are in play (from experience, here) – and advertisers and referral fees are how these sites are supported. Some of us try to be a bit more esoteric in our choice of topics and deal with other photography-related things beyond equipment, but that’s not always the case. And it’s clear that while a lot of these sites still respect IP – I’m fine with people syndicating my articles/ posts with proper credit, and it does happen – but there are an equal number who frankly just don’t give a shit about IP, image rights or NDA agreements.

Rumor sites – They exist only because human nature wants the latest and greatest. I’ve been asked on more than one occasion to break NDA and reveal what I know; I can’t think why anybody would violate their position of trust for…well, precisely nothing. No money, (obviously) no credit, and nothing else whatsoever. I can’t help but wonder if some of the camera companies are leaking things directly to stir up interest in advance of product launches, though. They support themselves with referral links, of course.

Image sharing/ hosting sites – While most are free in some form – basic services of Flickr, Picasa, etc – the premium services for serious photographers are charged. Though how Flickr makes any money off me is baffling; I more than get my annual subscription worth through hosting and server bandwidth alone. I suppose there must be others who don’t have 14,000 uploads, though. Notably some have folded, though – Kodak’s PictureGallery, for instance.

Computer companies, software companies (e.g. Apple, Adobe) – I’m sure part of Apple’s meteoric success in the last few years is due to digital photography and the support/ processing requirements – actually, I’m surprised that there isn’t an Apple camera yet. Without the support ecosystem – photoshop, a decent machine to run it on – digital is pretty worthless, because I still haven’t seen a single out of camera jpeg that I’d be happy to present to a client. I don’t know how many iPads were sold for use solely as portfolio devices, but I’m sure it’s a lot; if I hadn’t won one in a contest, I’d probably buy it solely for that purpose. Beats carrying around a print portfolio, and it’s cheaper, too.

Mobile phone companies – The fact that we’re seeing innovation in this space – the Nokia 808 PureView comes to mind – says that photography is being taken seriously even by non-camera makers. Coupled with internet connectivity and social media, picture sharing has skyrocketed – however, it’s unclear who on the hosting end is making money out of this. I’m sure Facebook will eventually find a way to charge us for sharing our images using its platform – never mind that it’s one of the worst image sharing platforms ever, between compression, sRGB color spaces and horrible interfaces – but we still use it anyway, because it’s the easiest way to ensure that all your friends see something.

Microstock agencies – Microstock only works with volume – high numbers of purchases for newly-minted content and websites; and high numbers of eager photographers to make some money out of their images, even if it’s only cents. Without that huge amount of content to trade in, the micro stock model just doesn’t work. I don’t know how sustainable this is in the long term, either.

Accessory companies – The burgeoning increase in amateurs also means a bigger market for what would formerly have been very niche accessories – there are businesses making nothing but stick-on grips, or replacement rubbers, for instance. I welcome diversity, cottage industries and craftsmen in general – I hope these are sustainable, and honestly, given current camera sales volumes, see no reason why they wouldn’t be.

Self-proclaimed ‘experts’ – People with no clients, a crap (or worse, nonexistent) portfolio of work, no credentials but very, very loud voices have come out of the woodwork in recent years; the problem is that the louder the voice, the more they get heard – especially on the internet. Controversy is seen as a good thing, even if there’s no substance behind it – because it gets traffic, and traffic is directly proportional to advertising revenue. The problem is not that they exist, but that they’re assigned far too much weight by both consumers and camera companies alike. I would be very, very weary of any opinions by ‘experts’ who obviously are incapable of taking a halfway decent photograph. This of course assumes one can tell the difference at all; perhaps a better litmus test is to look at the proportion of disparaging or negative comments received: in over 700,000 views, I’ve had no more than 5 negative emails/ comments. I know you can’t please everybody, but I try hard to have the bases covered.

Online retailers – Almost all of today’s successful brick-and-mortar retailers also have an online presence; not necessarily the opposite. And the unsuccessful brick-and-mortar retailers simply don’t exist in cyberspace. Correlation? I think so; the online portion of a physical retailer’s business gives them enough volume to be competitive on price regardless of the sales channel; this is self-reinforcing in that you’re more likely to buy from say, the B&H Superstore in NYC if you’re there, since you know the prices are the same as on their website. But if your local camera shop is more expensive or can’t afford to keep the inventory range in stock because of lack of volume, the chances of you making a purchase there decrease dramatically. And there may be a store on the other side of the country (or even in another country) that does mail order – but if you don’t know about it, how are you going to make a purchase at all?

Online bulk retailers (e.g. Amazon) – Photographic equipment is a natural progression for existing retailers of electronics and other consumer goods – the one thing you have to be careful of is that descriptions are accurate, and goods are in stock. What we consider to be important differences – kit lens types, for instance – probably get overlooked by the clerk doing the data entry into the system. And not always having a number to call to confirm (or having the number, but a person who obviously can’t remember the details of the hundreds of thousands of products they sell) can sometimes make things risky. The flip side, of course, is that the enormous volumes and lack of sales tax can make these a very attractive option price-wise. They’re also often the first to receive new product in any significant quantity, simply because initial order volumes are so huge that manufacturers allocate priority stocks to them.

So what does this all mean? When the dust settles, we’re going to see a lot of consolidation in some areas – manufacturers, retailers – and a lot of proliferation in others – blogs, self-proclaimed ‘experts’, workshops, etc. I think we’re not quite done with the change yet; the shift to digital has killed or nearly killed a lot of industries, but at the same time opened up entirely new sectors to the enterprising individual or company. If you’d asked me even five years ago whether I thought there was any other way to make a photography-related living than from selling images or perhaps sales referrals through blogging, I would have said no. But here we are today – who knows where my income in another five years will originate. All I do know is that as photographers, we’ve got a whole load of new tools at our disposal to master, but once we do, we can always improve the quality of our images and broaden the shooting envelope. I may not be making most of my living from my commercial clients in future, but I do know that I’m going to continue using everything available to up the standard of my work, and help those who are interested to do the same. MT


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

CES 2012: Thoughts on the new cameras

This year seems to be yet another bonanza year of choice for photographers – and gearheads, especially. What follows is a few quick thoughts on the recent spate of introductions – specifically, those I find interesting or worth commenting on:

Nikon D800/D800E
50% more resolution – maybe as much as 75% on the E variant – and less than half the price of the D3x? It’s interesting to see just how far technology has come in the last few years. Not only is there more resolution, there’s more speed AND it’s 14 bit data off the sensor. I’m not worried about noise; downsize to say 15MP and you’ll find the files will be surprisingly clean, with very crisp detail at the single-pixel level. The resolution champion outside medium format? Easily. It’ll print well, too. I broke down and ordered a D800E via NPS. No comments on video specs, it’s just not something I do at the moment. Interestingly, it’s lighter, too. Minus points for the new battery system – what are legacy users going to do with their spares?

Warning to people who just want ‘more’: this camera is going to be punishing on both technique and lenses; poorer lenses may never get sharp at any aperture. And forget 1/focal length: you’re going to have to double that to be critically sharp at the 100% level. Sloppy photographers are probably better off sticking to more forgiving (and lower) resolutions. I know this definitely won’t be the camera I grab when I have to wear the photojournalist hat.

Nikon D4
It’s interesting to see that 16MP is considered enough for the flagship; that’s because it is. If you can’t print an enormous wall-sized enlargement that looks good from sensible viewing distances, you’re probably not doing something right. I remember the days when the D2H’s measly 4MP was sufficient for billboard work – and that was cropped down, too. Remember that as the print gets larger, you’re going to be further and further away. For fine art and pixel peepers, there may be reasons to have more resolution, but seriously – nobody was complaining when 12MP was state of the art. And these are much, much higher quality pixels than before. Again, minus points for the new battery system. Spares are expensive. I don’t see myself needing one of these – it’s too big and heavy, and has no built in flash to trigger slaves – but man those backlit buttons are cool.

Olympus OM-D E-M5, ZD 75/1.8 and ZD 60/2.8 Macro
I find myself going through phases with this one. I think the final verdict will boil down to size and sensor output quality. Not having seen either, it’s hard to make a call. It’s very difficult to tell from the product images – maybe the industry needs a standard sized hand or something. I like the idea of this camera – I really do – but frankly I think the design just isn’t that coherent. By the numbers it seems blazingly fast, though. Maybe this is what M4/3 should have been all along.

Much more interesting are the two lenses accompanying the announcement: 150/1.8 equivalent, anybody? Should make a killer portrait and fashion lens. The 60/2.8 macro is interesting to me because it a) goes to 1:1, which is really 2:1 equivalent on a full frame body; and b) it’s 120mm equivalent, which means a decent amount of working distance.

Pentax K-01
Firstly, it’s hideous. Secondly, it’s pretty intelligent: pancake lenses with most of the optics inside where the mirror box should be, keeping the size down; whilst retaining the original flange distance to allow use with legacy lenses. But sorry, the missing EVF is an unforgivable omission. I really have no idea who this camera is aimed at.

Fuji X-Pro1
Fuji is taking the success of the X100 and X10 and smacking Leica on the head with it. Then, just to make sure nobody missed their intentions, they displayed the camera with an M adaptor – which will also be released with the camera. Nobody doubts the image quality will be good. But my fear is that as with its siblings, the horrendously unstable and poorly implemented firmware is going to make or break this. I do like the initial lens choices though – the 28, 50, 90 macro combination feels like it was tailor made for me.

Canon G1X
Too little, too late. It’s bigger than competing mirrorless offerings, but lacks the interchangeable lens option; its only saving grace is going to be if the image quality is superb. I wouldn’t expect anything worse than the current crop of Canon APS-C cameras, which is to say pretty competent. But I just can’t see where it fits in for most photographers.

Final thoughts: Overall, too many of those damn confusing Xs in names. I think it’s time to get back to the photography, now.

Product images from press releases and DC.Watch.Impress