Convenience and Speed Rules Photography
Photography is changing. More and more photographs are being taken but that doesn’t equate into sales of cameras. What is changing? And how will it affect what we use in the future? In this discussion we look at the key factors.
At one time photography was the pastime of the wealthy. It took people with a fair amount of money to have both the resources and the time to spend it taking photographs. For most people the struggle just to get by was enough.
However such was the fascination with photography that it didn’t take long for people to find a way of making it a pastime suitable for more of the general population.
Many will remember the box Brownie camera and how these small inexpensive cameras became more widely available. Soon people were practicing how to hold cameras and how to keep it steady for 1/25 of a second. People learned to breathe in and hold their breath so as not to jerk the camera around when the quiet little shutter with the single shutter speed was activated. Films got better and people were able to shoot in lower light without needing their models to hold still for quite such a long time as in the original era photography. (In some cases people needed to be virtually clamped in position for the length of time necessary for the photograph to expose.) Demand was sufficient to generate investment. Market forces came into play and it soon became clear that three markets exist. The professional, the amateur and the occasional shooter who wanted quick results. And the latter two groups had more influence and greater demands than was first appreciated.
Convenience and speed was going to come into play even in the 70s. People wanted to take photographs but they wanted the results and they wanted them quickly.
Professionals have one set of requirements whereas well-heeled amateurs are willing to try a number of different things. However for most people, including amateurs, convenience and speed is always going to be an important factor. And if you think that that didn’t apply in the 1970s onward then think again.
With Kodak manufacturing film and a whole host of camera shops opening up, photography became something that anyone could do although it would be some time before you could see the results of your outings et cetera. Nonetheless it was still the case that if you wanted a ‘good quality’ camera you needed to have quite a lot of money in order to take advantage of what was available. Good quality German rangefinder cameras as well as single lens reflex cameras in general were more for the professional than for the amateur. Of course well-heeled amateurs have been a very important part of the photography industry from the very beginning and continue to play a very important role as we will see in this discussion.
Enter the SLR with microprocessor
It was very much the case that in the 1970s this whole idea of photography was turned on its head with the introduction of the Canon AE1 single lens reflex camera. Having lived through that era we remember how this camera featured in magazines as it brought some very advanced technology down to a price point that was approaching what people could afford. It was a beautiful piece of engineering and really ignited the interest of a lot of people in photography. It got a well designed camera to a whole group of people who would go on to play an important role in the emerging photography industry. It was the first mass produced camera with a microprocessor and so well received was this camera that it sold over 1 million units which was something unprecedented in that era. It had a top shutter speed of 1000th of a second and incorporated a whole range of refinements that, for the time, were significant and would play a role in the development of the camera going forward.
In fact the era of the 70s and 80s was rich with the production of cameras that were specifically designed for professionals along with cousins that were more suited to amateurs. For example the Olympus range of single lens reflex cameras which were so popular through that time period. You don’t have to look far to see how important these cameras were.
The market was as messy then as it is today
While there were still a lot of people carrying around rangefinders, a lot of people were using single lens reflex cameras as well. In fact we recall going to events and being able to see people from all of the various eras of photography there. In the 1970s you would still see people using box cameras with their little one 25th of a second exposure alongside people using rangefinders and others using single lens reflex cameras. Everything was happening at the same time. The only thing that really caused difficulty for the photography industry in those days was the delay in getting films developed. On the one hand some people installed dark rooms in their house and started buying the chemicals and the trays et cetera whereas others were going to the photography shop and having to wait too long really to get their images.
Now you could get your prints the same day or in minutes!
Of course companies jumped on this and we had cameras from companies like Polaroid where you could take the image and have the photograph in your hands fully developed in the traditional Polaroid colours (and yes they did have a certain distinctive look) within minutes. But they were not going to have it all their own way. Soon camera shops began to offer same day prints. Some began to offer four hour prints. We still remember going to a shopping centre and dropping off films at the photography kiosk and then going to do the shopping and have a cup of coffee and then going back to the photography kiosk to pick up our prints and take them home. It became the norm that you could get your prints the same day that you dropped off your film. And if you could find a particular kiosk where the employees were passionate about photography they would often give you a better standard of print than would those that relied on the fully automatic aspects of those quick developing machines.
So how would the various companies compete now? There were two things that really stood out from this particular era. One was the fact that some photography developing companies offered both Matt and Satin finishes to the prints and the other was the fact that people would give you a slightly larger size. Larger prints were obviously better value for money right? Well some people saw it that way. And so it would appear that we had a reasonably mature industry.
Professionals were using much more expensive cameras than amateurs in the main and there was a large format, medium format, 35mm and smaller frames of film as well.
And who can remember the throwaway cameras where you would literally take the photographs with the film all in one unit and drop off the whole unit for development. When we built our first house we did that using the throwaway cameras so that we could specifically just have on the film photographs that showed the various features of the house under construction so it was specifically used for that one purpose. At weddings people would put the throwaway cameras on the table and encourage those people at different tables to take pictures and then hand the disposable camera in at the end of the evening. An interesting way to create memories.
Who needs all those lenses?
It seems that people found a way to make photography accessible regardless of the income available. Even if they took a less number of images then we take today they found a way to take photographs without needing to carry around large expensive equipment. For most people one or two lenses was quite enough. Many photographers were quite happy to simply use a standard prime lens. You knew that you were in the presence of someone who really took photography very seriously if they had as many as three lenses! Goodness but why would they need so many? Today it seems surprising to think that that was the case but then if you take a look at what’s happening to the photography industry today you can see that the same things are happening again and that camera companies don’t necessarily realize that the same trends are influencing their industry.
Convenience and speed have changed the face of photography today. It may have seemed as if digital cameras were going to put a camera into everybody’s pocket from the camera manufacturers but instead it put a camera in everyone’s pocket from the mobile phone manufacturers.
People have always found a way to influence the photography industry. And when digital came along the same forces were bound to find a way to influence the way the photography as an industry would develop. Professionals have a specific set of requirements. Well-heeled amateurs will often try more brands and more lenses along the way to get to what they want while people in general are looking for convenience and speed.
When we talk to people who are involved in the distribution of cameras they all agree that the small to medium price range cameras are pretty much gone. The camera of choice that is used by most people is a mobile phone. The image language of choice that is used by most people is the JPEG. Most people are very happy to produce images using mobile phones and they are happy to share their images in the most immediate and convenient way. By fitting excellent screens to the front of their phones, these manufacturers have found a way to give users today the same level of convenience that people were searching for in the 70s 80s 90s as already mentioned. Polaroid found its home because it gave a sense of immediacy and the mobile phone has done the same thing. Indeed mobile phones allow us to take the image, show the image and share the image from a single unit. People will always look for convenience and speed.
Phone manufacturers have really read the market well. And the recent developments on the part of some show that they really understand the megapixel issue better than some camera manufacturers do as well. We use iPhone with their 12 megapixel camera. We really like this feature because it strikes the right balance between megapixels, image size and quality. Having three lenses on the back of the camera that is small and convenient and with software that works perfectly every time without us needing to necessarily invoke the power of a separate computer is genuinely excellent. Clearly the gulf between what people like to use and what camera manufacturers are making for them has grown. It is little wonder that the cheaper camera, as a market segment, has all but disappeared.
Amateurs Should Be Happy
So what about the current mixed bag of cameras out there? Camera manufacturers are clearly recognizing that the dominant group of purchasers in photography are more likely to come from the amateur photography area then from the professional photography area. Let’s face it, professional photographers are going to purchase a camera and use it for several years. They’re not going to purchase a camera every year. When you are a working professional your tools are bought to last and you get used to using them. You don’t keep buying the latest and learning because you need to be able to use the tools you’ve got to get the results that you’re looking for without struggling your way through a new camera every five minutes. The whole photography market has devalued its work by offering professional work at silly low pricing generally. If you’re working for that sort of money you are hardly going to be able to afford to keep buying cameras unless you are at the very top end of a market segment that pays well. And even then a professional camera is not an impulse buy.
The whole photography market has devalued its work by offering professional work at silly low pricing generally.
This is one of the secrets of Leica success in our view in that they keep their cameras nice and simple and professional. When you get used to Leica cameras then you are going to find the same basic layout every time. Just simple brilliance.
One of the things that has really stood out in recent years is the fact that camera manufacturers are offering different megapixel sizes at different prices. The cameras look very similar but have different size sensors in them. And when you look at most of the cameras currently available from Sony, Nikon & Canon you would have to say that just about everything that has been released in recent years in their mirrorless range is ideally suited to professionals. Probably with the only exception being the fact that some of them have chosen to use one storage card in their design rather than two, which regardless of the silly comments that you read out their, isn’t really a great idea because cards do fail.
Amateurs want convenience and speed. So do professionals really. Convenience and speed are the key factors that have influenced the market from the 1960s onwards. Responding to this we see cameras being produced with microprocessors, we see film developing companies producing mass produced rolls of 35mm film and then offering same-day processing. We see the digital camera market moving away from small cameras to the convenience and speed of the mobile phone. Again people prefer the convenience of taking the image, having it fully processed in camera and having the same unit [being the mobile phone] designed to both display and share images. Convenience and speed rules.
There’s always been a divide between professional and amateur with some crossover. Professionals need certain cameras for certain applications. Most amateurs don’t. It would be true to say that we have today some simply amazing cameras and lenses. We have cameras that don’t function so well in low light and we have others that function really well. We have cameras that are slow and ponderous and we have cameras that are fast and get the result quickly. We have cameras that produce excellent in camera JPEG files which for many applications are enough but also produce excellent raw files which, for people who have the time to spend processing them will give a better result in some areas but not always.
Distracting Arguments Continue
The focus on megapixel he’s probably going to hang around for a while. We think that most people have worked out that megapixels relate to size rather than quality but we don’t really know because there are so many different voices trying to muddy the water on that one. If you take a look at the finest sports cameras currently available from either Nikon or Canon or Sony you will see that they hover between 20 and 24 megapixel and you will see that they produce superb image quality. You will probably also notice that the Micro 4/3 sensors at 20 megapixel compete favorably in this market segment against the sports cameras in terms of image quality. The results speak for themselves.
In the meantime people will be convinced to buy higher megapixel camera and talk about cropping into the image while other people will be quite happy to get closer so they’re using more of their sensor for the image and getting the images close to possible right in camera. The arguments will doubtless continue. But one thing will definitely come into play in this market.
Do not underestimate the influence of convenience and speed.
We want results and we want them more quickly than the current crop of cameras seems capable of giving us with their reliance on raw and their movement towards higher megapixel.
Probably the most influential camera in recent years is the Sony A9. It is a 24 megapixel Marvel with the most amazing focus. It’s sort of a crossroads camera in many ways as far as we’re concerned. Even the JPEGs out of a Sony A9 are something worth looking at. This camera demonstrates what is possible as do many of the mobile phones currently available.
For an amateur or a professional getting the results at good speed is important. Computers do not process large megapixel images at the sort of blistering speed that you would like them to and few of us can afford to have dedicated computers set aside for various applications. Just as the mobile phone makers have taken away some of the camera segment it should not surprise us that those that offer the best image quality at the quickest speed will continue to eat away at the camera market. Even well-heeled amateurs eventually stop buying lenses when they realize that the law of diminishing returns is applying to their purchases and that they don’t really use all those lenses. Something to think about