How Camera Companies Are Doing It All Wrong, and How They Could Fix It

How Camera Companies Are Doing It All Wrong, and How They Could Fix It

Patrick Hall shared some opinions about what features our professional DSLRs absolutely should have, but don’t, going into 2015. And he was right. But as happy as having those features would make us, not one or even all of them would allow any single company to become the next Apple or Google of the photography world. However, there’s something bigger that no one is thinking about — or at least there aren’t any signs of it. Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fujifilm, Phase One, Hasselblad; no one seems to be doing what it would really take.

The story of Google and Apple is now an old one, but in the end it comes down to one thing: innovation. There are two ways to support and drive innovation. You can come up with great ideas yourself if you have the commitment, drive, and ability to do so. Or you can open your technology/system to let others contribute so they can do it for you.  In the case of Google and Apple, Google is more open, and Apple is more closed, but each company does at least a bit of both.

The Nikon D1 just isn't that much more different than the D4S from an operability standpoint. What has really changed? Buttons on the back, faster response, bigger screen... But it's largely the same thing.

The problem in our industry is that everyone is stuck in a hardware-driven world. All of the marketing that Nikon and Canon do discusses in-camera Wi-Fi, larger sensors with more pixels and higher ISO, Kevlar shutters that last longer — the list goes on. But how much has the menu system changed since the battle ready D1 and its in-house sensor dominated Kodak's Nikon/Canon-reskinned DCS line? How much has actual picture taking and file delivery changed since then? Sure, it’s all gotten faster. Yet none of it has really been different in a way that’s revolutionary. For the most part, everyone is still connecting card readers to computers with a cable. Wi-Fi is still a pain to use with certain systems if you’re lucky enough to even get it without paying for a $500 plus accessory. FTP functionality is limited. Camera-to-camera communication is virtually non-existent without complicated and expensive mostly custom setups.

This little guy -- the Nikon WT-5a wireless transmitter -- will give you wireless control of your newer Nikon DSLR cameras for a whopping $550.

Until any of these camera manufacturers commit to developing better software and enable broader compatibility and custom programmability, no one will stand out to really “own” the market or to do what our industry really needs someone to do.

If manufacturers concentrate purely on hardware, there will eventually be such few differences between each product’s abilities that companies will struggle to differentiate themselves from the competition. Companies like Sony will be one of the few to make what many really agree are some of the best sensors in the world. The camera manufacturers that use these technologies will fight each other tooth and nail to grab what percentage of the market they can while company after company starts to shut down around them, unable to differentiate themselves enough from the next guy to command decent market share.

Wait. Excuse me. This already happened. Similarly priced Nikon and Canon cameras take just about the same quality photographs. You could say the same for any camera on the market (with a few “designer” exceptions). Kodak’s digital business experienced a rather sad and uneventful death, and Sony is arguably the premier sensor manufacturer in the world. Along with less than a handful of other manufacturers, they’re all that really matter — everyone picks from the same pool of available bare-bones hardware as Hasselblad, Phase One, Pentax, and Mamiya all did with the latest 50-megapixel medium format CMOS sensor from Sony. What’s the difference?

The difference is in the software and final implementation of that hardware (and MSRP, of course). While hardware is important, it is also the only thing that determines what features a device won’t have. We can imagine anything we want with the right software, but we can only implement what the hardware of the current generation will allow us to do.

This might seem like a counterintuitive argument, and it is to some extent. This is also why hardware is so important. Without improvements in that area, more advanced software won’t be able to shine within these products; but software and inter-device communication and compatibility is where the magic happens.

So why aren’t camera companies imagining? Why aren’t they innovating?

I imagine a world in which camera companies help create new image formats with better compression technology like that found in the BPG format, and then share that information immediately with Adobe so photographers can have new firmware and Creative Cloud updates in the same day. Let Adobe have it for free and charge competitors to license the technology. Everyone wins.

Both of these images were saved at an approximate file size of 35kb. The one on the left uses BPG compression while the one on the right uses JPEG compression. Image shot by Edwin Martinez and used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license:

I imagine a world in which any company can build a wireless device that efficiently uploads images with any imaginable array of custom presets over FTP through a cellular connection so companies like the New York Times don’t have to build ridiculously expensive and complicated custom solutions like this.

I imagine a world in which Nikon or Canon or Hasselblad or anyone creates software that allows photographers to do anything we want with a few clicks of the mouse or taps of an iPad screen – a world in which we could synchronize an unprecedented number of cameras for whatever crazy, creative projects we have in mind.

I imagine a world that reimagines the camera interface and UI on the back of the screen to give us a better user experience, maybe even letting us interface better with social media through an integrated iPad app to which pre-developed versions of in-camera-tagged images are uploaded to an array of outlets.

I imagine a world in which photography companies stop creating cameras with “fewer” features that were so obviously left out so as to reduce cannibalization of the flagship model. Instead, two fantastic bodies — one low-light sports beast and one high-resolution megapixel champion — could co-exist at moderate prices, reducing R&D costs, production costs, replacement parts costs, repair costs, and the cost of ownership. All this with a minimal impact on profit thanks to a simplification of the product line and greater affordability, which leads to a higher adoption rate of new products as they’re released.

I imagine a world in which we can rely on one company to commit to improving its system so it will work with new technologies as soon as they are developed. Just create a fast body paired with a 20MP full-frame sensor and another body with a full-frame 40MP sensor. Give us Kevlar shutters, magnesium bodies, and real, professional controls on both bodies to make the transition seamless on set. Copy that thinking in Micro Four-Thirds, APS-C, and medium format sizes with appropriate pixel counts for the respective sensor size, and create the best lineup anyone could ever imagine.

These are all things that can happen with software changes and the right implementation of current hardware.

Why do I need six different programs on my computer, five different transfer cables, four different bodies, three different kinds of memory cards, two different battery chargers, and half of a poorly crafted and very late Christmas pun to help me voice my frustration (I swear it wasn’t meant to be this way)?

Fuji, Sony, Nikon, Canon; anyone could come tomorrow with a new card format offering the fastest speeds and greatest capacities available, a revolutionary image format with best-in-class compression, and the highest resolution and/or best low-light sensors in the world. Throw in bundled software we actually want to use (or open the system completely to developers, including RAW file processing information), all the greatest networking options available, and then charge a premium. Shabang! They’d own the market in months not only in profit, but also in market share.

Recent rumors abound, yet with scarce details, on Nikon’s new firmware upgrade plans. Fujifilm has done a great job of releasing useful firmware updates that unlock new and faster features for their popular mirrorless lineup. And Canon's dedicated Magic Lantern enthusiasts keep some hope alive for better features in today's Canon DSLRs. But firmware updates just won’t cut it in the long run.

Budget companies will always exist. But why won’t someone really be the push forward that we need?

The real reason is that everyone is afraid of giving up gains made from the marketing hype surrounding each incremental feature increase from consumer, to pro-sumer, to professional-level bodies, driving consumers to spend the extra $100 to upgrade every time. This is always a classic short-term approach. Someone will step up and take a run at the market for the long game. The only questions that remain: Who will it be? And when will it happen?

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Michael Comeau's picture

There are two obstacles to massive innovation:

1) Photographers are very traditional when it comes to gear. We're quite happy to buy digital cameras that are more or less film cameras with computers stuffed inside.

In the case of Sony/Fuji/m43, one very popular trend is adopting old manual focus lenses.

Fuji made its comeback partly on retro designs.

Some folks even argue that film's making a resurgence (I'm not sure if the numbers bear this out). The perception of film as cool is definitely picking up though.

So in many ways, photographers are very much wedded to the past.

We may not be ready for something all-new.

2) The companies that really are trying to push the envelope, like Lytro, just can't put together a total package that's competitive with the powers that be.


However, I believe we are in a golden age of cameras.

Not long ago, if you were a low to mid-level pro or serious amateur -- call it the big middle class of photography -- your options were basically limited to Canon and Nikon.

Now, within reasonable price ranges, you can get your job done with either of those, plus Sony, Fuji, Panasonic, Olympus, Pentax. MF digital is also becoming more affordable, thanks to Pentax.

My hope is that Sony/Fuji/Panasonic/Olympus force Canon and Nikon to stop holding back on obvious features, creating a virtuous circle of competition that benefits the consumer.

For example, my Canon 6D only had one cross-type AF point, just like the 5D Mark II did. Absurd. I'm sure everyone can point out stuff like this in other cameras.

To end, I'll point out some things that should be built in all cameras:

-ND filters (no idea of the engineering in something like this)
-Radio flash triggering
-1/8" jacks instead of PC sync
-Memory (flash is dirt cheap, why doesn't my camera have 64GB class 10 built-in?)
-4G Internet for image transmission (this would raise the price though)
-ISO 32/50
-Faster flash sync

We can transplant human faces and send spacecraft to Pluto; I'm sure someone can find a way to get a 1/500s flash sync on a DSLR in 2015.

I turned the camera review off on my Canon 5D Mk III. I haven't used it in the year that I've owned the camera. I'm just too used to not having that item after years of shooting film.

Thomas Bicknell's picture

I want fewer features but better technology. Why jam all that underdeveloped mess into a professional DSLR (or mirrorless) when it's just eating up development costs and being ignored by users? Honestly if someone crammed a sensor in a 100% manual body that didn't even feature an chimping screen but that sensor tech was world class people would flock to it in droves. But that wouldn't drive the modern incremental sales standard camera manufacturers are doing these days.

At least... that's my undereducated opinion.

J. Malonson's picture

Droves? I like Leica more than the next guy and I wouldn't buy this if it was the same price as a A7s.

Sensor in this isn't world class. Sorry!

J. Malonson's picture

Compared to the aforementioned D1?

My bad. By world class, I mean worth the mortgage it requires to buy it.

J. Malonson's picture

Yes...I said I wouldn't buy that M if it were $2500, (it's WAY more, about 15k, but it comes with a 35 Summilux, and they only made 600...).

Just my opinion..The SCREEN is the last thing you need to lose.

A competent electronic viewfinder can take the place of the big battery hogging LCD screen.

J. Malonson's picture

As a longtime Sony NEX 6 user, I can tell you that the while the EVF surely can take it's place, in real world practice, it does not. I'd rather check when I need to check from a distance than down the hole. I prefer the screen to the concept of Wi-Fi to a monitor or your phone, (the NEX does that now). Putting an EVF in a otherwise "stripped" DSLR seems counter intuitive.

I could go without smile detection and face registration

Your keywords are "I'd rather." You are talking preferences, the subjective, whereas I was talking about what is true, the objective. A competent EVF can clearly take the place of the rear LCD in real world practice since it shows the same information.

An EVF also has the capability of being much more useful than an optical viewfinder.

I wouldn't consider a camera as stripped down with a huge LCD on its rear.

Face registration can be quite useful when implemented well. It is certainly good for the average consumer.

J. Malonson's picture

Is real world experience untrue?
seems like semantics.

*Your* "real world experience." What you prefer.

I wasn't talking about what you, or anyone else, prefers. I was simply talking about what is obviously possible. Why is that difficult for you to understand?

Remember, you wrote "in real world practice, it does not" just after saying "EVF surely can take it's place, which is all I was saying. If you had said "in real world practice" it is not what you prefer, then that sentence would have made sense, and be without contradiction.

J. Malonson's picture

OK, thaaaaanks!

Yes! A box with a couple of knobs and a great sensor. Wifi to see preview and change some settings ... I am set.

Love the idea of a stripped down, manual body with all emphasis put towards AF performance and sensor quality. If that camera has a highres EVF that would allow me to check out the images stored on the card, I wouldn't mind letting the back screen go – as long as that omisson adds to a substantial price drop compared to today's «high end» bodies. Really enjoyed my FM2 and OM3 bodies back in the days.

What's *a* "chimping screen??

J. Malonson's picture

I shot with an original D1 and I've shot a D4s. They are not the "largely the same thing".

Anonymous's picture

A Nikon Pro Control layout with its current menu system is about as intuitive as it gets for me. Many Canon shooters probably feel the same about their cameras. Keeping these things the same year over year is what many pros want (familiarity and consistency within a system). Revamping for the sole purpose of "doing something different" would probably aggravate more people than it impressed. Im also perfectly fine with leaving the whole social media integration out of camera menus. When i want to post in-camera jpegs to instagram that were edited with apps i'll use my cell phone.

Patrick Hall's picture

I agree with the "don't change my buttons" mentality. Problem is Nikon changes their WB/ISO/Quality buttons almost every time they release a D7000/D750/D600 camera. I have a post coming soon on this topic that drives me crazy!

Anonymous's picture

Yeah true. I was speaking more towards the prosumer/pro bodies (D300, D700, D800, D3,4 etc.) Those have more or less been the same for years.

Adam Ottke's picture

Agreed! This is the worst. Switching between the D750 and D4 is a pain in the ass (and the main reason I'm selling the D4 to get something to better match the D750...maybe even another D750).

OMG an american that talks against the capitalist system. Sorry I don't mean to offend but that is really the problem is it not?
All these things that you are talking about are things that might lower any possible profit for the specific camera/software/hardware manufacturer and even if you would argue that it would benefit them in the long run its only interesting when this years stock payments are the chief motivator behind innovation.
We can all ask for new features that would make our tools would be better and more flexible.
For example why have not a camera manufacturer asked the Magic Lantern people to develop a firmware for them that can be delivered with the camera, and NO it has nothing to do bricking the camera or damaging it.
As long as we are suckers for more features, more megapixels and subscribe to the stupid Nikon vs Canon vsSony vs Pentax vs Hasselblad vs PhaseOne vs .......... they (the manufacturers) will keep on having fans of their equipment and subscribing to this stupid never ending chase for profit.
There is no question that the tool you are using will have an effect on your work and you might prefer one for another one but how important is it really.
And finally to answer the last question Who and When, the answer is no one and never, its not commercially interesting.
And in the meanwhile we deep on lusting for the next s version or mark 666 build or update.
Another question is durability, I still have my Mamyia RZ 6x7 kit and my Sinar Norma that was discontinued 1970 and it still works and it stands on a tripod next to my desk and I can shoot on it as soon as I go to the freezer and get some old film for it.
I have in the last 10-12 years gone through 5 sets of digital cameras, why don't they last longer. A friend of mine is still shooting every day on a Hasselblad made in the mid 70s.
And don't talk about more complicated machines, the mechanics are basically the same and from what I have heard the electronic parts without moving parts are suppose to outlast the cockroaches.
But I sure would welcome a change in this.

Anonymous's picture

"OMG an american that talks against the capitalist system. "

Huh? I didnt pick up on that rant. The capitalist system is what is pushing these changes in the camera industry. Unless you suppose a market dominated by a single government-owned and operated camera company would be the pinnacle of innovation.

Yes of course that is what I said, I am actually a devoted follower of Marx and Engels.
Grow up and buy a Kiev camera.

Anonymous's picture

Well more power to you but no thanks. I'll pass.

He he you´re really funny.

And Daniel please don't take life so seriously.

Anonymous's picture

Appreciate that but I will when its appropriate. There was nothing serious implied. Just a response to your comment that was a little "out there" and seemed to bring politics into something that wasn't political.

Justin Haugen's picture

Us silly Americans. When will we learn?

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