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Is Lack of Competition Slowing Camera Innovation? Who’s to Blame?

Is Lack of Competition Slowing Camera Innovation? Who’s to Blame?

Competition is one of the main causes of innovation, but camera innovations have been stalled out for years, and I think Sony could be to blame. 

First things first, I want to be very clear that this article is only about the stills side of camera tech. I don't pretend to be up to date on the bleeding edge of video, but from the stills side, I'd like to think I'm pretty up to date. And well, that's because arguably not much has really happened. 

Sure, some impressive higher-megapixel sensors have arrived, autofocus speeds and tracks have been greatly improved, and average camera high ISO/dynamic range capabilities have crept up. But I'd argue that much of it is iterative instead of innovative — natural progressions.

When Sony went all in with its plan to develop its full frame mirrorless system, the other big hitters dragged their feet. Nikon and Canon clung to DSLRs and looked at the mirrorless market as a small blip on the global industry radar, instead of the steadily growing signal cutting through the noise of a million clacking mirror boxes. Through it, all Sony stuck to their plan, and things began to shift. 

When Sony released the a7 III, it became more and more clear that the mirrorless market wasn't a passing storm, but a new norm, and Canon's and Nikon’s reluctance to recognize and embrace that would become a root cause for the two pillars of the industry to shed a ton of users and fail to inspire new ones.

Now, the reason I think this has led to a stall in innovation is while the other companies spent their time and resources trying to extend the appeal of the end-of-life DSLR, Sony was sprinting toward a pro-level mirrorless camera. And just like a foot race, if someone has a multi-year lead, the effort required to catch up is enormous, and if you’re far enough behind, you probably aren't going to try very hard, because the alternative is easier. Your fate has been sealed. And so, Canon and Nikon tiptoed into the mirrorless race at a snail’s pace with prosumer grade cameras: single card slots, slow functions, and quirky ergonomics by design made sure no one would trade their DSLR in for their mirrorless offering, and they didn’t: they traded them in for a Sony. 

Now that Canon has found their footing and decided to take the market seriously by releasing two new pro-level cameras, you would think that the race would be back on, but that doesn't seem to be the case. While the R5 matches the a9 in terms of shooting at 20 frames per second, it’s missing the real ingredient that makes 20 fps a game-changer in the a9 as the sensor readout speed is significantly slower in the R5, so it’s power at a price. This means the R5 will suffer from rolling shutter when using the electronic shutter, which makes it almost useless when photographing fast-moving subjects, which is when you need it. So yes, the R5 has some great focus tracking, a high-resolution sensor, good ergonomics, and much more, but in terms of innovation, it’s barely on par with the now three-year-old a9. 

As for Nikon, their decision to only include a single card slot in their initial releases simply shows they were not ready to let their mirrorless offerings truly compete with their bread and butter DSLRs. Even their latest and greatest mirrorless offerings only adds a second card slot, as overall, the cameras remain largely the sam. It’s the D600 to D610 and D800 to D810 all over again: selling you a second time what you paid for the first.

And while there are other big names in the mirrorless market such as Fuji, they have chosen to stay out of the full frame fight by simply concentrating on crop sensors and medium format, the latter of those two being a realm I wish there was more competition, but maybe that will happen as time moves on. 

Now, I'm not affiliated with Sony and have no access to behind-the-scenes knowledge of what is or is not in the release pipeline, but if it were me running the show, I wouldn't want to reveal all my cards until the deck had been fully developed. This leads me to believe that they have a lot of things under the vest and are simply waiting until there is a need to unveil the latest tech. Because why release a race car that can go 300 miles per hour when the competition is still racing go-karts? And I’m obviously being a bit dramatic with that statement, but in reality, we have no idea what can be accomplished when you have a multi-year headstart on your competition.   

Likewise, a lot of camera users have waited and waited for Canon and Nikon to release a truly competitive mirrorless camera, clinging to their old and worn DSLR for hopes of a brighter future. But as these new mirrorless cameras finally arrive, the lack of innovation has pushed these users over the edge. While they now finally have a mirrorless system they can rely on in a professional environment, they can easily see they would be investing in technology that has been around for years. So, if they have to invest in a completely new system anyway, wouldn't it make more sense to invest in the ecosystem that everyone else is trying to catch up to?    

Ultimately, however, this lack of innovation is two-sided. Yes, the fact that Sony had such a large headstart in the mirrorless market has caused a lack of competition, but the other big players are equally to blame for not starting the race sooner.

Or is there something totally different going on here? Are we at a point in stills tech that is generally as far as we want to go without the camera and computer doing it for us? Computational photography, as recently highlighted in the new iPhones (also using Sony sensors), relies more on the chipset than the lens and sensor. They really are innovating, using machine learning and AI, Deep Fusion, and so on to bring greater capability. But do we want that? Is that where the next step in innovation in cameras will take us?

So, as I remain very partial to my Sony kit and all it can do, I'm excited for Nikon and Canon to start innovating once again instead of using all their time and resources to try and catch up. And this isn't just because I want what they come up with, but because I'm excited to see what happens when Sony has to open the floodgates.

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Rk K's picture

The camera industry is dying, sales dropped off a cliff after the human malware, how do you expect this innovation to be funded? We'll be lucky if 2-3 proper camera manufacturers survive at all...

Guy Butterworth's picture

who the fuck cares , film cameras are all you need and you imagation and creativity ... digital sucks the life out of you ... computers, ai, automation the dealth march of humanity, creativity and thought

Timothy Roper's picture

And why no mention in this article about the innovation going on in large format film cameras? Intrepid, for example, has as gone from a small Kickstarter campaign to a full-blown company by now. Lots of new, young film shooters out there, with lots of innovations going on!

David Blacker's picture

How is starting a new company innovative?

Troy Straub's picture

Sorry didn't mean to down vote your comment. Accidental click,

Charles Mercier's picture

Sorry, I shot film for decades. I would take photos, wait weeks before I finished the roll and by then I was long gone from places I couldn't return to take a better one after looking at what I didn't do correctly. I couldn't take (moneywise) hundreds of photos per day, plus storing all those prints. If I wanted cropping or changes made, I had to describe to the developer exactly what I wanted, then I had to wait days for it to come back.

With digital, I can take an infinite number of photos - and get instant feedback. My skills have improved SO much more than the painfully slow process of doing film. I can now make multiple crops and variations and other experiments with digital that I NEVER could have imagined with film.

Guy Butterworth's picture

Guess you should have learnt to print then..

Charles Mercier's picture

I did take lessons so I did some printing. It's a lot of slow work. One still didn't have instant feedback. You still had to go back home to an expensive developing and printing setup using lots of toxic chemicals and waste. Taking up tons of time and space.

It's great if anyone loves to shoot film and enjoys it but to jump on digital as a destroyer of creativity is completely incorrect.

Guy Butterworth's picture

Your house and car are filled with toxic chemicals , furniture takes up space , getting dressed in the morning takes up time , eating takes up time , taking a dump takes up time, computers and programs cost a lot of money , a subscription to lightroom and photoshop can be more expensive per month than b/w chemicals depending on how much your shoot ... learning computer programs take up time ... sitting in front of computer trawling through the 2000 images you machined gunned that day takes time..

Anything you do by hand rather than by automation and machines is more creative .. for example making furniture , making a car , painting , knitting , hand writing a book , hand carving something from wood, or clay , making your Meal from scratch , gathering food from the land , reading , mediating, if you are doing it you are solely responsible for the process And not letting some machine , software, AI , computer , automation do the work for you , you are being more creative , you are more involved in the process you are more focused on the process , you are more engaged in the process , you are more responsible for the process, you have to rectify your mistakes , ,you learn more ,you adapt more , you can apply that focus and knowledge to different challenges , using AI, computers ,software takes that away from you no matter how experienced you might be .. .

Like I said , I pity people who surrender to the pressure of the now now now .. if u need instant likes on the gram, you need to look inwards to your self and understand why you need that sort of validation, why are you shooting for others and not for you .. the only person you need to please is you ...

If you think I’m full of shit and if its only getting likes on social media you care about then just use your phone and shoot and post in the same moment , why bother with camera , let the AI in the phone do all your heavy lifting and auto correcting .. the moment we stop using our hands and do things for ourselves we stop learning and evolving ourselves .. it has always been the process and the learning that process gives which is the fulfilling feeling as much as the end product , the knowledge I made that negative or print or I made the decisions in camera, is what gives you that sense of accomplishment , not clicking on a preset button on some computer program or AI .. as soon as you use automation or a computer program you are being less creative in comparison to a manual process which evolves using your hands and raw materials ..

People who take up Buddhism , don’t instantly become Buddhas , people who start degrees don’t instantly get their qualification it takes a long time and a lot of training and understanding ..

When we start learning how to swim and ride bikes we do it with aids , but soon we loose the aides . Why in photography is their pressure to go the other way , we used to have to learn a process and craft and now we use aides to do everything for us , generally in life the more experience you have the more you can do things un aided ..

People general value hand made products more than machine and automation made ones... in South America it takes them upto a month to make a pananama hat by hand and they sell for 50- 2k dollars , a machine version will take 10 minutes and sells for a 10 dollars and up . What do u think it will give people more pride in owning ... what makes a better story if people ask you about it , ?

If you put 2 images side by side not identical just 2 images one made in the darkroom and one made by the computer automation AI bots .. which one do you think people are going to appreciate more .. I know which one my monies on ... however creative you think your are on a computer program you are more creative producing the same image by hand in the darkroom, it simple takes more skill, knowledge and Creative input and time to do so..

The world needs to slow down and breath and not speed up .. more 5 courses nutritional meals are needed that take 3 hours to eat . And a less McDonald’s are needed in the world , the more time and effort you put into something The better it will be , the more you learn , the more your skill and knowledge increases , the greater the benefits will be .. the more inspired you become for next time... slow down, breath , stop rushing .. stop looking for validation from others ... enjoy the moment and the process ......don’t be afraid to make mistakes it’s all part of the learning experience and life..... the guardian newspaper have a article on the photography garden awards today. The winning entry was made cyantype ..... People of all ages and experience are flocking back to film and the darkroom and rejecting digital, there most be a reason, right !!!!

Troy Straub's picture

If you want to shoot film and it makes you more creative that is great go do it. But to act like everyone who doesn't is wrong and you are better than them for doing it your way is just crazy talk. Also I cloud never bring myself to wearing a $2000 hat just for the bragging rights when a $10 one will do the same job just as well. But we obviously come from two different worlds. Most importantly if your way is so much better why not a single upload to show this amazing work?

Guy Butterworth's picture

Your not understanding the point !! Read , think, digest, reflect ...

Guy Butterworth's picture

Your making statements that I never made .. show me we’re said the end result was better !! All now you mentioned it medium format and large format film blow the doors of digitial any day of the week

Guy Butterworth's picture

Why do you think it has anything to do with a 2000 dollar hat . Is that all you get from what a wrote , really ? You don’t understand it’s about giving in to automation and ai and computers , not learning skills or how to do things for our ourselves any more , not taking time to learn a process .. no ? You don’t get that ? You think it’s about a hat ? Or buying something expensive when You can buy something the same more cheaper.. do you really think that’s as anything todo with what I wrote .. ?? you really think its not about people not learning basics skills any more, or understanding how things work , and do you think this is a good thing? Really ?? Yes we do come from different worlds. I come from a world were we think for ourselves ..

Troy Straub's picture

I agree with what you say about people need to slow down and learn. Just not sure why you seem so against shooting with a digital sensor instead of film. At least that is the way your post seem to be coming off to me. You can shoot digital with out just spraying and praying and or using AI for processing.

Troy Straub's picture

You're not making a point. Finding interesting subjects, composition and story telling are far more important and artistic than knowing how to read a light meter, and do your own calculations for exposure or how to mix chemicals and check temperatures. You can easily shoot digital without relying on A.I. to do the work for you. I'm personally not a fan of A.I. There is a lot of room between shooting film and letting computers do it all.

Guy Butterworth's picture

Why are u repeating back to me what I already I have said !! Of course I am making a point . I cannot help if it’s to complex for you to understand...

Guy Butterworth's picture

Am sure people do turn of auto focus , the exposure meter , eye af animal af and ibis on their 3k topof the range camera they have just bought . Because it has all those features , yes you so right ..

Charles Mercier's picture

Again, digital has really has nothing to do with it. I don't do too many things fast. I go through my digital shots in my computer and contemplate the better ones. (I don't do fast food, etc. I also do oil painting which takes a lot of time.) I take my time and learn and reflect upon my digital camera photos. It doesn't speed up my life and make me go faster. Digital and computers don't control me. I set my own pace. I make the decisions my photos with a lot less toxic pollution without having to develop the ones that aren't great.

Guy Butterworth's picture

Dude you make me laugh

Charles Mercier's picture

I'm glad because you only make me roll my eyes because you can't see that your point is putting the cart before the horse. Moving, thinking or acting quickly and people's connection to computers don't cause the destruction of creativity. Correlation is not causation.

Guy Butterworth's picture

Some of us will aways have our heads in the ground .. keep feeding the machines my friends that’s what seems to make you happy .. yer speed and convenience and computers , rule !!! The loss of traditional , processes and methods just because they take time and effort is good thing , it’s progress right ? Yer your so right ? Cheaper , faster , easier is better right ? Taking the highway instead of the country road , using shortcuts, never really learning or understanding, just continue on with the now now throw away culture, mass consumption, consumerism and material gathering habits? Because your told that’s cool and popular .. .. being brain washed by marketing sales machine , buy buy buy the next coolest greatest gimmick , telling you it will make you life better and that I cannot live without it.. that’s the world we should have and the future we should have right ? No matter the cost , no matter the impact ! Just feed the machine , keep those wheels of commence Turning.. money ,money , buy buy, buy .. easier, faster, greater .. don’t think just buy .. you need computers and ai and social media, they make everything Better faster cooler greater .. be connected and online 24 hrs ..

Have you not learnt this brain dead mass thoughtless zombie behaviour has gotten to the human race to the point were we have damaged the planet to such an extent that life on the planet is now threatened..

thankfully there is a growing movement away from the mass convenience material consumerism ,digital ai computer automation bots and speed and the social media validation madness and back to calmer slower more manual traditional way were you are more connected to your actions and thoughts and use what you have /want you have against being told you want you need

Clicking pre designed programmed application sliders with a mouse is true creativity .. which have no ability to create random results and only behave in predicable way , that cannot deviate from a pre programmed response , it’s true creativity, or the evaluation of creativity is that what you believe ..

Charles Mercier's picture

Seriously, dude. Stop telling me about me, which is all WRONG. Everything I own outside of some used furniture, could fit into a car - if I owned one! Most of what I own is books and art works... my own.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Ahhhh.... PARAGRAPHS...

I beg of you. :)

Seems you got the hang of them later, but that 1st post makes my head spin.

Troy Straub's picture

Agreed. I didn't shoot much film and most of what I did was point and shoot or at least auto settings. I would have never had the time and or money to learn how to shoot in manual and take control of my shots if I was shooting on film. Now that I know more or less what I'm doing I may try to shoot a few rolls through an old film camera I was recently gifted. Just for fun, and I don't expect to get as good of results as my fairly modest digital kit.

David Moore's picture

Yeah, my camera is the same as my camera from 16 years ago wait no it isn't this is a stupid article. lol

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

Lack of innovation is not because of Sony racing ahead and innovating in one aspect of camera technology, but because the other big players got complacent and stopped doing any real innovations, instead iterating on features they already got or adding small comforts that were easy pickings, low hanging fruit, like various bracketing modes.

Meanwhile nobody looked at what is happening in the mobile space, where camera apps were liberated from the traditional ideas of how a camera is supposed to operate.

Which brings me to another point: it's not just camera manufacturers failing to innovate, it's also is users / buyers holding back innovation into non-traditional directions because we would loudly scream murder if our pro cameras would start doing some of the things that smartphones now regularly do to get better picture quality...

We obsess over specs and demand full control over what the camera does and outputs, which is at odds which computational photography and all other innovations happening in the smartphone space (where there's necessity to do these creative innovations to make lower fidelity hardware give better pictures).

Adam Rubinstein's picture

Jason doesn’t understand business or markets very well. Why would Sony push the envelope when they are maximizing their ROI? Even with the innovation the camera market as we understand it whether MILC or DSLR is contracting.

Rey H's picture

I created an account to agree with you. BUT, the internet would be a lot quieter place if most folks had corporate decision making experience and actually understood matters of sales, supply chain, revenue and ebitda. So much content and opinions out here, so little knowledge.

Francis Drake's picture

I am not sure you can tell Sony is deliberately waiting.
If you could launch a game changing camera just when your opponent is about to build a captive user base with a lineup of lenses, wouldn't you do it?

David Blacker's picture

While you've outlined the symptoms fairly well, I find it hard to see how you imagine the cause is a lack of competition. Competition has been fierce in the last half a decade. There may have been complacency among the big DSLR manufacturers before Sony popped into the game, but that wasn't for a lack of competition either. It's just that it's not a technological competition so much as a marketing one. On one hand DSLR technology had reached its peak in the last decade; there was nothing groundbreaking to add that would revolutionise the DSLR (except improvements in video), and new cameras were simply coming in with features that made life more convenient for the photographer.

Then Sony brought mirrorless into the upper reaches of the game (they didn't invent it); and they did it based on convenience. Technologically, however, mirrorless isn't groundbreaking either, particularly not for the pros. Yes, there was some weight and space saving (not a huge amount mind, especially not at the pro levels), but this mostly appeals to amateurs. It is marketing, not technology, that has really convinced us that the cameras we already own are not good enough. Right now, the top end mirrorless cameras from Sony and Canon are as technologically good as the equivalent DSLRs, and it's just a matter of making them more reliable (durability, weather proofing, battery life, viewfinder, etc) and usable for professional photographers. Mirrorless doesn't offer anything technologically better for a still photographer with a DSLR system. But marketing has convinced us that they are better. It's a classic tried and tested marketing strategy; if there is no gap in the market, create one; then fill the gap with your product.

So now the photography world has been overrun by the demand for mirrorless, and Canon and Nikon were forced to move to the upper end of mirrorless (even though mirrorless doesn't offer any substantial improvement over DSLRs) simply to safeguard their user base from moving to Sony on the basis of perception. All the new incremental technological steps being taken by mirrorless manufacturers are ones that could (and would) have been taken anyway with DSLRs. All the shock and awe we feel for the new Canon RF mount lenses are because Canon has now moved their technological progress into creating a range of RF lenses to match their EF one. What we're seeing is the next generation of EF lenses, but built as RF ones.

So competition is very strong; it's just a brand competition for the hearts and minds of the consumer. There is no real technological advances to be had. It's the same with petrol-driven cars, or rifles, or so many other products. Technology is now simply being used to make things lighter, more efficient, and more convenient. There is no groundbreaking technological innovation to be had anymore than there is with a kitchen knife. The end result, however, is that Canon and Nikon will now place their technological development on the mirrorless branch because the market isn't big enough to sustain two branches of full frame cameras and, more and more DSLR users will be forced to move to mirrorless when they next upgrade, because that's where the upgrades will be. DSLR use, when it dies, will die not because it was technologically surpassed the way film SLRs were, but because marketing convinced us that it has.

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