Canon’s recently released financial results don’t bode well for the Japanese manufacturer, nor the market more broadly. As much as the executives want to blame camera phones, the truth is that the industry is finally adjusting to a huge marketing con and a total inability to react to social technology. If you want to know why, it's time to examine my Mom's fridge.
The greatest trick that camera manufacturers ever pulled was perpetuating the idea that if you wanted to take nice photographs, you needed a DSLR. Going on holiday? Get a Rebel. Got a new baby? Get a Nikon 3x00. The aura built up around the DSLR was infused with aspirations of being the next Cartier-Bresson and the misguided but appealing idea that this big, bulky, complicated device was going to offer the best quality. Of course, myriad enthusiasts will have then upgraded to better cameras and benefited greatly from the ease with which you could learn the basics of photography. However, countless others will have never wandered outside of Auto, and never switched out their kit lens for another piece of glass.
The vast majority of those who bought those thousands of Rebels that now sit collecting dust would have been better off with digital compacts. As a friend just told me, “Most of the photos I take are equally crap on my phone as they were on my Canon, which probably doesn’t turn on any more as the batteries are dead.”
Undoubtedly, smartphones have had an impact on camera sales. Those with a new child gurning up at them don’t immediately Google “which camera should I buy.” Instead, they reach for their phones and begin snapping away. Market saturation of entry-level DSLRs coincided with the arrival of technology that made the DSLR redundant for those who just wanted a few snaps of a graduation.
Factor in Instagram and wannabe image-makers suddenly came to realize that pleasing results were not dependent on some plasticky lump of a camera that has weird dials featuring random capital letters and labyrinthine menu systems. Instead, with one click, you wash out the colors, mix in a ton of orange and teal, and throw on a heavy vignette. And most importantly, you share it immediately via social media. No cables, no card readers, no raw conversion, no unnecessarily complicated and expensive software. Instant publication.
My Mom's Fridge Is Better Connected than my Camera
The camera giants are a victim of two things: firstly the marketing success that sold the entry-level DSLR to so many unwitting non-photographers for so many years has had the rug pulled out from underneath it. Secondly, manufacturers have failed to respond to the rise of the smartphone with functionality that offered any sort of comparison. It’s 2019 and I can’t post a photograph from my camera straight to Instagram. Canon's photocopiers have better connectivity than its cameras, and if even my Mom’s fridge is connected to the internet, why isn’t my shiny new Sony mirrorless? And it may be that very few hardened professionals want that functionality, but that's not the market that Canon is saying goodbye to and seeing its profits hammered accordingly.
So a four-year-old can send people images from her fridge but I can't send people photos from my camera. I'm not sure which aspect of this is more ridiculous. (This isn't actually my Mom's fridge, by the way.)
When you look at the software that does exist, it is almost universally awful. Japan is a nation that prides itself on cutting-edge gadgets and yet most camera menu systems feel like they were designed by interns. That might be fine for seasoned photographers who know their gear inside out, but a customer having just bought a brand new entry-level ILC will be used to the clean, logical design of Android and iOS and, unless they drop six grand on a Hasselblad X1D II, they’re probably in for a bit of a shock. Menu system aside, do you want to post that photo of your gurning baby that just blew its first spit bubble to Facebook? Have fun with that.
Scandinavians appreciate the small details that make good design. Creative tools should inspire you, not make you feel like you're trying to send a fax. (Warning: loud music.)
The Budget Bodies Were Too Busy Boasting
Camera manufacturers have had their heads in the sand for too long and it’s difficult to sympathize. Those budget bodies were a huge part of their revenue and while Canon and Nikon were busy boasting megapixels, autofocus points, and viewfinder coverage, low-end customers wanted ease of use and the ability to share. Smartphones offer inferior results, but at least those results can be seen. What’s more, given the amount of compression that occurs when uploading to social media, those 20 megapixels packed inside Canon's latest and greatest consumer DSLR are completely pointless.
Manufacturers will tell you that arguments against developing social functionality are manifold: the processors inside cameras are geared towards handling large image files, not fancy displays. Running a version of Android would bring its own plethora of problems with security and constant updates, potentially introducing bugs and usability issues. The existing batch of entry-level DSLRs would be significantly more expensive as a result.
However, if I were a shareholder at Canon right now, this would not hold up as much of an excuse. With the research and development budgets at their disposal, it’s not that these challenges were insurmountable; it’s that they weren’t on anyone’s radar thanks to an alarming lack of vision that is now being felt in sales, a downturn that has been compounded by other global events. Smartphones have dented camera sales, but that dent would be a lot smaller if camera manufacturers had embraced user experience rather than continuing to blithely ignore it.
If the likes of Canon and Nikon want to fight this trend, it's time to change their approach. As much as we love dynamic range, vast numbers of megapixels and incredible autofocus features, there's no appeal outside of the pro market if all of those bells and whistles are hobbled by usability from twenty years ago. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.