The trouble for the big brands is that they won't be able to sell volume for long. Low range conpacts are missing from them now and even the Nikon 1 system bit the dust this month. Why ? Mobile phones and action cam's are taking over, and creeping up the ranks of camera quality.
When our second kid was at kindergarten, nearly all the mommies or pappas appeared with a DSLR slung round their neck at parties or sports day. Mostly an entry level Canon or D3000 with a kit do it all wide to mid zoom. That was 2009-2011. Then suddenly in 2012 they had left them at home and it was qaulity mobiles taking the snaps. The change was yes mobile phone cameras became somewhat better, but that the value of a photo changed from being a private memory on a chip, hard drive or printed album, to being one shared to friends, family and often all-an-sundry on social media. Suddenly the value of a really sharp peripheral field and high ISO were whiped away. The mobile became the take everywhere, and the action-mini-cam' the absokute go and do anything, anywhere. For an average DSLR diving house perspex body you can get two or three top end GoPro kits.
Quality hss also crept up. For FB, Insta' and Snap' mobile quality is going to be just fine and has been for a long time. High contrast, highly sharpened images out of mobiles are then compressed on the web sources to very few megapixels on screen indeed. The impact comes from a punchy shot, colour or very often timelyness. First to publish. First to share. It happened right now. Here is our special moment, streamed live. Also mobile phônés are a little less intimidating thanan up to eye camera. Frankly taking peoplé shots has changed for ever. Both candid and posed.
Can Mobiles Ever Take Overr From 'Quality' Cameras?
You cannae defy the laws of optics captain....mobiles have a limitation in three areas - high iso performance, nice blurry backgrounds and of course zooming without becoming a scene from Minecraft. Back up here on all these points. Firstly many mobiles have an 'old money' focal legnth of 35mm - a nice street shot, close portrait and landscape lens size. In fact just the type of lens which adorns and adores a typical mFT camera as part of a set of primes for keener photographers, and often it becomes the most used lens. Secondly you can take amazingly DEEP depth of field images from close up with out having a really tiny aperture. You are turning a guffawing and patronising deswceitopn of a fundamental shortcoming into a fundamental advantage. Thirdly just like stock galleries, social media likes bright images, not subtle shades of shadowy brown from a noiseless full frame, every pixel peeped upon.
You maybe cannot defy the laws of physics with a tiny glass lens set up, but you can make up for the shorcomings in post, or now first pass, in-camera-processing. Many top end phone cam's have twin cams now, with one being used to either create a simultanious out-of-focus background or more fancy detection of depth and range by parallax interpolations. Thus blurry backgrounds, once a crappy 'post' effect with a vignette, are now getting good and soon you will need to be an expert to tell the difference between an ( on line) image from a quality f1.8 dslr /milc and a mobile for the same field of view ie usually 35 mm. The time is nearing when 'bpkeh' images will be only discernably different by experts, and the old formats of album, litho plate art book and enlargements on the walls are evapourating in the digital age.
Zoom too could be getting better- there are bound to be more attempts at those cam-phones with an optical zoom, but in the meantime we will see interpolation playing a bigger role in processing. You've seen CSI, can you enhance that security cam frame ? . We also have the floating sensor 'pixel shift' tehcnology coming to small cameras. Here we literally make a more detailed picture by moving the chip around to take many pictures very quickly. Combined the last two could make for a 28 - 100 mm walk around camera in a phone, and add a telescopic zoom with independently moving lens elements, and who knows ? 20 - 400mm with a quality fine for facebook, or even the cover of vogue?
All those years when D3 and D700 owners never knew they should not be making money publishing images in fashion magazines or for giant billboards because they had less than 12 mpx ! Well now 4k video with frame grab is all the rage, and those frame grabs have been used for high qaulity litho covers for famous glossy magazines.....in their glorious 8 mpx! Suddenly a native 8mpx sensor with a 35 mm lens becomes a useful tool in the right hands for film, at a nice focal lenght, and frame grab. No cropping no interpolation from a factor of eight. OOC.
A but low light performance - small sensors are rubbish noisy and absolutely awful when you allow the ISO to rise above base. Well if we use 4K as a selling point and move back to 8 mpx sensors as above, then you can get much better iso due to the noise to signal being reduced. Dynamic range, ie where highlights become blocky or shadows pure black in mobiles has been an issue, and the same approachb of a move to 4K branding could help wing us back from 41 mpx on a sensor smaller than your little finger nail.
A Declining Differential
The demise of the Nikon 1 system shows that the differential for quality cameras people will buy for size and convenience, or generally their photographic and social media mores, needs to be bigger over mobile phone cams. Top end mobiles are now more expensive than entry level dslrs and compete with them for wallet space or credit repayments on a more frequent basis. However when you get below f3.5 in general use lenses ( below 200 mm eq) to faster glass, the costs of milc and dslr systems rockets.
This is the last mexican stand off then between essentially CaNikon and the consumer market. Do the manufacturers stick to their now age old sell with a kit lens, make much more margin later on the faster lens upgrades ? This could see them shot down and left with only the Pro and serious hobbiest markets. Do the consumets gravitate to mobiles with better cams and strap on telephoto lenses, and pay over a grand a pop ? Or do the main marques admit defeat in the bottom end dslr market, and small sensor compact markets and regroup to offer the consumer faster lenses with their initial purchase? Here you put the cart behind the horse again because you need good, fast glass, but can upgrade body later.
The Necessary Gap in the Market
With Samsung pulled out, Fujifilm and Leica are the only ones offering faster f stop packaged lenses as standard on decent sized sensor milcs and fixed lens cameras, with Panasonic offering the wonderful LX100 as a spanner in the works for both Nikon with their inferior one system cam at that focal range, and the 'G' enthusiast compacts from Canon. In my opinion faster glass on larger than one inch sensors up to full frame as packaged is the way to go if you want to keep the quality differential and get consumers buying into your branded systems, or higher end compacts with fixed lenses. Otherwise mobile phones and action cams are going to eat away not only at that entry to brand level, but in the lucrative upgrade. Why 'invest' in a series of f1.8 primes or a fabulous f2.8 pro zoom for two or three grand, when you 'need' the latest mobile which you buy every 2 years now?
By the mid eighties all the manufacturers offered their 35mm SLRs with a sub f2.8 'nifty fifty' 50mm packaged lens, and sub f2.2 35mm and portrait lenses of 90 or 120mm were emminently affordable. Zooms were hideous and heavy. Birders and sports pros bought big whites with manual focus back then too. Now decent mFT prime lenses cost more than the bodies, and the zooms are pro pocket prices. Outside gaurantee, or with any dents voiding said gaurantee, modern AF zooms can be a liability to repair too. It's become an expensive business for the punter, with sales declining for a decade, just picking up now, but being driven by Asian sales.
We see a spate of 'craft brewed' manual focus prime and speciality bokeh lenses popping up, and three non major manufacturers entering mFT, one using ironically, the Kodak brand. That brand passed in a protracted death, at one point making great CCD sensors for the time and some half decent P&S conpacts before mobiles came in. Once a huge multinational, they shrivelled and died by not being ablento keep up with technology and the qaulity demands laid out by their OEM customers and the consumer. Woolworth's too. Big brands falling hard. Some say Pentax is next, but some may need to oook at their own camera bag to see a dinosaur.
Essentially the big brands stand at their own Kodak moment, with a last rise in sales from baby boomers retiring or passing their last ever mortgage payment and treating themselves. Asia is the new growth market and they have no relation to CaNikons western economy based mirrored offerings. The newly afluent were happy to buy the now myriad of retro looking MILCs when they could offer a differential and a 'cognicenti' image. But even like those DSLRs hanging round the mums' decks they could evapourate as mobiles get better and command a higher price for their top models with the latest and best cameras.
You could say that you can't get a Ferrari for the price of an escort. However today's focus offers a very refined driving experience for actually a more affordable price than an 80s escort. Fast glass is only really difficult to get right in zoom lenses, which dominate the levered income models for most of the main DSLR margues if not all. You can of course lessen the stretch of a zoom and then also make it fully motorised so all elements can move independently as the focal length changes. Then you can pack in a better f stop. But good primes need not cost the earth. And landscape or architectural photograpers, and even some portaitists would find manual focus is no big issue for them. Let the price come down so the quality of image creation increases per buck and makes system cameras with or without flippy up mirrors more relevant for the younger generations who will shape the future market.