Peak Interest, not Peak Camera

I’ve seen a number of folk refer to where we’re at today with dedicated cameras as “peak camera.”

Using the generally accepted definition of the adjective peak in conjunction with something, we hit peak camera—i.e. in terms of unit sales—in 2011/2012. That’s almost exactly when I predicted it would happen with an article back in 2003. 

What’s happening now is that people are using “peak camera” to refer to ultimate performance, or ultimate feature set, or some other attribute other than sales. 

The two uses of the term “peak” aren’t unrelated. Camera makers sell fewer cameras today because they can’t convince users that LatestGreatest is arguably better than PreviousGreatest. Those of you with long experience with this site will recall that I started writing about Last Camera Syndrome about the same time as actual peak camera sales occurred (actually a bit before, but I won’t quibble). It was predictable that if all you did is iterate, and particularly iterate small things, then more and more people would end up in Last Camera Syndrome (LCS). LatestGreatest didn’t seem all that much better than PreviousGreatest, so why spend the money? 

Last Camera Syndrome (LSC) refers to a user who is satisfied with their current camera and not likely to buy another body. Unless their current camera breaks, they aren’t in the buying market any more.

Today, the quintessential case of LCS comes with Nikon D850 owners: they simply don’t perceive that a better all-around ILC exists, and as I’ve articulated recently, I mostly agree. The D850 set a very high bar that not just Nikon is having trouble getting over, but so too are the other camera companies. 

For most people, they don’t need the bar set even that high. A Sony A7 Mark III, Canon R6, Nikon Z6 II, or Nikon D780 is plenty of camera, and these are triggering LCS in a wider circle of users (of course, that doesn’t mean that these folk stop buying lenses, particularly if they had to switch mounts to get to LCS).

So why are we stuck where we are with camera capabilities and performance? I see it this way:

  • Image sensors record the randomness of photons dang near correctly. The primary foe of clean, low-light photography is those pesky random photons, not the ability of the image sensor to record them accurately. We got near the ceiling of what is possible with current image sensor technology back in 2011 or so, so we’ve only seen small increments in ability other than in terms of speed. Speaking of which...
  • At some point speed = video, and we already have video. A lot of folk don’t initially realize that the Nikon Z7 II, for example, will happily take 4K (8.3mp) still images at 60 fps (at least for a second). Do we really need 8K ones (33mp)? Moreover, if we really do need that type of frame rate, at some point it’s better to just turn on the video features of the camera, particularly as we get more and more raw video capabilities. Then all we need is a “best frame extractor” AI product ;~).
  • Features haven’t received enough innovation. Yes, we have on-sensor stabilization now along with pixel-shift capabilities, which are indeed useful innovations. But the list of “big” steps like this that cameras have taken is short, and those steps don’t come very often. We’re in a “what’s next?” cul-de-sac at the moment, with no obvious way forward in terms of abilities.
  • Camera makers haven’t embraced how photos are actually used. Oh, we get some lip service about connecting your camera to your mobile device via Bluetooth/Wi-Fi, but it’s still way too manually intensive, unstable, and not-to-the-point. Nikon, for instance, will allow you to add a hashtag, but only if it is one of the two Nikon defines ;~). Way not to get Millennials, Tokyo. 
  • As marketers, the camera companies get D’s and F’s (best case so far would be a C from me, but I’m a tough grader). Great marketing is difficult to quantify, as despite the fact that everyone tries to measure effectiveness, in the end it’s much more about setting wildfires rather than fires, and the break point between those two categories isn’t well defined, or even predictable. You have to spend money, time, and effort to market well. Money is something the camera companies are trying to conserve, while time and effort requires people and the camera companies are trying to cut back on those, too. All of which ups the necessity to have the few people left in the marketing room be superb at viral, social, and innovative marketing approaches. Not seeing that in Tokyo. 
  • Customer engagement. Are camera users truly excited these days? I’d say no. Excitement doesn’t just come in the form of new models and more features and better performance. It also comes in terms of satisfaction and being part of what feels to be a special group. Particularly part of a group that includes and is made exciting by the maker of the product you engage your hobby/discipline with. Sony Kando—which I really hope returns to a live event again soon—was a great example of customer engagement, even if it wasn’t every customer. Wouldn’t you want someone who pays US$2000 or more for the equipment you make to feel special? After all, there isn't an infinite supply of those customers, and there’s lots of competition for them. Here’s a radical thought: the best ambassadors for your product aren’t experts you pay to be part time ambassadors with unclear goals, but rather people who bought your product that feel compelled to proselytize it because the product is so good and the company treats you like royalty.  Kando, yes. NPS mugs, no.
  • Japan too insular. Maybe also too paternal. There’s definitely a cultural aspect that comes into play. I know this will be controversial, but let me ask this question: do you think that the salarymen in Tokyo really have your interests and needs fully in mind as they produce new camera products? Do you believe that they have a good sense of what it is you want? Global is tricky (disclaimer: I’ve personally tended to avoid global considerations in the products I’ve helped design, build, and market throughout my career. At Connectix, for instance, while we had a distributor in Japan [Mitsubishi], I found it difficult to put Japanese market needs into play within product development. I spent a lot of time working with our partners trying to figure out how the Macintosh market in Japan differed from that in the US and Europe, but didn’t feel I ever got a complete handle on that). This sort of gets back to customer engagement: if you’re not fully engaging the customers you can end up not designing products they embrace. If they don’t embrace your products, you have no customer engagement. 

The bottom line is simple: we need a camera company to really break through one or more of those bullets before things get interesting again.

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