Tuesday, 6 April 2010

stitched up tight

They say competition improves the breed.

But in nature not everyone wants to compete ... excluding the competition can result in expending less energy. Plants are thought to do this in a process where they produce a chemical (which metabolically costs them) that excludes other plants and prevents seeds from germinating. There is a fancy name for this (Alleopathy) and while it is uncertain what the mechanism for operation is, there is significant scientific evidence to support this exists.

I feel that while it would seem that the move to digital has been mainly driven by the market and to the benefit of the consumer I have a feeling that this is not the entire picture.

I think that there is a significant benefit to the camera makers (the so called Camera Zaibatsu), that the move to digital will allow them to stitch up the market and essentially make it impossible for anyone to compete with them or anyone new to enter the market. They would then own the market. Could be worth the metabolic effort.

Until digital cameras came about it was more than possible to make a new camera and bring it to market, it happened from time to time.

The Bessa L series is a recent example of a (relatively) small company (Cosina) bring out a camera to leverage off another camera systems lenses. A quick round up of the relevant Voigtlander history is found here:
  • In 1970 Voigtländer was merged with Zeiss-Ikon.
  • In 1974 Voigtländer became part of Rollei .
  • 1980 Plusfoto became Voigtländer's sales organisation.
  • Since 1987 Ricoh and Chinon make cameras for Voigtländer.
  • In 1994 the last part of the original Voigtländer company in Braunschweig was closed.
  • In 1995 Ringfoto bought Plusfoto and the Voigtländer brand.
  • In 1999 the popular 35mm viewfinder camera body Bessa L was introduced, developed and produced by Cosina
There's another pair of names in there which I've owned in the past, Ricoh and Chinon. The Chinon also was a camera which leveraged the fine Pentax range of lenses.

The Bessa L was a small light 35mm viewfinder camera:

Cosina 107-SW by Hans Marvell

and made use of the wealth of Leica lenses and other lenses which used that mount.

Cosina 107-SW by Hans Marvell

The little Cosina was:
  • visually pleasing,
  • compact,
  • light weight and
  • cheap
Naturally it was a hit.

Having owned cameras like the Chinon CE-4 I can say it was interesting to have a camera which provided a difference to the way the big companies cameras operated.

Not only was it cheaper, but it was an easy to use, light camera that took Pentax lenses (I had a Pentax MX at the time, so the CE-4 was a cheap addition to my 'system' to give me an aperture priority body) and had a both aperture priority & manual operation.

The camera had a cunning method of showing you (in the viewfinder!) the shutter speed you had selected and the speed you should select for the aperture you had dialed in (recall that the aperture ring is on the lens on the Pentax lenses).

Like my MX operation in M allowed me to essentially use the camera to pick my own exposure compensation to within 1/2 a stop on the fly as I was looking through the view finder by adjusting the aperture ring. Naturally I could just pop the shutter dial onto Auto and have Aperture Priority.

Fuji shocked the world with the introduction of a new folding 6x7 medium format camera just recently

the digital revolution

Barely 10 years later we have a situation where the move to digital has called the shots to such an extent that film cameras are virtually no longer made. Many major companies have either merged or disappeared and not even all the major camera makers make their own sensors.

There are fewer players on the market than there were and it (unsurprisingly) people are complaining that diversity in the market has all but vanished.

To enter the market today as a camera maker enormous tool up costs must be borne and perhaps other un-known hurdles such as finding someone who will supply you with a sensor at a rate that will make you competitive.

As increasingly people are discovering that "less is more" and writing that you don't need a stack of expensive (and heavy) zooms that are equipped TLA's , EWV and multi-jizmatic image stabilisation. Ken Rockwell who has been on this path for a while recently wrote an article suggesting that you really don't need a plethora of lenses. Let me quote a salient point from his article:
As I get older and smarter, it is extremely difficult to shake-off the desire to acquire and carry more gear, but the less I carry, the better my pictures have become.


Because the only thing that leads to great photos is thinking about the photo before you take it. I said thinking about the photo, not thinking about the camera.

Myself, I came to the conclusion back in the 90's that I didn't wish to spend big bucks upgrade my EOS 630 body to an EOS 1 when in fact the 1989 EOS 630 had a bigger brighter viewfinder than the EOS 1 and came standard with a 5 frames per second motor drive (should I need it).

As I was making my money from product photography it was lenses which made the difference for me, and I bought 2 (TS-E 24 and TS-E 90) for nearly what the 1D would have cost me. I am sure they served me better.

The move to digital has provided also a far more compelling reason to upgrade bodies than ever before. While my 630 still serves me today, my 10D (yes, of course I used digital) became eventually unattractive and a 20D (which took EF-S lenses and had 5 fps motor drive, much better turn on times ...) was introduced into the house.

It was only when I picked up my 630 for some specific reason (black and white film for instance) I was reminded of the better view finder, nicer feel, slimmer body how porky and cumbersome my new EOS cameras were ....

With these cameras I'm always looking around for something better, but with my 630 I just couldn't see any benefits.

So now with the market occupied / distracted with body upgrades (and a market in which the numbers and diversity of competitors is regularly shrinking) I am starting to feel that digital was rather the two edged blade. Not only has it almost killed off film in areas other than 35mm, but it has reduced the diversity of cameras as the market seeks to find some "optimal" lowest common denominator (for the mass market) and keeps the carrot moving forward for working professionals.

Open source vs Corporate "IP"

Since Daguerre took the first ever photo of a person in 1839 Photography has been a combination of open source and company Intellectual Property (NB a closed secret). The thing which bothers me is that its tending more and more towards the closed side of things.

With the existing companies making less new lenses (aside from cheaper iterations of plastic kit zooms) and obsoleting their old stuff (even Nikon can not put every lens on every camera without some caveat) it makes for an uncertain future.

With more and more photographers knowing less and less they will be tempted to focus more on understanding which scene mode to use for a photograph and thus be easily distracted by marketing clamor to upgrade.

Despite the runaway success of the micro 4/3 cameras and their ability to work with almost everything ever made, Cosina have backed away from even simplyadding a micro 4/3 mountoption to their existing lens range. No redesign required, just essentially put an adaptor onto the lens as standard. Heck you'd have thought they could save money by taking their existing range, reducing the lens size and coverage (they are designed for 35mm) and making the same focal lengths for micro 4/3 ... but nope. Not worth it it seems.

I fear that this does not bode well for the future of diversity in Cameras

While companies like Panasonic and Olympus have released the micro 4/3 cameras (which benefit enormously in popularity from the fact that many many non-system lenses can be fitted) they have been very slow to deliver on the promise of more compact lenses ... or infact many lenses at all.

I'm not entirely certain that the ability to uses any and every lens was a design intention or an accident. I notice that when Panasonic introduced the G1 there was no "factory" adaptor available for it to use other lenses. By the time that Olympus released the E-P1 there was a rapidly growing after market industry on eBay selling adaptors for all manner of legacy lenses; it was hardly a surprise that Olympus introduced the MF-2 adaptor to allow the use of Olympus Legacy lenses.

I have infact already waffled on about the issues that I see standing in the way of micro 4/3 being able to extend their system significantly.

There is talk of Canon and Nikon entering this market, but I will be surprised if they do anything to require them to bring out a competitor to their existing DSLR range.


I think we need to remember the Kiss principle:
"Keep it Simple Stupid"
Not everyone needs a 3Ds or 5DMkII ... while some photographers seem to lust after them as if they were some goal unto themselves I find that mostly they get in the way.

Sure, both are great image making tools; but I for one feel rather silly with a $2500 camera and a pair of simple lenses (EF24mm f2.8 and EF 50mm f1.8) costing less than $400 together (even new). The entire equation seems ... unbalanced. Even if I add in my Olympus 100 f2.8 (lovely portrait lens) and a EF300f4 IS lens it is still tipped over towards the camera costing the most.

By distracting photographers from photography and getting them to focus on gear acquisition camera companies stand to benefit the most and (in my view) photographers and photography the least.

Once upon a time 35mm cameras were able to provide both compact and professional system cameras. The image to the left was taken with a humble (and inexpensive) Olympus trip 35. It was taken on Kodachrome slide film and makes a nice 40cm wide print. A compact digital today would be pressed to do such.

We seem to have drifted away from expecting that compact cameras can be high quality, and with 35mm back in the 1970's companies were making small light weight cameras that were also system camera. Stuff like:

Simple, light, compact and high quality. Perhaps not working professionals cameras, but photographers cameras. I suspect quite a many working professionals also used these cameras personally too.

Photography not cameras

Interestingly the photo I took this weekend which my family liked the most was of my God Daughter. I took it with a simple camera (Olympus E-410) with a 30 year old Olympus 50mm f1.8 lens on it (which I paid $12 for).
(Gosh, its only the other day she was peeing in my hands at her christening, now shes walking round the house)

Perhaps this is another reason the camera zaibatsu are keen to get you into the upgrade cycle and expensive camera body mindset ... you won't mind paying $1300 for the 1Kg EF24-70 f2.8 lens rather than $300 for the 270 gram fixed focal length EF24mm f2.8 lens (which by the way is optically excellent and rates higher on photodo than a Leica Elmarit R and costs 10 times less too)

There is no profit in selling fine quality items that last a lifetime ...

The future will be interesting to watch ...


Soundimageplus said...

Interesting piece.
Since we call a ball-point pen a biro, I hope that in 200 years time the word camera still exists and that people don't go around saying things like:- "Got some great shots of the kids on my Canikon today" "Hobbies, yes I'm into Canikography" "When I go out I always carry a Canikon, never know when you might see something"

obakesan said...

mamma don't take my Kodachrome awaaay

gordon said...

I'm a relatively new Voigtlander user but I'm completely astounded by how bad new digital cameras are in comparison to really old film cameras.