How digital camera technology consumed itself

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The camera business is in a funk.

In the blink of an eye, affordable digital cameras have gone from not being good enough to being more than good enough. It’s a serious problem!

But wait, there’s more. Too many manufacturers. The average customer probably thinks all this variety is great. Tucker, Hudson and Studebaker were great too.

Today’s camera business isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile. While we wait for big improvements in dynamic range (the ability to capture subjects from light to dark as the human eye can), the cutting edge for now seems to be higher resolution sensors. More megapixels.

What does the maximum megapixel customer get for his/her money? Mostly, larger digital files that require more computer power and storage. As a bonus, the lenses the customer owns may not be up to to the task with very high resolution cameras. Lenses that were fine on the customer’s old camera may now need to be “upgraded.” Think of  scraping together the money to buy a new computer only to find your software is now obsolete. Same idea.

Having worked in the high-end camera business I can say the number of people who genuinely need each iteration of the state-of-the-art is small. Thankfully, photo consumers are not always rational when assessing what they need to get the job done.

When high-end cameras were mechanical jewels and new models appeared every 3 or 4 years, it was a big deal. Or it seemed so. Now that cameras are electronic gadgets with an 18-month lifecycle, it’s like waiting for a train at rush hour. Manufacturers have turned to rebates, refurbs and extreme tactics like gray market, to move more stuff.

Meanwhile, phones and mobile devices still offer big enough leaps in quality and convenience to justify successive upgrades. For a while, anyway.

And so, again, technology is consuming itself. (It also consumes jobs, but that’s been true since the cotton gin. Or maybe it was the wheel.) Recently, I heard a politician casually dismiss this as “winners and losers.”  If you’re thinking that’s just not fair, rest assured technology will turn many of today’s winners into whiners soon enough.

This final point is just an opinion. The fact that digital cameras are so easy to use has attracted some folks who are not ultra-serious photographers. And why not? The more, the merrier. But if your photography is just for fun, why would you replace your camera every two years?

So the next time you read Canon and Nikon refuse to innovate, maybe it’s because they see the marketplace telling them to carefully play the cards they already hold.

Good value plus the occasional genuine breakthrough, sure. Bring it on. But incremental enhancements every year?  Don’t call us….



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