Taylor Davidson · DSLRs are SUVs

Do people really want bigger cameras? No, and that’s why the micro 4/3 innovation is important, not as a sign that micro 4/3 is the solution the mass market wants, but that DSLRs aren’t really what the mass market wants, either.
by Taylor Davidson · 21 Sep 2009

It has been a busy Fauxtokina [1] this year with a raft of camera manufacturers announcing their new digital cameras. Given the strong sales of DSLRs over the past couple years, it’s not surprising that most of the attention from manufacturers, retailers and people have been on the high-end of the market. Canon’s 7D, Nikon’s D-whatever and Sony’s A850 are sure to draw a lot of attention (along with Leica’s M9), but a couple cameras based on the micro 4/3 format are drawing a lot of attention: Olympus’s E-PEN 1 and Panasonic’s DMC-GF1.

It’s not just about micro 4/3.

The announcement of these cameras has created a bit of debate about the impact the micro 4/3 standard will have on the industry, but it’s obscured recent innovation in the “pro-sumer point-and-shoot” segment. Ricoh and Sigma have attempted to create point-and-shoot cameras with powerful full-frame sensors and fast lenses with their Caplio GX-100/200 and DP1/DP2 cameras, respectively, but in both cases the manufacturers have been unable to create cameras with the results to match the expectations from the specs.

At the same time, Panasonic has been unable to meet market demand for its DMC-LX3, a point-and-shoot camera that rebelled against the megapixel race and embraced some limitations in its design, allowing it to truly excel at a smaller range of use. Unsurprisingly, Canon recently announced two new cameras (the S90 and the G11) which both appear to embrace some of the lessons from the LX3, breathing some life back into the dream of a “DMD” camera.

##What do people really want?
But missing in the conversations is the more meaningful debate: what do people really want?

Does everyone want an SUV?

Does everyone want a DSLR?

DSLR sales have taken off in recent years [2] and while professionals will continue to use DSLRs and more powerful medium-format and still/video camera combinations such as the RED One, more general photographers face a different issue. Most people will trade-off image quality for easier-to-use, more portable cameras that fit better into their lives. Part of the question in their minds is less about getting a camera that is “good enough” or fits their needs, but deeper down it’s really about paying the right amount for what they really want for their lives.

Therefore, for most people, “what they really want for their lives” is not a DSLR.

Will Canon and Nikon change their DSLR strategy?
Panasonic and Olympus understand that micro 4/3 is not intended to compete against DSLRs, and they understand that micro 4/3 is unlikely to be anything more than a second camera for a professional, even if it does offer interchangeable lenses.

It’s understandable why Canon and Nikon have yet to introduce a 4/3 model; “in the digital age, your first and biggest investment should be your lenses”. And as Robert Noble pointed out in his comment, Panasonic, Olympus et. al. had little to lose by adopting the 4/3 standard since they knew that playing Canon’s game was not their best strategy.

Canon and Nikon (and to a different degree, Sony) have used a simple strategy the last couple years: convince people that bigger cameras, more megapixels, more options and more features make us all better photographers, and use DSLR sales to drive sales of lenses and accessories.

But at the same time their DSLR product lines became more complicated. They created smaller target customer segments by cintroducing new camera models based on incremental innovations, but made it harder for people to tease out the differences between their cameras. Confusing naming systems and lists of feature comparisons do not help people understand why they should buy a particular product, but that’s how Canon and Nikon have continued to market and promote their DSLR cameras.

And at the same time, price competition and the increasing pace of new technology has made it more difficult for people to judge when to buy a camera, because it’s becoming increasingly likely that a better, cheaper camera will be released in six months.

Professional photographers and camera geeks are ok with this; they understand the debates, the technology, and can make nuanced trade-offs and decisions about value and price. But the majority of camera buyers are faced with an increasing set of deeply confusing decisions.

In short, not the best business strategy in an age where “delighting people” through “awesomeness” is easier, cheaper and simply better than ever before.

Is 4/3 or micro 4/3 the future? Who knows. But it really doesn’t matter. In a broader sense, at the moment economic returns flow to openness, and by embracing a more open standard, manufacturers using the 4/3 standard are giving themselves the best chance to succeed.

How will people respond? Dreams of careers in photography crushed by the long tail, tired by the physical and digital weight of DSLRs, angered by the pace of DSLR “innovation” and confusing, incremental enhancements and entranced by the small size of micro 4/3 and powerful point-and-shoot cameras, the interest in smaller non-DSLR cameras will return.

Will Canon and Nikon change their DSLR strategy? Unlikely. But we’re already seeing them change their point-and-shoot strategy. The real question is how they will balance their internal organizations and resource allocation to target the different markets. I would love to be a fly on the wall in those discussions.

Relevant thoughts:

  1. “Fauxtokina”, a period of time full of product announcements from camera manufacturers, filling the gap in-between Photokina‘s every-other-year schedule. ↩︎

  2. No, I could not find a reasonable data point to support this, and would love for a bit of help in finding some data about sales by manufacturer and format. But as a proxy, check out the popular cameras on Flickr, or just note how many more people you’ve seen with DSLRs around their necks and in their hands. ↩︎