State of the Photography World, 2013

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bokeh-rainbowThis is the season when the photography world gears up for the coming year.  We just wrapped up two big events in the photography world:  Photokina in Germany (September) and Photo Plus Expo in New York (October).  It’s around these two events that most of the newest products get announced.  And very often, this is when we see the first showings.  There will be a few new products that are held out for the Consumer Electronics Show this coming January in Las Vegas.  But the tracks have essentially been set for the coming year.  This is also a good time to start looking back on the year that will soon come to an end and explore which direction the wind has been blowing.  And so I’d like to take a few minutes to offer my observations as to the state of the photography industry as a whole, including professional and consumer activities and products.

The Next Feature Battle Ground Isn’t About The Photos

The Megapixel war has finally come to an end.  I think the beginning of the end happened a few years ago, but there were a few outliers that weren’t informed that the war was over, and we saw a couple additional boosts in the pixels jammed onto a single sensor.  As the technology improves and becomes more economical, we will continue to see jumps in sensor pixel density for more years to come, but it will no longer be considered a factor when choosing a camera.  I expect advertising will reflect that; it already has.

The current race has to do with low-light performance.  I, for one, am happy about this battle because all I can say is “it’s about time”.  For a while there, we were seeing 16 and 20 megapixel cameras that could create a great image if you had enough light, but the noise introduced under low light conditions or in the need to increase the ISO to cope was pretty sad.  One could argue that larger pixel densities meant that you could do more in post to smooth out that noise.  But if you had a camera that performed well in low light, you didn’t even need to bother.  Full frame sensors have always had the edge, and for me it was always a factor to consider full-frame.  But then a bunch of new cameras came out with better low light performance and better quality ISO with reduced noise, and there is now a much tighter gap between cropped and full frame sensors with respect to low light.  My Nikon D7100, released earlier this year, was one such camera.  I was really on the fence between the robust full-framed D800 or the new flagship of the cropped sensor line.  After seeing it’s performance in low light, I was happy to save a few thousand dollars that would better be spent on lenses.

The low-light performance race will continue on for at least another couple of years, and we will all benefit.  But a new race is already gearing up.  Unfortunately, I think the next race is not going to be about the performance of the camera.  I think it’s going to be about gimmicky features and form factors.  Internet connectivity seems to be one such feature that everyone is pushing right now.  Samsung and Sony each have a whole line of cameras targeting the internet-sharing shooters.  Sure that’s cool, I guess.  But I’m not looking forward to the side effect:  A new flood of unprocessed, uncorrected images that have been viewed only once or twice on the screen on the back of the camera.  The general quality of photos on the internet will drop.  There are also a lot of cameras offering remote viewing and triggering.  Heck, Sony released a new line, the QX series, that jettisons the traditional camera back entirely and connects to your phone.  I think it’s a good direction for those companies because photography has certainly become much more of a hobby for casual shooters.  But these gimmicky features aren’t doing much for the health of the photographer or the quality of the industry.  Finally, there is a lot more emphasis on the design of the camera these days:  Form before function.  Design is great, of course, so long as the function backs it up.  There are a lot of great cameras on the market that have both.  Fujifilm, for example, has some great performers that also have some great aesthetic design.  But there are a few out there that seem to have forgotten the purpose of the camera.  Which leads me into the next aspect of this overall discussion…

Photography as Fashion

Proof that Nikon imagines the DF as jewelry:  Why use a physical cable release instead of an IR remote?

Proof that Nikon imagines the DF as jewelry: Why use a physical cable release instead of an IR remote?

Electronics in general have become a fashion statement.  The iPhone, which earned its fame for reinventing the phone industry, has evolved (or devolved) into little more than jewelry.  It is no longer the best phone on the market by a long shot, and it’s incremental upgrades offer gimmicky features that don’t amount to much (Siri is a great concept, but she’s dumb.  Whereas Google has taken a simpler approach with a cleaner Google Now interface).  But people buy Apple phones so that they can be seen with one.  It’s the whole reason the gold iPhone exists.  Well, Apple may have started the trend, but it seems to be working its way into other corners of the electronics world, including the photography world.  Now don’t get me wrong, a well designed camera is a great thing if it does what it is supposed to and if it’s functionality isn’t handicapped by things like comfort.  Again I will defer to Fujifilm who has created some fantastic cameras in their X lineup over the past couple years.  These cameras are great performers, but they also look good.  Great.  That’s what we want.  Then there’s Nikon.  I think the company has a bit of a split personality.  On one side, they make great cameras that perform well with great interfaces and I love and support that side.  But the other side seems to be a bit lost.  A few years ago, we were talking about the Nikon 1 series, mirrorless cameras that were smaller and more compact.  They’re selling, but not to those concerned about the outcome.  The cameras are offered in an array of colors, and they have a clean design.   But they aren’t comfortable to use and the image quality leave something to be desired, especially compared to other mirrorless cameras.  Sadly, I think that side of Nikon is tainting the pro and semi-pro camera lineups as they just announced their new “retro styled” DF camera, which is based on the classic Nikon FM2 camera from 30 years ago.  If the camera were a rangefinder with the Nikon F-mount, it would be an awesome introduction.  But it’s an SLR that doesn’t offer anything over Nikon’s current lineup except its retro styling.  Ergonomics are out the window.  Connectivity is lacking as are many of the professional features.  There’s no video support.  And it is priced about the same as the D800, which I feel is a better camera.  Sure, it has the same sensor as Nikon’s flagship D4.  But a Porche engine inside the body of a VW Beetle doesn’t mean I’d want to race that Frankenstein monster.

I will admit that there are a few companies doing things right.  Benro has a new company spin-off, MePhoto, that makes tripods in an array of colors.  The color and styling of the tripods are a bit gimmicky, I’ll admit.  But they are good, compact and lightweight tripods that I believe will be appealing for many photographers, particularly the travelers.  Leica has always been a blend of precision and style, and they continue to maintain that standard, even with their new D-Lux 6 camera and the Leica C.  Olympus continues to push their retro influenced lineup, including the popular PEN series.  But they also recently released the new OM-D and Stylus 1, both of which are also retro influence – and by that I mean that they didn’t revert to an oldskool design, but borrowed from a lot of the oldskool aesthetic without giving up functionality or comfort.  This is what Nikon should have done.  Of course Canon seems to be waiting.  Never quick to introduce a whole new lineup, Canon is probably playing it’s cards right.  Maybe this camera-as-fashion trend will blow over.  But I can assure you that they’re working on something.  And if the trend continues and if they release something, it’ll be better refined than many of the earlier competiton.

I don’t think there are any concerns about the photography world shifting to a more fashionable aesthetic.  But I do worry that we will have a few manufacturers that miss the point and forget the primary purpose of these cameras.  If they can stay the course and continue to push the image quality aspects, there’s no reason these things can’t also be more stylized.  We’re transitioning back into a design oriented economy again, something the electronics world has never seen and industrial design has not been the forefront since the 70’s.  So it’s refreshing.  Just don’t get too carried away.

The Transition to Online Continues

At Photo Plus Expo, I heard one speaker mention a statistic:  92% of all shared photographs are shared online without ever being printed.  I don’t know the source, and you have to take it with a grain of salt considering he was speaking on behalf of an online photo host.  But I don’t find it too difficult to believe.  Social Media has changed the way we look at photos.  Most share photos via Flickr, Facebook, Tumblr or even Twitter now.   Whether planned or not, Google+ has become a natural home for the photography community.  Even Google admitted that photographers make up a massive portion of their users.  Just speaking with a few photographers in my local community, mostly hobbyists, many have never actually printed their photos.

With devices like the iPad and Android Tablets out there, and many of these high-end laptops with great screens, online media is starting to become the norm.  If you think about it, much of our consumed content is now online.  More and more people are even transitioning to reading their magazine subscriptions electronically.  As print media transitions into electronic formats, so do the photos.  Now that’s not to say that people aren’t printing things anymore, because they are.  But there is far less printed these days than were in the old days – both on the consumer level and on the professional level.  On the personal level, hobbyists are more than happy to share with their friends over the internet and many keep little portfolios in their tablets.  And they’re perfectly happy with that.  Some of their best works might get printed for display at home, or they may even sell a few prints here and there.  But photography at the hobby level has never been about selling or even public display…it’s always been for yourself and a select few friends.  It just so happens that we don’t need to print anymore to share the photos, so why bother?

This all leads to a whole new market sector within the photography world.  Well, actually, it’s not that new.  Photographers have been posting photos online for more than a decade now.  But the name of the game is getting it out there sooner and in higher quality.  Many photo apps now allow you to post directly to Facebook, Flickr, Google+, ad nauseum. And many of the hosting services are becoming more accessible in that regard.  They have to.  It’s the only way for them to compete.  So with services like Zenfolio, Photoshelter, Photobiz and SmugMug, we’re starting to see more package options, more connectivity options and more printing services (because who wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to print and sell on-demand to get a few bucks for your hobby).  These sites are expanding their integration into other social sites, and they’re catering more and more to the hobbyist.  That’s a good thing.   We love it.

Beginning of the End of Pocket Cameras

Well, that’s not entirely true.  The mid and low lines of pocket cameras (point and shoots) aren’t so much suffering as they are evolving.  Truth is that camera phones are getting far more robust with far better cameras.  We started noticing this last year.  But now it’s so blatant that you’d have to be blind, deaf and living in a cave 200 feet below ground not to notice.  The big talk right now is the Nokia Lumia.  It’s got a phenomenal camera.  Interestingly, their advertising doesn’t talk much about its abilities as a smart phone.  The focus is on the camera.  And yes, it beats the quality of iPhone.  LG, Samsung and HTC are also talking about the cameras in their phones with built in image stabilization.  More stuff to improve your photography with your pocket camera…I mean phone.  And Sony’s QX line of cameras are designed to be paired with a phone.  So clearly the low and mid level pocket camera market is dropping out in favor of phone technologies.  The next step are feature cameras like the Nikon Coolpix A or the Canon G1X.  But these are cameras for the more serious photographer with all the bells and whistles of an SLR except more compact and without detachable lenses.  I think these lines will be around for a while.  But as the mirrorless market catches on, I think you’ll see even these lines fading into the background.

Everyone Wants a Piece

Wherever there’s a trend, there’s always a snake oil salesman:  People selling gimmick products or services that will allegedly “take your work to the next level”.  There are a lot of great classes and products that will actually help you to get to the next level, but not overnight.  There are some great educators that will, for a reasonable price, help you on your path.  You need to put in your fair share of the work.  But if you take classes sponsored by a reputable company – like anything offered at B&H’s Event Space or Kelby Training – you’ll probably get out of it every bit that you put in.  But there are some lunatics out there as well.  Like Jesh de Rox, a self proclaimed “explorer in the emerging field of experiential photography” who is “madly in love with life”.  He offers these “Enlighten Experiential Photography Tools” and workshops.  You’ll pay an arm and a leg for his products and workshops (like $2,000) and you’re never going to get that much out of it.  You can’t learn everything you need to know about photography in one day.  If you think that’s a lot to spend on a class like setting, consider that he also offered one-on-one time for only $16,500.  That’s what he thinks a day with him is worth.  But I’ll be blunt:  If you believe a day learning with any photographer is worth that much, then you have no clue what photography is about.  Here’s an idea…take that money and spend it on a really nice vacation.  It’ll do more for your photography than a day with Jesh.  Now I’m picking on Mr. de Rox because he’s one of the most public forms, but there are others out there equally as shady.  Let me give you a hint:  If Joe McNally – one of the great award winning and widely acclaimed photographers alive today – charges only $99 for a full day of class instruction, there’s no reason some clown without a real name for himself should be charging $2,000 for the same day’s worth of instruction.  Better yet, buy Joe McNally’s book, The Moment it Clicks.  It’ll be the best $35 you ever spend on a book.

Websites are the same:  Not everyone posting content to the internet knows what they’re talking about.  For example, there’s a wild misconception that zoom lenses make you lazy and you should “zoom with your feet” .  Whether you use zooms or use prime lenses, you should be thinking first about focal length, then moving into position.  That means that prime users should be changing your lenses to fit the needs of the shot as well.  Yeah, prime lens users can get quite lazy (if not more lazy) too.  But I digress, I’ve written a whole article about this.  My point is that you shouldn’t depend on a single source in your photography education.  I’d love for you to keep coming back to Shutter Photo, but I encourage you to read from as many sources as you can and experiment for yourself rather than take anything for grail.  Use your mind, think and learn to separate the weeds from the crop.

The same can be said for products, too.  It’s easy to believe that the next piece of hardware is going to improve your photography.  If it’s something you need, sure.  If it’s a “revolutionary new technology”, look at it with skepticism.  There’s a reason why the general design of a beauty dish or a soft box hasn’t changed much over the years.  There’s a reason why camera manufacturers keep adding features with only incremental changes in their image technology.  The truth is they’re trying to get you to buy stuff that you don’t need.  Lens technology, for example, hasn’t changed much in 20 years.  Sure, some lenses have gotten sharper or faster, but the truth is that even today’s kit lenses are pretty good.  Pair any camera and lens setup with good artistic vision, and it doesn’t matter what hardware you were using.  Who – except for geeky photographers like ourselves – really looks at the cover of National Geographic and says “That is an awesome photo.  I wonder what brand of camera they used.”  No one.  So stop fooling yourself and realize that there are many more economical ways to improve your photography.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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