Friday 30 September 2016

In an age of quick selfies and powerful smartphone lenses, camera manufacturers need to focus on the bigger picture

Published 15/10/2015 | 02:30

Canon g5x
Canon g5x

What does a camera company do when 95pc of all the photos now taken are not on cameras? How does it react when a growing number of people believe that the latest smartphone is as good as it gets in photography?

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This is the existential situation facing Canon, one of the world's iconic camera brands.

Earlier this week, the company put on a global expo where executives showed off virtual reality gadgets and cameras that can take pictures in the dark. A couple of new models - notable its G5X mirrorless camera, pictured -- sparkled. There was even a 'home of the future', where a high definition projector was used to show how we could edit photos on our dining room table.

But underlying the pomp of the occasion was the reality that Apple and Samsung - through their phones - have captured large chunks of what used to be Canon's basic market.

And the Japanese company is still trying to figure out exactly what to do about it.

"Our job is now to explain to people what is it you can do with a camera that you can't do with a phone," said Lars Madsen, Canon's marketing director for Ireland and the UK.

"We have a lot of people who are hugely into the brand and know about us. But they hear the press and, in fairness, us talking about technical terms and megapixels that they don't relate to at all. Our job is now to broaden our message out to audiences in Facebook and Instagram and other places where our customer are."

This sounds fine. But then what? Apple, for example, currently has an international campaign with massive billboards showing photos that its users have taken. (And that's with the older iPhone 6 8-megapixel camera, not the new 12-megapixel model on the iPhone 6S.) The campaign is clearly working. The most common question your humble columnist gets about cameras is: "should I bother getting a bigger camera with the new iPhones out?" (The answer to this question, by the way, is often 'no', if you're the type of person who's too lazy to bring a separate device around. But if you want better quality for its own sake, the answer is usually 'yes'.)

Madsen acknowledges the issue, but still believes that it's an education issue more than a product one. "If people knew what you and I know, that smartphones are useless for taking photos of kids running around or for zooming in or for taking shots in low light or for autofocusing quickly, then they might look at this question in a new light," he said.

"We now have a group on Instagram and we have services online like Irista and Lifecake. So we're engaging with people in the places they like to hang out." Lifecake and Irista, for those who haven't heard, are online services for sharing and managing your photos.

They're innovative and powerful, but are only used by a handful of people (likely under 100,000 active users, compared to Instagram's 800m or Facebook's 1.5bn). Realistically, they will probably never compete with the big guns of online photo-sharing. This affects a crucial demographic for camera manufacturers: mothers. The ones who are used to taking most of the family photos are now shifting to their Samsung S6 or iPhone 6. And that leaves enthusiasts: middle-aged men like me.

Although I am a lucrative individual consumer for a Canon, a Nikon or a Panasonic (I have spent thousands in recent years on camera bodies and lenses as a hobby) there are far too few people like me to constitute anything like a mainstream camera market.

That leaves Canon investing heavily in other areas, such as business printers or cinema film cameras. "Do I still think that we will have a consumer camera business in five years? Absolutely," said Madsen. "The figures show we're quite healthy, especially in DSLR companies enthusiast models such as our Powershot G series."

If I were in his position, I'd focus on two core messages and I'd do it bluntly.

1. A camera is much, much better than a phone. Not just a little better, but much better. Yes, phones take adequate shots in good light. But most phone photos are average to poor. In other words, you will absolutely, positively miss capturing the best moments if all you have is a phone: the optics simply aren't there. But hold a Canon (or Nikon or Lumix or Fujifilm) up to someone and the result can be magic. Frameable, life-punctuating magic.

2. Taking a photograph of someone is about connection, commitment and romance. And it's easy to do for anyone, simply by picking up a camera and hitting the shutter button. If Apple made DSLR cameras, how would they get this message across? They would never talk about apertures, megapixels or mirrorless technology. They would focus on the larger truth: you can now have incredibly moving, accessible beauty from a camera. And they're easier to 'learn' than most smartphones.

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