Saturday 25 January 2020

Camera firms face grim future if they don't heed the iPhone

Another angle

Canon 6D
Canon 6D
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Camera sales have collapsed over the last five years. It's no surprise why. Our phones all now have decent lenses that can instantly share images with the world. Indeed, 98pc of all cameras sold today are those on phones. Does this mean camera companies should give up the ghost? Millions hope they won't: many still want dedicated devices that can take extraordinary images outside the capabilities of handsets. But Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fuji and the rest aren't helping themselves. They appear to be more interested in serving evermore specialised niches rather than appealing to ordinary non-experts. If they're bothered, here are three things they could do to boost their sales.

1. Make it much easier to share photos from cameras

This is one of the biggest thing holding people back from using cameras once they actually own one. It's simply too difficult to quickly share photos from a standalone camera. It typically involves a complicated procedure between cameras and phones that incorporates clunky apps, user-unfriendly language, multiple screens and a small prayer that the actual connection works. I know this from experience: I've used the wireless photo transfer systems from all the big camera companies and none of them is nearly simple enough. Camera companies need to look at how Apple has done its wireless connection system between iPhones and Airpods - just open the lid of the box and a prompt on your phone asks you to confirm the connection. That's it; there's no ridiculous long device IP numbers or multiple app screens asking you to confirm things four times.

Stop making the sharing of photos an afterthought, companies. Make it utterly easy. Your customers want to share photos immediately.

2. Make an idiot-proof high-quality camera

Camera companies are obsessed with serving professional users and serious hobbyists. So none of them makes the equivalent of an iPhone - a camera that's really well built and takes amazing photos but which almost anyone can pick up and use. Models that are marketed as consumer-friendly are still too technical, with too many dials, buttons and switches. Flick one of these buttons by mistake and it might take a novice ages to correct the problem. Why isn't there an idiot-proof camera with just five or six controls that anyone can pick up and use? Ridiculously, it's now easier to use a drone - a flying camera - than most of the features on an actual camera.

One reason for the technical elitism may be that camera companies fear making such a device would kill demand for many of their existing lines. "We can't make one really good, simple camera," they say. "We have carefully thought out tiers of product lines to maximise revenue."

This is dangerously self-deluding. It is the same rationale that Nokia used when it had 50 or 60 different models of mobile phone. In 2007, Apple came out with one simple, killer device and Nokia (together with an entire legacy cellular industry) was toast.

What camera companies are saying to non-expert customers is that you have to swot up on technical knowledge if you want to own or take advantage of a camera. If you don't know about ISO, aperture, shutter speeds, white balance, continuous autofocusing and a host of other controls, our machines aren't really for you, is the message.

One might argue that Samsung tried this approach with its NX series of cameras, which used an Android touchscreen system as well as other controls. But it still had too many knobs and dials, trying to appeal to both camps. Samsung has gradually pulled back support for these cameras. But that doesn't mean that the idea was wrong.

The downward direction of global sales figures clearly shows that camera firms have to be willing to cannibalise their own products to grow their overall business.

But honestly, what have they got to lose?

Nikon, a company in serious trouble from falling sales, is a prime candidate for this approach. It has a stellar brand name. Why doesn't it surprise everyone with a killer, high-quality camera that is utterly idiot-proof? It could positively disrupt the camera market and bring in millions of customers who wouldn't previously have thought of getting 'a camera'. And it's not like those who love twiddling around with settings wouldn't still plump for the all-manual knobs-and-dials models anyway. The possible downside is surely way thinner than the potential upside.

After all, there has never been a stronger market for high-quality photos. But in an age of Instagram, you shouldn't have to be a technical expert to dream about travelling to far off places to shoot deserts or glaciers.

3. Camera companies may need to be dragged kicking and screaming into a more profitable future

Canon 6D

Canon's big launch this week illustrates the problem nicely. The world's leading camera company launched two cameras, the 6D Mark ii and the 200D. Neither does anything to expand interest in photography among a wider group of people. The 6D Mark ii will hold its own among existing hobbyists (like me - I may buy one) and professional photographers but will interest absolutely no-one else. It looks almost identical to any other Canon DSLR and costs from €2,500, a professional's price. The 200D is a slightly smaller, slightly lighter version of umpteen cameras that Canon already sells. In other words, it's too intimidating for most people. It's more of the same - a further signal that cameras aren't for ordinary folks.

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