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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Withering Fast

A digital point-and-shoot picture by David A. Goldfarb

In response to the previous post, "Lazy Aussie" wrote:
"You are right—mostly, the only people able to get good photos out of [point-and-shoots] are the people least likely to want one. Yes, there are superb images out of pinholes, Holgas, point-and-shoots, etc., but these are usually from those who learnt their skills from other cameras. But maybe your complaint is that more people don't care that their images could be better?"

My complaint is that more people don't care that their cameras could be better.

I'm perfectly sympathetic to people who use digital point-and-shoots. I know nice work can be done with them. They do have advantages, of course (low cost, handy size), and there's nothing wrong with striving to work within the limitations of the breed.

Overall I'm increasingly disappointed about the direction that digital camera design appears to be taking. Paul Leidl mentioned something that's been a sore point with me for the last half year or so (actually I don't remember when I started getting cranky about this, but it's been a while now): has anybody noticed the demise of the entire "prosumer" or "bridge" class of cameras? As long as the cheapest DSLR was $3,000 and up, there was plenty of room between lowest-common-denominator point-and-shoots and DSLRs, and the manufacturers for a while had some very creative offerings in the middle there. For a while it looked like there was a sort of renaissance in camera design occurring. There was some real creativity going on. Not all the attempts were equally successful, but companies were "thinking differently" and taking fresh approaches and trying new things. I was very encouraged by it.

I also assumed it was going to continue. But the most creative, fresh-thinking company—Olympus—has gotten spanked time and time again for daring to be different. And of course as soon as the APS-C-sensor DSLRs fell to $2,000 and then to $1,500 and then to $1,000 and now to $500 or even less, the intense price pressure simply vaporized whole classes of cameras. Oh, I know there are still quite a few interesting and different cameras out there. And the consumer mania for those absurd 12X zoom lenses is keeping one class of "different" cameras from dying, at least so far. But what it's looking like more and more, to me at least, is that the market is heading straight toward exactly where it was just before digital came along: namely, divided between black-blob Wunderplastik SLRs on the one hand and crappy little cookie-cutter point-and-shoots on the other. (And the BBWP category is divided strictly in terms of better = bigger and smaller = cheaper, just like film BBWP used to be. Arrrgh.) Nothing but a straight copy of where film cameras were in, say, 1995. Digital's not there yet, but it's sure heading there fast.

Even Leica, which is in the near-unique position of being able to charge luxury prices for its products, just copied its own most popular film camera. No newthink at all.

Hell in a handbasket. It would be a real shame if, after just a ten- or twelve-year renaissance of creativity, variety, and fresh thinking, we were to be consigned once again to a dull wasteland of sameness, conservatism, and unoriginality.

People react with great umbrage when I decry excessive choice, because in their view choice = freedom, but the truth is that, at the low end of the market, product proliferation isn't motivated primarily by the desire to give consumers more choices. It's done for that reason, yes, but also for other reasons, which I won't go into here. And the truth is, product proliferation amongst digital point-and-shoots is largely false choice. There may be 150 digital point-and-shoots on the market—I don't know what the real number is—but from the consumer's perspective you could probably boil that down to eight or ten cameras without effectively compromising consumer choice.

And yet look at all the choices we don't have. The Nikon 950-style bodies, largely gone (partially resurrected recently in the S10, I admit). The Sony F-7XX line made it all the way to the large-sensor R-1, but is now gone. The Olympus c-XXXX series, long-running, but basically gone. The Olympus E-10/E-20 series hangs on in the form of the inexplicably orphaned E-1, one of the most successful overall camera designs I know of, film or digital—but it's not going anywhere from here. There won't be an Epson R-D2. The Canon G7 is a definite step down from the more capable G6. (Why? Because you're supposed to buy a Digital Rebel if you want the features the G6 had that the G7 doesn't.) Articulated LCDs are getting scarcer. Of the brands tracked by dpreview, Agfa, Contax, HP, JVC, Konica-Minolta, Kyocera, Sanyo and Toshiba have entirely or effectively fled the field, and Ricoh doesn't sell its cameras, including the well-regarded GR Digital, in North America. It's been sixteen months since I published "'DMD': The Digital Camera I'd Like to Own" on The Luminous Landscape, and the first reasonable approximation of a camera like the one I described, the Sigma DP-1, is slowly making its way to release only now.

We'll see how that does. Frankly, I think the "window of opportunity" for a DMD has come and gone. There's probably no longer a place for a fast, responsive, large-sensor miniature camera in the price hierarchy. (There was probably never a place for a fixed-prime-lens camera, but let's leave that topic alone for now.)

The cameras today are better now in some ways, naturally, because of engineering progress that's been made in the meantime, and the DSLRs are certainly cheaper, but in terms of inventive designs we have less choice now than we had four years ago. Moreover, the welcome spectacle of camera designers rethinking whole categories and types of cameras and styles of shooting, and the great promise it held for the future, seems to be withering fast. I hate to say it. I hate to see it.

I don't deny that there's a place for a digital point-and-shoot even in a seasoned photographer's bag of tricks. They're useful little buggers. (I've got a Fuji F30, although I can't seem to remember how to use it in between the times I try.) But they're not the only kind of non-DSLR that's useful. What I'm afraid of is that point-and-shoots are soon going to be the sole option south of entry-level DSLRs, because Joe Sixpack and Jill Boxed White Wine won't want, need, or care about anything else.


Featured Comment by Ken Cobb: "I think the innovation is now coming from the smaller DSLR models, like the D40 and the E-400, where they're trying to pack DSLR features in ever smaller bodies. Which is fine by me, since while I loved my C7070 and made many very nice photos with it, it was frankly very sluggish (RAW mode was unusably slow), hard to use, and noisy above ISO 200.

"Where I would like to see more innovation is in smaller lenses for these smaller DSLRs. In other words, get back to the bridge camera size, but come at it from the DSLR end rather than the P&S end."


Blogger Bruce McL said...

The word "cartel" comes to mind when I think about how point and shoot cameras are evolving. Every manufacturer's products are the same, so everybody gets a piece of the pie. The pace of change is kept very slow so that research costs are kept down. Small changes that do occur are quickly adopted by all manufacturers.

You mentioned much of what could be happening and isn't: articulating displays, new shapes, larger sensors. I would add better dynamic range and sensitivity. I'm not talking about in-camera processing. Sensors can get much better at collecting light. The potential is there and is being ignored by the manufacturers, which is sad.

2:29 PM  
Blogger kevin said...

Regarding the Leica reference in this post. If Leica would have simply copied the design of the M7 and effectively transferred that simplicity to the M8, that would have been great. The M8 would then have in fact been, imho, a radically newthink camera when compared to the present herd of overdesigned dslrs. Instead Leica went backwards when compared to their previous designs, eliminating dedicated controls and requiring the use of menus to view or change ISO and tweak exposure compensation. Those changes reflect the bad design which has come to be accepted in the digital era, the worst of the _current_ think.

2:41 PM  
Blogger Bryce Lee said...

For me the Canon A510 which I
purchased used is "it" as far as I am concerned. Tried the DSLR route (D100)and was disappointed. What is needed is a level playing field; it doesn't exist, too many players, too much sameness. The industry has shot itself in the foot once again.

I'll stick with my F100 and Pentax Espio 105 film cameras. The A-510 is used for nonsensical shots.

2:43 PM  
Blogger shaggy dog pix said...

First, I'm in complete sympathy with your sentiments - I'd love to be able to buy a small, M8-ish (i.e. minus the astronomical, unachievable-by-me-in-any-conceivable-future, price tag) camera. But, of course, there's a "but".

But, let's face it, manufacturers have economic realities to cope with. Where's Minolta today? How much longer can Pentax and Olympus hang on? Nikon and Canon seem safe, but for how long? I really don't see any of these companies deciding it's in their best interests (or ours, for that matter) to take unnecessary risks by bringing out what, to most of their market, would be "weird" cameras.

2:57 PM  
Blogger David said...

Geeze, Mike, you're going to damage my reputation as a hardcore anti-digital luddite elitist sceptical of any lens made after the end of the Eisenhower administration.

Thanks for the post. If you want to link to my photo website instead of my academic website, it's here.

David A. Goldfarb

3:20 PM  
Blogger semi said...

I am sure there were photographers 160 years ago moaning and whining about how the Daguerreotype, with its sturdy metal substrate and positive image, was being replaced by the fragile glass negative Collodion process.

I can hear them now going on and on about how photography will be forever compromised, blah blah blah.

P&S cameras allow people who have no interest in learning about photography the chance to actually record an acceptable image. In the early 80s, before P&S cameras hit it big, photography was all about big SLRs. I don't know how many shots I missed because I didn't lug my heavy SLR along.

P&S liberated folks from those boat anchors and made it possible for people to get decent shots that were actually properly exposed and in focus.

Or do you not remember the horrible alternatives of just 30-40 years ago: the crappy Kodak Disc cameras and a whole slew of horrible 110s, 126s, Magic Cubes, Polaroid Swingers, etc.

Give me a digital P&S any day over that junk.

3:22 PM  
Blogger sam murphy said...

why no rd2?

3:54 PM  
Blogger shadow1less said...

Not only are there too many choices in cameras there are too many controls. It seems cameras as well as many other things in our lives have been greatly complicated by technology. We are slowly becoming prisoners of their complexity . It is not that photography has been compromised as much as the prints that we make have been trivialized and homogenized. How do you equate the skilled required to make a good platinum print with skills required to make an acceptable digital print? Technology is pushing us toward the concept of the replicators on Star Treck where we get a good picture on demand. More and more of the decision making and judgement process is being taken away from us. It is not as much that they are too many camera choices as it is how technology is removing our individuality from the process.


4:35 PM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

I'm pretty certain a DMD will appear someday. It will appear when mainstream digital photography stops growing and manufacturers have to look for niches.

We saw this with the "rangefinder renaissance" the moment SLRs became a mature, low-growth market.

5:52 PM  
Blogger thechrisproject said...

I think the DMD of myth will appear when it's feasible to sell one for cheap enough that everyone will go out and buy one immediately.

7:49 PM  
Blogger Mike F said...

I like an oddball camera as much as the next bloke. I'm currently using a Konica Hexar RF, a straight Hexar (the AF one), a Contax G2 and have other film cameras that get use (assorted former Soviet Union cameras, a Leica M3, Olympus OM-series, a Mamiya 645J).

But there's a reason the market stabilised around the small P&S and the auto-focus SLR - and its because they really were the best available tools for their respective tasks. Other cameras were there for various niche markets.

That's harder to do in the digital age simply because of the much larger development cost involved for an oddball that's only ever going to work for a specialised market segment. Look at the Epson RD-1 or Leica M8 as examples.

I think the "bridge camera" died simply because, as Mike J noted, the price of dSLRs dropped - but also because (lets face it) the absence of a decent optical viewfinder was a compromise too far once an SLR was a price-competitive option.

And, yes, the articulated LCD was a loss - but one I hope will be remedied as "live view" LCD SLRs are developed. If this happens, along with the development of "tiny SLRs" with small-enough lenses noted in another post, won't that end up as a "better bridge"? A smallish but not pocket-sized camera with both a decent optical finder and an articulated LCD: that would work for me (especially if I could use it as a 2nd camera to my larger "system SLR").


8:07 PM  
Blogger Cory said...

Thanks for remembering the Olympus C-xxxx Series cameras! I've used a C5050Z for about a year and a half. While it is a great camera (especially 4+ years ago when it was released), I've definitely begun bumping against it's limitations recently.

You speak of innovations in the industry -- I believe Olympus has been at the forefront of the innovative trends (four-thirds system, wave filter sensor cleaning, designs being virtually indestructable) and because of that I'm waiting for the release of the E-510. The specs look great, initial reports are good, and I believe in rewarding companies that are innovative - and deliver excellent values. That's why my next camera will be an E-510. While I've been using a "pro-sumer" model, it just seems to be time to move to a DSLR -- I can see that the prosumer features I've used are now affordably available in DSLR's, so it was time to step up to the next catagory.

I'm the kind of customer companies like -- I'm sticking with Olympus because of the experience I've had with my C5050Z.


8:42 PM  
Blogger amin said...

Really could not agree with you more. In fact, it is a remarkable coincidence that I blogged yesterday about my disappointment in the demise of the bridge camera. Here's my post and the discussion I started afterwards.

9:02 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

I'm waiting for Apple to release a series of consumer electronics. Like Leica, people will pay a premium for the Apple name. But unlike Leica Apple does have a tendency to innovate both in tech and in UI.

My guess is a camera the size of a iPod with a built in 30 gig flash drive that can take 1080p video at 60 fps.

11:12 PM  
Blogger Richard Alan Fox said...

To me the beauty of the bridge camera is the ability to place the camera away from my face, to compose with a point of view removed from my own.
Sony got this right in the R-1, I really do love this camera, but I fear for the demise of my own copy before the replacement is announced.

11:58 PM  
Blogger BigLerowski said...

My best hopes in seeing innovative designs really comes from Pana-Oly-Leica trio. They really seem to care and they team up to incorporate their good ideas in one camera. Having shot 1400+ shots with L1 and having had a Lumix FZ10 bridge before it I have had a feeling that, despite some compromises, those cameras are some sort of labour of love from their manufacturers.
Kevin: Panasonic L1 / Leica Digilux 3 has many dedicated controls so there's no reason to give up hope...

1:54 AM  
Blogger ctyankee said...

Good clarification on "choice" ... overwhelming choices wouldn't be bad if there was any significant variation between them !

Still waiting for my digital Himatic 7sII. A 4/3 or APS-C sensor in a compact body with a fast (f/2 ... not f/4 Sigma !) fixed lens. Manual focussing, even by wire if I get to rotate a ring on the lens and not push a fiddly little button, would be a big plus. Especially since, with a bigger sensor and f/2, I might stand a chance of isolating my subject.

10:24 AM  
Blogger KeithAlanK said...

Great rant, Mike. I completely agree. As a happy F717 user, where do I go from here? There isn't anything on the market today that can replace this camera feature-for-feature, let alone improve on it. I just want a bigger and better sensor with improved high-iso performance, and a faster frame rate--specs that are available now. But to get them I would lose all of the innovative design features I've come to depend on. A used R1 is my only viable option, but I would prefer an F939 or whatever.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Raphael Aizan said...

i'm laying my hopes on canon and sony to come up with a dmd. just a hunch.

7:54 PM  
Blogger amangupta said...

The megapixel race is the biggest problem that is plaguing compact cameras right now. Same amount of research on usability (including shutter lag) would've probably yielded much better cameras. Though DSLRs are improving and their cost touches the compact camera segment, even the smallest ones are too big to carry around in a similar way as compact ones. The best compact camera on features and usability I can think of is Panasanic LX2, though the sensor/image processing plagues it. If companies like Canon, Sony, Nikon (or Fuji with their awesome sensor on F30) can make a similar camera, I am sure it will be not be regarded as a "shitty" camera, and there will be lesser no. of situations it won't be able to handle.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Seungmin said...

I think the "bridge camera" died simply because, as Mike J noted, the price of dSLRs dropped - but also because (lets face it) the absence of a decent optical viewfinder was a compromise too far once an SLR was a price-competitive option.

I have a hard time with this statement. On one level I whole heartedly agree, on another level, looking at the quality of some of the optical viewfinders currently on the market, I want to believe that bridge cameras went the way of the dodo for other reasons. With only a few exceptions (D80, D200, KM 7D, *istD, *istDS) all reduced-frame dSLR VFs have been pretty so-so. For all the fawning over Olympus, have they made a single decent size VF in their entire 4/3rds line after the E-1? Almost ever 4/3rds dSLR I've looked through had a severe case of tunnel vision. If you want to look at innovative and interesting EVFs take a look at what Minolta was doing with the A1 and A2 before they went under: high-gain black and white modes (A1), high resolution--pseudo 1MP (A2) EVFs.


11:48 AM  
Blogger Vladimir said...

Yes, it's O.K. - your thoughts about
point & shoots ... but, here about something different:
1. I am camera fanatic, like you are.
2. I simply don't have enuff money to buy a '' cheap '' DSLR
3. I have a wife and children & it's foolish to miss the oportunity to have a video( yes it's in lowest quality ) to see how my family grows up.
4. But I want to have APS sensor in my Fuji S65oo ... big DOF kils me!
5.I can't see the way out.
6.End of story:
generous people from Rangefinderforum bought brand new BESSA R2M for me ... now, I am RF
fanatic( I always was, one day there will be EPSON RD2s ) with
Fuji NEOPAN loaded for street shots.

1:29 PM  
Blogger Tony said...

The Oly E-10 was a wonderful camera WHEN one kept within the constraints.

I like low light/available light photography. Pushing the ISO, even a little, with the E-10 resulted in severe image noise.

Experience quickly taught me to not push this camera too hard with under-exposing. It was not forgiving.

But it was quiet. The flip, live LCD made it usable like a twin lens reflex of old (Yashica Mat-D) and it produced a good image when not pushed.

It was pretty light, even with the telephoto and wide angle converters.

Mine was tricked out with everything BUT the extreme telephone.

Wonderful memories and photographs.


6:45 PM  

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