Why camera makers won’t give us what we want

Earlier today, a few of the rumor sites leaked a new Sony high end compact camera that’s scheduled to be released in a couple of days. The camera has a larger than normal sensor approximately the size of the sensor in Nikon’s mirrorless entries, plenty of external controls, a Carl Zeiss zoom lens and RAW capture. It sounds promising, until you get into the details. Sony has crammed 20MP onto that larger, but still relatively small sensor. Don’t expect amazing low light performance unless Sony has some new secret low-light technology(doubtful, but we’ll see). The zoom lens is a 30-108mm equivalent, with a variable aperture of f/1.8-4.9. Not wide enough on the wide end, and too slow at the long end to be truly useful. No viewfinder or hot shoe, which means you’re stuck shooting “stinky diaper style” – hold the camera at arms length and frame using the rear screen, while squinting and making a face as if you smelled something objectionable as you struggle to see the rear LCD in blinding sunlight. Fun times. Not.

I’m not saying this is going to be a bad camera, because no one can know that until they shoot with it. It may very well turn out to be a useful tool. What’s clear though is that this camera is not what it should or could have been. Why is that? For one thing, camera companies seem intent on building cameras that are easily marketable, rather than truly useful. 20MP! Carl Zeiss zoom lens! RAW capture! It all looks great on a brochure or website, especially to the “under-informed.” Just don’t try to use the camera in anything but bright light. Forget about isolating your subject from the background at the tele end, and good luck capturing truly sweeping vistas with the not-so-wide end. Another Jack-of-all-trades, master of none.

There’s another reason why cameras companies won’t give us what we want – fear. Some folks have suggested this new camera is a viable alternative to Sony’s NEX cameras. No way. Not in terms of image quality or flexibility. I have given Sony credit in the past for building cameras that risked cannibalizing their DSLR sales. When Sony put an APS-C sensor in their mirrorless cameras, they seemed to be saying “we don’t care what camera you buy, as long as it’s a Sony.” Bravo. Build the best cameras in every segment and let the chips – and sales – fall where they may. Sony could afford to adopt this attitude partly because they didn’t have much to lose in terms of DSLR sales at the time, since they weren’t a major player in the market. This time however, Sony appears to have chickened out. They have something to protect, namely their well-selling NEX camera line. Create a high end compact that’s too good, and they risk cutting into the nice little market niche they’ve carved out for themselves with NEX. It’s the same timidness that gave us the Nikon V1 and J1. Nikon didn’t want to cut into the sales of their bread and butter DSLRs, so they stuck a small sensor in their new mirrorless cameras, and marketed them to the point-and-shoot crowd. Thus is the curse of success. Instead of expanding, you begin to contract – circle the wagons, protect your territory, and in the process grow stagnant. Go from being an innovator to a reactor. Nikon gave everyone – except Canon, who perhaps has even more to protect, and therefore has been even more timid – a huge head start on the mirrorless market. If you compare the m4/3 system to the Nikon 1 system… well, there is no comparison. Just think of what might have been though. Nikon cracked one of the major shortcomings of mirrorless cameras, autofocus tracking, by using on-sensor phase-detection. The V1 not only locks quickly and accurately onto stationary subjects, but can track moving subjects nearly as well as cameras like the D7000. Now imagine if Nikon had been brave enough to use a larger sensor. With the quality of their Expeed image processor, even something the size of a m4/3 sensor would have provided outstanding image quality at around 16MP. Put that technology inside a rugged body with lots of external controls, features real photographers want and use, and a quality set of lenses… and well, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 wouldn’t be receiving quite so much attention. True innovation these days comes from those with little or nothing to lose.

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