The end of the low end DSLR?

Thom Hogan, camera commentator and Nikon expert, says that when a camera company introduces fashion to a product then the technology is no longer driving the sales.

I’ve never been the type who feels compelled to upgrade to every new camera model that comes out, but the camera industry certainly wishes there were more who would.

What is it that differentiates one camera from another? I my opinion, the major brands are fairly level at the moment (at least at the lower end), so consumers entering the market will decide a budget and then look at review sites or the headline (best-seller) products on camera sales websites. As an example, Nikon’s current DSLR range starts with the D3100, rising up in price and size as follows: D5100, D7000, D300s, D700, D3s, D3x. At the lower end of the scale, a consumer will probably pick a rational product for them at the time - at the moment that would be the D3100 or D5100. It is now Nikon’s job to get more money from that consumer. There are a couple of ways to do this: accessories like lenses, flashguns and camera-specific bags may be of interest to more enthusiastic consumers, but they probably bought a more expensive camera in the first place, or are savvy shoppers who buy second hand. The second honey pot for Nikon is the upgrader market: someone buys a DSLR and eventually thinks their photos aren’t good enough (they see someone else’s photos they think are better, or they don’t quite know what they are doing and blame their camera for bad images).

DSLR technology has reached a level of maturity that stops people making irrational upgrade purchases for the time being. It might be a simple matter of economics - people are saving money and therefore don’t upgrade. However, the more practical alternatives to a DSLR are becoming more competent. Who wants to carry a camera that is so big it needs its own bag? Probably not most amateurs.

The latest high-end compact cameras, which are slightly cheaper than the most basic DSLRs, have very good image quality for general use and will fit in a pocket at a pinch. With a slightly larger budget, a compact system camera (micro 4/3, Sony NEX, Samsung et al.) costs around the same as a budget DSLR, takes photographs of a similar quality and fits in a coat pocket (at least the weight and volume are low enough to make the camera a more practical alternative to a DSLR).

So why would someone buy a cheap DSLR? Canon has now decided to release multi-coloured budget DSLRs, following Pentax and Sony who both offer different colours on certain models. I just can’t see anyone buying these cameras. Maybe in ten years’ time they will be the collectable models that make lots of money for second-hand shops. I admit this is extremely unlikely, with the pace of technology as it currently is. The only cameras that keep their value like that are the film classics (Leica, old Nikon F models and so forth).

For me, there has never been any desire for a budget DSLR, but that is probably because I have a set of lenses which only work with the more expensive Nikon cameras. If I had the budget that would afford the cheapest DSLRs, I would rather spend it on something pocketable. Since I am in the unfortunate position of being on the hunt for a new mobile phone, that budget would probably go towards a phone which can take pictures. These cameras are primitive, but connected to the world. With an iPhone/[insert other smartphone here] someone can take a photo and publish it on the spot. With a DSLR, the snapshot would not have seemed so attractive. What I really want is a more streamlined connected compact camera - a device with much better technical quality than a phone can offer, but with the connectivity and programmability of the current crop of phones. This is what Thom Hogan has been proposing for a while, with the camera makers just continuing along their continual refinement road which never really leads anywhere that hasn’t been visited before.

What would such a device need? Software is the key here. The electronics are now well developed, and continually improving, but not enough to compel upgrades. If a company was brave enough to wed the electronics from a smart phone (the system on a chip, the 3G/Wifi connectivity) with the hardware of a DSLR (autofocus system, image processing engine, storage) and allow 3rd party developer access to enhance the functionality then they could be on to a winner. But then who would buy the more expensive models? This is the trap the companies seem to be in. It will probably take a new-comer to build such a device, to really disrupt the market and compel the giants like Canon to do something similar. But they are chasing the perpetual upgraders, the people who are now satisfied with what they have.