Ten years ago, this month the Canon 5D Mark III DSLR was released; a month earlier, the Nikon D800 arrived. Their appearance heralded the crash of the camera industry. Were they, in some small way, partly to blame?
The Canon EOS 5D III sported a 22.3-megapixel CMOS sensor and boasted six frames per second shooting and 63 metering zones. Deemed to be the bee’s knees at the time, it’s since become one of the few classic digital cameras. Despite being a bit limited on the shooting speed compared to today’s standards, there are still photographers, especially wedding and portrait photographers, that use it. Why? Because it is still good enough to do the job well.
It had its faults. The light from the LCD panel would affect the exposure in dark environments, but at least its mirror didn’t have the habit of falling out, like its two predecessors. Nor was overheating a problem like its mirrorless successor, the R5. The Mark III had a dynamic range of a then-impressive 11.74 EV. Although far more affordable than its contemporary stablemate, the 18-megapixel 1D X, with a launch price of $3,499, it still wasn’t a cheap camera.
Just beating the Canon out of the gates, the Nikon D800 was launched too. That boasted a 36.6-megapixel sensor and had a dynamic range of 14.4 EV. It should have been the clear winner; at $2,999, it was $500 less than the Canon, and DXOMark rated its performance more highly than the 5D III too. Its focusing wasn’t as fast as later models, but it too was a super camera that was also good enough to meet the needs of professional photographers.
Despite their flaws, both these cameras were considered the pinnacle of achievement in the field of more affordable pro-end full-frame DSLRs. However, at the time of their launch, interchangeable lens camera (ILC) sales started to plummet. This was widely blamed on the provision of point-and-shoot cameras in smartphones. That factor impacted the compact market. But was there was more to it than that when it came to ILCs? Was the release of those two cameras a contributing factor to the market’s decline? The reason I ask those rhetorical questions is because of what I said earlier: they were good enough.
Good Enough: The Reason Why Photographers Stopped Buying New Cameras
In 2012, there were 100 million digital cameras manufactured, already down from the peak of 121.77 million two years earlier. The following year, sales were already at half their peak. By far, the biggest loss was from the fixed lens compact cameras that accounted for most camera sales at the time. The smartphone stole away that section of the market.
Meanwhile, the sales of ILCs increased to around 17 million in 2012. Why was the smartphone not having a detrimental effect on that section of the market? There’s a massive difference between shooting with an ILC and a phone. But by 2019, this figure had just about halved to 8.66 million. Maybe the smartphone wasn’t solely to blame?
Professionals, Enthusiasts, and Beginners No Longer Needed to Upgrade
The Reason Why Pros Upgraded Less Often
Skilled photographers knew there was no need to upgrade when their cameras took superb photos. Nevertheless, most upgrades available made much smaller changes than those that had come earlier in the millennium. Historically, improvements between releases were significant. By the twenty-teens, the differences between models had narrowed.
Furthermore, photographers became wise to the great pixel count lie. Most people no longer print images. Even if they did, then they rarely printed as big as S11R (11” x 17″) or A3, which only required around 8 megapixels for photo quality reproduction. Higher pixel counts meant nothing more than larger file sizes. For most of us, all that was achieved was both slower processing and greater storage requirements.
Enthusiasts Stopped Upgrading Too
Then, there were the keen enthusiasts who were previously duped into updating their cameras but discovered it made little difference to their photography. Even those that upgraded from relatively poorly specified crop frame DSLRs to these 35mm models didn’t suddenly become great photographers.
Novices Gave Up on Photography
Before 2012, novices bought DSLRs in their millions, expecting them to deliver on the promise of perfect images. Inevitably, they were disappointed because they did not know how to operate them and they could get as good photos on their smartphones. They bought into the pixel count lie and purchased new entry-level cameras. Consequently, there are many millions of obsolete, low-quality DSLRs abandoned in cupboards, drawers, and landfills with their mode dial still pointing to auto.
The realization that new cameras don’t make better photographers must have hit hardest those who expected fame and fortune to be handed to them on a plate. Talent is earned by hard work. They were unwilling to put in the hard work over many years to achieve success. Perhaps I should be more generous and say that they were unaware that long, hard toil was necessary to become talented.
At the other end of the scale, it must also have been disappointing to those with a desire and drive to do something big with their photography but discovered that they were tiny fish in a huge ocean. Their ambitions were thus quashed, and they too were discouraged from upgrading.
Added to that, people’s incomes fell in real terms, and the wealth gap between the richest and the rest of us grew. Ordinary people who before could afford to buy new cameras can no longer afford to do so.
What Lessons Can Be Learned From the Past?
Have things moved on since 2012? The industry has reached rock bottom. Yet, there are still more people taking photographs than there are playing football or going fishing, and even more, people are taking the art seriously than ever before. This isn’t with any desire to make themselves rich from selling their work, but just enjoying the act of creativity. But does that require a new camera? Aren’t the 5D Mark III and the D800 still good enough?
For photography to survive as a popular art form, it needs camera companies to exist. Putting it bluntly, those companies need to find ways to make money. That means selling more gear.
All is not lost. As I reported in my previous article, the new OM-System OM-1 has just launched, and it has been a massive success with a huge global uptake. Why? Firstly, it’s more affordable. It costs $1,500 less than the Canon 5D Mark III did at launch 10 years ago, more than that in real terms. Moreover, the diminutive OM-1 outperforms most other much larger cameras on the market in many areas of its functionality. Its Micro Four Thirds system ticks all the ergonomics boxes too; it’s not backbreaking like other systems. Most importantly, though, it’s a camera that has lots of new, useful innovative features not available in other cameras, namely the computational photography functions.
Even the OM-1’s dynamic range at its native ISO 200 is not far off the full frame Canon EOS R5 that costs $1700 more. (Comparatively, the R5 is still a good value compared to the 5D Mark III. The latter’s original selling price is the equivalent of $4284.68 in today’s money.) It’s worth noting that the OM-1 has a slightly lower pixel count than the 5D Mark III from ten years ago; OM System has shunned the pixel count battle, as Olympus did before them.
Of course, there will always be a minority who will want greater resolution. But, resolution is not everything. Fitting more pixels on the sensor means they must be smaller. Consequently, they have less capacity for storing electrons. In turn, this results in a lower dynamic range. Conversely, fewer, larger photosites on the sensor will always result in a better dynamic range. New sensors have greatly improved in this respect, and I believe we have reached the point where contemporary crop sensors are good enough.
There’s one other area where camera manufacturers should take heed, and that is the environmental and moral impact of their products. Evermore, consumers are expecting the things they buy to be made from recycled materials, not be produced in countries run by oppressive regimes, and be carbon-neutral. If you look at the huge success of Urth (formerly Gobe) filters, that is down to them helping rainforest restoration. So far, they have funded the planting of over five million trees. This is surely an example that other photographic businesses must follow. I am certainly swayed to buy quality products where manufacturers go as far as they can to do good in the world, as opposed to paying cheap lip service to widely accepted values.
If manufacturers want to continue selling cameras, then they are going to have to invest in research and development. They must start producing affordable, environmentally friendly cameras with new and useful features that photographers at every level want.