The disruptive innovations that change the landscape of photography are often overlooked. Or worse, feared.
This is a long article, meant to be read at your leisure.
For the times they are a-changin’. -Bob Dylan
Technology changes tend to be of two types: incremental improvements or disruptive innovations. Incremental improvements allow one manufacturer to take market share from another and give fanboys fuel for internet forums. Disruptive innovations may create a million new customers. Or make a million potential customers leave for some new hobby or way of doing things.
People love incremental improvements but often dislike disruptive innovations at first. Disruption causes major changes and can be threatening. It may be several generations before the new technology is clearly superior to what already exists. But eventually the disruptive innovation has a huge effect on the market. It causes some existing manufacturers to fail, others to flourish, and creates brand new manufacturers nearly overnight.
By my definitions, the D800 is a good example of a strong incremental innovation. Some photographers changed (or added) brands to shoot the D800. Nikon increased their high-end SLR sales for a while. But the SLR market as a whole didn’t change because of it. Nikon did a little better for a while, other manufacturers did a little worse, but there weren’t any massive changes.
Cell phone cameras and social media were certainly a disruptive innovation. Depending upon your point of view, they’ve either cut the photography market severely or increased it amazingly. If you are a point-and-shoot manufacturer, the photography market is disappearing. If you own Instagram or Facebook, it’s growing phenomenally.
For over a decade, now, the photography market has had one incremental improvement after another: increased pixel density, better high ISO performance, improved autofocus, and sharper lenses. But I think there’s more disruption going on right now than simply cell phone cameras.
Most people, though, don’t realize what a disruptive innovation first looks like. They expect a burning bush of technological triumph that is instantly recognized as the next great thing. Historically, that’s not what a new disruptive innovation looks like at all.
What Disruptive Technology Looks Like
It’s Often the Tortoise, not the Hare
A new technology developed and introduced by company A often makes a fortune two years later for company B. The first home video recorder was introduced by the Nottingham Electric Valve Company in 1963. Avco introduced Cartivision, the video recorder that first allowed you to rent major motion pictures to play in your home, way back in 1972.
But it was Sony and JVC that became hugely successful with home video recorders, and Blockbuster that made a fortune renting videos. This pattern, that the company introducing the technology is often not the one that makes it successful is fairly frequent. Looking back, though, we don’t notice it. Most people think of the early days of video recorders as a battle between Beta and VHS.
Disruption Doesn’t Occur Immediately
There’s often a long delay between the introduction of a disruptive technology and it’s wide acceptance. In the example above, JVC and Sony made a fortune with video recorders, but not until a full decade after the Telcan was introduced. Blockbuster rented its first videos a decade after Avco’s Cartivision.
Often this is because the new technology comes in an unacceptable package. Nottingham Electric’s Telcan was a reel-to-reel system that recorded only 15 to 20 minutes of black-and-white video. Avco’s rentals took several days to arrive and the cartridges were rewind-disabled – you got to view the movie once, and only once. Can you believe a manufacturer would go to the trouble of disabling a feature to try to increase sales?
The pattern is repeated frequently. Xerox originated the computer mouse and graphical user interface and used it on its Alto computers and Star workstations in the 1970s. Apple turned it into the successful McIntosh nearly a decade later. Microsoft turned that into the more successful Windows.
Disruption Isn’t Recognized at First
A disruptive technology, being different, less polished, and geared towards a new marketplace is often disregarded at first. Those invested in the status quo often ridicule it. When graphical-user-interface computers were introduced, existing computer users laughed at them. Who in the world would want a computer you couldn’t program yourself? The people buying them shouldn’t be allowed to have a computer. They didn’t even know how to operate a command-line interface.
When George Eastman mass produced dry plate film in 1878, most photographers thought it useless. Any photographer worth his lens made his own wet plates, developed them, and printed them. When Lewis Carroll first saw dry plates, he spoke for most professional photographers when he said, “Here comes the rabble.” Within a decade, film dominated photography, not because existing professionals flocked to it, but because so many new photographers entered the field that a wet-plate photographer couldn’t compete.
My point is that when looking at innovative and disruptive technologies, we should realize three things: The introduction doesn’t always shake up the market. That usually comes later. The introducing company isn’t always the one that succeeds with the new technology. Many people invested in the market’s status quo either don’t recognize a disruptive technology, or despise it.
Disruptive Photography Innovations
The collodion process, dry-plate film, roll film, 35mm film, rangefinders, SLRs and a dozen other disruptive innovations all rocked the market place. Each increased the number of people who considered themselves photographers. During each innovation, existing photographers dismissed the new innovations as ruining their art. Some companies thrived with change while others missed the boat completely.
Autofocus is a fairly recent example that followed the usual pattern. Leica originally developed phase-detection autofocus in the 1960s (1). They didn’t see much use for it and sold it to Honeywell. Minolta used it on a point-and-shoot camera in 1977. During the 1970s a number of alternative autofocus methods, including sonar and infrared detection were tried. Pentax came out with the first camera to use a separate autofocus sensor illuminated by a sub mirror, the ME-F, in 1981. It was slow and inaccurate and never caught on.
Nikon released the F3AF with phase detection autofocus in 1983. While the manual focus F3 was a smashing success, the F3AF was not. If you can find one at a garage sale you’ll do very well on eBay.
Real photographers laughed at all of this the clumsy technology in the early 1980s. It was obvious that autofocus would never be fast enough for something like sports, where the subject was moving. Only manual focus and a skilled photographer could possibly capture action images.
The first camera to hugely succeed with phase detection autofocus was the Minolta Maxxum 7000 released in 1985. For a short time, Minolta was king, but Nikon, Canon, and Pentax followed with phase detection autofocus cameras in the mid and late 1980s. By the 1990s companies who made 35mm cameras without phase detection were mostly going bankrupt.
Digital is another good example. You probably know Kodak developed the first digital camera and released the first digital SLR, the DCS 100, back in 1991. Based on a Nikon F3 body with a Kodak external storage unit, it sold for $13,000 and provided a whopping 1.3 megapixel image. It wasn’t a huge success.
Minolta also introduced the first portable digital SLR back in 1995. The RD 175 used 3 CCDs and interpolated the images in-camera to yield a 1.75-megapixel image. Canon and Nikon introduced the first really successful digital cameras a few years later, a full decade after the Kodak DCS was introduced.
Photographers of the late 1990s, of course, talked loudly and often about how digital images could never replace the performance and resolution of film. Those digital things might be fine for vacation snapshots, but not for a professional photographer or serious amateur.
The transition to digital was truly disruptive. Some manufacturers thrived during the digital transition. Minolta, despite releasing the first good autofocus SLR and the first portable digital SLR, wasn’t one of them. Bronica, Contax, Kodak, and Polaroid were also left behind. Canon and Nikon did very well. A few companies, like Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony entered the market for the first time.
Today’s Disruptive Photography Innovations
SLR shooters who started photography after 2000 haven’t noticed much in the way of disruptive innovations. CaNikon has steadily brought out enough incremental improvements to keep them dominant. Sure, there have been a number of technologies that were leaps rather than simple improvements: mirrorless cameras, Foveon sensors, Micro Four Thirds format, fixed-lens, large sensor cameras, and others. None of them has really disrupted the marketplace — yet.
The Obvious Disruptive Innovation
I don’t think anyone will argue that cell phone cameras and social media disrupted the photography market. They came from outside the mainstream photography world, and attracted a new set of consumers to a new market. Let’s call them picture-takers since most of us don’t consider them photographers. Call them whatever you want, but there are a lot of companies in the image hosting and online-printing worlds that call them a huge customer base.
The effect on the existing photography marketplace was mostly negative. Many point-and-shoot companies exited the imaging business. Others, like Fuji, Olympus, and Sony had to migrate to the more serious camera market. The disruption also affected Canon and Nikon. They can no longer get customers to buy their point and shoot cameras today, hoping they’ll migrate up to SLRs in a few years. Only one SLR manufacturer today is attracting a huge number of entry-level customers it might move up to serious cameras. That would be Samsung.
Other Disruptive Innovations
If your first thought when you read one of these is ‘but it’s not as good as existing technology’, remember the examples above. Photographers laughed at autofocus because it was too slow and inaccurate. They laughed at digital because it could never resolve as well as film. They’re still laughing at cell phone cameras as useless toys — and then set down their SLR to take a cell phone picture they can upload immediately.
I know. Mirrorless isn’t growing in most of the world. Lens selection is still rather limited. Neither Canon nor Nikon are pushing their way in very hard. The initial reason for mirrorless, smaller more portable systems, appeals to only a subset of photographers.
I think that the disruptive effects on the marketplace are still in the future. I think it’s disruptive because a mirrorless camera is far simpler than an SLR camera. Simpler eventually means less expensive, more reliable, and quicker to change.
Compare a teardown of a mirrorless camera with an SLR.
- The SLR has a complex electromechanical mirrorbox assembly.
- The SLR has a secondary mirror that must be perfectly aligned with the phase detection AF assembly.
The mirrorbox assembly has a lot of mechanical, moving parts that a mirrorless camera doesn’t have. Mechanical, moving parts sometimes fail. The manufacturer has to include the cost of warranty repairs when they determine what price a camera should sell at.
As an added thought, once electronic shutters become adequate, a mirrorless camera would have no moving parts except for buttons and dials. Electronic shutters aren’t quite ready for prime time on CMOS sensors, but they are getting close.
Simpler design makes things easier to change and modify. When I disassembled the Sony A7r and saw the grip is held on by a single large screw, my first thought was how simple it would be to put the screw on the front of the grip, offer 3 grip sizes, and let the owner change grips to better fit their hand.
Most current mirrorless cameras have a short backfocus distance (the distance between the lens mount and the sensor), but that’s not necessary (the Pentax K-01 mirrorless camera had the same backfocus distance as their SLR cameras, and used the same lenses). Nikon or Canon could make a full-frame mirrorless camera with the same backfocus distance as their SLRs, which would let them use the entire existing lens lineup.
I know that mirrorless technology hasn’t been disruptive yet, but I think it will become disruptive with further incremental improvements in two other technologies.
Improved Autofocus Technology
Autofocus technology has been incrementally improving for several years. Many of these autofocus improvements, like on-sensor phase detection, contrast-phase detection hybrid autofocus and improved contrast detection algorithms are steadily eliminating one of the major detractions from mirrorless cameras — that the autofocus is slow.
Phase detection is also being improved, though, and that may keep SLR autofocus superior in some ways. Will contrast detection AF ever be as good as phase detection for sports or birds-in-flight? Perhaps not. But it’s definitely getting better and clearly is simpler, more accurate, more reliable, and less expensive.
It may be we’ll see ‘action photography’ cameras with 10 frames-per-second and phase detection AF as separate from ‘general-purpose’ cameras with 5 FPS, contrast or hybrid autofocus, and focus peaking for manual focus lenses. Some photographers will prefer one, some the other. Assuming the cameras use the same lens mount, a lot of people might own both.
Electronic viewfinders aren’t quite up to optical viewfinder standards yet. But they are electronic devices that are improving noticeably with every generation. I assume they’ll be getting less expensive over time, too. Electronic devices do that. EVFs still have some disadvantages over optical, but they have some advantages, too, and the disadvantages are decreasing.
A second disruptive innovation, in my opinion, started around 2005 when Zeiss started marketing their very good lenses in SLR mounts. It may not seem like this was a big deal. After all, manual focus prime lenses aren’t the mainstay of many photographers’ kit. But it was a big deal. The very best lens at certain focal lengths were no longer always the manufacturer’s own lens. Now, Sigma, Tamron, Voigtlander, and Samyang, among others, make lenses that are nearly as good, and sometimes better, than the manufacturer’s lenses, and sell them at a lower price.
You may think ‘that’s not disruptive’. I think it is because it affects the existing SLR business model. Manufacturers didn’t mind selling SLRs at near-break even because they made money selling lenses. Now the camera companies are getting hit from both sides. They can’t attract young customers to their point-and-shoots because of cell phones. Their existing customers are less likely to by the manufacturer’s lenses.
You may not be buying them, but a lot of people are. I recently bought a Pentax K3 outfit. The only Pentax lens I bought along with it was the 300mm f/4. My other 3 Pentax mount lenses are third party. For my Canon 6D I have 3 Canon and 2 third-party lenses. It’s not just me, a recent poll on one of the major camera forums showed more Canon owners shot the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 than the Canon 35mm f/1.4.
A Couple of Other Changes
There are two more things that I think are going to change the camera market over the next couple of years. I’m not sure it’s appropriate to call them disruptive technologies. Maybe they’re disruptive techniques.
This is a trend I’ve been noticing with certain brands. If you want to get a comparison with modular versus non-modular lenses, you can look at this teardown comparison of 24-70 f/2.8 lenses. For a look at a really modular camera, here’s a teardown of the Sony A7r. Basically a modular device quickly breaks down into a few major components, each of which can be further separated into individual parts. A non-modular device separates into lots of individual parts.
Why does it matter? For one thing it makes repairs amazingly simpler. The repair center, rather than stocking hundreds of parts for each lens and camera, may just stock a few modules and a few other parts. Inventory control for 1,000 spare shutter modules is a lot simpler (pronounced cheaper) than it would be to keep 200 to 1,000 each of the 22 parts that make up the shutter module.
Sure, the shutter module in the A7r costs more than the individual gear or capacitor that may be broken, but replacing the module takes 30 minutes compared to 2 hours to replace the gear and recalibrate the shutter. The labor and inventory savings more than offset the increased price of the module compared to the part.
Modularity can make upgrades and improvements easier and faster, and may allow some customization for cameras. Since I used the A7r as an example, lets pretend that some people don’t like the shutter. That probably means they will wait 18 months or two years to see if the next version of the camera has a better shutter. But with a modular design like this Sony could just call Copal, who makes the shutter module, get them to design a new shutter that fits in the existing space, and release an A7rS (for smoother, slower shutter) in a few months.
Or maybe some entrepreneur will figure out a way to put some shock-absorbing mounts on that shutter (its mounts are metal-to-metal now). Getting to that area in such a modular camera would be much simpler than in a standard SLR, so such a modification could be cost-effective. A new viewfinder, body shell, different grip, or different sensor would require only a new module, not a complete redesign.
Not everyone is going modular, at least not yet. Sony cameras particularly, and mirrorless cameras in general are getting more modular. SLRs are not. Newer Canon and Zeiss lenses are modular. Tamron and Sigma lenses are to a lesser degree. If anyone else’s lenses are more modular I haven’t noticed it.
Service and Repair
Factory service has changed a lot over the last two years. I deal with several thousand repairs per year so I notice these changes. Some of the changes I despise: forcing independent repair shops to close, refusing to sell parts, and finding excuses to not honor warranties. for example. Thirty-day turnaround times are awful, too.
But to every action, there’s a reaction. A number of companies decided that offering good service was a way to attract customers. Tamron, for example, offers a refurbished lens if they can’t fix your lens within 3 days. Sony has recently offered brand-new items as replacements when a part is on backorder.
There is one recent repair trend that I think is going to become more common: exchange repairs. You send the lens or camera in for repair. The company charges for the repair, but sends you a new or refurbished item in place of your broken one. The broken item gets sent to a central service center where it is either refurbished or broken down to component parts. Rokinon and Zeiss in the USA already do this for (as best I know) all repairs. Several other companies have started doing it for certain repairs.
Exchange repair allows smaller companies to offer service as good or better as the huge companies. Canon and Nikon each have several factory service centers in the U. S. and dozens of other centers across the world. A smaller company can’t compete with that, but they can put an exchange center in every country and build one large service center to salvage parts and refurbish items. Exchange is quick and simple and most people I’ve talked to prefer it.
History suggests two things pretty strongly. The first is that when change comes, people invested in the status quo (that would be us photographers when discussing the photography market) have a strong desire to deny it. Things have never been better. There is no need for change. And this is a stupid change that nobody would ever want. Well, nobody who is serious about photography would want it.
For example, you may think the Sony A7r is a horrible camera: there are few available lenses, the shutter problem may be an issue, you might hate that it’s so small, or maybe hate the viewfinder. So, you dismiss it. Just like people dismissed phased detection AF on the first Pentax SLR, or digital imaging on the RD 175. Whether the A7r is successful or not has no more meaning than whether the Minolta RD175 was successful or not. Digital cameras took over anyway.
The second thing history suggests is that there’s no accurate way to guess which companies are going to thrive and which will fail during a time of disruption. If being first were a huge advantage, we’d all be shooting Minolta digital SLRs. If being the biggest or most profitable were a huge advantage, we’d all be shooting Kodak or Polaroid. Sometimes biggest is really a disadvantage. As they say, it takes a long time to turn a battleship.
When the changes start rolling, though, they roll fast. Ask the video guys how many were shooting RED or Blackmagic cameras back in 2006. (The answer is none; there were no RED or Blackmagic cameras in 2006. Now they are everywhere.)
Is there a reason I use video cameras as an example in a photography article? Sure there is. Those two video cameras don’t need mirrorboxes, don’t use phase detection autofocus, are very modular, and can be purchased with different lens mounts. Which fits in nicely with my speculation.
Full-frame mirrorless cameras are here, so that part isn’t speculation. The death of point-and-shoot cameras is already happening, so that’s not speculation, either. Let me speculate the following things also occur (a big assumption, but not a ridiculous one.)
- Either on-sensor phase detection or contrast detection autofocus becomes fast enough for most photographers (seems very likely).
- Modular designs become widespread (maybe, maybe not).
- Electronic viewfinders become good enough for most photographers (seems very likely).
- Electronic shutters become a viable reality (likely, but maybe a few years away).
- Modularity and ‘exchange repairs’ make good service possible for even a startup company (it can if they want to).
- Third-party lens manufacturers continue to make excellent optics at lower prices (seems certain).
A sensor with contrast detection autofocus and an electronic shutter is very nearly a camera-on-a-chip. The sensor manufacturer could sell it to a dozen companies who each design their own camera around it. New camera brands might appear overnight.
A camera might be offered in various option packages. Different housings, an additional mechanical shutter for those that need it, an electronic viewfinder if you want it, or no viewfinder if you always shoot tethered in the studio. I order my computers online with a number of different options and get them 3 days later. I wouldn’t mind doing the same thing with my next camera.
If the AF system is contrast detection, then a manufacturer doesn’t have to worry about hundreds of phase detection AF algorithms for various lenses. Contrast detection is lens agnostic. Joe’s camera company might make the same camera available in Nikon F mount, Canon EOS mount, or Sony FE mount.
You can already do that with a RED camera. I serve as a lens consultant for a few well-known photographers who shoot magazine spreads on RED Epics and Dragons for the simple reason that they can shoot Leica, Canon, or Nikon lenses with a simple mount change done in the field. They want to use the different lenses. They don’t want to remember the controls or have to match color differences on 3 different cameras.
Third-party lens makers seem to be in a very good position right now. It’s become apparent that they are making very high-quality glass at a price well below the major camera manufacturers. If part of that price difference is because the camera manufacturers have to price their lenses to support their camera sales, then the manufacturers have a major problem.
Two factors have historically held back enthusiasm about third-party lenses: inaccurate autofocus and poor service or quality control. Third-party service is now at least as good as the major manufacturers, if not better. A contrast detection based autofocus system is just as accurate with a third-party lens as it is with a manufacturer’s lens.
I certainly don’t know who will thrive and who will fail as things change. And I sure wouldn’t rush out and change brands over it. Everything we shoot with today will still be working fine in a few years. Sure, Joe’s cameras may release something you just have to have, but I’ll bet it mounts some existing lenses. I expect most of the third-party lens makers will follow Sigma’s lead and be willing to change your lens mounts for you.
That’s the nice thing about disruptive technology. It always gives the consumer more choice. Most consumers will embrace it, eventually, like they did with autofocus and digital cameras. A few will sit around and talk about how it was back in the good old days, when men were made of iron and ships of wood.