It’s hard to look at the spec sheet on the upcoming Sony A7 and A7r mirrorless compacts and not be impressed. With a 36 MP full-frame sensor (on the A7r), compact body, interchangeable lens system, and a price tag that undercuts most full-frame DSLR’s by a good margin, some will be tempted to call it the perfect camera on its expected announcement date of October 16th.
A few might agree with that sentiment, but a better way to look at Sony’s newest wunderkind is as a manifestation of the trend towards diversification in the digital camera market.
Not long ago, there existed the impression that you needed to buy a DSLR to be a “serious” digital photographer. That wasn’t exactly true of course; plenty of people made a name for themselves in the photo community using the simplest of compacts, and there were digital rangefinders for those with deep pockets. But it’s also true that the options weren’t plentiful.
When I started shopping for my first DSLR in 2007, there were a few pro-oriented compacts and a handful of DSLRs, just a couple of which were full-frame. The many casual compacts that filled in the rest of the market were certainly capable imaging devices, but were geared specifically towards snapshooters.
What a difference six years can make. There are still plenty of intermediate level DSLRs (as black and bulbous as they’ve ever been) but it’s very possible, even easy, to develop your skills as a photographer without ever touching one. Feel like you need a full-frame sensor? Well, as of October 16th, you’ll be able to find that in an interchangeable lens compact, in a fixed-lens compact, in DSLRs and in rangefinders.
Will an APS-C or 4/3 sensor do? Not only will you have your pick of form factor, but also of camera aesthetics(do you like sleek and modern or retro chic?), size, and color. It’s easy to imagine a grid of the possible combinations of characteristics of digital cameras, and manufacturers are rapidly checking each of them off. And while this theoretical grid certainly isn’t yet filled, the A7/A7r represents a pretty significant step towards that goal.
But what drove the change? The critical hit dealt to the compact market by the rising popularity of phone cameras likely played a large role, pushing development resources closer to the professional end of the spectrum. Technological improvements surely made it easier and more cost-effective to build new breeds of camera, while falling costs of CMOS sensors makes it easier to implement larger image sensors at a reasonable price.
This diversity of cameras is important for more than the intrinsic value of customer choice. When a market becomes filled to bursting with products that fulfill similar roles, there’s more pressure help yours stand out, and one popular strategy for achieving that goal is to seek niche uses. In other words: more options create more competition for attention, which in turn increases pressure to create products with unique uses.
Arguably, it’s this pressure that’s driving the creation of increasingly specialized cameras by mainstream manufacturers, and the expansion of once small-time camera companies. There are now specialized astro-photography DSLRs, underwater ILCs, and even an exclusively monochrome rangefinder.
Consider also still cameras built with videographers in mind, or devices like the Samsung Galaxy NX that blur the line between camera and mobile device. Of course, that’s just identifying a few of these very specialized cameras.
Some companies made a huge name for themselves entirely based on niche products. Consider GoPro, now worth over two billion dollars, whose cameras can be found on the helmets and chest pieces of countless athletes around the globe.
Of course the photographer, not the camera, makes the photograph. But the photographer relies on his or her tools, including the camera, to create their images. With a larger variety of shapes and styles of cameras available, photographers can choose a tool that more perfectly suits their needs. Going back to the previous example of the GoPro: it’d be difficult to capture videos like this, or photos like these with a full-frame DSLR.
My point is this: as much as digital cameras seem to be “advancing” year after year, as new models with smaller bodies and bigger megapixel counts are released, that sort of perspective ignores the much more exciting truth that they’re also diversifying — that photographers have access to more options than ever before.
The result is an industry with fewer compromises: whether you shoot raves, urbexing, frat parties, motocross, endangered frogs, drag shows or the Andromeda Galaxy, you’re more likely now to find a camera to suit your needs than ever before.