It all started back in July when Trey Ratcliff, of Stuck in Customs fame blogged about swapping his D800 for a Nex7. Now I can hear you protesting already, ‘Trey Ratcliff, isn’t he the guy who pioneered those ultra vivd HDR pics and all that deliberate keystoning? Yuk. We’re serious about our photography, that’s horrible, we don’t do that’. Well of course, we’re all entitled to our opinion. But with over 10 million followers on social media, clearly he has his finger on the pulse of global popular culture to a degree unmatched by any other photographer ever. In terms of marketing and camera industry trends he would be a ‘disruptive innovator’, someone whose view counts in looking at tipping points. He is now moving to the new 36 MP, Sony A7R.
Now let’s fast forward to last week, 26th October 2013 and another famous and popular website, Luminous Landscape. Michael Reichmann, fresh from the PDN Photo Plus show in New York has written a piece titled, “Staying Alive”. To quote directly, ‘Over-all, dealers whom I spoke with report that sales are down and have been for a few years now. Replacement and upgrade sales are in the doldrums. Buyers aren’t terribly motivated…’. I’ve been to the Antarctic twice with Michael and I know him to be a very savvy commentator on the industry.
He also refers to the lack of smart innovation amongst the major players (Canon and Nikon), the success of the Sony Nex series and probably their new A7R plus Olympus and Panasonic. I guess I might include Fuji in there too, as a maker of interesting cameras.
Pulling together these and other threads I’m getting the impression that battleship DSLR kits are journeying down a cul de sac. When they look around to make sure their little competitors are all trotting along obediently behind, there will be no-one there. They all turned off long ago. Could DSLR’s be in danger of becoming dinosaurs? Specialist tools for professional sports, wildlife and architectural photographers? Even then with the speed at which technology advances, this might only apply to the short to mid term.
The bigger picture seems to be DSLR’s being squeezed on both sides. Ahead of them medium format. More expensive but depending upon the digital back, with an image quality superior or at least equal to a D800. I’ve owned a Phase One P45+ and although I could never get on with the camera, the back and its output were superb. Behind them, the charging hordes of smaller, lighter, cheaper cameras increasingly able to match and perhaps beat the DSLR’s for image quality and functionality. Just consider. My wife’s Nikon V1 has a 73 point AF array and in manual mode can shoot 60fps. It may be unthinkable currently but how long before this technology spreads to full frame cameras and squeezes into the sports and wildlife niches?
Even more unthinkable, what if there is whole generation coming along who don’t worship technical quality? What if they love the roughness of Instagram? What if filters trump Photoshop? Kirk Tucker writes brilliantly on this in an article called, ‘The graying of traditional photography’. As if to prove the point, the iPhone was introduced 7 years ago. Recently National Geographic shooter Jim Richardson used it for an essay on Scotland.
So if the industry is at a tipping point where does that leave us and our Leicas? On the positive side, Leica Camera AG has bounced back financially from the troubles of 2004. It doubled turnover to Euros 300m in 2012 and seems to be in good health as items in the product range are often over subscribed. On the negative side we see this report from Die Welt, ‘Leica’s Nightmare is Sony’.
I am way out of my depth in criticising one of Europe’s leading newspapers but IMHO they have missed the point. The reason for buying a Leica, especially an M series, is the use of a rangefinder, the quality of the glass, the heft of the camera, how it challenges us to make instead of take pictures. Whilst the Sony A7R will undoubtedly be a technological tour de force, the positioning is entirely different. It is jam packed with functions and features. Conceptually it is much closer to a DSLR and is an obvious direct competitor for the D800/E. I believe the headline should have read, ‘Nikon and Canon’s Nightmare is Sony’.
So what are some of the likely outcomes? Personally I doubt that many will actually sell and replace their M’s with an A7R but some may buy the Sony body as a back up with a lens adaptor. So Leica may benefit from increased sales of lenses here and also from Sony owners who want higher performance lenses. Where Leica could lose out is if the A7R revolutionises the market by setting a new price/weight/performance benchmark and sales of Leica compact cameras suffer. Even then this would be mitigated by Leica brand values. That red dot has a certain pulling power which is able to sustain premium prices and to an extent this changes buyer behaviour in a way which Die Welt seem to have missed.
Having said all that, these are just some personal views shared with friends on The Leica Meet Group. I’d love to hear how you see this developing situation. Oh and one more thing… last week I ebayed my D800 and three lenses.