Be Careful What You Ask For

It's too bad that we don't have variable pricing in photography gear. That would end a lot of gear debates really, really quickly.

What do I mean? Well, consider the following options for an image sensor:

  1. 11-stop dynamic range (SNR 20:1 to saturation): US$2000
  2. 11.5-stop dynamic range: US$3000
  3. 12-stop dynamic range: US$4000

Which would you buy? 

Or maybe a lens (all other attributes the same):

  1. 80 LPPM (line pairs per millimeter): US$1000
  2. 100 LPPM: US$2000
  3. 120 LPPM: US$4000

Most of you would be buying #1 in each case. Particularly once you recognized that your field discipline and post processing aren't able to show the differences that #2 or #3 might allow. 

True, a few would buy #3 in each case because "they just have to have the best." That massages their ego and deflates their wallet, but generally those folk have huge egos that need constant feeding and either don't mind declaring bankruptcy every few years or have way more money than they need. Unfortunately, there probably aren't enough of those folk around for the camera companies to make the #3 options universally, and because demand would be so low, the prices might be even higher.

I'm reminded of this because I just had another person take me to task about not getting completely excited about the Sony A9 Mark III's 120 fps capability. I'm perfectly happy with my Nikons' 20 fps and more limiting 30/60 fps options. Would I really pay a huge amount of money to switch systems get get 120 fps? No. If I were already fully vested in Sony gear might I add an A9 Mark III? Maybe. As I've previously noted, the primary benefit I'd see with the global shutter has to do with LED displays at field level, not frame rate. 

The marketing departments of the camera companies long ago lost the thread on all this. Japanese continuous iteration engineering will always extract a little more with each generation of product. They've been doing that most of my life now in tech, and I don't see them stopping. However, the first few generation gains are the most dramatic, and once we're in the tenth or later iteration, the gains are so minimal that the marketing teams can't even see them, let alone describe them. 

That problem in marketing has existed for some time now. Back when the iPhone first appeared and started getting "camera attention," Fujifilm tried showing how their compact cameras were better at noise, pixels, and other parameters in their ads. Unfortunately, they forgot the "and just as convenient" bit ;~). At least Fujifilm's marketing team made a valiant attempt.

Much of the gear discussion and debate I see these days is trying to argue that small differences are worth paying big money for. This argument has, unfortunately, become permanent in forums and emails. And it's driving a lot of camera marketing as if that is the most meaningful thing about a new camera.

Large, meaningful technical breakthroughs happen rarely, and tend to be dramatic enough to easily demonstrate. That's not where the market is today. This is making the camera makers' problem of re-growing the market a risky game. If they throw too much hyperbole and exaggeration into their marketing, that might sell a camera today to the unsuspecting, but the larger crowd is getting too wise for that, and sales can actually go down if you over-market a product's abilities. The camera everyone has today is going to take a perfectly fine photo when used well, after all. 

As I've pointed out before, the High Fidelity market went through this same sequence after hitting its peak. Eventually, convenience won out over small, contested-about improvements. As the high-end market dwindled, the few customers left also made the prices go up.

So, be careful of what you wish for. Another small gain may come at a huge price (literally). 

Personally, I'm for fixing the UX and the integration of cameras with 21st century communications. Those things would be far more useful to me and others, and if done right, I'd argue that they'd grow the market.

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