Camera Makers Make Their Own Problems

I recently read a Japanese article lamenting the fact that all the good compact cameras are currently unobtainable. In Japan, it seems, the Fujifilm X100, Leica Q3, Ricoh GR,  are either on perpetual back-ordered status, or worse. The Canon G7X and Panasonic LX100II is no longer available. About the only compacts that appear to be readily obtainable in Japan are the older (and largish) Sony RX1R II and pocketable RX100 Mark VII. A quick look at B&H’s inventory says the same problem exists here in the US.

There’s clearly demand for the “right” compact camera. There always has been, and there always will be. 

It’s a bit as if the camera companies have all come to the conclusion that “smartphones killed compact cameras” and have thus decided to stop all work on such products. 

I believe I’ve been consistent on this since I first picked up an iPhone in 2007: smartphones and their progression were good enough that the camera companies needed to up their game in order to continue to sell compact cameras. But if they upped their game, compact cameras would still be very viable and desired.

What the camera companies did instead is pick up their ball and run to another field. They’ve been running scared for coming up to two decades now. Customers have now found out that most of the camera companies are essentially spineless, and actually don’t understand how the relentless progression of tech requires you to get better, not try to figure out a different product you can sell while someone else eats your established customer. 

Even the ones that are still playing the game—basically just Fujifilm and Ricoh at the moment—aren’t doing a lot to win the game. Okay, let me rephrase that: Fujifilm is targeting modestus while Ricoh is doing de minimus. 

The demand for a reasonable compact camera is insane right now. Fujifilm says they’re building 15,000 units a month, but the word in Tokyo is that it will be many months, and maybe more than a year, before they catch up with demand. At which point the smartphone players will have taken another step in their direction. I hope there’s a X100VII already well in progress, and that it addresses some of the pain points of the current camera. 

My guess is that there’s a potential for 1m units a year, but only if compact cameras are done “right.” Moreover, these compact cameras really ought to be stepping stones between smartphones and interchangeable lens cameras for the young. Fujifilm’s stepping stone is a bit fragile and wobbly in that respect, but it’s definitely the only one I’d step on if I were in my twenties and moving towards a career in the visual arts. 

I was just at the WPPI (wedding and portrait photographer) conference in Las Vegas last week. The attendees are on the younger side than I’m used to. Which makes sense, as to succeed in the wedding and portrait business you need a lot of energy and hustle; it’s a better business for those in the 20’s to 40’s than it is for us Boomers that have been at it for years and now mostly stand at the sides of roads in National Parks, toddle around in safari vehicles, or sit in chairs on cruises. 

Yet who was there with big exhibition booths trying to convince the attendees to buy their big ILC cameras? Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Sony. Of those, only Fujifilm had a true compact that might help bridge from smartphone to the big ILCs. 

You might be saying “who photographs weddings and portraits with compacts?” Interestingly, I saw strong evidence that quite a few of this crowd was using a small camera to do the heavy lifting of their marketing. For instance, making a quick Instagram Reel for the current gig they were working on. (By the way Fujifilm, you don’t need a 40mp sensor for that ;~).

I continue to be convinced that the Japanese camera companies simply don’t understand their customers. The source of that problem derives from cultural, language, and geographic barriers. These companies have all evolved to be too paternalistic in their product approaches (e.g. “these are the cameras we’re making, take them”) when they really need to be more embracing (e.g. “help us understand your needs and desires”). But as I note above, their paternalism seems mired in fear of smartphones now, and they race to other arenas in which to play. Meanwhile, the customers are left in the same venue with only smartphones to use. 

I used the term “right compact camera” earlier. At one point or another, I’ve used all of them (I currently have an X100VI on order after having a brief chance to try one). They all have strengths and weaknesses. Here’s my quick assessment of the current (and mostly unobtainable) choices:

  • Fujifilm X100VI — The cream of the crop because it is configured like a traditional camera, is usable like a traditional camera, and produces excellent images. Personally, I find the hybrid viewfinder overkill, the Rear LCD not flexible enough, and the body size a little on the large side. Still, for a serious photographer, it’s probably the smallest, best choice.
  • Leica Q3 — Expensive and on the large side. My contention would be that once you make a camera this big, some, perhaps many, users would be better served by a small full frame interchangeable lens camera using pancake lenses. 
  • Ricoh GR III — Like many things Ricoh/Pentax, this camera seems frozen in time. When it first appeared, it was state of the art as far as high end compacts were concerned. The changes since have all been mild, mailed in, often cosmetic. Unlike the Fujifilm X100VI the Ricoh GR still feels and operates more like a compact camera than a true enthusiast’s camera.
  • Sony RX1R II — Much like the Leica Q3: expensive and on the large side. Moreover, this camera is maybe Sony 2.0 in terms of tech, where Sony is currently on 4.0 or 5.0 depending on how you count. I’d probably pick the A7CR with a small lens over the compact.
  • Sony RX100 Mark VII — Funny thing how seven—actually nine if you count the video oriented versions—hasn’t really fixed any of the camera’s original problems. Oh, the tech changed a bit. The lens changed. But the actual camera and how you control it never did. Like the Ricoh, it seems more like a frozen-in-time design that needs to be thawed.

That’s pretty slim pickin’s (and the majority are not really slim in the physical sense ;~). Which is why you find a number of people using something like a Nikon Zfc with the kit zoom or small prime (or some similar choice) as their pocket/travel/casual camera. 

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