One, Two, Three, and Four Front Battles

In terms of digital cameras, where once we had a free-for-all across a broad range of fronts (compact, premium compact, action, video, crop sensor, full frame sensor, medium format), the repeated contraction of the industry has also made everyone pick their battles more carefully. The on-going supply chain and logistics challenges are forcing some companies to pick fewer battles, too.

Here's the way I see things at the moment:

One-Front Defenders

These are the companies that have a more focused view of the digital camera world. Their engineering, sales, and marketing teams really have one goal, and look mostly at only a single (type of) customer.

  • Leica — I believe Leica is in the process of abandoning compact and crop sensor (TL) and now concentrating on full frame only. That makes sense, as a high-end crop sensor model doesn't have a lot of takers these days (Fujifilm notwithstanding; but Leica was even higher-priced). I do think the L- and M-mount combo makes them less efficient, but I don't see Leica abandoning the M-mount.
  • OM Digital Solutions — Olympus' original two fronts in digital were compact and 4/3. They retreated from compacts despite at one time being #2 or #3 in that market, and eventually settled on m4/3 before they spun out the camera group. As one of the leaner development teams, they need to stay focused on one front. My only advice would be to take the Tough into the m4/3 realm and keep the ILC lineup lean and up-to-date.
  • Sigma — I'm putting them in this one-front category, though it's unclear if they're a one-sensor size unit or not. In lenses, no. In cameras, probably (full frame). Sigma has been clear that the camera side of the business is mostly a hobby business where they tinker in an area the founder had been interested in. I have no problems with that as long as they don't believe they'll be profitably competitive against the others at the pace they're moving.

Two-Front Defender

In this category we two companies that have pared back on compacts to the point where I'm not sure they're defending that front any more. Fujifilm's last premium compact was the mild X100V iteration two years ago, while Nikon's was the P950, also two years ago. Both seem to be just letting the compact side of their business wither while they concentrate on mirrorless ILC (interchangeable lens cameras) in two sizes.

  • Fujifilm — The two-stop equivalence differential between APS-C and Medium Format is much more reasonable to defend than the one-stop game being played by most of the others, as it means you're not competing against yourself. Fujifilm has played a tactical battle that's won them converts, but the one thing I keep seeing with them—including myself—is that they also get customers drifting away over time. I could write a whole article on just this, and probably will do so at some point. 
  • Nikon — In the DSLR era, Nikon stretched way, way out in battle fronts, with DX and FX DSLR, but also compact, premium compact, action, and CX crop sensor (Nikon 1). They've now contracted almost to a single front (mirrorless FX), leaving only a vestige of DX to defend a big territory (poorly). This was probably a strategic mistake. Either Nikon should have gone all FX (and Zf and Z3 instead of a Zfc and Z30), or they needed a Z70+ far earlier than they're likely to get to it. I happen to like the Z50, but it's really difficult to defend it with its dearth of lenses and the fact it didn't get updated. While some might say Nikon is still active in DSLRs, and thus a three or four front company, Nikon isn't really defending the DSLR territory, they're just letting it be ceded naturally over time.

Three-Front Defenders

In this category I now only put one company, and again it's one that recently just pared back its compact camera lineup and essentially announced the end for that battle line. 

  • PanasonicA surprising three-front defender (video, m4/3, and full frame), and like Fujifilm, one with basically a two-stop equivalence differential (at the 3:2 aspect ratio) in the still cameras. Frankly, though, I don't get Panasonic's shot-gun approach. I say shot-gun because the video-centric Varicams, the m4/3 cameras, and the full frame S's are all different lens mounts. That simply can't work well over time, as it's a resource intensive endeavor with no synergy.  Varicam needs to go L-mount. I'm not sure m4/3 can ultimately survive, particularly if it just becomes GH-centric as some are suggesting is happening. The good news is m4/3 does have lens partners, so one way of dealing with the resource issue is to sidle up to one of those others in the alliance and let them do the heavy lifting. Instead, it appears that Panasonic is partnering with Leica in the L-mount camera/lens situation. Again, that leaves them with three fronts with different lens mounts, so I'm not sure how the partnership solves much.

Four-Front+ Defenders

The big market-share winners are in this category, mostly because they have visibility across a wide range of products, are establishing or have established synergies, and through a volume strategy are dominating market share in most of the markets they play in. It's not surprising that these are two large conglomerates with wide-ranging operations.

  • Canon — We still have compacts, crop sensor, full frame sensor, and video-centric lines being defended. It's taking a bit too long getting everything into the RF mount, though, which has left Canon weaker against the other four-front defender, Sony.
  • Sony — Another player with compacts, crop sensor, full frame sensor, and video-centric lines, but Sony long ago consolidated behind the E-mount, which has been giving them leverage and synergies across categories.

Long term, the HiFi-ification of the camera market is going to continue. A handful of audiophiles and professionals kept high end audio gear going. Well, now it's going to be a handful of photophiles and professionals that keep high end camera gear going. Overall, that means:

  1. Fewer units produced and sold.
  2. More marketing effort to target those who will still buy.
  3. Higher prices (due to #1 and #2 taken together).
  4. More difficulty using broad, multi-front battle tactics.
  5. More difficulty describing how low-level changes are meaningful.

One strategy that we're seeing all the camera makers suddenly fully committed to is the embracing of video within what are still cameras. This was originally seen as "enlarging" the possible buyer pool, but more recently has taken to companies targeting the YouTube/TikTok type crowd with product specifically designed for them (though still essentially a still camera at heart). I laugh when I see this, as apparently file sizes don't come into play in video any more ;~). Many of those that the camera industry is suddenly targeting use mobile devices on which an hour worth of original video won't fit (unless they compress the heck out of it, at which point, the video camera in the smartphone looks awful good). 

I've been writing the following for quite some time: the camera companies need to get much closer to their customers and truly understand what does and doesn't motivate purchase decisions in a world of declining benefits. More and more when someone asks me for advice on buying a new camera, I'm finding that I'm telling them what they already have is more than adequate, that the technical gains in the Next Shiny New Thing just aren't going to provide them anything useful. Meanwhile, the camera companies are leaving off features, making features more difficult to use than they should be, and generally ignoring UX things that would make our use of their gear more productive (and yes, cause us to buy new gear that had those benefits). 

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