Quiet Time

It’s quiet time in the camera industry. Besides the usual Japanese holidays and the quarter-ending business results quiet period, we have semiconductor shortages, the pandemic, and still somewhat weak demand in play. 

Canon did just make a statement that should raise eyebrows: they estimate 2021 ILC demand to be 5.8m units, of which they expect to ship 2.9m. 2020 final ILC shipments were 5.3m, so a near 10% increase is what Canon thinks will happen this year. I think that’s low if the pandemic eases, high if the pandemic continues to rage and slows International travel. 

It’s probably a good time to make some guesses about what the camera companies will or should be doing for the rest of 2021:

  • CanonPriorities: (1) fill out RF lens line; (2) eliminate DSLR models/options; (3) figure out APS-C (is it RF or M?); and (4) introduce a new lower end full frame model. Analysis: The huge battleship has its rudder hard to port, but big ships don’t turn fast, and the waters are rough and filled with others also maneuvering. What happens won’t be pretty, but I wouldn’t want to be on a kayak in the same waters.
  • FujifilmPriorities: do they have any in particular? Analysis: As far as I can tell, Fujifilm is just iterating on the same general plan as before, and thus we’re going to see them doing “more of the same.” We’re getting a lot of II versions of lenses instead of true gap fillers, and the T, S, E, Pro, A, H model mess seems like an on-going mess to me. Also, how does X get to 8K, and when? The Medium Format cameras aren’t exactly perfectly aligned, either, and the GFX100 and GFX100S have different problems, so there isn’t a “perfect” high-end, either. 
  • Nikon Priorities: (1) Z9 out and a leader; (2) APS-C figured out; (3) fill out the Z lens line faster, not at the current pace; and (4) another DSLR or two or not?. Analysis: Nikon seems reasonably organized compared to Canon. The mirrorless full frame lineup seems logical and is filling out, with only a Z8 (high megapixel pro) being a question still. Firmware is pushing the current bodies forward, though slowly. It’s everywhere other than full frame mirrorless that Nikon seems to be confused. So, using the ship analogy, Nikon’s lead admiral has his portion of the fleet moving in the direction they want to go and beginning to accelerate, but the other two admirals seem to be all-stop at the moment and pointed in no general direction. 
  • Olympus Priorities: OM Digital Solutions has a lot to prove, and they need to prove it quickly. (1) What will future OMD’s be like?; (2) cost, production, distribution, and marketing need to be proven to customers, not Tokyo bean counters; and (3) how to get to 8K?. Analysis: OMDS so far is talking a good story, but the proof will be in the execution. We have no real evidence of anything other than the transitioning of in-house to out-of-house went relatively smoothly in terms of current product. We really need a head-turning E-M1 Mark IV. We’re about to get a new Tough camera. 
  • Panasonic Priorities: (1) GH6 out and a winner; (2) m4/3 profitability; (3) L-mount viability; (4) the video group needs to embrace the L and m4/3 mounts or it's just more mixed signals to customers; and (5) focus performance improvements, stat. Analysis: Panasonic is in two different mount consortiums, and neither is exactly dominating. Panasonic’s cameras are well-regarded, but aren’t top sellers. Panasonic’s video group is still marching to a different drummer. Personally, I think Panasonic needs to give up the “we’ll build everything” mentality—they’re still active in the compact camera market—and come to a consensus on what they’re going to do best. There’s not enough volume left in the market to be a huge conglomerate, do everything, and make excellent ROI. And Panasonic is not close to being one of the top three makers in ILC any more. At the moment they’ll probably fight OMDS for fifth.
  • Sony — Priorities: (1) APS-C still needs work, particularly in making the models differentiated; (2) the A7 is looking old, and needs a IV (pardon the pun); (3) more telephoto lens options; and (4) what’s the next exciting technology? Analysis: Sony’s been sailing in one direction for awhile now, their fleet is all moving (mostly) together and is (mostly) complete, so everything seems like it is in good shape. One might say “just keep on executing.” But…the R3 and Z9 developments are signs that the semiconductor technologies Sony uses as primary weapons may now start to be equalled. The “next technology” leap is going to be a tough one, and a big one, because it will almost certainly require fully embracing computational photography. The fact that a Sony camera can’t currently combine an image using pixel-shift in camera isn’t a good indicator. 

This is also the time of year that the upper management in Japan has finished their soul searching and is dictating the short, medium, and long-term plans to the rest of the company. As part of the year-end financial reports to shareholders, we’ll begin hearing more bits and pieces of those plans. 

I think we’ll have a late and busy spring in terms of camera announcements. We’ll also see the Japanese companies target the markets where the pandemic is reducing or in control and the economies are running stronger (China, Australia/New Zealand, US, and United Kingdom, probably in that order right now, but subject to change).

I’m not sure how “hungry” the camera companies are, though. Now that they’ve managed to survive (and most be profitable) at lower volumes pushing into higher priced products, I think they’re going to be more selective and cautious about aggressive sales. Previous generation products will lead the way, is my guess. 

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