The Ecosystem is Too Small

Thesis: if you want to perform “photography” you need more than a camera. 

As a former technology evangelist (yes, my job title was Senior Evangelist), I think about things differently than the narrow focus of “product.” What’s the bigger picture that’s being served (pardon the pun)? 

While we obsess and talk about camera bodies and lenses, in the end what we’re doing is not consuming metal, plastic, and glass, but practicing a craft or art, photography. 

If you’re old enough to remember the old Time-Life Library of Photography series (1970’s), you’ll remember that The Camera was just one of 17 books in the series (curiously, as far as I know neither Ansel Adams nor Time-Life ever produced a book called The Lens in their series; Adams did write a book called Camera and Lens). 

In those days the ecosystem was a (mostly) cooperative set of companies and products that ranged from chemicals and paper to complex mechanical devices. Today we have a mostly competitive set of big companies with products that range from, well, mostly camera to lens, sometimes a flash or other accessory. 

To accomplish anything photographically these days, I have to think about what it is I want to accomplish, when I might accomplish it, go to where I can get the input for that with a camera/lens/tripod/etc. I choose, take images, come home and process those images through a raw converter, resize and output them. The bubble that contains all the things I need and all the products I need is big, and forms what I call the complete ecosystem.

Camera makers aren’t thinking in terms of ecosystem, let alone doing much to encourage same. We all cheer when a camera company deigns to spend a few engineering hours in consultation with someone like Adobe, we’re happy when lens companies reverse engineer mounts and provide some additional options, we supplement for things the camera companies 100% ignore (Arca-Swiss plates, for instance), we argue about which software we need post camera, we complain because the thing we really wanted to do—show our images to someone else—is given only lip service by the camera companies (anyone plugging their camera’s HDMI port into their TV to show their images via the built-in Slide Show function? How many images are on your Nikon Image Space cloud? Oh, what, you didn’t know you had a free account in Nikon’s cloud? ;~). 

Despite the fact that more people are taking photos than ever before, the camera makers are selling fewer cameras than ever before. How is it that they can’t figure out why that is? (Hint: they’re not really helping us do what we want to do.)

Yes, smartphones are being used to take most of those photos these days, and smartphones have gotten better at image quality every year. But the reason why people are using them to take photos—i.e., use them as cameras even though that’s not their primary function—is partly because the photography ecosystem is recognized and broadly supported by Apple and Google. Apple has a cloud system, supplies a competent librarian and editor that can be extended with plug-ins, for example, and they allow direct transmission of images to other devices and services. Apple encourages and embraces standards that move the state-of-the-art forward, such as HEIC (Canon and Sony now support HEIC on some of their cameras, but this seems to be mostly an “oh, others are doing this now” move). 

The camera companies think far too narrowly in terms of photography ecosystem. Even though Nikon has a (free) cloud-based photo storage service (Nikon Image Space), is that supported directly by their cameras? Nope. Heck, it’s not even clearly marketed or encouraged by the company in meaningful ways. 

Over a decade ago I outlined my thoughts on how electronics technology interacted with us. Short form: we have a home “hub”, we have mobile “hubs”, we have office “hubs.” We want those all interconnected, we don’t want to lose functionality when moving between them, we want data to be available where we need it and to go where we need it to go. Even Apple doesn’t get this right. They’re excellent at the mobile side of things, but when it comes to “home” they have a terrible, confused, and disorganized approach where they keep making mistakes that make things worse (e.g. Airport Routers are gone, but technically, the router itself is the physical hub through which everything has to move at home, so Apple’s Home Kit, Apple TV, and home computers/tablets/phones are not all managed by Apple in the data pipes, causing all sorts of issues). 

The camera makers don’t help us find and understand the photographic opportunities, they don’t help us share the results. It’s as if their responsibility begins and ends with the shutter release. The more this continues, the more camera sales will continue to drop. Because this narrow focus doesn’t serve the customer’s photographic needs. 

You might not have understood my first thought in the previous paragraph, so let me give you an example: can my camera tell me when sunset is? Nope. Can it tell me where I am? Well, if it has a GPS it can tell me the coordinates, but that’s not what I want to know. So the camera isn’t helping me find and understand the photographic opportunities. The list of missing abilities goes on and on and on, so I won’t bore you with the complete one. 

You do understand the second thought in that earlier paragraph about sharing results: if you’ve tried to use SnapBridge or any of the other camera-to-mobile-device Wi-Fi functions, you know how frustrating that can be: too unreliable, too slow, doesn’t do everything you want it to.

So let me ask you this: what is photography? Where does it start (e.g. planning) and where does it end (e.g. display)? Do Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, OM Digital Systems, Panasonic, or Sony actually address that full range? Heck, Canon makes printers, which is part of the display end, but does Canon actually help you move from camera to computer to print, or do you have to figure out a bunch of that on your own? (Canon was maligned for having a “print” button on some of their cameras, but it was the right thought, just not particularly useful in its implementation.)

So let me return to my headline and complete my thesis: the camera makers are making their ecosystems too small. If they continue to do that, they’ll ultimately fail. 

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