Photokina 2014: Quiet but significant
Last week's Photokina was my fourth, which must mean I've been working in the photo publishing industry for... about eight years. It doesn't seem like that long to me, but regardless, a lot has happened in that time.
Since 2008 the photo industry has weathered a global economic downturn, multiple destructive weather events in Asia and the emergence of an entirely new family of products - the smartphone. All of these things would have been disruptive on their own, but coming hot on the heels of one another inside less than a decade, their cumulative effect has been profound.
Over the past eight years we've seen technological fads come and go (I'm looking at you, 3D) and an entire market segment - the inexpensive point-and-shoot - has all but disappeared. In the meantime, the dizzying trajectory of technical advances that characterized the first decade of consumer digital imaging has flattened. There's less incentive now to buy a new digital camera, since the last one you bought is probably still pretty good. This is great news for budget-conscious consumers of course, but it's something of a headache for camera manufacturers.
This year's Photokina felt a little quiet, but it might have been the most significant in recent years. For me, Photokina 2014 was marked by two milestones - the launch of Panasonic's Lumix DMC-CM1, and the arrival of the RED Epic Dragon 6K video camera. Notably, neither of these two products are cameras in the traditional sense. The CM1 is an Android-powered smartphone with an unusually capable camera module (featuring a 1-inch sensor no less) and the RED Epic Dragon is a professional video camera, but one which can also capture high-resolution Raw still images.
Pointing the way to the future...
I call these products 'milestones' not because they're likely to have any material impact on consumer digital imaging in the short term (the CM1 is only being marketed in a couple of countries and the RED Epic Dragon costs more than $25,000) but because of what they represent. Both products are indicative of a gradual redefining of traditional photography that's been happening quietly for a while (and let's not forget about Lytro's Illum, which points the way to another kind of future entirely).
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-CM1 is a fully-featured Android smartphone which boasts a 20MP camera built around a 1-inch sensor. The CM1 is being released in France and Germany only (for now).
Whether we like it or not, the fact is that smartphones have replaced traditional compact cameras for a lot of people in the developed world. A staggering number of images are taken using smartphones every day, and for many people, their smartphone is their primary (or only) camera.
Arguably Samsung put a stake in the ground first* with the Galaxy Camera - the first version of which was the talk of Photokina 2012. The Panasonic CM1 is different though. Whereas the Galaxy camera was a zoom-lens camera with an Android interface, the CM1 is first and foremost a phone, featuring a fixed-lens camera but one with a very big sensor. And Panasonic chose to launch it not at CES, not at IFA, but at Photokina - the world's largest photography trade show. The symbolic importance of that decision should not be overlooked.
The RED Epic Dragon is an entirely different kind of device, and one that really grabbed my attention at this year's Photokina. The inherent theoretical appeal of 4K+ video for photographers has been evident for a while now - what's not to like about ~8MP still images captured at up to 60fps? But the EPIC Dragon takes it to a different level. The camera's 6K footage can create 19MP still frames - at rates of up to 100fps. The really important point though is that these images are captured in a Raw image format. Stills from the Dragon can be opened in Adobe Camera Raw or any other compatible raw converter (we're told that Lightroom support is coming soon) and manipulated in exactly the same way as files from a conventional still camera.
As well as 6K video the RED Epic Dragon can also output 19MP Raw still images (at up to 100fps).
The Epic Dragon itself isn't going to disrupt the consumer digital imaging space any time soon. It's very expensive, and the data throughput of 6K footage is incredible. As with all new technologies though, it's short-sighted to focus on what it means now. Much more interesting is to think about what it might mean in the future. And I'd be prepared to bet that before too long, the increasingly blurry line between stills and video will essentially cease to exist.
6K video might be out of reach to most photographers (for now) but 4K is taking off in a big way, thanks in no small part to mirrorless pioneers Panasonic, Samsung and Sony. All three manufacturers are pushing the feature in their new generation of enthusiast-oriented cameras (Samsung's NX1 looking particularly impressive, on paper). I think that Toshiaki Akagi of Nikon is correct that 4K is 'too much' for most people when it comes to the requirements of casual videography, but it's clear that this is not the only appeal of the feature.
Tellingly, for instance, the new Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100 features a 'Photo 4K' mode which is explicitly intended to be used by still photographers with an eye to pulling images out of 4K footage, to be saved separately.
Back in the comfortingly familiar world of DSLR photography, the two biggest players - Canon and Nikon - had a busy Photokina, announcing two major new products. Canon's EOS 7D Mark II replaces the five year-old EOS 7D, and as you'd expect after such a long time it's a pretty major upgrade. Meanwhile, considering its price-point, Nikon's enthusiast-friendly D750 is arguably the company's most mainstream full-frame camera yet.
Times are hard for DSLR makers. While executives from both Canon and Nikon are justifiably confident that their newest cameras will prove popular, both manufacturers also seem (finally) to be contemplating an imminent jump into the enthusiast mirrorless market, after mainly targeting entry-level users with their respective mirrorless options.
Canon's Masaya Maeda - a man I must have seen more in the past 12 months than my own mother and not someone who tends to be careless with his words - went as far as to tell me that we can expect Canon to create a serious mirrorless product 'in the very near future'. Meanwhile, Toshiaki Akagi of Nikon gave us plenty to read about between the lines when he acknowledged the growth in the mirrorless market and said that Nikon 'may be able to provide another type of mirrorless camera with larger sensors'.
When I spoke to Toshihisa Iida of Fujfilm earlier this year he told me that he couldn't wait for Canon and Nikon to jump into the mirrorless market in a serious way, because in his opinion this would lend a much-needed legitimacy to the product class. Speaking last week in Germany he was much more confident, after six months of growth spurred by high-end mirrorless products not only from his own company, but also Sony, Panasonic and Olympus. Will Canon and Nikon join the enthusiast mirrorless race too far behind to win? Hopefully we'll find out soon enough.
Race to the top...
The enthusiast mirrorless race is certainly a 'race to the top' where increasingly, manufacturers seem to be placing emphasis on giving customers the best possible experience - not necessarily the widest choice, or the cheapest option. Potentially selling fewer cameras, in other words, but better cameras and at a higher value. I mentioned the 28MP Samsung NX1 earlier - a great example of a product where the manufacturer has pulled out all the stops in order to appeal to enthusiasts.
The days of huge compact cameras lineups spanning $100-800 with annual replacement cycles definitely seem to be numbered, if not quite over. Significantly, Shigeki Ishizuka of Sony explained to me that with the RX100-series Sony has entirely changed its approach to marketing high-end compacts. Rather than releasing multiple models spanning entry level to high-end and replacing them every year or so, the RX100 (released in 2012) and RX100 II remain in the lineup, slipping down in price to become lower-cost alternatives to the flagship Cyber-shot RX100 III and RX10. It makes sense - they're still good cameras.
When we spoke to Shigeki Ishizuka, the global head of Sony’s Imaging Business he explained why Sony dropped the 'NEX' brand in favor of 'Alpha'.
Now that smartphones have all-but obliterated the point-and-shoot segment it is important for manufacturers to differentiate their products from smartphones. At the same time though, they also need to ensure that their cameras can do some of the same things as smartphones (ladies and gentlemen, I give you the now ubiquitous 180-degree tilting 'selfie screen') and exist alongside them via built-in wireless connectivity features.
Such features are (finally) maturing to the point where it is possible to integrate cameras and mobile devices into the same workflow without wanting to smash things. Sony's innovative QX-series of products is a great example of this kind of 'if you can't beat them, join them' approach.
The new Sony Cyber-shot QX-1 is effectively a standalone sensor and lens mount, minus lens, to which any E-mount lens can be attached (upside-down lenshood optional).
Ishizuka-san admitted to me that QX is still (unsurprisingly) something of a niche, but people are buying and using them, and they're doing so in refreshingly unexpected ways. According to Mr Ishizuka, contrary to initial expectations, most QX buyers don't tend to attach the modules to their smartphones, but prefer to use them remotely, at arm's length and beyond. Apparently, we're told, the QX cameras are a particular hit among astrophotographers. Suddenly, a product ostensibly designed to coax smartphone users into 'serious' photography has become a new (albeit small for now) market segment all on its own.
I should imagine that most of you reading this - like me - didn't mourn the passing of the cheap point-and-shoot, but we're certainly all reaping the benefit of the ongoing focus on the high end as manufacturers concentrate on putting bigger sensors, faster lenses and more enthusiast-friendly features into their fixed-lens compact cameras.
Panasonic's new Lumix DMC-LX100 is an impressive feat of engineering, packing a Four Thirds sensor with a 24-75mm equiv. F1.7-2.8 lens inside a compact form factor.
The most obvious expression of this general philosophy at Photokina is Panasonic's Lumix DMC-LX100 - a small (ish) zoom compact camera with a genuinely fast lens and a Micro Four Thirds sensor for under $1000. According to the poll currently running on our homepage the LX100 was your favorite camera of Photokina, and probably mine too (although I do love the unashamedly backwards-looking Leica M-A).
What do you think was the most significant or interesting thing at Photokina 2014? Let us know in the comments.
* Technically the Nikon Coolpix S800c came a few days earlier, but the less said about that camera the better, to be honest.