Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Medium Format Satire

I have a consultation with a private equity firm about the medium format camera industry. Lots of what I'm going to say is personal. But most of it is founded in cold hard facts. So if you can't take the heat get out of the kitchen. Here are the Q/A talking points:

Q: Key selling points – which features are most important for you as an user?

A: I preface this answer with my philosophy as far as cameras go. The camera is a tool. It's function is to facilitate in executing my vision. The more "invisible" a tool is the better. That is to say the tool should create a frictionless and seamless experience in performing its primary function.

As a professional the camera has many functions. Even serving to impress clients. However that is not its primary function. Regarding a medium format camera's primary functions I want 35mm dSLR "speed" and "usability" combined with medium format quality imaging.

Speed. A word used to describe just the speed at which a photographer can capture a scene. Often used to describe lenses with large apertures. I use this term very fluidly. It describes low light (high-ISO) performance. Frames per second. Responsiveness in operation (e.g. zooming into an image, scrolling through pictures, focus-point adjustments, etc.). Large frame buffer and ability write to disk. Rate of shooting in frames per second. Large-aperture lenses. Autofocus accuracy and acquisition...

None of the aforementioned traits are strong suits of current offerings in the medium format market. A frame per second is considered fast in the MF DSLR market. That's appalling to companies like Nikon and Canon that have flagship sports cameras that capture 10+ frames per second and near instantaneous focus acquisition with precision. Nikon even had an upgrade for the D3 that increased the buffer size 2.25x so you could shoot 36 uncompressed 14-bit lossless RAW files instead of just 16 uncompressed 14-bit lossless RAW files. Canon has lenses down in the 1.2/F apertures (50mm and 85mm). ISO performance in the D4 and the 1DX are in the 6-digits and very usable at 6400ISO. Ergonomics and responsiveness in 35mm dSLR have been refined for decades and are fluid and near instantaneous.

So why shoot medium format digital? Detail. Resolution. Dynamic range. This used to be the safe-haven for MF dSLR offerings Nikon has been encroaching into MF dSLR territory with the 36MP D800E (no anti-aliasing filter). The level of detail achieved on a full frame sensor is phenomenal causing many (including myself) to jump ship from the lower end Hasselblads (H3DII-31) in favor of the much faster and well-resolved Nikon D800E.

Dynamic range on MF dSLR offerings are theoretically better. The physics are simple. Larger sensor have more photosites and should theoretically allow better resolving power particularly in shadows and highlights. But the Nikon D800 scores 14.4 stops on DXOmark. Even the $48,000 PhaseOne IQ180 only scores 13.6 stops of dynamic range on DXOmark. No other MF dSLR tested by DXOmark scores above 13.0 EVs.

But MF dSLR have megapixels. 40MP is standard and PhaseOne has several 80MP offerings should you need that kind of resolution. And while we're at it, I'm just going to assume that detail at 80MP is greater than detail at 36MP. Marginally arguable that it's not because there are scanners (such as my Epson V700) that scan at 100+MP but that doesn't mean they have 100MP worth of resolving power, detail, and clarity but hey, I'm lazy. And so far this has been a blowout.

Score two for the MF dSLRs.

While we're at it let's throw one more in the MF dSLR column. Prestige. Hasselblad (even with their POS Lunar) and PhaseOne are high-end cameras that cost both an arm and a leg. Clients should be reasonably impressed when you use one... as long as you don't pull out a Lunar.

If you're keeping score it's 3 for MF dSLR and everything else for 35mm dSLR.

Q: Competitive landscape (key camera providers)?

A: PhaseOne or as I like to call them "Phamiya" and Hasselblad or as I like to call them "Fujiblad". Oh I get it. Trust me, the fact that it's a competitive landscape is not lost on me. So competitive that PhaseOne, Mamiya, and Leaf had to join forces to fight the old guard of Fujiblad (Hasselblad and Fuji).

Did someone say Leica? Do they even qualify as MF dSLR? I'm talking about their 37.5MP S2 sporting an unconventional 45mm x 35mm sensor. I'm going to be totally honest and tell you that I know nothing about this camera. In fact very few people do. Most professionals don't use Leicas. Most amateurs can't afford one. So who uses Leica? You see that guy over there in the red cap that says "Ferrari" wearing the red leather jacket that also says "Ferrari"? Yeah, that guy. He has a Leica. What's that? Is he a good photographer? Dunno. He hasn't figured out how to get the pictures off of his memory card and onto his computer.
Search result "Leica" + "douche"

All jabbing aside, Leica is a niche company. Low volume. High prices. They ride the wave of exclusivity and rangefinder nostalgia. Basically for people who can't stand the thought of pushing a button and instantaneously acquiring tack-sharp focus, Leica provides an alternative where the user manually turn a focus ring in order to put two overlapping images together in order to focus the camera.

Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked because the Leica dSLR rangefinders only sport a full-frame sensor.

Here's the problem with medium format digital cameras. 35mm players such as Nikon and Canon and encroaching into this space as far as resolution/detail/dyanmic range is concerned. MF dSLR production is highly cost prohibitive and companies don't sell enough units to drive costs down. It reminds me of how Lexus loses money with every LFA they sell. And apparently so expensive that Lexus have decided to stop selling the LFA altogether. Fortunately Lexus is a subsidiary of Toyota and Toyota makes lots of money so you can still get a Camry in case you can't get an LFA. But that's not the case with PhaseOne and Hasselblad. In fact with the Lunar, Hasselblad stinks of an old regime that is unable to come to terms with modern day paradigms. That software is important. Phocus was/is terrible. My H3DII felt cheaper than my 20 year old Nikon F90X/N90S but cost over $10k used. That you have to push the envelope and reinvent yourself regularly so you're not behind the PhaseOne curve 80MP.

Q: Megatrends within the industry?

A: Honestly MF dSLR companies can look towards the 35mm titans for "megatrend" cues. Wireless storage, syncing (Eye-Fi) and tethering. Larger and more accurate camera-back displays. Better ISO performance. Faster sync speeds whether leaf or focal plane or electronic shutter. New technologies such as the Lytro camera with the ability to "choose" focus after the shot, Foveon versus Bayer sensors that supposedly capture independent RGB values per photosite. In consumer applications the convergence between social media platforms and camera bodies allow users to share their images with less "transaction cost". In the 35mm dSLR space, the ability to shoot HD video has been a game changer ever since the 5DMII. Canon even developed a new autofocus system that allows the 70D to focus while shooting video.

That's of course all above and beyond the obvious war in megapixels. MF dSLR has to keep its lead on 35mm dSLR and must still push the megapixel limit. In the minds of most, more is always better.

Q: Speed of innovation and potential game changers?

A: Terribly. Slow. PhaseOne and Hasselblad just don't innovate at the speed of their 35mm counterparts. Not that we expect them to. But the best thing Hasselblad has done to-date was develop True Focus which is basically their answer to "focus-recompose". The question of course is "Why does one need to focus-recompose to begin with if you have 51-AF points a la the Nikon D3? What's that you say? Hasselblads only have 1 single focus point? Oh, okay never mind then."

I hate bandaid solutions.

Innovation and MF dSLR aren't exactly like Bert and Ernie (Sesame Street). Or maybe they are exactly like Bert and Ernie. A quick look at PhaseOne's website where they keep their press releases reveals nothing to write home about for the last year. Yes, they released the IQ2 series of cameras which are a nice upgrade over their old sensors while sporting wireless connectivity. And it looks like they're entering the industrial space with fine art reproduction-specific cameras.

To be fair, Nikon and Canon haven't done anything game-changing since Canon's 5DMII. The 36MP D800E is nice but not game-changing.

To change the game, you must change the way people do things. There's no better time to a "camera company". There are new technologies popping up left and right and all you have to do is figure out how to integrate it into your new offerings. And while MF dSLRs are professional tools, one can not deny that media is changing. What about 3D imaging? What about light amplification technology? I'm not even talking about better "light collectors" on the sensors. I'm talking about simple things like the Metabones Speed Booster which acts like a magnifying glass and focuses all the light into a smaller area. Sure on MF you'd use less of the sensors surface area BUT you would gain a stop or maybe even two of speed.

Maybe I should have saved that idea for myself and developed that product myself.

But comon' guys, be creative. Get out of the box. And honestly I applaud Hasselblad's partnership with Sony even if they are just rebadging NEX-7's and RX100's. At least they're doing something. Who knows, it might lead to some innovation down the line that wouldn't have otherwise existed.

Here's an easy one. A Thunderbolt port. Simple huh? Build one into your camera and watch how many people smile when they are downloading 128GB worth of pictures onto their computer.

Q: Camera versus software?

A: I'm afraid I don't understand the question. These two go together like Apple and Apple's fanboys. One doesn't exist without the other. Call it a symbiotic relationship if you will. I have only heard good things about CaptureOne. But they're far from capturing the lion's share of the market from Lightroom. When you're comfortable with the idea that straight out of the camera, the image is "incomplete" and "unfinished" you realize that software is merely part of the workflow.

Now if you're talking about the proprietary software that goes into the DAC (digital-analog-converter) then yeah, I still don't understand the question. I've talked a little about the proprietary RAW code a little from Canon/Nikon in previous posts. What's interesting about this little bit is that it's for the most part "invisible" yet plays a very important role in the final image. Without the proprietary code (as I've discovered through mixing and matching lens systems with camera bodies) you wind up more moiré, chromatic aberration, vignetting, lens distortion (depending on focal length), and other byproducts of optics. Then there are the algorithms written for noise cancellation/removal, sharpening, etc. You'd think there'd be none of this in RAW files but we the consumer have no control over this kind of stuff. It's written into the DAC. We only have control over the basic RAW adjustments. But we have no control over how the image is represented as an initial file. We can only trust that the engineers at Canon/Nikon/Sonyblad/PhamiyaOne are doing a good job and hopefully give us something we can work with.

Q: Replacement cycle and revenue model – how do camera manufactures make their money?

A: Honestly I have no clue. If I did, I would be running my own camera manufacturing company. I think you have to consider the business models that compress the replacement cycles. Just as car leases have promoted more sales and Apple releases a new iPhone every year, camera companies need to "keep up with the Joneses" and keep pushing out new gear. After all it ain't 1970 any more.
Wrong on so many levels...
But what does that mean? It means in the Burger King-esque kind of way (which is "Your Way Right Away"), the consumer is more demanding and less patient. The advent of eBay and craigslist has made it amazingly easy to switch entire systems. I was on Audiogon.com last night. It's not only easy to buy/sell high end audio equipment but you can do so without losing a dime of your initial investment (as long as you buy used). We're talking about $30k+ sound systems. The days of undying loyalty to a single company ended when dial-up modems finally surpassed 56kbps, basically around the time when porn moved away from BBS and onto the world-wide-web.

But again, what does that mean? Well, I know of people who've moved from Canon to Nikon and back in the amount of time it takes Canon to scratch their heads and say, "What's wrong with a little focus hunting? We gave them dSLR video!" The point is that camera manufacturers need to be sensitive to these "trends". "Megatrends" as you call them that might cause large rifts and shifts in users from one camp to another.

And don't downplay social media. Consumers used to get their information from the "local pros" and local camera shops but those days are over too. I get some of my information before the manufacturers even write their press releases. For example, I can tell you that a full-frame Sony NEX is coming. Ain't that a bitch? Just got my NEX-7 less than a year ago along with the 28mm Zeiss lens.

Wow, they made this into an actual product for Canons
Social media is however just a tool. But it's a tool where many phenomena occur. If something goes viral, whichever camera was used to shoot the video is going to get a lot of attention. The Vincent Laforet "Reverie" struck a major chord in the dSLR community. That single event still has rippling effects throughout the industry today. Companies like Zacuto and Red Rock Micro make their bread and butter on the resulting demand of dSLR video rigs. Software companies like Magic Lantern are making a killing off of the demand for greater dynamic range and RAW video output from their 5DMII/5DMIII. But I'm getting carried away. The point is that without Vimeo and modern day information acquisition via smartphones, twitter/Facebook, Vine/Instagram, Laforet's video would have no platform to promote the 5DMII.

But they exist now.

So pay attention. Listen to what people are saying. There is a lot of noise out there so maybe you have to have a good "signal-to-noise" ratio and filter through the garbage to hear what people are saying but once you do, you'll learn a lot about current and upcoming trends.

I'm going to end on this: Today, it important is for camera companies (and anyone in general) to let go of the idea that their occupation/product/service is defined by any single "thing". Yes I understand that companies have competitive advantages and can't be everything to everyone. That's not what I'm saying anyway. My point is that you need to forget what you thought you knew. About your legacy/history and focus on the present/future. Otherwise you and many others will be left on the wayside. Stop trying to define yourself in the absence of feedback. Listen to what the market wants of you. Adopt a small company mentality. Think fast and act quickly with resolve. As George Patton said, "A good plan implemented today is better than a perfect plan implemented tomorrow."

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