Photography enthusiasts of a certain age remember that it was not long ago that the SLR camera was declared all but dead, a niche product for die hard tinkerers. The date was 1995. Film was the name of the game. Point and shoot cameras (P&S) were getting better and better. Enthusiasts were buying Yashica T4 cameras and leaving their heavy iron at home. I remember a series of articles by Philip Greenspun, founder of photo.net, talking about point and shoot cameras being more than adequate for most purposes (some of those pages have been updated).
The thinking went something like this: Most people buy P&S cameras and hence there are more R&D dollars to develop them. P&S cameras were improving at a faster rate than SLR cameras and you could see the day when the quality of the images and auto-focus systems would mostly equal that of the expensive cameras. Back in film days there was no difference between the light sensitivity of P&S cameras and SLR cameras since they both used the same film.
Cannibalization from the low-end is a common phenomenon in technology. As technology improves and prices come down, the low end, mass market product eventually satisfies the performance needs of most applications, marginalizing the high end product. I saw this painful effect first hand when I worked for Silicon Graphics. Every year the PC graphics boards satisfied the needs of more and more people and the market for graphics workstations shrunk.
Digital Photography reset the camera market. Camera prices more than doubled overnight. In 1999, entry level P&S cameras were $700. Digital SLRs that could rival film were $10,000. For all the enthusiasts moving over from digital, there were some painful choices to make. Digital had clear advantages in immediacy and the incremental cost of shooting, but most enthusiasts were priced out of the cameras that could deliver image quality equal to their $700 Canon A2E film camera.
As prices dropped and technology improved, Digital SLRs became the tool of choice for the enthusiast. Starting with the Canon D30 in May of 2000, which was priced at $2400, enthusiasts gradually started buying digital SLR cameras.
Digital SLR cameras came down in price over the years. Now once again, digital SLRs cost approximately what prosumer film SLRs cost in the 90s ($700-$900). In the last few years DSLRs were one of the fastest growing segments of the digital camera market. Only a digital SLR could offer the shot-to-shot time, auto-focus speed, and low light performance that enthusiasts demanded.
But there is no fundamental technological advantage to the SLR format where you look through the lens through a pentaprism equipped with a mirror. In fact, the whole concept of having a mechanical mirror that pops up to expose the sensor is a complicated mechanical contraption that seems almost odd in a modern digital camera. Furthermore, the SLR format has some disadvantages, including size, weight and frame rate (you have to move that mirror out of the way).
Why can’t point and shoot cameras produce images that are as good as an SLR in a smaller form factor? Well the answer is that they can. Panasonic and Olympus have led here with the introduction of the micro 4/3rd format, which is really nothing more than a line of point and shoot cameras with interchangeable lenses and big image sensors.
The Panasonic GF-1, which I own, is the first camera that makes me want to leave my 4.5 lb Canon 5D Mark II with 24-70 f/2.8L at home in some situations. Not all situations mind you. But some. the GF-1 is 1lb with its 20mm f/1.7 lens. It can take a photo in low light. It autofocuses well. Challenges remain. Auto-focus speed is not equivalent to what a DSLR can deliver. Low light performance is not equivalent to a Canon 5D Mark II. But you can see where this is going.
DSLRs are not getting better at any significant rate. They are already amazing. The gap between P&S camera performance and DSLR performance is closing. When P&S cameras deliver anything close to the performance (image quality, low light performance, auto-focus speed) of SLR cameras, the market will once again shift back to point and shoot cameras.
Why? Because consumers mostly don’t care about tinkering with settings (aperture, shutter speed). They care about image quality, auto-focus speed, and low light performance. Once point and shoot cameras close the gap, the market will shift away from the heavy, clumsy digital SLR cameras.
I believe that when we look back, Panasonic’s GF-1 will be seen in the industry as heralding the second rise of the point and shoot camera. In five years, I predict the DSLR market will actually have shrunk relative to the market for compact, 1 lb point and shoot cameras with digital viewfinders and amazing performance. These cameras will be under $400.
And after that? well, technology is merciless. Don’t count the smart phones out. It will just take a long time before they satisfy the performance needs of the mainstream.