Views from Phanfare CEO and Co-founder Andrew Erlichson

Link The Panasonic GF-1 heralds the second rise of the point and shoot

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.

  • Frank Grochocki

    Andrew,
    I hear what you are saying, but you have to keep this advancement in context. There is not physical way to cram the amount of glass required to correct the same optical aberrations in a form factor as small as a point and shoot camera. This is the major advantage of an SLR that wasn't emphasized in your blog – the ability to receive interchangeable lenses with a lens performance to match the camera body's electronic performance. These may be subtleties to some people, but these are the laws of physics that drive the size of well-corrected optics.

  • http://blog.phanfare.com erlichson

    The current size of the GF-1 is small enough that if it produced DSLR level images and had the autofocus perf and low light perf it would already be a threat to DSLR cameras. It does not really need to get smaller.

    By point and shoot camera, I meant cameras that have electronic viewfinders, no pentaprism and no mirror. It is true that the GF-1 is not really a P&S because of its heavy manual controls, but I believe cameras will arise with the perf of the digital SLR without the controls and that much like the P&S cameras were cannibalize DSLR sales in the mid 90s, it will happen again.

    Also, The GF-1 already corrects for some lens aberrations in software, I believe.

  • http://blog.phanfare.com erlichson

    The current size of the GF-1 is small enough that if it produced DSLR level images and had the autofocus perf and low light perf it would already be a threat to DSLR cameras. It does not really need to get smaller.

    By point and shoot camera, I meant cameras that have electronic viewfinders, no pentaprism and no mirror. It is true that the GF-1 is not really a P&S because of its heavy manual controls, but I believe cameras will arise with the perf of the digital SLR without the controls and that much like the P&S cameras were cannibalize DSLR sales in the mid 90s, it will happen again.

    Also, The GF-1 already corrects for some lens aberrations in software, I believe.

  • tslow

    Yes, the GF1 corrects for lens aberration. So does the LX3, which is why its RAW file is half-unreadable unless you have Panasonic's special formula.

    SLR's are about the glass. Period. It's about getting enough light to the image capture system. The laws of optics are what they are and all the software and CPUW's are not going to change that.

    Seen the new Leica M9 samples lately? I hate Leica (the equivalent of fox hunting in the camera world) but they keep the formual simple: like great beer.

  • pwllem

    Not that many photographers will admit it but the SLR is also a status symbol. Can you see a fashion photographer or a music event photographer showing up with a point and shoot and saying “ok let's get this ball rolling!”? Imagine the shock on the face of a bride when her photographer shows up with a p&s.

    I'll admit that it's less of the violin and more of the violinst. I don't shoot with the highest end DSLR. But really, put two equal violinists together and give one a lower level instrument. (Or even a lower one with awesome strings) the better violin will always sound better.

    I hope that in 10 years I won't look back on this post and say “What was I thinking? Andrew was on to something!” I don't think I'll have much to worry about though.

  • http://blog.phanfare.com erlichson

    I don't agree. The micro 4/3rds movement is about using sensors that are nearly as big as those used in DSLRs. And there is nothing fundamental about the size of the sensor used in th DSLRs. Image processing and sensors can improve such that smaller sensors produce images of acceptable quality.

    my point is that the gap between the high end an low end cameras is shrinking in digital, just as it did with film, and as that gap closes, the low-end, mass market cameras are going to capture an increasing share of the pie. The introduction of digital reset the gap between high and low end, making it once again large. but as technology improves that gap is once again closing.

  • tslow

    m43 sensors are almost 40% smaller than APS-C, and 60% less than FF!

    There is something fundmental about sensor size: the ratio between the # and size of photosites. Bigger photosites capture more light more accurately and efficiently. Low-light m43 is not very good; in fact, worse than my compact ISO 400 35mm film! I've tried it, seen the samples, and found it wanting severely, even with good glass.

    Worse, the more one expands the image (big screen TV, new 27 inch iMac) the worse the pixellation.

    The gap between high-end and low-end is not shrinking because of smaller cameras. It's shrinking because FF cameras are getting smaller and much less expensive, whereas decent P&S cameras are becoming relatively more expensive (ZS3, 200EXR), with m43 looking pretty hefty in comparison. The new Pentax K-x is only marginally larger than the EP-1, but blows it away with image quality and lenses.

    The gap will close, but towards higher quality images, not lower. You cannot get there with smaller sensors relaying to ever larger displays. The optical math does not work. That's why big screen TV's needed HD content. Same principle. And you can always scale down from high-quality, but not up from lower.

  • http://blog.phanfare.com erlichson

    the gap is absolutely shrinking and price reflects it. in 1999 a DSLR was at least $4000 and took images that were significantly better than a point and shoot, which was around $900. Now you have P&S cameras at $200 and DSLRs at $700. The gap has shrunk to $500 and the difference in quality is not as signficant as it once was. Time will tell, but I predict that as technology improves, the mass market cameras will encroach on the high end, just as they did in film.

  • tslow

    Right, but an excellent DSLR is only 2x a P&S and still takes far better photos!

    Also, P&S have reached both a megapixel and definitely an optical dead-end. We'll see some sensor advancements, and a lot of software interpretation, we still cannot change the laws of physics and ask computers to get more light onto photocells than there are photons entering the frame. To post on larger displays, you need every single photon. Larger displays will drive larger sensor sales, with APS-C being the sweet spot because it can handle adequate low light lenses (necessary for video, as the Panny GH-1 demos).

    You're about to see the $350 DSLR (Oly E-330) competing against the $200 P&S. No contest about quality there. After that, it boils down to form factor and portability. A very large number of people want to take quality photos and buy dedicated equipment to do just that.

    What is endangered is the superzooms, which are too bulky to justify their non-DSLR features. DSLR with HD video kills that category.

  • http://blog.phanfare.com erlichson

    I don’t think SLRs go away. I don’t think crazy expensive equipment goes away. But I do think that P&S cameras are improving faster than SLRs right now, and most consumers will find them acceptable in a few years. There is a segment of enthusiasts who like manual control and will pay for even the smallest difference in quality. Those keep buying the high end stuff. But there is also a segment of consumers who have been buying SLRs for image quality and autofocus and they will go back to P&S.

    I agree that if photography is your business, you will carry 'pro tools.' But how many DSLRs are sold to true working pros?

  • Darryl

    The Canon S90 is the P&S I want.

  • http://www.showperformance.com/ Chad Wadsworth

    @ pwllem

    Have you heard of Terry Richardson? !!! The fashion industry fully embraced the P&S in the late 90s early 2000s when the Contax T and G series cameras (and of course the Yashica T4) proved that you could get sharp, beautiful images from 35mm P&S or Rangefinder (the G series).

    @ tslow

    Digital P&S have not reached a megapixel or optical dead end. We already have a compact P&S with an AP-C sensor (the Sigma) and the new Leica X1 and Ricoh GRX will have the same. The day is coming when a camera like these will have a full frame sensor. Then, like Andrew postulates, the compact will be king again.

    As a professional music photographer I use both my digital and film SLRs along with film P&S cameras. I'll add digital P&S to that mix when they reach full frame!

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