Camera Industry’s 15-Year Cycle

By ERWIN PUTS

When you review the development of the camera technology since 1960, one can discern a 15-year cycle. The period of the full mechanical precision engineered camera started around 1950 and ended in 1966 when Konica announced the Autoreflex. The trend to automation culminated in the Canon A-1 in 1978 and found its peak with the Canon EOS-1 in 1989. The autofocus period started with the Minolta Maxxum 7000 in 1985 and ended around 2000 with the announcement of the Kodak DCS series in 2002 and the Canon EOS D2000 in 1998.

Around 1985, there was much discussion in the industry about the technological platform reached by the then current engineering and innovation. Cameras were developed to the end of the lifecycle and no more inventions or innovations could improve the state of the art. At that moment, the introduction of autofocus saved the industry and again a platform was reached around 2000 when the industry embraced the digital technology, supported by advanced software and electronic components.

Today, this innovative cycle has ended. One sees a convergence of smart phone technology, conventional camera technology and social media platforms that define a new cycle. The current strategy of the main players is a simple one: add more features and deliver incremental improvements. There is hardly new thinking behind the approach to increase the sensor size or pixel amount and/or decrease the body footprint and to add more AF points or more exposure options. Even the switch from CCD to CMOS is not an element of new thinking.

One sees the current innovation stalemate in the diversion to cinematography and video options in still camera bodies. Video technology is a mature industry and the incorporation of this technique in a still camera body belongs to the marketing department, not the research department.

The recently announced Leica M-P, beautiful as it is, points to the same diagnosis. Leica seems to focus primarily on design and special materials to give the products a special status and appeal. The move from M to M-P is practical identical to the move from M8 to M8.2 or M9 to M9-P. And the special 100-year edition of the Monochrom is basically the standard Monochrom with stainless steel body parts. The special edition Leica M-A is the standard MP without the electronics of the current MP — do not confuse the MP with the M-P!

If there is new thinking behind these products — or perhaps one may call it “old thinking” — it’s the trend to simplification, enhanced by the addition of elements of “Manufaktur” and luxury. Again, this is simply the revival of the classic Leica Luxus models. So the next cycle of the camera industry may be defined by two trends:

  1. a return to classical values (Leica M style);
  2. and/or a shift to smartphone/movie (YouTube) amalgamation.

It seems that Leica is betting on both horses, while Nikon and Canon are still imprisoned in the gadget paradigm and are deliberating between mirrorless cameras and DSLR evolution.

(republished with written permission from Erwin Puts)



  • Well, this thought has not finished the cycle and stops at nowhere.

    • Erwin makes a few very valid points. While there’s no clear-cut transition from cycle to cycle and at one point Moore’s law comes into play (which accelerates the cycles), photography’s in the cycle of reinventing itself dramatically. “Immediateness” with the live streaming of visual content is just one of the new standards of “computational photography.” That’s where we’re heading for, quite unthinkable back in the former cycle.

  • Bengt Nyman

    I am sorry Mr. Puts, but you appear totally out of touch with the modern world of photography. Leica is no longer even in the picture.

    • Leica might not be a key player in terms of quantity, they nevertheless keep on surprising the market and cannot be ignored. What other brand has own dedicated camera boutiques? What other name is still around after all these decades? What other industry player enjoys the privilege to ask for whatever prices they want to? Sure not everything’s perfect in Leica world, that’s part of the challenge. but in the end it’s mostly about their optics, to this day, and that’s what matters in the end.

  • Bengt Nyman

    The cycles of the photographic industry are like the cycles of any other high tech industry. They are driven by two factors:

    1. New processes, materials and technologies allowing new designs which more effectively and economically achieves a desired result.
    2. Changes in the economic and social landscape fueling the demand for new and improved technologies and gadgets.

    The above is true across the board from cars to cameras.

    Aside from that you have a group of people who think that the world reached peak performance at a time when they did personally. They try to dwell in the memories of these times by collecting old cars and old cameras. Bless their hearts, for they has nothing to do with today or tomorrow.