For Whom the Bell Tolls — On Ernest Hemingway and Camera Makers’ Future

Current sales figures for serious cameras are troubling, to say the least. They nosedive. While we photography enthusiasts are a niche who cares about nice ISO values, good glass, proper processing speeds, form factor and accurate image rendition, most people don’t. Significant inventories of the established camera brands remain unsold, not least because a bloated product lineup confuses most consumers and offers only incrementally better results than fancy convergence devices. Real innovation is offered by smartphones that currently call the shots in imaging technology: they reinvent photography, the established camera world is ready for full disruption.

Camera parts like sensor, viewfinder, operational buttons and dials, memory card and overall ergonomics change gradually without being able to reinvent the wheel a.k.a. camera. Real change comes in the form of software. For the majority of people. For the minority? Most likely only a dwindling selection of camera makers will survive in the long run. The CaNikon duopoly will survive, albeit ruffled. Best chances for a triopoly have Sony and Samsung with their focus on technology that’s dominating modern-day photography.

Olympus and Fujifilm? As much as I like their products, I wouldn’t bet my money on them. They bet everything on high-end mirrorless in attractive packages. But honestly, say what you want about the redundancy of the importance of sensor size and performance catching up with DSLRs. To speak with Thom Hogan, mirrorless cameras like the X-T1, E-M1 and A7(R) are low volume products at too high a price for the benefits they provide (and negatives they have).

Hogan goes on:

Cameras are still mostly executing the same old “disconnected box that takes photos on removable media” game (…) If I were running a Japanese camera company, I’d move the indicator to DEFCON 2 right now and be looking for a Silicon Valley company that understands imaging software to purchase and help with what will eventually have to be a full rethink at the camera end.

Well do I agree with Hogan? Conditionally. Digital photography is software driven. But isn’t Adobe struggling? The future lies in integration. Problem is camera makers are no software companies. That’s why RAW and TIFF are not yet phased out. They will over time with greater readout accuracy.

Ernest Hemingway, author of For Whom the Bell Tolls, was known for his for his camera-like realistic style of writing. This style might have something to say about the future of photography. What's needed to convey an image's message? Simplicity.
Ernest Hemingway, author of For Whom the Bell Tolls, was known for his for his camera-like realistic style of writing. This style might have something to say about the future of photography. In the end, what’s needed to convey an image’s message? Simplicity.
Camera companies will have to become as much optical as technological as software companies to stay relevant. But then again, car companies don’t produce tires. I’ll buy the camera that operates the way I grew up with photography. A smartphone is a nice, convenient facilitator of everyday chores. It has a camera. That doesn’t mean it is a camera.

Nikon’s onto this dilemma since quite some time. In July 2013 its president Makoto Kimura was quoted as saying, “We want to create a product that will change the concept of cameras. It could be a non-camera consumer product.”

Nikon could have products in this vein released within five years, according to Kimura, who deflected questions on whether the company would develop a mobile phone.

The smartphone is not the future of photography. Convergence devices and software integration are. The future of photography is all about data processing. For the majority. I’ll stick with the minority, metaphorically in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, author of For Whom the Bell Tolls, unforgotten for his camera-like realistic style of writing. Using simple, basic tools producing great output. The simplicity of his prose is deceptive. Yet Hemingway offers a “multi-focal” photographic reality. That’s the basics and all I ever want in a camera.

  • Bengt Nyman

    “The smartphone is not the future of photography.”
    But, the generation that grows up with smartphones will decide the future of amateur photography. There are more photographers today than ever. Some of them will even go on to mold the future of professional photography. Whoever figures out where this train is going will be sitting on one big apple.

  • Andy Umbo

    And yet, and yet, whatever the cameras “future” is, I cannot find a camera system that functions and makes me feel as good as using film, and film is drastically being phased out. You say they need to phase tiff and raw out, but jpegs cannot be worked on without softening the image terribly when saving the result. Those few cameras, like Nikon, that still shoot .tiff, offer the most “film like” work flow, with the ability to shoot native .tiff like transparency, and to do work on the image if it needs it, and re-save without softening. Digital has yet to reach the “clean” flow-though that transparency film did before digital killed that industry.

    You say you wouldn’t gamble the farm on the future being defined by camera companies like Olympus and Fuji, but mirror-less has many attributes that professionals want, like shooting native 1:1 or 4:3 (8X10) size. Most professionals hate being held to the tyranny of the 3:2 classic 35mm size. I never shot 35mm professionally, the ad clients didn’t want it, or the format! It’s amazing how many pros, especially journalism pros whose work is reproduced small (the same reason they put up with the “negative” attributes of the original 35mm systems), have adopted the Olympus system, as being a return to the “feel” of 35mm film. Yeah, the chip is tiny, but the results are similar to what anyone ever expected form 35mm film anyway.

    The camera companies are reeling because they offer too many cameras, they’re not pushing the amount of people investing in a new camera, they’re slicing a finite sized pie smaller!! Back in the 1970’s, you could buy two Hasselblads, a manual and a motor. A few Nikons, a few pro bodies, and a few “wanna-be” pro-am bodies. My B&H catalog shows currently, 10 bodies! That’s what’s killing the industry. And Nikon still has to make a decent system of f/2.8 primes! Bodies are priced (and designed and built) to fit marketing goals, not photographer goals.

    I dislike all the digitals I use so much, I still shoot film all the time with a Hasselblad or old Mamiya RB, every time I shoot portraits of important people. The industry has never made a digital camera or software package, or file format, that has made me think: “…well, I guess film is dead…”.

  • Seriously Andy, give the Nikon Df a good look. It’s as close to film as it gets. It’s not just a marketing thing, Nikon really nails it with the Df. Have shot so many different cameras lately, nothing beats the Df. And I’m a romantic as you.

  • Gary

    Interesting topic of conversation.

    First off, I wonder if the high end camera market was ever that great.

    I remember growing up that most people had pretty cheapo film cameras, with only a few having the good stuff.

    The cheapo film cameras were replaced by the cheap digital point and shoots, which are now being replaced by the smartphone.

    My guess is that we have more people than ever before enjoying really nice cameras but that the nature of the low end product has changed.

    Second, there are the expectations on the camera companies. Remember in film days, people would hang onto cameras for years. In the digital age, the expectation is a new model much more frequently, with much higher pressure to produce upgrade sales.

    The reality is that the dslr’s produced by Canon and Nikon have been so good that the average person doesn’t feel a need to upgrade that frequently.

    I know some have advocated for camera companies to open up their software and allow for third party alterations, apps, etc…but I don’t think that is the future. The software in cameras is already too complicated and if anything needs to be simplified. I certainly don’t want to add apps to my camera, even though I do so frequently on my iPhone.

    At this point there may not be one magical future for the camera industry. It may just remain fragmented, with the lower end claimed by smartphones, and the upper end claimed mostly by Nikon and Canon. At some point mirrorless cameras may find their way into more market prominence as well.

    I do think a trend you will see is 4K video capable cameras being used, with stills being extracted from them. Of course work is already going on in 8K. But my main point is this: if there is to be another disruption, I foresee it being this. Photography purists may not like it, but most people won’t care…they will only know that they will be able to film video, and also get great stills from it. I would predict that the upcoming Panasonic GH4 will be a huge hit.

  • Jack Anders

    Bengt, you are 100% correct. Smartphones are not the future of photography, but those who don’t know what they don’t know will continue to use them and accept their excessive limitations as the norm. I like many have no idea what he future will be. The one concept that was impressive was the Leica X3, which seemed to satisfy many aspects of portability, image quality and provide descent usability.

  • Vinay Nair

    Simplicity in itself cannot be a goal. It must be aware of complex emotions and states of being, and of the ambivalence of most human experiences. Here’s Hemingway himself – “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.”

    Also, great art always seems to stand on its own, always has, whatever the medium. For every Hemingway, you have a dozen Dan Browns. There is something common to these mediums in the modern world – they are drowning in seas of mediocrity, facilitated by increasingly decentralised mediums of sharing.

    What can be wrong with that one may wonder? But the role of editors and of considered criticism, whether in publishing literature or photographs, is increasingly being undermined. When everything sees the light of the day, everything is sensational. To see the stars, you must have the night.

  • Vinay, that’s with no doubt the comment of the day.

  • Andy Umbo

    I think the GH4 is going to be big too, because there are a lot of indie film-makers that really latched on to the earlier versions and have the lenses; BUT (and this is an important ‘but’), my long time pro film-maker friends say buying a still-video camera is a drag, they can buy a video only camera at about the same price range now, all set up for video with all the controls working the way they’re familiar with from 20 years ago. Scanning through all the settings of still-video cameras are a hassle. I agree from the other end, give me a digital only still camera that’s 30% less because it doesn’t have all the video settings I have to avoid!

    The hybrid still-video camera is a construct for a very small market, mostly photo-journalists that have been forced to shoot some video for their papers web-sites, and they don’t do it that well and think it’s a hassle, the only reason they do it is because if they didn’t, they’d lose their jobs, not because they want the added responsibility. These hybrid cameras were also early adopted by indie film makers because they were the cheapest way to get a pretty high quality video image, but now, there are plenty of video only high end cameras floating between the 2,000 and 4,000 price point.

    As an aside, my film-maker buddies also say that their software has always been easy to adopt because it uses standard film terminology, whereas things like PhotoShop, designed by engineers for pre-press people, has always had a difficult leaning ramp-up. It never used the terminology (where are grades for contrast and stops for exposure?). The software writers are NOT our friends…