PMA 2006 Analysis


Thoughts About PMA 2006 and “Luminous Landscape”: A great analysis of the the latest Photo Marketing Association trade show and what it means. First a good analysis of the various markets that are emerging. This is very complicated because folks don’t have standard terms, but here’s a good breakdown:

The great Megapixel Race appears to be over. From the roughly 3 Megapixel Nikon D1 and Canon D30 of late 1999 and early 2000, to today’s mainstream 6 – 8 Megapixel and top of the line 12-16 Megapixel models, we now seem to have reached a point of equilibrium. More Megapixels aren’t what most photographers need. We need better Megapixels, and the manufacturers seem to have realized this.

The 6 – 8M range provides amateurs with enough to make A3 (11X17″) prints, while 12-16M let’s pros and advanced amateurs produce double page spreads and 13X19″ or larger display prints. These were the outer limits of 35mm film in any event. Even camera makers now realize that 6 million clean Megapixels are better than 8 million noisy ones. Given that most digicams have slow lenses, people were shooting at high ISO settings, and were dissatisfied with image quality, even on wallet-sized prints.

So we have competition in a couple of categories:

5-8mp (group A). Compact digital cameras that are generally pocketable and budget DSLRs. These are snapshot cameras. The images will be viewed on screens and printed at 4×6 for the most part, with an occasional blowup to a larger size. These cameras are used in hostile lighting environments, which is their primary drawback at the moment. By that I mean few are capable of noise-free high ISO shooting and most have autofocus limitations in low light. What this class of user doesn’t want is the same or worse pixel action at 10mp. They want higher ISO capabilities, VR, and faster focusing.

8-12mp (group B). DSLRs aimed at the advanced amateur. These aspire to be more than snapshot cameras, as the user typically aspires to fine art photography. That means that they actually post process and print their images, often as big as an Epson 2400 will allow them to go (13×19″). They need enough pixels to retain detail at that size, but more pixels than that generally only give them cropping ability; the smart ones will get lenses or use their feet to obtain the right cropping, if only the camera would do exactly what they wish of it. This group is probably the most satisfied (at least if they’re a Nikon or Canon owner), as the current crop of cameras in this range don’t have any major liabilities. Expect others to come play in this realm soon (Sony, Pentax, and Samsung). SThis is also the group that’s most likely to switch back and forth trying to find that special product that’s everything they need in the first place. However, once they’re happy with a product, when they eventually get around to replacement, they will tend to be loyal because of their investment in lenses and accessories. So while they may have gone D30->D100->20D->D200 in the past, if they’ve got a Canon 30D or 5D today and are happy with it, they’ll stick with the Canon brand in the future.

12-16mp (group C). The pro DSLR user that used to shoot 35mm film. These folk have specific uses, so this is where cameras need to be thought out a little more. We see a bit of that in the 1DII and D2x, which cater to someone who needs fast autofocus and high frame advance to capture action. But we need more of that dedication to usage. All of us shooting in this group complain about minute aspects of image quality, particularly artifacts, antialiasing, and the extremes of the sensor’s dynamic range. The top end, 16mp, is enough resolution for us, as it matches well the lenses we’re using. Like group A, this group wants higher ISO capabilities and faster focusing, but our demands are much more specific and higher level. Canon has high loyalty because they’ve provided what the user needs; Nikon has low loyalty because they haven’t. Thus, until Nikon manages to up their game for this group, Nikon will continue to see its pro market share whittled away.

Here is Thom’s analysis of 2006:

Group A: A lot of action here, with some focus on the higher ISO, VR, and faster focusing and no attempts to push out the megapixel boundaries. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we’ve got WiFi and other trendy technology things that aren’t really useful showing up. Most makers have too many cameras with too little differentiation. They’re playing a typical consumer retailing game: isolate features so that the store has plenty of up sell opportunities. Prediction: the company that figures out how to make the Stylus XA in digital form will have a big winner. In the DSLR portion of this group we now have a crowd: Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Sigma, Pentax, Samsung, Sony, and at the “deluxe end” the new Panasonic. I still think this is a war that will whittle down to only three or four survivors and will be driven more by price than features.

Group B: Nikon solidified themselves in this category with the D200, Canon less so with the 30D. Still missing in action are Fujifilm, Pentax, Sony, and whoever else decides this is a spot they want to be. Olympus is likely to have a difficult time in this category, as I suspect that the E1 replacement will be more pro-targeted but due to 4/3 more likely to have a pixel allotment in this category. I would have said that maybe the E330 or E500 might stretch into this category until I saw the new Panasonic version of the E330 (the LC1, which will also be marketed with a Leica designed Vario-Elmarit 14-50 mm F2.8-F3.5 ASPH that has vibration reduction). Surprisingly, Panasonic seems to grasp what’s needed in this category; certainly more so than Olympus. Remember, this group really wants to buy one camera and then use it for a very long time. In the Nikon film world, the equivalent camera was the F100. Canon and Nikon are well set in this category.

Group C: Surprisingly, this is the area where nothing is happening, but the one where the most bragging rights are available. Canon owns this market right now, with Nikon having made some inroads with the D2x. I expect Canon to shore up the 1DsII beachhead later this year, but I don’t expect Nikon to make any strides here until late 2007 at the earliest. From a Nikon pro standpoint, any new camera that pushes beyond where the D2x currently is would be snapped up in a heartbeat, pretty much regardless of price. I know I’d jump in a second, and every other Nikon pro I talk to would, too. Meanwhile, there doesn’t appear to be anyone sneaking up on the two from behind: the 10mp Pentax targeted for Photokina announcement is group B, as is the 10mp Sony likely to be announced at the same time. As noted earlier, those could be too late to the game (and it’s the wrong game for this category).