Here’s today’s promised article on camera style in the mirrorless (or Compact System Camera) market.
It may seem very superficial to concentrate on the looks of what are essentially tools, but if you bear with me I’m sure you’ll find out why they do matter. However first I want to say why they are more important for CSCs than for Point & Shoots or DSLRs.
DSLRs all look the same. Their designs are the work of decades of iteration and refinement. They were born as professional tools, and now have more affordable versions for consumers. If anyone is buying a DSLR for its looks, they are doing so in order to look like a pro. In other words DSLRs are designed for function, not form, even if in some cases that form may be desired.
P&S cameras on the other hand are aimed squarely at consumers. Manufacturers do make conscious efforts to style their cameras but, as phones begin to take the place of P&S cameras more and more, the profit margins are falling on these cameras. Instead of being a luxury item, a standard P&S now has no status value.
Which brings us to CSCs. These are the new status symbols for consumer photographers (those who aren’t enthusiasts of the hobby, but do want high quality photos and high quality gadgets).
Let’s split CSCs into 3 target markets in terms of styling: those for consumers, those for enthusiasts, and those as DSLR substitutes.
- Cameras as DSLR substitutes:, Panasonic G5 or GH2, Samsung NX20
- Cameras for enthusiasts: Fuji X Pro-1, Olympus OM-D or EP 3, Panasonic GX1, Samsung NX210, Sony NEX 7
- Cameras for consumers: Canon EOS-M, Nikon J1 or V1, Olympus EP-M 1 or EP-L 3, Panasonic GF5, Samsung NX1000, Sony NEX F3 or 5N
The DSLR-style cameras’ looks can be explained by the paragraph about actual DSLRs. They’re not really what this article is about.
The enthusiast cameras and the cameras for consumers fall into 3 categories of styling.
- Point & Shoot
The P&S styled cameras are designed to look as much like a standard P&S as possible in order to seem non-intimidating. (Think Canon EOS-M, Nikon J1, Olympus EP-M 1, and Panasonic GF5 etc.). It’s these cameras that I’m going to discuss in the most detail later in the article.
The retro styled cameras (OM-D and EP 3, and X Pro-1) hark back to the days of film cameras and draw upon nostalgia, or a desire for more manual controls in a small body, in order to attract enthusiasts. These aren’t aimed at the P&S up-grader, but more the dedicated amateur photographer. The retro styled cameras are unlikely to appeal to a wide enough demographic to be successful as status symbols for the general public.
The modern styled cameras are those which are designed to look distinct from P&S cameras and DSLRs. The clearest example of this kind of style is the Sony NEX line, but the Nikon V1 and Samsung NX210 also share this style-type to a lesser extent. They are also likely to appeal to a wider audience than the retro cameras.
The latter 2 types of styling reflect clear design philosophies of cameras that are distinct from cheap Point & Shoots, but the P&S type cameras are suffering a bit of an identity crisis. Here’s the current situation: Companies want their entry-level CSCs to seem familiar to P&S owners who might upgrade (gadget lovers) but don’t want a big and complicated DSLR. Hence they make their CSCs look as much like the cheap P&S cameras with which they’re familiar.
The problem with making your high-end products look like your low-end products is that it’s hard for consumers to differentiate them. All the specs will look similar, the only differences will be sensor size and the ability to change lenses. People are generally unaware of the importance of the first of these, the second of which is not always seen as a benefit.
The Canon EOS-M is the camera that sparked the idea for this article. The reason for that was when I first saw the camera I was struck by how much it resembled their Powershot compact cameras. (Seriously, go and have a look at their current range.)
This is going to lead to conversations like the following…
Customer: So why should I buy this when it’s £500 more expensive than this SX260?
Assistant: Well it has a much larger sensor and you can change lenses.
Customer: I can’t fit that in my pocket! And what do you mean I have to change lenses? The SX260 has a 20x zoom lens!
Okay, maybe that wasn’t the best bit of dialogue you ever read. Take the point though, it’s hard to sell something (even if it’s superior in every way to its rival) if it doesn’t manifest its superiority visually and ergonomically.
I’ve talked a lot before about good ergonomics and the importance of a quality feel (especially about shortcomings in those areas for the Nikon 1 cameras). However, looks are also part of the equation.
When Apple design a product, they use a quality design to make it desirable. I would say almost nobody bought an ipad because they needed one, they bought one because they were seduced by the object itself.
Camera companies have been really bad at achieving the same aim. They usually scatter buttons and wheels seemingly at random, use the cheapest materials they can find, make their new products look just like their old ones (and everyone else’s too), etc. etc. etc.
The only exceptions I can think of to this trend are the retro cameras, which have created lots of gear lust, but only from a small base of enthusiasts.
Canon (and the other manufacturers) have had a great opportunity to create new and bold designs to make their CSCs stand out to consumers. The trouble is they keep aiming low instead of high, falling back on the familiar without realizing that people want their gadgets to feel special.
I know it’s lazy to keep banging on about Apple, but consider how their aluminum unibody designs made laptops cool, or their simple clean design made the ipod the only mp3 player. No camera company has gone down this route, and that’s amazing because premium is where the profit is. Premium in large volume, a la Apple, is where the mega profits are.
Hint to the manufacturers: Casual users will pay premium prices if you can make the product desirable enough.
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