Friday night topic: The coming doom of Canon and Nikon?


— 5:00 PM on December 5, 2014

I have been very satisfied with the progression of digital camera technology over the years, and its development has allowed us to produce some very nice visuals in our reviews here at TR.  I've dutifully upgraded my DSLR every so often and enjoyed better results each time.

However, I have become increasingly convinced in recent years that the traditional camera heavyweights, especially Nikon and Canon, are facing a major problem. Smartphone cameras have already taken away the point-and-shoot market, and they keep getting better. Now, there are some obvious physical and optical barriers that prevent the miniaturized cameras in phones from reaching the heights that "prosumer" and professional cameras have, but I'm constantly impressed by how the computational side of photography has made smartphones better than they have any right to be.

Phone cameras now have built-in correction for lens distortion, reasonably effective noise reduction, and bracketed HDR done automatically in software. DSLRs typically require the photographer to apply these things manually, often using an expensive external program from Adobe or the like. That can be tedious and time-consuming in comparison.

The best smartphone cameras focus as quickly as a DSLR. The ridiculously powerful burst mode in recent iPhones is the best insurance I've seen that you get the right shot in a lot of common situations. And it's faster than my DSLR's burst!

The features keep coming as phone makers reap billions in profits and pour that money back into the arms race they're waging against one another. One of the latest additions to high-end phones is slow-motion video capture, something I desperately wish my expensive DSLR would use its ample bandwidth to do for me. Alas.

Meanwhile, smartphones are better at showing your results on their superior displays, better at sharing those results via wireless networking and such, better at manipulating photos and videos after the fact, and—this is a huge one—much easier use thanks to overwhelming superiority in terms of the UI and software. And the camera heavyweights are showing almost no progress on the UI or software fronts.

I'll admit, I tried to pinch-zoom on my Canon the other night in a moment of forgetfulness. What followed was a great sense of doom for a fine company.

Now, I'm not saying professional photography solutions won't have their place going forward. They clearly will, probably always. But if current trends continue, it seems to me like high-end photography gear could get pushed out of the consumer and "prosumer" spaces almost entirely. There are just too many cases where the average Joe can get better, more useful results from a touch-enabled device.

I'm sure Canon and Nikon could survive without much consumer business, but it would be a shame to see them lose a ton of the revenue they use to support R&D. I just don't see how these firms can avoid some intense competitive pain without seriously re-thinking some fundamentals—like perhaps embracing Android and touch and building around the computational side of photography going forward. But Nikon and Canon aren't computer companies, so making that change is likely to be painful, too.

I'm sure there's a camera nerd who's read the words above and is seething right now, so I won't draw this out any further. Either you see my point or don't, I suspect. Discuss!

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