innovation in cameras is highly overrated.

Innovation certainly drives commerce. Photographers who were once happy to change cameras every five to ten years have been trained, like monkeys hitting a treat bar and getting a piece of fruit, to upgrade to a new and different camera every time their favorite manufacturer rings the bell (or, advertises a new and improved camera model). 

But it's important to know that not all innovation is net positive for the consumer. I went to buy a phone recently and looked at the various iPhone models. The newest ones seem huge compared to the previous models. The 6S is bigger than the 5S and "features" the rounded corners and gently beveled case that every other current phone from every cellphone maker "features." You could suggest that a bigger phone is an "innovation" but I think we all know it's just a choice. Bigger screen or smaller screen. Bigger phone or smaller phone. Nothing innovative there. It's just the new "plus" sizing for people who need a bit of room....

The innovation that the previous iPhones brought to the table (in addition to their highly capable software features) was a beautiful design that allowed the phone to do just about everything normal people wanted to do with a phone but also allowed the phone to fit in the pocket of one's jeans. Even one's tight jeans. The iPhones before the iPhone 5S did that trick even more gracefully. Their innovation was to use design to decomplicate a product and at the same time make it more transparent to the user in daily life.... 

All the phones can display e-mail and texts and all of them can field telephone calls. An innovation would be an invisible phone, or one that you could buy once and use forever with no additional fees. An innovation would be changing to a power supply that never needed charging. Or was bulletproof.
Having a slightly bigger screen or being able to play Candy Crush a bit faster could be counted as an "improvement" but not an innovation. 

In the world of cameras I don't see size differentials as profound innovations. Cameras can be larger or smaller and still take great photographs. The size difference might signify convenience to one part of the market (small enough to fit in a woman's purse of a "man bag", larger to supply good ergonomics for handholding with bigger, heavier lenses).  We can put a big chip in a small body, a la the Sony RX1 and we can put a small chip in a big body a la the Panasonic FZ 1000 or the Panasonic GX8. Other attributes will define whether or not the camera is an innovation. In the case of the Sony RX1, for example, it might be the tight integration of the sensor and the permanently mounted lens---but that really just strikes me as a performance enhancement....

I started thinking about this because I've been reading articles and blogs which continually denigrate Canon for not "innovating" over the past five years, in the field of digital cameras. (Keep in mind that Canon sells more single use, digital cameras than any of their competitors). The writers, and their respondents, continually blame Canon's sales decline of cameras to their lack of innovation. 

When I dig a little deeper I see that what they mean by innovation can be shortlisted down to three main concerns. First, for whatever reason, they want Canon to take the mirrors out of their cameras. There is a pervasive idea that mirrorless cameras are something for makers of cameras to aspire to. I have long been an adherent of electronic viewfinders in cameras but I've never cared whether it is a result of removing the mirrors or not. Sony did a decent job of incorporating EVFs into all the late models of their Alpha cameras with no major problems. It is not required, technically, for Nikon and Canon to remove mirrors from their cameras in order to implement EVFs, although I presume it would make the process both easier and less expensive.  At any rate, the pundits want those mirrors gone. 

Next, they want everyone to use the same metrics for measuring the value of the sensors in the cameras. The litmus test is the Sony A7R2 or the Nikon D810. Match them for the performance metrics those sensor excel in or meet with withering criticism and derision. It may be that the advanced Canon products have metrics at which they excel but the crowd consensus is ready to discount those attributes pretty quickly. It may be that Canon's color rendering is better. It may be that Canon sensors outperform the Sony sensors for dynamic range at higher ISOs (where it might even be more meaningful for image quality improvements) but none of that matter as long as "innovation" is uniform and lockstep. 

Finally, the third category is size&weight. The idea being that all smaller cameras are better than bigger cameras, all things being otherwise equal. Given that I have friends who are almost seven feet all and who can palm two basketballs in one hand, and I have friends who are tiny and whose faces are mostly hidden behind an Olympus OMD with a battery grip attached, I think I would have to say that there is no overwhelming advantage to any particular sized cameras in the aggregated market. 

Then there are those of us who are effectively size neutral and who can be comfortable with a super-dinky EM5 but also be right at home with a Nikon D810 or D4s. 

While it is true that Canon and Nikon have spent the last five years iterating their cameras lines instead of making ground shaking innovations I see the subtle but real improvements from camera to camera as being just as valuable as silly things like camera body shrinkage (less for your money?) and a fixation with odd stuff like ultra high electronic shutter speeds, ultra high frame rates, etc. 

As consumers I think we should rejoice and applaud a lack of useless innovations by good camera makers because in some small way it helps to trim down our voracious appetite for a constant flow of new and improved stuff. 

I would much rather have Nikon, for example, fix the focusing issues of the D7000 in the later models (the D7100 and D7200) than add stuff like twenty stop bracketing to the new cameras, instead. I would much rather have Canon improve the sensor in their line of Rebel cameras than improve the ability of the cameras to do more things like internal HDR, improved GPS (surely you can remember where you went on vacation last month without having to research it in your cameras.....right?). 

I applaud Nikon and Canon for continuing to make workable tools that actually fit into adult hands. I'm not sure I want them to innovate themselves into a limited product offering of mini-cameras with nothing but cheesy and annoying rear screens for composition. 

There are some camera attributes that don't need re-thinking: size, handling and ergonomics are some of them. I would much rather have the same body style year after year with nothing more to look forward to than better sensors and better movie codecs.

Have you noticed that the steering wheels in cars haven't changed much in the last twenty years. If you measure them across different models you'd find an amazing relative consistency in circumference. And position. And design (circular). No joystick versions from movies about the future. And there is a reason for this..... They found a design that works across a huge demographic. People have been acculturated to understand how to use them. The design of the steering wheel is always expected by drivers. Just so with cameras. Body sizes and styles are a reflection of 60+ years of designing and researching handheld cameras. 

If you want to demand real innovation then let's start thinking of really cool stuff we'd actually want or need on a camera. How about an atmospherically neutrally buoyant cameras and lens that floats along in the air with you instead of weighing down your shoulder. How about a sensor that tracks where your eye is looking and focuses on that point for you? Oh, wait, Canon designed and introduced that in the 1980's....

How about unifying the raw file format among all camera makers so you don't have to wait for Adobe to reverse engineer hundreds of different cameras codes every year? Just imagine, you buy a brand new camera and go right out and shoot raw files without having to default to some camera maker's 1970's version of a raw converter for post production.  Innovation? How about a sensor module that could be easily traded out for a yearly, or every other year, quality enhancement of the camera you already know and enjoy using? A $400 update to a better sensor while running the same camera control firmware you know and love. And the same lenses, and flashes, and batteries...

And an innovation for Olympus users? How about a menu that makes sense to the rest of the world?

Was it an innovation a year and a half ago when Pentax put a row of LED lights down the front of their consumer level DSLR? Disco lights on a camera? No one else had done it. No, not innovation --just senseless bling and quicker battery drain. 

We'd love to place blame for the decline of the overall, single use camera market at the feet of Nikon and Canon and accuse them of killing off the craft by not innovating appropriately and quickly enough but the reality is that the market shrunk because photography got (apparently) easier and no longer very challenging. Everyone's ability became special, all at the same time. 

The call for innovation in cameras is silly. How often does the hammer get redesigned? Or the screwdriver blade? Or the basic elements of a refrigerator? Or the driving controls of a car? Why should cameras have to answer to a higher standard? Isn't it enough to continue improving them year after year.? Isn't it a benefit to be able to spend time getting up to speed on the device?

The one major product sector that changes with every season is fashion clothing. Surely we aren't ready to admit that we only buy new cameras because of the addiction to ever changing product styles... 

What do you really want in a single use camera? The ability to continue using the lenses you like. A straightforward interface. Good performance. Good handling. And like the porridge that Goldilocks was shamelessly stealing, they should be not too big. Not too small. But just right. 

There. I think we covered it. 


  1. Kirk- been at this photograph thing for over 70 years . Done fine art, PR, PJ teaching the whole bit. Along the way got P h D in Math. Had a studio Been there done it! Nikon, Olymus, Leice film and digital Nikon, panasonic and Olympus digital. The best so far- the Olympus with it's math like menus. Works for me YMMV

  2. Hi Richard, My trajectory follows yours to a large extent. I can only brag about 35 years in the trenches and no PhD in math. It may be that I am not bright enough to truly understand the logical beauty of the Olympus menus. My cross to bear. But I will say that just about every other camera menu (except Samsung) that I've picked up made perfect sense to me...

    My mileage varies because I drive like hell...

  3. Hi Kirk, I completely agree with you.
    I'm an Olympus user, and as such I'm used to their menu and don't dislike it, but I've used the brand for years. I still prefer it to Fuji...but that's me.
    What I think is great about Canikon is that they, as you mentioned already, have consistency in the user interface. That's my gripe with Olympus: surely, after so many decades making camera bodies, they should have found an ideal placement of buttons and switches! Then why in the world do they keep on changing the position of buttons and switches with every new OM-D iteration? It drives me mad!! I'm not a pro, photography is a passion. I have an E-M1 and love it, and I'm used to the button/switch placement now. I'm thinking of getting a second OM-D body to use along the one I have but I'm really hesitant: I'd like an OM-D10 mII, or an E-M5 mII, but why in hell are they so different in ergonomics? I understand the top plate has to be slightly different, being smaller, but the rear? C'mon!! I can't stop and think which camera is in my hand when I take pictures, it has to be out of my way and allow my muscle memory to work on both bodies!
    Mmhh, that sounded more like a rant than my two cents, but I think this is one of the really annoying things about wanting to "innovate" continuosly...

  4. is it that innovation is overrated, or that we've confused iteration with innovation?

    I'd argue that when it comes to photography (perhaps art in general), real game changing innovation is still valuable, but t's hard, and generally falls into one of two buckets (perhaps there're more categories, but I can't think of any at the moment):
    - Does the innovation advance the photographer's ability to tell the story that she is trying to tell or to communicate the idea that she is trying to tell/communicate?
    - Does it enable the telling of stories or communication of ideas that otherwise couldn't have (or hadn't) been told or communicated?

    The most recent innovations in photography have come from the combination of camera ubiquity, processing power, cloud storage, reasonably affordable-to-free connectivity, and software development. Photography (delivered via various social networks and mobile messaging) is now central to how large sections of the population in developed countries communicate. It's an innovation that has taken hold so fast that it would have been unthinkable even in 2000.

    That is real innovation to me. It's just that it's an innovation that had nothing to do with traditional photography companies and, by and large, traditional photographers.

  5. I would welcome the ability to fully configure the menus and the function buttons on my PC (or Mac). Choose what menu items you want/need, choose their order, choose the menu tree structure, all by ticking boxes and drag and drop. Even choose the colours, why not? When you've finished, download to the camera.

    Everyone could have the menus as simple or as complicated as they liked. And all it needs is someone at the camera makers who understands software. Oh, wait ...

  6. Right on, Kirk. You have described why I love taking out the FM2 and FM3A: I know them, they get out of the way, and they are absolutely the right size. Improvements in the Nikon DSLRs are welcome. I'll wait to trade mine in until there's an improvement I really need. Just don't take away the mirrors and the OVF, and keep the controls where I know they are.

  7. I'll know that what I consider real innovation has happened when I can sync flash heads and speedlights with my Nikons at shutter speeds up to around 1/2000th of a second without taking a performance hit.

    ...and I'm not talking about having to switch a speedlight into "High Speed Sync" mode.

  8. Common sense - as usual - Kirk. Completely agree, and am happy to see a little love for Canon. Most articles on the net give the impression that the company is being run by Darth Vader....

  9. ....isn't Adobes DNG the one raw format for everyone.....? Glad they have it, none the less.... I can convert (new) raw formats not recognized by Lightroom 4 to DNG and edit without any issues.....without having to upgrade to the newer, more stylish version(s) of Lightroom....

  10. The iPhone 6S features 4K video which I've already found useful for cropping. I have the Plus model which is large but has replaced my iPad. For the first time, I can edit comfortably in Snapseed. The 6S is also significantly faster. If you limit your usage to the most basic tasks, by all means stick with the 5S and enjoy the form factor but the 6S represents a real improvement (including optical image stabilization and better low light performance). In case anyone is wondering, my main camera is a D750.

  11. Are you listening, Olympus?

    I blame marketing forces for useless innovation.

  12. Being someone who almost never reads the manual I really like cameras that just work like cameras should. No funny stuff and fancy doohickies, all regular adjustment dials and buttons right where I would expect them to be or I don't bother using it. Menus suck. Who has time to browse around five separate screen pages just to fix the iso?

    I figured out a long time ago which lenses fit what I like to photograph and I already have them. No room for improvement there either.

    If I do spend money it will probably be on a light modifier of some kind or the other, like the 60" reflective brolley I picked up the other day that gives the most gorgeous soft wrap around light you could hope for.

    I am the camera manufacturers biggest nightmare, a photographer who prefers to shoot rather than spend.

  13. My recollection of real innovation was the introduction of a high quality CMOS sensor from Canon in 2000 -- it took 5 or 6 years before anyone else was competitive with sensors of that type. Also, the first camera I bought had an EVF and a 10X zoom lens (from Olympus) in 2000. There have been substantial advances in those features of course, but I don't view every technology improvement as true innovation. Am I grateful for the improvements? -- Sure.

  14. One funny thing about cameras is that they have a role in normal social interaction, as well as outdoors hobby and pro, as well as indoors / at home hobby and pro. The social interaction role means that the camera is subject to evolutionary pressures around how social interaction evolves. I think this has driven a lot of innovation in cameras in recent times, and this will continue to happen.

  15. In film days, a landmark camera is the Nikon F. It was in production for about 14 years. Even after production ended, Nikon F cameras continued to be used for decades, they are that good. The following Nikons (2, 3) didn't have as long a production run (5+ years), but much longer than the current DSLRs. In the 60s through the 70s, SLR bodies were mechanical marvels. With product cycles like this, GAS tended to focus on lenses, film, and accessories.

    so you have a body (with very little electronics - TTL), manual lenses, and film.

    improvements in the mechanics and lenses were very slow but steady. The majority of the excitement was the introduction of new films from Kodak, Fuji, etc.

    Favorite film could be used in any camera body, so the emphasis was one’s film of choice and lens.

    to me the next landmark camera is the Minolta Maxxum with autofocus. and this is the time frame where electronics start to take over.

    and now the biggest change in photography was the replacement of film with sensors and pretty much an all electronic camera. and here the pace of change just skyrocketed. electronics tends to follow moores law which boils down to rapid increase in performance followed by rapid price drops. In the last 10+ years, we got so use to significant changes in performance every 6 to a 12 months, that GAS became a problem.

    And the biggest downside, in order to get the latest and greatest sensor required investing in a completely new camera body since sensor were not camera independent like film.

    and now we are at a point where current cameras have reached a point where more doesn't necessarily mean better. cell phone cameras are good enough and very handy. DSLRs (and mirrorless) are going back to the niche of the past: advanced amateurs and professional photographers.

    A few items I want in a camera: EVF, autofocus, image stabilization. What I don’t need are things like art filters, super internet connectivity, and similar frills.

  16. Most innovation in photography lately has frankly come from outside the traditional camera industry. Instead it's come from software companies like Google and Facebook. Hardware companies like Samsung (cellular division) and Apple. Bay area startups like GoPro and Lytro. Social media more than anything else changed how we do photography; and it's still an area where the traditional cameras haven't caught up (I still haven't heard of a camera's wifi interface that isn't absolutely dismal).

    Cameras have become consumer electronics gadgets that agglutinate more and more features, but that really shouldn't be confused with innovation. What's the last thing that was added or changed in a camera that really fundamentally changes the way photography is done? Feature creep isn't innovative even when they try to tell you it is. Every camera made in the past 200 years pretty much operates on the same principles, produces mostly the same kinds of images, with various amenities to making the desired end result easier to achieve, but I don't think they're truly innovative anymore. They've gotten past that point. Almost any photograph you can take now could still have been taken when film SLRs were at their peak, and most could have been taken with even older and simpler tech. We can say pretty much anything we want with any of the cameras that are out there now (though some cameras might be better suited to some visions than others).

  17. People who complain about Canon's lack of innovation are ignoring their move into cinema where they have gone from zero to a full line of cameras and lenses in a short time.

    My view is that most amateurs like me are limited by our skills rather than by our hardware.

  18. I guess I'm a Luddite. I bought my D700 because a) it's Nikon and I have a trunk load of Nikon lenses b) it did everything I wanted/needed in a digital camera. I have no interest in spending time, money or effort in either researching or testing the latest cameras. My D700 still does everything I want and need from a DSLR. My wants and needs are not shaped by marketing, they are shaped by my clients and artistic vision. When my D700 packs it in, then and only then will I spend time seeing what Nikon has to offer me.

  19. Eric, don't tell me you also never got a cellphone because your CB radio does everything you need. The 8 track plays just fine too. Who needs Windows when you have MS-DOS?

  20. Kirk is, once again, absolutely wrong. We should embrace every move forward by every camera maker. Otherwise we'll have no reason to upgrade.

  21. I'm pretty much there with you, Kirk.

    The camera has reached what a marketing guy I knew long ago called "black telephone" stage. Remember the old bakelite black telephones ATT used to rent to every household? It was perfect. It did its job perfectly. Sure, they could have fiddled with this and that and made changes for the heck of it, but basically there was no need to. It make and received phone calls, it was comfortable, it was perfect. As a product, it was "done".

    Then various upheavals occurred, the world changed, and the black telephone became irrelevant, and that's history, that's business.

    The camera pretty much reached that point by the 1970s or 1980s. The Nikon Fs and FEs were pretty much there, and I assume the competitors were as well. Perfect devices, hitting a couple of different markets. Then along came digital and social and the internet and everything changed, and there was great upheaval and millions of angry blog posts.

    And now we're kind of back there. The Nikon D3300 is what it it, and as such it pretty much nails it. So is the D4. It's a different thing than the D3300, but it nails being itself pretty much perfectly. There simply isn't much you can do to it to actually make it be better at doing its thing. And so it goes across the product lines and manufacturers. It's an unending sea of black telephones, currently being disrupted by social media, phone cameras, and ubiquitous connectivity.

  22. Ah yes Anonymous my Model T still gets great mileage ;). I can still listen to the oldies with my crystal radio and I'm still old fashioned enough to use my real name. All kidding aside I was talking about cameras, not the rest of my life. I use the latest and greatest cellphone because I need the features it offers for my business. My D700 provides me with all the features I need as well. When it dies I will probably replace it with something like a D750 rather than the D810 as I do not need the massive files nor the post processing overhead. It's a hard lesson to learn, the difference between wants and needs. Generally with maturity people figure it out.

  23. My favourite innovation in modern cameras is one that has often been most frequently derided by the old guard, and that is touch screens. A touch-screen for direct focus point selection brings the same magical transparency to usability that the iPhone brought the the mobile phone interface, and to me, it makes everything that came prior feel just as antiquated.

    My particular favourite implementation of the touchscreen has got to be Panasonic, who even allow you to use the touchscreen when your eye is to the EVF, allowing you to either scrub the focus point like a trackpad, or position it absolutely with the touch of a finger. No need to train your muscle memory and hand eye coordination through the coordinated motion of two opposed command dials or a joystick for focus selection anymore.

    Not to mention the touchscreen is also so wonderful for use with legacy manual focus lenses, allowing you to instantaneously magnify (with picture-in-picture!) the precise focus point anywhere in your frame and adjust and confirm your focal plane with focus peaking, all without having to recompose or take your eye from the viewfinder.

    It's one of those technologies that simply removes friction from the photo taking process. The definition of innovation, in my opinion, not for the technology, but for what it lets you do in the real world.

  24. One of the more talented photographers I know personally, is still sticking with his piece of ---- Nikon D70 (Oh look at the size of that LCD! Isn't it tiny!) and the 14-16" prints from it look fine. Me? Every couple of years, I get the new camera bug. Sometimes I see an eBay deal I can't pass on.

  25. "It is not required, technically, for Nikon and Canon to remove mirrors from their cameras in order to implement EVFs, although I presume it would make the process both easier and less expensive."


    The reason for having a mirror is to reflect an optical image from the lens, up upon the prism then to the viewfinder. The EVF displays the image as it will be captured, transmitted electronically to it by the sensor. So, if you implement an EFV, there is simply no need to retain the mirror...

  26. A very good article. As for the Canons, I think having good colors (which they have) without to much PP is worth more to the average photographer than what their sensors may lack in other areas.

  27. I like your idea of upgradable internals. A lot. Red and Sony have upgrade paths. Why not Canon/Nikon, especially for their flagship bodies?


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