It sure looks like Samsung is winding down their camera sales everywhere in Europe. I suspect we are next. Does it even matter?

Disclaimer: I was part of the Samsung Imagelogger program until the Fall of 2014 when I decided to concentrate only on shooting cameras that I liked enough to spend my own money on. As part of the program Samsung sent me cameras and lenses to shoot with. I worked with the NX300, the NX30 and the Galaxy NX before resigning. I have had no connection with, or affiliation with, Samsung or their P.R. agency since that time. We parted ways on good terms and I have good feelings about the U.S. Public Relations company that represents the Samsung camera division in the U.S. 

It's strange to see a company start to fold up its tent in a product category and begin to decamp. Especially a company that is relatively new to a market, as Samsung was to the middle and upper end of the camera market. Their products were not on my radar prior to the introduction of the NX300 camera. I was contacted by their agency and offered that camera and the kit zoom lens they offered with it. In exchange, they asked me to shoot with it and post a couple of photographs to their social media site once a week, if possible. 

When they came out with the Galaxy NX camera, the mirrorless interchangeable lens model sporting an EVF and a bunch of connectivity options, they sent me that camera and also offered to send me to Berlin to shoot it and to attend the IFA show and the launch of the Samsung smart watches and tablets. Along with the kit zoom lens I also was loaned the 85mm f1.4 (killer lens) and the 60mm macro lens (the one I liked the most in their entire collection). I always considered the Galaxy camera a work in progress and I was probably not the right candidate to embrace a highly connected camera. It was one of the first cameras to run a full on Android operating system and that came with its own issues. Initially, the start up times for the camera were very long (nearly 30 seconds) and the camera did shut down sometimes in the middle of shooting.  The flip side is that the camera had bluetooth, wi-fi capability and cell network capability, along with being able to use most Android apps. Even Candy Crush. 

The major selling point of the camera was the ability to stay connected anywhere. It may have been a journalist's dream in that regard as an editorial shooter could deliver images, while shooting, anywhere in the world that there was a cellphone connection. But the miscalculation by Samsung was that this interconnection capability was enough to balance out the less than stellar AF and operating issues of the camera as a camera. Another fault, and one I mentioned in articles I wrote here, was the mediocre quality of the EVF. I must say though, if you were a shooter who liked to shoot tethered to a large TV screen, or if you are part of the new contingent of photographers who actually likes to compose and shoot using a rear screen instead of a viewfinder, this was a camera that did those things like very few others. I mean really; it had a five inch screen on the back and the quality of that screen was pretty darn good. 

But for a traditionalist who just wanted to turn on the camera and shoot it just didn't make the grade. The huge rear screen and always on Android system running in the background sucked hard on the battery, and even though it was a huge battery my shooting style meant having two to shoot with minimum. 

I'd heard of the NX1 long before I left the program but it kept being delayed and I was too busy to learn yet another menu system and start building yet another lens system so that is when I left the program. I will admit that I was a bit jealous as some of my former fellow Imagelogger members started getting their NX1's and little collections of very good zoom lenses to accompany them. 

It seemed as though the company learned a great deal from cameras like their Galaxy NX and were determined to make their mark in the camera world. But like the previous camera (the Galaxy) it seemed that the delivered camera was a work in progress and would become only a good, reliable shooter after a series of big and complex firmware upgrades. I considered it a number of times when considering new video solutions but always, in the end, the new h.265 codec stopped me from investing. 

Now we've seen a cascade of announcements over the last month telling first Germans, then the Dutch and now the Brits that all the Samsung cameras are being discontinued in their respective countries. The latest post from DP Review seems to me to imply that all of Europe will soon be eliminated as a market for that company's cameras. A far cry from their commitment to become one of the "big three" camera companies in the world. 

How did everything come apart for them? I can sum it up quickly. The previous products and their shortcomings sunk the NX1 before it was even launched. The heavy handed "Ditch the DSLR" campaign sent a condescending and easily refutable message to knowledgeable current camera owners and their focus on distribution through big box stores instead of supporting specialty dealers too were also causes. But I'll be honest and say that I never expected a wholesale surrender. 

I presumed that Samsung was closing in on understanding a successful mix of features and operational "must haves" and would iterate a less expensive, streamlined and highly functional NX2, push some more lens options into play and begin to get some real, broad market traction. Their biggest marketing error was to emphasis non-photographic features like connectivity before they had convincingly hammered home their quality imaging proposition. If, instead of selling a camera style (mirrorless), they had focused on creating a brand image of a highly capable photographic creation tool, they would have (in my estimation) had much more success. 

If they had put the NX1 and the 85mm 1.8 lens into the hands a gifted fashion photographer and used his or her images in ads that extolled the quality of the artistic tools and how well they worked to realize a vision they would have moved the conversation from the novelty of sending your picture to grandma to making photographs you could eventually send to paying clients and publications. 

The "Ditch the DSLR" campaign that ran here felt more like condescension and scolding to me and less like suggesting some rational course in camera buying. If you already had selected a DSLR such as a Canon 5D3 or a Nikon D750 it's pretty likely you did not do so in a vacuum of information. You likely weighed all of the options and were also happy with the style of camera you selected. You would need to be unsatisfied with your initial purchase to even consider "ditching" it and starting over again, with all the attendant costs and learning curve. 

Had the NX1 launched with a codec similar to the one used in the Panasonic GH4 many videographers who chose to sit on the sidelines and watch would have been gleeful about the video qualities of the NX1 and rushed to buy it. The choice of the new, unwieldy codec was in large part the mortal wound on this camera amongst movie makers. And the sad thing is how easily this could have been avoided if the company had listened to end users instead of engineers. But this is ever the issue with technology companies that are not marketing companies. How else to explain that they can make great sensors, some of the industry's fastest processors and their own line of screens but can't make a dent in Apple's dominance in the cellphone market where Apple continues to earn the vast majority of all profits (irrespective of market share) in that industry? The simple truth is that Samsung's marketing, and their reading of affluent markets, continues to suck hard. 

In my estimation, the writing on the wall for their camera division is pretty clear. They are selling through inventory, country by country and then shuttering their camera operations. In the U.S., if inventory is there, they'll wait until after the holidays to make their announcement. Once the north American market shutters they'll dump the remaining stocks in east Asia and, I guess, call it a day. 

I'm sad about this because they finally got a bunch of stuff right on the NX1 and what they mis-read they could easily remedy in the next one or two generations. On the other hand, if I were running a division for a worldwide company and I could see that we'd been selling into a bubble that was now bursting I'd be running for cover as well. There is such a thing as opportunity cost everywhere. The more cash they poured into a declining camera market the less cash (and bandwidth) they have available to drop into other markets. 

We jaded photographers take companies like Nikon and Canon to task for what we perceive as flaws in their marketing strategies but it's clear to see that the bedrock of their marketing is not aimed at showing the features of a product but showing their products as solutions to make better images. And to do this they put their cameras in the hands of the very best people out there and use the images wisely. And everywhere. You can't market a camera in the same way you market a large screen TV our a washer and dryer and expect to reach the hearts, and then the wallets, of passionate hobbyists. And in this regard "passionate hobbyists" also includes nearly every working pro. We buy the promise, not so much the cogs under the hood.

Will Samsung's exit make a difference one way or another in the camera market? I can only speak to the north American market and I'll say that at most it will be a tiny ripple. They aimed most of their efforts not at the most engaged in our hobby but those who most likely price shopped and were impressed by lists of features and performance metrics which really had little to do with the emotional process of making photographs. I will miss the two lenses I spoke about. They were very, very good. Just as Nikon had a good run of letting an Italian company design their most successful camera bodies Samsung should have left all the branding decisions and creative decisions about feature lists to an objective and talented partner. I can feel it in my bones. This will be a division that was killed by its engineering department and product managers, not by lethal lapses in the products themselves. 

The two images here are among my favorites from the entire year of shooting in 2013. I did them with a camera that fought back and the two wonderful optics supplied with it. Because of that I will always remember the system as one with great promise. 

Finally, given the complexities of the camera market and the sheer amount of capital investment it takes to start a camera company from scratch I think the real tragedy here is that this may be the last attempt by anyone to start a single use camera company from scratch. We may have niche product makers like Go-Pro and DXO come in and out of the markets but we may never see a new contender for the higher end of the conventional camera market again--- and that's a bit sad to me.

A final note. It will be one of the ironies that surfaces every once in a while if the NX1, after it's discontinuation, becomes a cult video production tool. Coveted for video features that were good and a codec that may just have been too far ahead of its time......


Michael Reed said...

Samsung is a huge company with their finger in lots of pies. I was very surprised when they entered the market go head to head with the established companies, especially since they didn't have an established camera and optical group in house. But they definitely bungled and misjudged the camera market. One, it takes a huge capital investment to go from zero (and they definitely started at zero) to a competitive camera. Two, definitely need real camera experience if going against well established camera companies like Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Fuji, Panasonic, Sony etc. especially if going for the upper end of the camera market. and Three, the market is rapidly shrinking. And four, without real Photography brand recognition, entering a shrinking market at the upper end is just bad judgement. and 5, Kirk, I agree that android and camera really don't mix.

Samsung's best bet to get into the camera business was to buy an established camera company. but considering that most camera companies are Japanese, and not available to buy, this was not an option. And those that they could possibly buy (Hasselblad) have serious issues and would be financial black hole to acquire.

Jim Waite said...

Kirk, Have you seen this, Light L16 Camera, www.light.co/camera ?

theaterculture said...

I would say that the story of how Samsung is floundering in the camera market can be seen inverted in the story of how Panasonic has managed to stay afloat even while the tide is going out under everyone. Part of that was down to smart strategic moves, and part of it was probably down to the luck of being the right company at the right time.

On the smart strategic moves, from the beginning of its foray into interchangeable lens cameras Panasonic joined into an arms-length partnership with Olympus on the 4/3 standard and got directly involved with Leica in a manufacturing and design exchange. This had so many benefits - they weren't the only company trying to launch an entirely new mount ecosystem, they shared some r&d costs and had better economies of scale for many components (for several years all 4/3 dslrs were using the same Panasonic sensors), and they got the sheen of proximity to two companies with long-established reputations for optical excellence and loyal, if not huge, user bases.

On the right place, right time front, the hybrid imaging revolution was something Panasonic was always going to be well placed to do well in. When I was in film school, from 1998-2002, the "prosumer" 3-chip cameras that everybody was buying, renting, and using were almost universally from Canon (XL/GL lines) or Panasonic (who had sort of an alphabet soup going), and the company had a division that was accustomed to delivering into this sector. They handled it pretty well, overall, finding a nice mix of the novel and the familiar in terms of things like codecs and bit-rates that allowed cameras like the GH2 to play on the fringes of serious production without being out of reach of a lot of the punters approaching video without being fully convinced that it was for them.

I did wonder, when they first launched NX, if Samsung wouldn't have been better of either joining the m4/3 consortium or licensing the Nikon mount the way Fuji did with its first dslrs. Imagine if they had leapt-in with an EVF-enabled camera that shot amazing video and worked with all your Nikon lenses! But maybe in the current landscape such partnerships weren't available to make?

Kirk Tuck said...

Theaterculture. A nice bit of insight. Thanks for sharing!

Andrea said...

Interesting article, but you have a point wrong:
"But can't make a dent in Apple's dominance in the cellphone market where Apple continues to earn the vast majority of all profits (irrespective of market share) in that industry?"

This is how IDC reported the world smartphone vendor market share in sold units:
2012q2 Samsung 32,2% Apple 16,16%
2013q2 Samsung 31,9% Apple 12,9%
2014q2 Samsung 24,8% Apple 11,6%
2015q2 Samsung 21,4% Apple 13,9%

But, regardless of all this, the talk about their cameras is spot on.

Kirk Tuck said...

Andrea, as I mentioned, I was not stating dominance of market share but of profitability. According to Fortune Apple accrues over 90% of the profits in the cellphone markets worldwide. Profits. Not market share!