Cameras have good shot at comeback with tech edge

At last month's CP+ Camera and Photo Imaging Show in Yokohama, Japan, I was asked by a few exhibitors about my take on what could help stop the decline in camera sales.

Worldwide shipments of digital cameras last year fell 18.5 per cent from 2014, according to the Camera and Imaging Products Association - the organiser of CP+. In 2014, they fell by 30.9 per cent from 2013.

Those exhibitors wanted to hear from me, in my capacity as someone who has reviewed cameras for over a decade. However, I found myself unable to offer any reasonable or helpful responses immediately. But their questions got me thinking as I visited the various booths at the show.

Photography has been close to my heart since I picked up my first camera at 14. Having honed my craft as a photojournalist for seven years, I really do not want to see the tools of photography die out.

Yes, the DSLR and medium- format cameras are still going to be around for professionals. However, the professional-photographer market is a pretty small one, compared to the overall camera market. Selling DSLR and medium-format cameras alone is not going to be sustainable for camera makers.

A billboard of a photo shot on an iPhone 6. While smartphones are hard to beat on convenience, cameras have the edge in photo quality.
A billboard of a photo shot on an iPhone 6. While smartphones are hard to beat on convenience, cameras have the edge in photo quality. ST PHOTO: TREVOR TAN

Nobody seems to be able to find the magic formula for a camera that will fly off the shelves.

All I know is no camera is going to beat the convenience of the smartphone. And no smartphone is going to beat the image quality of a real camera with great optics.

So camera makers can either start making smartphones, or they can try to create something so special that users will just want to have it. Something that defies logic. Perhaps something like Casio's selfie-oriented Exilim TR series.

These cameras seem to be always sold out and retailers have told me that there are even tourists who have flown to Singapore just to buy the camera. I couldn't even find the latest TR70 when I was in Japan - yes, they were sold out there too.

According to a Nikkei Asia Review report, the roaring popularity of the TR cameras is the main reason why Casio expects its group operating profit for its fiscal year ending this month to hit 50 billion yen (S$604 million).

Other than its fabulous beauty mode that women love, the TR series is easy and fun to use, just like a smartphone. As long as the camera is paired with a smartphone, whatever you shoot will be transferred to it.

In addition, the rise of smart- phones has created a pool of untapped potential photographers. We have seen famed smartphone photographer Aik Beng Chia "upgrade" from his iPhone to a Fujifilm X100T. I have friends who have bought high-quality cameras like the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II after getting hooked on phone photography.

When people become so interested in photography, they will want their pictures to be of the highest quality and good enough for prints that can adorn walls for all to savour.

That is a reason why the marketing geniuses in Apple decided to have huge billboards of photos that are "Shot with iPhone 6" - it's to illustrate that point.

Still, photos shot with the iPhone or any other smartphone cannot compete with those taken with full-frame and medium-format cameras.

It is just pure physics.

It is also an edge that camera makers are unlikely to lose any time soon. So why not focus on making cameras that are easy to use and - more importantly - high on the fun factor?So much so that even smartphone users will want to upgrade.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2016, with the headline 'Cameras have good shot at comeback with tech edge'. Print Edition | Subscribe