Camera Tech

The brilliant podcast "99% Invisible" recently took a look at the future of the automated car and the two schools of thought behind the development of self-driving vehicles. Self-driving cars are what’s called a disruptive technology. That’s the term for anything that comes along and radically changes how we live or work with a new way to approach something. We have cars, we have automation. Put them together, and we have the potential for a vastly different world—one where we hail cars on demand and they drive to us, let us off and then drive away, freeing us from car payments, insurance and parking lots forever.

Myth: Disruptive Innovations = Prevailing Technology’s Demise

One major player in automated cars is Google, and with their full-steam-ahead effort to eliminate drivers from the equation so quickly, the head of the team expects that his preteen son will never need a driver’s license. Meanwhile, the group from Carnegie Mellon University (which has been working on automated cars for 30 years) sees a future where vehicles gradually adopt technologies that assist the driver—such as auto-adjusting cruise control and highway autopilot modes—and that eventually we’ll get to fully automated vehicles.

The same combination of technologies, but two radically different views about how and when they will change our daily lives.

This is a perfect parallel to the professional camera market. This issue, we looked at the cutting-edge Sony a7R II and also evaluated the status of the professional DSLR. Both systems are more powerful today than any camera has been in the history of photography, and they’re both poised to get even more powerful. One thing is clear: Technology is about to change the camera market whether you shoot with mirrorless or a pro DSLR.

The main mirrorless manufacturers—Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony—traditionally have had a fraction of the users that Canon and Nikon have, which gives them some interesting advantages right now. Because they lacked big groups of established professionals—with big inventories of expensive lenses—there were fewer customers to complain about having to buy all new equipment when their mirrorless systems launched.

The relative technological immaturity of the mirrorless camera has allowed manufacturers to release a stream of new models that offer powerful updates over their previous versions, while DSLRs are seeing smaller (but still significant) improvements each iteration. This makes the mirrorless world look as exciting as the digital camera world did when DSLRs were first new on the scene.

Meanwhile, though, Canon and Nikon don’t need to capitulate to customer requests for mirrorless camera systems until the moment that mirrorless technology exceeds the performance of their own DSLR systems. That could be tomorrow or it could be five years from now—that date largely depends on how fast the mirrorless companies advance their systems and how well Canon and Nikon evolve their current offerings.

In many ways, it makes more sense for Canon and Nikon to try to widen the gap between themselves and the mirrorless systems, and make their competitors play catchup because their current expertise is in DSLRs, and these cameras still offer a huge array of benefits. If Canon and Nikon can keep pushing ahead and creating DSLR systems that are more powerful than mirrorless cameras, they maintain their current customer base without needing to disrupt their own technology. And, presumably, when their own professional mirrorless offerings are ready, they will be able to bring them to market rapidly and pull their current customers along.

So here’s where we stand: We have a disruptive technology challenging the current market in much the same way that digital challenged film photography. All of the players in the camera market are feeling additional pressure to create advanced systems with features that woo customers away from the competitors.

The result is a market that’s great for the photographer and one in which we’re going to see some massive change very quickly. The question is simply: How much change, and how fast? Personally, I think that cameras will see radical advances brought on by changes in technology, with the result being incredible new technologies in the hands of consumers in a very short period of time.

You can follow David Schloss on Twitter or Instagram @davidjschloss

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