Wednesday, January 2, 2013

2012 in Review: Camera Manufacturer Winners and Losers

With the new year 2013 upon us, it's a time that pundits across many industries take a look back at the old year. Myself being a bit of a camera nut (if you haven't figured that out by now!), I decided that there is no better time than now to take a look back at the photographic industry, namely the major manufacturers, than now. So here we go, winners, losers, and those in between for 2012.

Winners: all of these companies are characterized by revolutionary products and/or drastic improvements in their lineups.

1. Canon. Going into 2012, there is no doubt that Canon had been getting beat by Nikon since 2007. Back in 2007, Nikon leapfrogged Canon's offerings with the D3 and D300. In the years since, every time Canon announced something, Nikon came out with something even better a week later. Going into 2012, Canon had already announced a new 1D body, the 18Mp, FF EOS 1Dx. Unfortunately, the 1D Mark III debacle fresh in mind, many photographers were leery of the new camera, especially considering its all-new AF system (which was the problem on the 1D III). This time, though, all was good as the 1Dx hit the market to high acclaim. Adding to this was the new 5D Mark III, which incorporated (finally) a lot of 1D-line features including a vast AF grid, weather-sealing, dual memory card slots, and a much faster continuous drive. With these two cameras alone, Canon finally caught up to Nikon in the high-end camera market, making Canon a winner for 2012.

2. Fujifilm. If there was any one breakout company in 2012, it was Fujifilm. Going into the new year, Fuji already had some hot cameras going, led by the APS-C point and shoot X100, which was, even a year after introduction, still a hard camera for retailers to keep in stock for long. Still, going into CES 2012, no one would have ever expected a smallish company like Fujifilm to steal the show, and the year. At CES, Fuji announced its X-Pro1 interchangeable lens model, along with plans for a whole series of X-mount lenses. Based off the immensely successful X100, the X-Pro1 was a huge hit for both its retro styling, stunning image quality, and for the fact that Fuji fixed a lot of nitpicks that people had about the X100 with this new camera. Come year's end, Fuji had already launched a bunch of new X-mount optics as well as a little brother to the X-Pro1, making many people, for the first time since the start of the digital era, start to question whether the dSLRs dominance among discriminating photographers was nearing its conclusion. In the end, only time will tell whether Fuji has created a niche product or has redefined the way the world takes pictures.

3. Samsung. In 2012, Samsung offered a lot of updates to current models, but the biggest news came in its marrying of technologies, namely cameras and mobile phones. At the start of the year, there was no doubt that Samsung was a leader in mobile technologies thanks to its popular Android operating system. In the lead-up to 2012,. many companies had been incorporating wireless technology into their cameras, albeit stripped-down versions. At the start of the year, the big question was simply this: when would a full-fledged smartphone operating system find its way into a camera? Well, hints came out in spring and, by fall, Samsung had made this a reality when it brought the latest Android operating system to a camera. End result: a camera that can do anything an Android tablet can do and everything an Android phone can do, sans making calls. Yes, while this has nothing to do with improving the picture taking experience (and is something I personally see as nothing but a marketing gimmick to people who insist on living in virtual reality), it has been a major leap forward in a technology that more people were demanding be brought to cameras. For this, Samsung is a winner for 2013 in its marrying of phone and photographic technologies.

Holding Steady: these companies are characterized by the overall trend of holding steady, offering neither major improvements nor by getting outright beat by the competition.

1. Nikon. Going into 2012, Nikon was undisputed king of the hill in the high-end dSLR market. Throughout 2012, Nikon pretty much rejuvenated its dSLR and mirrorless 1-series lineups as well as introduced a slew of new point and shoots. Unfortunately (and not wholly surprisingly) the company simply couldn't offer the breakthroughs it did in 2007 with the D3 and D300. Yes, the D4 and D800/D800E are quite the capable cameras, but they don't take performance to the next level the way last generation's models did from the previous. For Nikon, the biggest plus of the year was, once again, boosting the price to performance ratio with the D600, which offers a lot of pro-grade features (including FX sensor) for a price that was previously unimaginable. Still, though, mild updates coupled with a resurgent Canon have combined to eliminate Nikon's undisputed edge that it held over the competition one year ago.

2. Sony. Going into 2012, many people were seriously doubting Sony's commitment to its 'dSLR' line as no high-end models had been launched for nearly 4 years as it appeared that Sony was abandoning the high-end market for the consumer-grade segment instead. The good news, in 2012, Sony showed that it was committed to its dSLRs, launching a new high-end APS-C model as well as a new FF camera, too. Unfortunately, when it came to the technological innovation that it has been known for, Sony's new cameras for 2012 didn't have and dramatic new features like past models (like the translucent mirror). Still, though, a rejuvenated commitment to its dSLRs as well as updated NEX models as well as a quirky FF compact, the RX1, all go to show that Sony is anything but ready to simply ride on its past laurels going into 2013, which could mean for some cool models in the following year. Personally, I expect a FF NEX model sometime in 2013.

3. Pentax. Starting into 2012, Pentax was riding the crest of a wave as the company had its best lineup of the digital era to date. By the end of 2012, the same was pretty much true as the company had launched some mild updates of its past models, a few new lower-level optics, and an albeit bulky mirrorless model, the K-01. For Pentax in 2013, things can go one of two ways. First, the mild updates are simply stop-gap replacements designed to hold the fort until more revolutionary models make it to market or two, evidence of complacency that will lead Pentax to get passed up by the competition and wind up being a loser for 2013. Hopefully, the former of the options is true here.

4. Olympus. Going into 2012, many in the photographic community were questioning whether Olympus would see 2013 at all thanks to the company's corporate accounting scandal that caused the stock to plummet in value and many former top executives to wind up facing criminal charges. Well, come 2013, many are now wondering whether Olympus started the process of killing the traditional, mirrored dSLR. For Olympus, one camera alone, the OM-D dSLR like Micro Four Thirds model, may have, in one stroke, saved the company and changed the photographic industry. Up until the OM-D, mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras had been characterized by lackluster AF and consumerish (not that great) build quality. With the OM-D, Olympus changed that, stuffing an AF system into the camera that can keep up (for the most part) with the traditional dSLR as well as beefing up the build quality with all-metal construction and splash proofing. If that weren't enough, Olympus started cranking out equally tough Micro Four Thirds lenses, no doubt with this camera in mind. All in all, the OM-D has been a smashing success that has gone to show that mirrorless cameras are no longer just toys, but that they can be highly-capable photographic tools as well. On the other hand, Olympus is still picking up the pieces from its corporate accounting scandal and continues to face financial troubles, which led to the selling of 10% of its stock to Sony. All in all, while a winner on the product end of things, Olympus still faces major hurdles in regards to overall company health, which single-handedly keep Olympus from the winner's column in 2012.

Losers: these companies either offered no major new products, had huge flops, or dire financial troubles.

1. Kodak. At the start of 2012, Kodak was a company in big trouble. Late to the digital game and late to realize that film was on the way out for the masses 10 years ago, Kodak had been behind the proverbial 8-ball since the start of the digital era. Unfortunately, as the years rolled by, things only got worse. Come the start of 2012, Kodak was reportedly mulling filing for bankruptcy, which it did less than a month into 2012. Kodak's last ace up its sleeve: all of it patents, whose sales executives hoped would avert the company's financial crisis. Unfortunately, Kodak's asking price was too steep and no buyers stepped forward until very late in the year (at reduced prices), which was too little, too late as Kodak already had announced that it was ending its involvement in the consumer photography market, which means no more cameras, film, photo paper, or printers will be found at any local retail store. For Kodak, 2012 truly marked the end of the world.

2. Panasonic. For Panasonic, 2012 marked a rather hold the course route on products as the company offered its share of new cameras in 2012. Unfortunately, in November, news came that Panasonic was in some serious financial trouble, with the question of layoffs, business closures, and asset sell-offs not being a question of “if,” but “when.” For the record, Panasonic has laid off 36,000 employees in the past two years and 10,000 more could lose their jobs come early 2013. Not good. Hopefully, new leadership at Panasonic can right the company ship before the company goes the way of Kodak.

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