How Do You Sell It When...
It's Not Your Father's Digicam
By Don Sutherland
The first digicam came out ten years ago, without all that much
fanfare. It cost around thirty grand, so Kodak didn't have many
people to advertise to. By 1994, cameras costing half as much could
be had from all the digital pioneers—Kodak, Fujifilm,
Minolta, Nikon. They didn't need much advertising either—the
price reductions were dramatic, but the cameras still sold for
around $15k. Whenever they were advertised they could sound a bit
defensive, for their one-megapixel pictures were hard to support as
"film quality." They called 'em that, anyway. They made the same
claim for VGA when it hit the streets in 1996. Those first consumer
models could output fair-looking 3-1/2x5s, so the "film quality"
boast was strictly legal. It was applied uniformly to every digicam
generation that followed—SVGA, XGA, SXGA, and UGA. To back up
their claims, they counted their pixels and touted their numbers.
What else could they do? What other measure, in one blink of an
eye, conveyed to the buyer the sharpness of a camera's
The question of "what else" is back. Popular consensus is that we're reaching a plateau. Cameras with 5 and 6-megapixel sensors have been in the upper end of the consumer market for almost a year. Barring technological breakthroughs—and yes, everyone's watching Foveon—there are technical reasons why higher-resolution sensors are unlikely. Suppose the day comes when $500 cameras have 5 or 6-Mp too? How do buyers tell them apart then? What do you say to them? What are the camera companies saying? We asked representatives from three of the majors to tell us what they think sells cameras in the megapixel age.
The Automatic Standard
"It's like the automatic transmission," said Minolta's Jon Sienkiewicz about the pixel count of digicams. "It was once a big selling point for cars. Now it's not mentioned, because it's the true 'standard transmission.'"
"The megapixel war is slowing down," agrees Sally Smith Clemens at Olympus. "Our focus is about getting the most realistic digital images. Obviously megapixels make a contribution, but our lenses play a key role too. So does our approach to in-camera processing. TruePic technology was designed for our higher-level cameras when we introduced it, but it trickled down from our E series to C series, now to the D series. Our noise reduction and our advanced color management systems are also trickling downward." So the internal workings of the pro line of cameras are now available to the first-timer. One could build a pitch on that.
Said Nikon's Jerry Grossman, "We have ED glass in the new 5700. We have a lot of ways to talk about the quality of the image," in another line of cameras where once high-end features are also trickling down.
The quest seems to become to sell picture quality without the pseudo-science. The pixel-count gave a starting point, but it was never an objective measure of pixel quality. Given the myriad factors that bear influence, an objective measure may never be determined. How do we quantify the amount of in-camera sharpening, or the level of noise in each picture? Each affects quality, but eludes precise description. There are those who think a better approach is to sell digicams like film. Nobody talks about grain-count for film. The box simply states what the contents are best for.
So are we likely to see pixel specs disappear from camera promotion? Don't count on it, says Sienkiewicz. "Yes, the megapixel race has been defused to the extent that pixels aren't the only factor people use to assess a camera. Our Dimage X is a two-megapixel camera, but it's selling like hotcakes because even with a 3x zoom it's so small it can go anywhere with its owner. Nobody should say pixels are irrelevant—there's a threshold number people will accept, and if we tried selling serious cameras with VGA resolution, sales would plummet. But the Dimage X is a case where issues of design take precedent over issues of pixels, and I'm sure there are other cases industrywide."
The concept of "serious cameras" is fundamental to Minolta, Nikon, and Olympus. They have backgrounds in cameras and lenses. They seem to dislike the term "computer peripheral" when it comes to cameras. Unlike a disk drive, a camera requires judgment for use, a certain amount of planning, and the creative arrangement of the elements in a scene. From that perspective, the choice of metering system or exposure program is as important as anything for picture quality, and plenty of cameras today offer choices in these matters.
Nikon's Grossman cites the Scene Mode in the Coolpix 4500 and others—one of the features that trickled down. Olympus' Clemens cites the "my" program selection on the new C-720, where user-selected settings supersede the manufacturer's defaults every time the camera is turned on. They affect picture quality, but in ways and for reasons you don't always find in the advertising headlines.
Other makes besides these two have such features, for reasons that are important in "serious cameras." Suppose a given snapshooter regularly encounters scenes requiring a spot meter. Maybe their favorite subject is a young ballerina, spotlighted on stage. A spot-metered exposure would probably be more accurate than any of the averaging methods, resulting in a "better quality picture." A feature like the "my" program invokes the spot meter (and/or any other user selections) automatically, instantly, without resorting to menus, without even removing the eye from the viewfinder.
Quality is important in any "serious" camera, but so is the ability to achieve it easily. Selectable exposure programs and setup modes make a camera's maximum quality easier to access, thus more of a norm from picture to picture. The result: better reviews all around.
But all of the features discussed so far have to do with the image inside the camera. Before anyone can see it, it has to be brought out into the light. And digital tech makes that a very different procedure than it was before.
From Here To There (Local)...
"How do you get the picture out?" is, according to Sally Clemens, one of the major themes for the coming year. "More and more people are e-mailing pictures," she reminds us, "and with our latest models, you can send pictures as emails direct from the camera." That may be true, but Olympus has also entered a new business, the lab kiosk business. Their claims in favor of their off-floor printing system—less display space consumed, freer flow of traffic—were underscored by the company's Richard Campbell. But he also saw a new camera feature playing into the process as well.