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Camera companies are struggling with the PC industry's biggest problem

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Everything is already too good

fujifilm gfx and iphone 7 Vlad Savov

Photokina is the big, but shrinking, stage for presenting the future of photography. The 2016 edition of the biennial camera show has lost some of its luster and techie momentum with Samsung’s silent retreat from the market, and the news that’s emerged here in Cologne just hasn’t been as impactful as in previous years. The reason, I’d venture to suggest, is that digital camera development has plateaued. Much like PC makers constantly having to nudge people to upgrade PCs that don’t need upgrading, camera makers are faced with the challenge of enticing people to buy new versions of devices that are already plenty good enough. And, of course, smartphones are eating into everything.

I got my Sony NEX-5N camera five years ago, at a time when image sensor technology was advancing at a decent pace, and so-called mirrorless cameras of the 5N’s ilk were blooming in popularity and steadily evolving and improving. Arriving at Photokina, I was determined to seek out an upgrade for my aging camera, but, while I’ve seen many things I want, there’s nothing here that I actually need.

Olympus’ Micro Four Thirds cameras impressed me — but only because I’m late to spend time with them and appreciate the improvements they’ve made since I bought my Sony and quit paying close attention to cameras. Despite having a smaller sensor than the APS-C one inside my camera and others like Canon’s new EOS M5 or Fujifilm’s excellent X series, a Micro Four Thirds camera now has perfectly respectable performance, even in low light. But that’s been the case since at least 2013, the time when Olympus introduced the first iteration of the E-M1 flagship that it refreshed at Photokina this week. There are certainly improvements and advancements to be had in the new model, but fundamentally, Olympus already had pretty damn nice image quality. And not just in the E-M1, as my time with the less pricey M5 and M10 confirmed. As with PCs, you can always spend more and get more from camera manufacturers, but most people simply don’t need to.

Sony’s showing off its Alpha 6300 at Photokina alongside the Alpha 7R II, two utterly delightful cameras. The 6300 has a couple hundred focusing points and they rain down like little rain droplets on the camera’s built-in EVF when I’m composing a frame. I’m inclined to believe Sony’s bold claim that this is the fastest-focusing camera in its class (which we can probably consider to be anything under $2,000 in price). The 7R II is just astonishing with the sort of details it can pick out in a shot, and I’ve been pixel-peeping its output for single strands of hair and other such fine details on people’s faces. But you know what? The top tip for a Sony stills camera to buy right now is probably the original 7R or even the 2013 Alpha 7. They’re the definition of oldies but goodies, and their prices have dropped with the launch of newer models.

If you’re in the market to buy a new camera and don’t have one already, life has never been more good to you. The choice is staggeringly wide and the competence of cameras from every major manufacturer — whether it be Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Panasonic, Sony, Fujifilm, or even Pentax — is such that you’ll struggle to make a bad decision. But if you already own a camera from the past half decade or so, you probably won’t be feeling any great urge or need to upgrade. If anything, you’re more likely to splurge on a new lens and extend the life of your existing shooter. Just like a PC gamer that buys a new GPU to breathe fresh life into an existing rig instead of splashing out on a whole new system.

Digital imaging technology has matured, and that’s led to a ton of very good digital cameras. But maturity brings with it a sort of developmental stagnation, which is exacerbated by the fact that there are only really two companies making camera sensors nowadays: Sony and Canon. Nikon and Fujifilm both use Sony sensors, and both rely on advancements from Sony’s engineers to drive their cameras’ performance forward. That’s probably why Fujifilm felt compelled to go all the way to a medium-format sensor for its new flagship — in order to break free of that constraint.

In the PC world, if you want top performance, you go to Intel for your CPU and either Nvidia or AMD for your graphics card. That’s another mature market, and the successful PC vendors are the ones that build out a good ecosystem around their products, and design the surrounding shell intelligently. But basically, all the components are off-the-shelf commodities. It’s not quite like that with cameras, where sharp lenses can make the difference between one company and another, but it’s really quite similar. In both cases, you’re paying attention more to the ergonomics, styling, and ecosystem built up around the device, knowing that the raw specs and performance of the thing — whether it be camera or PC — will be roughly in line with the rest of the market.

Many of the companies at the 2016 edition of Photokina still seem a bit shellshocked by the pestilence that smartphone photography has wrought upon their market. Everyone now treats smartphone connectivity as a must-have feature, and we’re even seeing things like pinch-to-zoom on touchscreen LCD monitors becoming a regular feature. The classic point-and-shoot cameras are all but dead by now, and their more premium siblings are fighting for their survival by adding features like 4K video recording, better focusing and speed, and articulating displays and wireless connectivity. But they’re not just fighting the demon of the smartphone. They’re having to compete against their own predecessors too, and it turns out that’s a fight almost as hard as the one against iPhones and Galaxys.