Photography, Disruption Theory and Digitalisation

Don’t bet against the Smartphone

You may have noticed that a couple of things have changed since I started this newsletter in early February. I’m very happy with the way it is progressing. I have kept my promise to provide some news, opinion and help on the subject of digitalisation. 

Firstly, I’ve increased the cadence and I am now writing around two times a week rather than once, with a slightly changed format. I’ve removed the Reading List as it didn’t really bring any value-add to the content, and the newsletter is slightly shorter, with more words per week.

Additionally, I’d inexplicably set myself a publishing deadline for each Friday morning at 10am based on a hunch. I’ve decided to change this and publish as soon as I’m finished, and the statistics show that the schedule change has had no effect on reader percentages.

I’ll continue to work on the format but one guiding principle is to provide thorough, interesting and informative articles on this ever-changing digital world we live in. Thanks for reading.

On to the update.


Last week's Apple event provided much to discuss on the topic of digitalisation in the world. This week I look at Photography, and the impact of digitisation and disruption are having on that industry. Read on.

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Photography, one of the original industries transformed digitally

Ever since the Arab physicist Ibn al-Haytham invented the first known pinhole camera sometime around the year 1000, Photography has gone through numerous transitions and transformations.

The act of accurately transferring light on to photo-sensitive film is an incredibly difficult task, with much behind the scenes technology responsible for the result and has been disrupted and transformed over generations. Today's cameras and camera manufacturers have all but finished their transitions to digital mediums, a process that got kick-started when Kodak developed the first digital camera in 1975. Kodak was an American company incorporated 131 years ago and is no longer in business, only the brand lives on.

Kodak serves as a lesson in disruption theory, having reacted reluctantly to further develop and push digital sales through fear of eating into very profitable photographic film and paper sales. Regardless, we can all thank Kodak for their vision to digitise a manual and ofttimes, frustrating experience creating a multi-billion dollar industry for the incumbents and new entrants alike.

As an interesting side note, Apple unveiled its latest iteration of the iPhone, the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro, with a functionality called QuickTake. QuickTake allows the user to long press on the shutter button to quickly record video in lieu of starting the continuous or burst shooting mode as was previously the case. QuickTake was also a digital camera sold and branded by Apple, but Kodak produced.

Kodak, as recently as 2001, resisted the digitisation of camera technology that it had invented and that decision is almost certainly a factor in the companies demise. The brand lives on and is still synonymous with excellent tools in the analogue photographic world.

The second wave of Digital Transformation in Photography

I've previously written about Digital Transformation as a journey, and it not being a project, Photography illustrates this perfectly. Its origins rooted firmly in analogue, the industry was abruptly disrupted digitally, with all the consequences that that entailed following — closures of old business, openings of new digital ones. But that transformation has not ended, and further disruptions and transitions are in progress, with a third wave already started. Before we get to the third wave, let’s take a quick look at the second wave, mirrorless camera technology.

The rapid development of mirrorless cameras is powering a second wave of disruption. Two branches dominated digital Photography up to this point; DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras and traditional Point and Shoot cameras that naturally got digitised as sensor technology were improved.

DSLRs gradually replaced SLR cameras and became the choice for professional and semi-professional users alike. So popular they became, that companies like Canon and Nikon, developed newer models of DSLRs that targeted enthusiasts initially, then general consumers. The last 5 years or so have seen the domination by first-time users purchasing and learning how to use DSLRs, something that was unthinkable less than 20 years ago due to the skill required but also the costs and the reality of failure rates. Taking 1000 photos and deleting 999 to keep that one good shot, costs no more than taking one good shot alone.

Point and Shoot cameras transitioned quickly as well. They offer better and better image quality as the technology evolved and today's Point and Shoot's can range from professional-grade cameras like the X100F from Fujifilm, to more basic models offered by Sony, Canon and other popular brands at accessible prices for anyone interested in photography.

Mirrorless cameras transform the DLSR experience by offering the same professional output, in a smaller and lighter package. Aside from dimensions and weight, Mirrorless cameras are using digital technologies to aid every photographer to take better photos. For example, in-body stabilisation moves the stabilisation motors from the lens, making them lighter, to the camera, where the optical properties mean they are smaller and lighter in the body of the camera than in the lens and are available to any lens now. A gyroscope, some software and two or more piezo motors provide pin-sharp images at long zoom ranges that only experienced professionals could achieve previously.

The Third Wave, Computational Photography

The next wave of Digital Transformation in the industry is the current revolution I alluded to above. The advances made by Smartphone manufacturers, notably Apple and Google are currently re-writing what is possible in Photography all while traditional manufacturers have gotten wrapped up in a race for more megapixels, wifi, more autofocus points and other non-essential specifications and have pursued the development of Computational Photography.

Computational Photography, not only resolves or attempts to resolve the shortcomings inherent in the compromised optics — ‘real’ lenses are big and heavy, sometimes over 1Kg — by using massively parallel processing and sophisticated algorithms to reproduce the same effects. The latest generation photos are indistinguishable from professional photography to the general public.

Apple, Google and others are more concerned with the job to be done, which is to enable anyone to take what are essentially professional-grade photos with the least of effort, using the best camera they with them at all times (1), the Smartphone.

I joked to a friend that Apple announced an advanced camera that just happens to have a phone integrated in it. I was only half-joking because, in reality, smartphones cannot do a phone better than is already the case; they can only develop and improve upon other markets, like Photography, film amongst others.

The Smartphone starts with a powerful processor and an integrated application and operating system ecosystem, that provides lightning-quick autofocus, bokeh, night lighting and, I imagine, plenty more functions in the coming years, all whilst keeping the size of the device small with miniaturised optical elements designed for thin enclosures. Samsung is currently experimenting using the length of the case to provide real focal depth, a few centimetres instead of a few millimetres.

These functionalities are mostly absent from the incumbent camera-first camera manufacturers' devices because they start from the traditional optics point of view. The business then exhibits classic Disruption Theory tendencies that incentivise management to move prices and specifications upscale, in the quest to preserve their margins.

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Camera manufacturers are going to need either a miracle or to radically step up their game in digital innovation or risk disruption that puts them out of business. Some might say it is already too late, and I wouldn’t disagree with this. When looking at the data produced by Flickr, one of the world’s most popular photography sharing platforms for both amateurs and professionals alike, over half of the photographers are using an iPhone. 50% of all photos uploaded are from smartphones (see first chart for reference).

To be clear, I’m not saying that DSLRs or Mirrorless Cameras are going to go away completely, I don’t believe that for a moment, but their use will be restricted to a needs base only, that is professional photography by professionals and other specialised applications, for example sports photography, astro photography.

As you have noted, Digital Transformation is not a one-off project, it is an ongoing journey and an ongoing feedback and adjustment loop you need to work on regularly.

Have a great day.


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Thanks for being a supporter, have a great day.


Footnotes:

(1) A quote attributed to Chase Jarvis, a well-respected professional photographer.