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February 2015

15 year cycle in industry

When you review the development of the camera technology since 1960, one can discern a 15 year cycle. The period of the full mechanical precision engineered camera started around 1950 and ended in 1966 when Konica announced the Auto Reflex. The trend to automation culminated in the Canon A-1 in 1978 and found its peak with the Canon EOS 1 in 1989. The autofocus period started with the Minolta 7000 in 1985 and ended around 2000 with the announcement of the Kodak DCS series in 2002 and the Canon EOS D2000 in 1998.
Around 1985 there was much discussion in the industry about the technological platform reached by the then current engineering and innovation. Cameras were developed to the end of the lifecycle and no more inventions or innovations could improve the state of the art. At that moment the introduction of autofocus saved the industry and again a platform was reached around 2000 when the industry embraced the digital technology (supported by advanced software and electronic components. 

Now in 2014/2015 the innovative cycle has ended. One sees a convergence of smart phone technology, conventional camera technology and social media platforms that define a new cycle. The current strategy of the main players is a simple one: add more features and deliver incremental improvements. There is hardly new thinking behind the approach to increase the sensor size or pixel amount and/or decrease the body footprint and to add more AF points or more exposure options. Even the switch from CCD to CMOS is not an element of new thinking.
One sees the current innovation stalemate in the diversion to cinematography and video options in still camera bodies. Video technology is a mature industry and the incorporation of this technique in a still camera body belongs to the marketing department, not the research department.  

The recently announced Leica M-P, beautiful as it is, points to the same diagnosis. Leica seems to focus primarily on design and special materials to give the products a special status and appeal. The move from M to M-P is practical identical to the move from M8 to M8.2 or M9 to M9-P. And the special 100-year edition of the Monochrom is basically the standard Monochrom with stainless steel body parts. The special edition Leica M-A is the standard MP without the electronics of the current MP. (Do not confuse the MP with the M-P!). 

If there is new thinking behind these products (or perhaps one may call it 'old thinking') is the trend to simplification, enhanced by the addition of elements of 'Manufaktur' and luxury. Again this is simply the revival of the classic Leica Luxus models. 
So the next cycle of the camera industry may be defined by two trends: a return to classical values(Leica M style)  and/or a shift to smartphone/movie (YouTube) amalgamation. (Leica T style??)
It seems that Leica is betting on both horses, while Nikon and Canon are still imprisoned in the gadget paradigm and are deliberating between mirrorless cameras and dSLR evolution.      

Breitner and the snapshot

Yesterday I visited the town of Dordrecht to pick up a box of Adox films (CHS 100 II). This film has a classical emulsion on a most modern back layer with two anti-halation layers. Once the focus on fine grain was the holy grain in BW photography, but now the focus is on edge detail and outlines. That some grain may be visible, adds to the flavor of the print. There is still a technical and emotional difference between a black area made from silver halide and one composed of printer inks ad a white area that is simply bright paper (inkjet print) and a white that is made from the reflection of a silver halide layer. 

The second reason to visit Dordrecht was the (small) exhibition in the Dordrecht Museum of pictures made by Breitner around 1900 with his Kodak box camera. Breitner was a Dutch painter, but also a passionate street photographer and, noblesse oblige, produced pictures of nude models as inspiration for his paintings. I am by the way always amused by the use of the  term ‘nude pictures’, now popular again because of the stolen selfies of more or less famous individuals. A picture cannot be nude, as a person can. We have pictures of nude persons.

Anyway: Breitner was a master of street photography, long before the genre became the focus of attention of Leica photographers. His pictures are outstandingly good examples of real black-and-white prints, when a master printer is in the darkroom. Due to technical limitations of the Kodak box and used film, some pictures are blurred an/or a bit under exposed, but they do show exactly what the painter saw. In my book “Leica Practicum” there is an extended discussion about the differences between seeing with the eye and seeing with the camera, but in Breitner’s case the difference is small. His pictures are true snapshots, in my view the best genre for photography and fully neglected by current photographers. The so-called modern street photography, as exemplified by current artists who stage the scene, is far removed from the original snapshot and the selfie is a totally different genre. It is not a coincidence that snapshots were the preferred domain of painters, because the snapshot shows you what the eye missed when looking at a scene. It is part of the unconscious reality, that only photography can capture in a scientific (unbiased) way.