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  • Masa ISHII

Digital Photography – Is Japan Falling Behind?

Japan has been leading the world in advanced amateur and professional photography equipment since the 1960s. As an advanced amateur photographer, I have been a user of Japanese photography equipment for the last forty years. My first “advanced” camera was a fully-manual Asahi Pentax K1000 with a 50mm lens. A few years later, I upgraded to a Canon AE-1 Program, the first camera that chose shutter speed automatically based on the aperture setting and light level. Eventually, I moved to Nikon Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras, to Digital SLRs (DSLRs), and finally mirrorless cameras. Over the years, I have bought and sold numerous Canon and Nikon bodies and lenses as new innovations made earlier-generation equipment obsolete. Today’s digital cameras, especially mirrorless ones, are based on completely different technology even though they use similar form factors as SLRs from fifty years ago.

Along with the digital photography revolution, a second revolution has been taking place. This revolution is driven by software in mobile phones. Since the mobile phone market is very large, competition is fierce and innovation is rapid. Unfortunately, Japan is largely absent from the mobile phone market (Sony’s global market share is about 1%). The competition is largely between Korean (Samsung), Chinese (Xiaomi and Oppo), and American (Apple and Google) companies.

Macro photograph of a stamp taken with an iPhone 13 Pro – it is not perfect, but it is good enough for most purposes.

During the last fifteen years, mobile phones overtook digital cameras as the camera of choice for most users. The original iPhone was released in 2007, and it had a modest 2 megapixel (MP) rear camera with a geotagging feature. Today, there are mobile phones with 108 MP rear cameras in the market. While a 108 MP sensor is largely a marketing gimmick and the lenses used in mobile phones are vastly inferior to digital camera lenses, there has been a parallel revolution in image processing that is hard to ignore. Thanks for digital signal processing, today’s mobile phones have incredible low light performance, often surpassing low-light performance from mirrorless SLRs with fast lenses. While mobile phone lenses are tiny, software can add proper depth-of-field to phone pictures and make them look like they are taken with an expensive lens at wide-open aperture. Even the well-loved “bokeh” feature of expensive, fast lenses can be emulated in software, resulting in photographs that are hard to distinguish from those taken with lenses that cost more than these mobile phones. Mobile phones can do macro photography without the need for expensive macro lenses. Mobile phones keep track of time and place no matter where in the world, so every mobile phone picture has an accurate time stamp and a GPS tag. The multi-layer, complex setting menus of DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have been replaced with simple, intuitive graphical user interfaces that do not require a thick manual to understand.

Left: iPhone 13 Pro, Portrait mode; Right: Nikon Z6 ii with Nikon 85/1.8 S lens at full aperture

Even though Nikon, Canon, and Sony continue to make robust, very high-quality cameras and lenses, today’s DSLR and mirrorless cameras are lagging behind mobile phones in terms of software. Amateur photographers mostly use mobile phones for all purposes including video recording, video streaming, and vlogging. Even advanced amateurs have been abandoning DSLRs and mirrorless cameras in favor of mobile phones. Today, it is estimated that 5 billion digital photographs are taken every day, with the vast majority (93%) on mobile phones. The high-end camera market is in danger of shrinking further and losing its appeal for everyone except for professional photographers (sports, journalism, advertising, weddings, etc.) unless manufacturers start thinking outside the box and reinvent the software in these cameras.

As an avid user of high-end photographic equipment, here are some of my recommendations to DSLR and mirrorless camera makers:

  1. Cameras should be connected to the internet at all times. This may be via cellular or Wifi networks, but the connection should be simple and as transparent as possible. Today, it’s a challenge to connect a high-end digital camera to a network even though it is a critical requirement for most professional photographers.

  2. Cameras should know where they are and what time it is. When I travel to another country, I usually forget to update the camera clock and all my pictures have wrong time tags. A GPS chip costs very little. A user should not spend over a hundred dollars to buy a bulky GPS device and attach it to their cameras.

  3. Just like mobile phones, all pictures should be uploaded to the cloud as soon as they are taken – low resolution at first, and full resolution as network connections permit.

  4. Menus should be dramatically simplified or eliminated altogether. As a rule, if any feature requires the user to consult a manual, it’s too complicated.

  5. AI capabilities should be used to improve photographs. For example, AI software could correct exposure, white balance, levels, etc. automatically on RAW images and copy the results to pre-optimized JPGs without user intervention.

  6. AI capabilities could also be used to pre-select most options for the type of photography (e.g., sports, wedding, journalism), eliminating the need for complex menus.

  7. Cameras should tag photographs with as much metadata as possible. For example, cameras should recognize frequent subjects such as family members and tag the pictures automatically. Similarly, cameras can tag images with familiar place descriptions (e.g., Shibuya crossing) instead of geo coordinates.

  8. It should be very simple to use an external flash or a multi-flash system. If there are menus or multiple buttons, it is needlessly complicated.

  9. Keep the cameras simple. The Canon AE-1 Program had six buttons, knobs, or switches in total. The Nikon Z6 has a total of 18 plus two multi-segment controllers. That is simply too much.

  10. Finally, rethink form factors. There is no reason why a mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses has to look like an SLR from 60 years ago.

The world has chosen convenience over performance. It is time for high-end photography equipment to embrace software and AI capabilities in order to appeal to a larger market.


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