Saturday, January 4, 2014

A Hobby for the Very Wealthy

Those of us who are photo enthusiasts are part of a very small elite group among humankind. We might think that any camera under $1000 is affordable, but the truth is most of the world's population cannot even afford a $50 camera. 

In fact, I would wager that at least 90% of the human race has never owned, much less even seen a digital camera.

I can say this with confidence because according to CIPA figures roughly 1 billion digital cameras have been produced since 1999. 

But since cameras are also made by companies that don't belong to CIPA (mostly in China and Korea) the actual number produced is probably a bit higher. Perhaps 1.3 or 1.4 billion cameras.

If we assume that every digital camera ever made is still in working order and being used by someone, and that no one owns more than one camera, this works out to a little more than 1 camera per 7 human beings living on the planet.

Of course, we all know that many cameras more than 5 years old are broken, and no longer usable. And we also know that many people own more than one camera. I personally own ten digital cameras, only four of which are actually used. The other six just sit idle in drawers.

This means that perhaps only one in twenty human beings actually owns a digital camera. The other nineteen simply cannot afford it. And even if they could, there were never enough cameras made for all of them.

Owning a digital camera requires the use of a computer, some software, and some sort of internet connection. You need some sort of printer to print... or the money to pay for that service. Half of the world population lives on less than $2.50 a day , so they probably can never afford this luxury. People who don't have shoes aren't the ones who tell us "Photoshop is worth $20 a month" and "a $3,000 DSLR is a good value."

How many people in Africa, South America, or South Asia can afford photo workshops, and trips to Iceland to take photos of the natural beauty there? The average annual income for a family in China in 2012 was 13,000 renminbi, or about $2,100. That is less than $6 per day.

This hobby is such an extravagant luxury that there are actually more cars on the road today than there are digital cameras in use. And this is simply because transportation is a necessity, while taking HDR landscapes is not.

Like it or not, we are collectively a bunch of spoiled rich people. At least in relative terms.

I only bring this up to demonstrate how bizarre we must seem to most of the people living on this planet. We will have endless debates over "FF vs. crop sensor" or "equivalence theory" while most people just worry about having something to eat, or having potable drinking water.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Three Solutions for the high price of K-Cups

Since my wife doesn't drink coffee, a single serve coffee maker is something I like to have. Whenever I made a whole pot of coffee it took me three days to drink it all. So the only solution was a single serve coffee maker.

I loved my Philips Senseo pod machine, but sadly it is almost impossible to find the pods for them today.

It seems the pod machines lost out in the marketing war with the K-cup and T-Disk machines. I bit the bullet and retired the Senseo machine and bought a new Keurig B60 coffee maker.

The B60 is the middle model in the K-cup line. It has a fairly large water reservoir and can brew coffee for three different size cups.

You even have some control over water temperature, so you can brew it hotter if you prefer.

The Keurig K-Cup is really nothing more than a miniature drip coffee maker. The cup includes both coffee

and a filter, and hot water passes through it creating an almost instant cup of coffee. The system is brilliant in it's simplicity. 

There are two big problems with the K-Cup system. First, the cups are ridiculously expensive, varying from between fifty cents and a dollar per cup. For someone who drinks a lot of coffee this can really  add up to a big expense, especially when you consider there is only around ten cents worth of coffee in each K-Cup.

A cup of coffee shouldn't cost $1 even with today's high price per pound. A 12 ounce package of coffee will fill around 40 of these single serve cups. So even the most expensive coffee you can find will only cost you around 15 cents per cup.

The second big problem is that these cups aren't recyclable or biodegradable. This means if tens of millions of people are using them daily, they are creating more trash for landfills, and it is trash that will never go away.

This is because the plastics used in making K-Cups aren't biodegradable.

Keurig eventually addressed both those problems by marketing their own refillable K-Cup called "My Cup" and creating a whole new line of machines that uses a biodegradable cup, the Keurig Vue coffee maker. The only problem with the Keurig Vue, is now your Vue-Cups cost even more than the K-Cups did. Some are well over $1 per cup.

Naturally, other companies saw a business opportunity here, and started selling refillable K-Cups. There are versions available from Melitta, Solofil, Ekobrew, EZ Cups, and eventually from Keurig themselves, as well as many other brands. I actually own three different types of these, and I will share my own experience with them.

The Keurig My Cup

Keurig's own green solution is a refillable wire mesh cup that sits in a huge holder that replaces the insert in your Keurig machine. This isn't the easiest type to use, because it has three parts, and requires removing a part from your machine and replacing it with this assembly. The cost of these things is very high, at around $17, but they should last forever. And Keurig claims you will not need a paper filter with these.

It works

It is expensive
It is so expensive you can only have one of them
This means you have to clean it if you want a second cup
It is complicated
It is harder to clean
There is no paper filter, so coffee oils pass right through

The Melitta JavaJig

The Melitta JavaJig is an interesting solution. For $6 you get two JavaJigs and 30 paper filters. Additional filters are available in packs of 60 for less than $3. This means each cup will cost you around 10 cents for coffee and 5 more cents for a filter. Not bad at all. After using all three of these, I felt the Melitta produced the best cup of coffee

It works very well
It made the best cup of coffee of the three tested
It is cheap enough that you can own several
The filter stops oils from ruining your coffee

There are four parts involved
The paper filter adds 5 cents to the cost of each cup

The Cafe Cups

You see these sold in drugstores and big box stores, with 4 Cafe Cups, two brown and two red ones, and a measuring cup on a blister pack for around $10. The lid is part of the cup, and the wire mesh filter is built in, so it is basically a one piece cup. However, the cup is hard to clean because the grounds stick to the plastic parts of the cup, making it difficult to rinse out.

It works
It is the cheapest solution
It is the simplest solution with a one piece cup

It is much harder to clean
There is no paper filter, so coffee oils pass right through

All three of these worked, and all three worked pretty well. And all solve the problem of high cost per cup. With these you are recycling the cup and reducing waste, which is probably better for Mother Earth.

They also give you the ability to use any type of coffee or tea you please, so you can customize your coffee.  Personally, I find that an espresso grind works best in these devices, but you could use any type or grind you prefer.

Of the three, I'd say the JavaJig produced the best cup of coffee while still keeping the overall expense low. The Keurig My Cup was expensive, clumsy and complicated, and the Cafe Cups were hard to rinse out for reuse.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Should a new camera be in a sealed box?

There is a raging debate on some camera forums on whether a new camera should come in a sealed box.

Some camera buyers prefer that their new camera be untouched by human hands, and if they find any evidence of any prior handling they will return the camera for another one. 

For those of you who demand a sealed box, just be aware that boxes are very easy to reseal. Every retail store I have ever seen has some sort of shrink wrap device in the back room expressly for that purpose.

But here are the important questions for you to consider:

Is the camera working properly? Does it have a full manufacturer's warranty? Is the manufacturer known for honoring their warranties? Does the vendor have a good reputation for customer service?

This sealed box fetish has gotten so bad, and so costly for the manufacturers, retailers and even the customers, that most manufacturers stopped sealing boxes. If they are never sealed, then we just wouldn't be having this discussion.

While most people are honest and ethical there are just too many examples of people who buy multiple cameras to "try them all out" then return the ones they decided not to keep. This now becomes a problem because many people refuse to buy anything that was touched by human hands before they got them. Ironically, sometimes the same people belong to both groups.

The "try before you buy" people add enormous cost for everyone else. And that cost must be added into the wholesale price if the manufacturer wants to stay in business.

The box was open, because I bought this used!
This practice has exactly the same effect as shoplifting. Everyone pays a little more because some people insist on abusing the system.

Naturally, if something is really defective then it should be returned and replaced, or a full refund given. No one would dispute that.

But there is ample evidence right here on many forums that many people who are buying one camera will order three or four and try them all out, thus creating a problem for everyone else.

For the folks who have the "I want it untouched by anyone else" fetish, please ask yourself...

* Do you refuse to buy shoes that were tried on by someone else?
* Do you refuse to buy a house that was previously owned?
* Do you refuse to buy a car that was tested at the factory and has 4 miles on it?
* Are you absolutely certain your wife never kissed anyone else before you married her?

Just remember... these are just cameras. Not vital medical devices that must be sterile. Wait, come to think of it, that endoscope that was used on you when you had your last colonoscopy was probably used on hundreds of other people before you.

Food for thought....

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Troubling Future Trends for Camera Makers

Three of the five top cameras on Flickr are cell phones
There is a troubling trend for camera makers today.

Most camera makers are either losing money, or experiencing declining profits, as camera phones have eroded their mass market sales base. The high end is still doing well, and will probably always do well, it is the mass market and the volume involved that is collapsing.

Compact P&S camera sales are disappearing fast.

Ask yourself..... precisely what are the products that camera companies sell today, and who are their customers?
  • Compact cameras - These currently represent around half the dollar volume for camera makers, but this market has seriously been eroded by camera phones and tablets that have cameras. This is especially true at the low end of the scale. These customers are generally snap-shooters who want ease, simplicity, and reasonably good results.
  • High end compacts - This is a small but important market, as some compact users move up and some DSLR users move down. But competition is fierce in this market as it is overcrowded with lots of $500 enthusiast compacts, high priced superzooms, and has competition from budget priced DSLRs and MILC cameras. Many of these are purchased as a second camera which means the owners are very likely to be enthusiasts.
  • ILC cameras - including both DSLRs and MILC cameras. The mass market doesn't spend thousands of dollars on their cameras. Only photo enthusiasts do that. And it is pretty easy to spend thousands of dollars if you own more than just a few kit lenses for your ILC. I don't think this market has changed at all. The only difference is that the soccer moms are no longer buying $500 DSLRs at Walmart. They are now using their smart phones.
The reason that some camera makers are losing money, and the rest have declining profits is that the mass market users are more and more satisfied with the results they are getting from their camera phones.

The enthusiast base has not changed, it is still the same as before. What has changed is that casual users aren't snapping up cheap DSLRs anymore.

For around a five year period from 2006 to around 2011 owning a DSLR was a status symbol for some of the casual users.

They would buy them at Costco, Walmart and Target for $500, or $600 with a two lens kit, and they felt like they were real photographers. They used their DSLRS on full auto at their soccer matches, little league baseball games, and on their vacation cruises. Every college girl in America with a DSLR thought she was a photographer.

But this has all changed. Today's status symbol for a casual photographer is a high end smart phone or better yet... a tablet. The best way to get attention today is to either show up with a full frame camera and a tripod... or take photos using a tablet held at arm's length. And the smart phone or tablet is a lot easier to carry around. Today the software of choice for causal users isn't Photoshop or Lightroom, it is Instagram.

There is absolutely no status in using a $900 MILC camera, because it looks just like a $90 Sanyo compact you bought at Walmart. And unless that $900 MILC camera has a built in EVF, it is used in precisely the same way as the $90 Sanyo. The only people impressed will be other MILC camera users, and some of the DSLR users. By definition, anyone using an ILC camera today is an enthusiast, and not a casual user.

The entire bottom end of the camera market has been a victim of technology. Once the results became good enough for casual users, there was no reason for them to buy high end enthusiast cameras. This same thing happened to the low priced camcorder and the mp3 player as they gradually got replaced by smart phones for the casual users of these products.

If I am right, then this means making more high end products, and making them better will NOT get the camera makers out of this hole. It surely will thrill the camera enthusiasts, but it won't do much to increase mass market sales.

The solution isn't a $2,000 budget priced full frame camera. Or a $3000 fixed focal length full frame compact. The camera companies need $200 high quality compacts that have a touch screen and wifi connectivity if they want the casual users back. And even that might be a hard sell, since most people don't want to carry two devices when one device will do.

The high end of the market will always exist, but the mass market is moving in an entirely different direction. I really doubt this situation can be reversed.

This situation will eventually hurt Nikon a lot more than it will hurt Olympus, because Olympus does not depend on it's imaging division. They have demonstrated that they can survive due to their highly profitable medical devices division. Cameras and lenses are just a small part of their business at around 15%, while Nikon is primarily a camera company, at around 70% of sales.

The reason Sony is in deep trouble isn't just due to camera sales. It is because they are losing money selling everything except gaming devices.

One thing is very certain. The future will not be very much like the past. Camera makers will be forced to abandon mass market products or find a way to somehow offer more convenience and value than cell phones. In the end, they may have to retreat to the high end only, because that market will always be there.

It will probably be a very long while before we see any National Geographic cover shots taken with iPhones. And no one will pay a wedding photographer thousands of dollars if he shows up with a smart phone.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

How I Finally Made it to Flickr Eplore

The new version
I joined Flickr almost six years ago, and since then I have posted over 21,000 photos and had over 380,000 views. But I never had a photo make it to Explore until today.

Each day Flickr selects the best photos of the day and post them in their Explore area. 

I understood why none of my photos were chosen, because I am basically just a snapshooter. I don't try to be artistic, and I don't even pretend to be a good photographer. I just like to take photos.

While I have never had a photo selected before, I know people who had had dozens selected. I just figured that my photos just weren't interesting or artistic enough to make the grade.

All of this changed today when one of my shots made it to explore, and it's an interesting story how it got there.

Two days ago someone put this comment on this seventeen month old photo:

Gas Station
The original version
Have you considered blackening out the street lights in the distance? I think it would look way cooler on an already cool shot :)

So I took his advice and redid the photo in Photoshop, using the healing brush to eliminate the lights in the background, and then I raised the black point slightly in levels.

Then, yesterday I posted the new  version of my old photo (the photo above).

Since re-posting this old photo yesterday it seems to have gone viral. I have had over 600 views, 25 comments, and 86 favorites... plus it was selected for Explore. Also... five people have listed me as a contact since the photo was posted.

It's pretty interesting how much difference a little photo tweaking can make. Why didn't I think of doing this myself seventeen moths ago?

Wait.... I know. Because I am just a snaphooter, and not a photograher!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Last Ten Years of Digital Cameras

Now that 2012 is behind us, we can look back to 2002 and see how much has changed in a decade by looking at the major cameras released in each year. 

And a lot has really changed.

As always, we seem to be getting more choices and more features for our money as the competition has become brutal. But some other interesting things have happened as well.


Here are the major trends I see:

There are more cameras models, but coming from fewer manufacturers
In 2002 we had 97 major cameras released from 18 separate makers. In 2012 we had 165 cameras from 12 makers. 

Contax, HP, Konica, Kyocera, Minolta and Toshiba have completely disappeared from the marketplace. Ricoh has joined the fray, but they could be considered an heir of Kyocera. 

There has been a simultaneous consolidation of manufacturers and explosion of camera models available on the market today.

Cameras today have much more resolution, and much more zoom range

In 2002, the average sensor size was 3.2 MP, and the average zoom range was 3.3X. In 2012 that shot up to an astounding 15.9 MP and 11.6X. In 2002 there was exactly one "Superzoom" camera, the 12X Panasonic FZ1. This represented roughly 1% of that year's new releases.

In 2012 we had 46 cameras released with 12X zoom lenses or greater. Some even went up to 40X and 50X, and these superzoom cameras now represent 27% of the 165 cameras released.

Features have gone way up... while prices have come way down

In 2002 you could buy a reasonably good 5 MP camera with a 3X zoom
for $500. 

In 2012, you could buy a 16MP DSLR with a 3X lens for the same $500.

Back in 2002, a DSLR was a major investment. The cheapest one made cost thousands of dollars.

Today, they are pretty common and affordable. Especially when you take inflation into account. When you spend $500 today it has the purchasing power of $400 ten years ago.

Even the cheapest cameras today have features we could only dream about ten years earlier. Things like face detection, creative filters, sweep panorama, HD video, and multiple scene modes. The better cameras today have features like auto HDR, built in GPS, tilt and swivel screens, touch screens and wireless connectivity.

There are more types of cameras available today

Back in 2002 we had only three styles of   
digital cameras. We had the DSLR, a Superzoom camera, and lots of P&S cameras.

Today we have nine kinds. The above three plus MILC cameras, Waterproof Cameras, Ultrazoom cameras (over 30X zoom), Digital Rangefinder cameras, Modular cameras (think Ricoh GXR) and Semi Translucent Lens Cameras (SLT).

If you count "camera phones" then we have ten kinds.

Interchangeable Lens Cameras have increased market share dramatically

In 2002, we had exactly six interchangeable lens cameras. and they were all DSLRs. Ten years later we had  forty-one models released that can swap lenses. 

And today you aren't limited to DSLRs. In addition to DSLRs, you can now select from MILC cameras, digital rangefinders, SLTs, and Modular cameras if you want to swap out lenses. In the case of the Modular camera, when you swap the lens you are also swapping the sensor. 

This is an interesting idea, but I think it is doomed due to the high cost of buying a sensor every time you buy a lens. 

In 2002 those six ILCs represented 5% of all new releases. In 2012, those forty-one ILC are 25% of the new cameras released. That's a five fold increase!

The entire camera market is shrinking. It might even disappear.

And this is probably the most significant trend of all.  

 As camera phones improve, more people are finding it unnecessary to own a separate camera. 

Once camera phone image quality becomes "good enough" for most users, then cameras may only exist at the high end, for professional photographers and advanced enthusiasts. 

We have already seen this trend in the virtual disappearance of the consumer camcorder, as they were rendered unnecessary as still cameras added HD video capability. Camcorders still exist, but mostly for the high end market. For casual users, a P&S camera or even a camera phone can take video clips.

When you look at how much things have changed in the past ten years it really makes you wonder what will happen ten years from now. One thing is certain.... things will change. It's just hard to predict how much since technology keeps changing so rapidly. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Best Compact Camera you can buy today

Dpreview, which is probably the most respected camera review site, recently published their Enthusiast Zoom Compact Camera roundup

Their conclusion was that the Sony RX100 and the Olympus XZ-2 are the "best all around" compact zoom cameras. But I say... there are better choices that they didn't even consider.

For my money, the best high end compact zoom camera you can buy is an Olympus Pen EPL-3.
This camera is only a little larger, and actually quite a bit cheaper than the two winning cameras. And the image quality is heads and shoulders above the other two because of the much larger sensor.

None of these cameras is really tiny. Except perhaps the Canon S110, which was also one of the cameras in the group review. If you want a tiny camera you can find much smaller ones than these, so obviously Dpreview was putting a lot of weight on image quality, which is why the $650 RX100 and $550 XZ-2 came out on top.

But the E-PL3 is both cheaper and has better image quality than either one. Plus it has the advantage of having the ability to swap lenses. The E-PL3 is currently on an $100 instant rebate program and is selling for just $499. But even at $599 it still is a better choice than either the Sony RX100 or the Olympus XZ-2. It truly will provide DSLR type image quality in a very small package.

Want proof?

Well, lets look at Dpreview's own studio sample. At base ISO, all of these cameras will do very well, but lets take a look at a sample at ISO 1600:

Which one looks the best to you?

To my eye, the EPL3 beats the pants off the other three cameras.

And if you really want to spend as much as as a Sony RX100, then the newer E-PL5 will perform even BETTER, because it has a newer sensor with more resolution.