Camera News

2010-2019: The decade in review – the camera industry

Officially launched in 2010, I had a feeling that the Fujifilm X100 would be a hit from the first moment we saw a mockup. A small number of journalists worked closely with Fujifilm during the final stages of the X100’s development (and afterwards) to mold what turned out to be a really significant camera for the company.

My career as a photography writer spans 13 years, ten of which I’ve spent at DPReview. Ominously (as if 13 years wasn’t ominous enough), I started my career the year before Apple released the very first iPhone. In many ways, Apple (and other smartphone manufacturers – Samsung, Google, Huawei and the rest) have provided the mood music for everything that has happened since.

But I’m skipping ahead. In this article I want to look back at some of the biggest themes of ‘my’ decade in the industry. Not ‘mine’ in the sense that I had any significant impact on or influence over it (I didn’t) but from an insider’s point of view. The industry has gone through a lot of changes during my time, some of them very painful, but I suspect that before too long, we’ll will look back on the 2010s and realize that in many ways photographers, and those of us who write about cameras, never had it so good.

Here’s why.

From my perspective both as a photographer and photography writer, the 2010s was the decade during which consumer digital imaging really came of age. Consider that in 2010, the only mirrorless cameras you could buy offered Four Thirds format sensors, with (by modern standards) laggy and low-resolution electronic viewfinders.

A sample image from one of my first reviews for DPReview, of the Nikon D3S. Featuring highly advanced autofocus and fast continuous shooting from a full-frame sensor, the D3S offered specs which were a world away from most DSLRs and ILCs at the time.

By the end of the decade, features like advanced focus tracking, 10+fps shooting and high-quality video (the D3S offered 720p) would be commonplace in much cheaper cameras.

Most ILCs sold were DSLRs, and while full-frame was definitely a thing by 2010 (Canon’s EOS 5D-series was on to its second-generation by that point, and both Nikon and Sony had sub $3000 FFs), if you wanted a really fast, really tough, really capable camera, there weren’t that many full-frame options available. The 12 MP Nikon D3S that I used professionally at that time was miles ahead of any APS-C format ILC then on the market, but unsurprisingly, it was priced to match.

Fast-forward to 2019’s pre-Christmas sales and you could have picked up a factory-fresh Nikon D750 for under $1,000 if you were quick off the mark. The fact that a five year-old camera could be found at a good price isn’t in itself particularly surprising, but the fact that I’d still recommend a friend should get online and buy it goes to show how different the second decade of this century was from the first.

The 2010s was the decade during which consumer digital imaging really came of age

The D750 was released five years after the D3S but offered twice the pixel count, a superior autofocus system, much better live view / video and in a smaller, lighter body. The point is that those kinds of specs just don’t go out of date.

It’s wrong to say that camera technology plateaued during this time, but it definitely matured. Spare a thought for those of us who have to write about such things: no longer can we confidently declare a camera to be ‘best’. Instead we have to add endless caveats: best for landscapes, best for portraits, or – horror of horrors – best for the maddeningly-indistinct “you”.

We’re not arguing about sensor formats anymore

In 2019, just like 2010, we have three main interchangeable lens formats. Four Thirds (the original mirrorless format), APS-C (the original mainstream DSLR format) and full-frame (the primary SLR format). Back in 2010 we might have put those in order: Good, better, best. I don’t think we’d do that any more. We wouldn’t even necessarily call today’s 44 x 33mm medium-format sensors ‘best’ except in heavily-qualified terms. They’re just different – just another option.

I was among those in the photo media who expected that once affordable full-frame cameras came onto the market, APS-C and Micro Four Thirds would just sort of wither away. I’m happy to say that it hasn’t happened. While there’s definitely less growth in that market segment now than there was (and less compared to full-frame), high-end APS-C and Micro Four Thirds cameras are still alive and well. In a way, I think companies like Olympus and (especially) Fujifilm may have benefited from a bit of distance opening up between the formats, because it has allowed them to carve out their own distinct spaces.

If you’re buying a camera in 2019, the chances are it’s made by one of the same companies you would have been buying from ten years ago

As we all know, the 2010s were a tough decade for the industry. But amazingly, there have been very few casualties. Casio stopped making digital cameras, Samsung came and went, Pentax kind of sort of doesn’t exist anymore, but that’s about it. There’s been plenty of restructuring, but for the most part, if you’re buying a camera in 2019, the chances are it’s made by one of the same companies you would have been buying from ten years ago.

Rumors of Olympus leaving the camera business have been floating around for as long as I’ve been writing about them, but as you may have noticed, it’s is still in business. In part that’s down to a concerted effort on the company’s part to differentiate, and to pick its competitive battles.

The original Olympus OM-D E-M5 was a perfect expression of the promise of a small-sensor ILC. It was very compact and lightweight, but fast and powerful, featuring effective in-camera image stabilization, in 5 axes.

Perhaps the best example is the OM-D series. With the launch of the original OM-D E-M5 back in 2013, Olympus used the undoubted benefits of a small sensor to reinvigorate the spirit of its iconic OM-series film cameras, and create a range of products which didn’t look like anything else which existed at the time. Meanwhile Panasonic has doubled-down on video in more specialized M43 options like the GH line.

Fujifilm’s X-series, which debuted in 2012, is a great argument for the unique benefits of a small-sensor system: genuinely compact cameras and lenses, without a huge penalty in image quality. But while I knew that the X100 would be a hit from the first time I saw a mockup, I will admit that I was a little concerned that Fujifilm might have missed the window of opportunity by the time it created the X-mount. I needn’t have worried: since its inception, the X-series has generated a large, and very loyal audience of fans.

Likewise Sony’s a6000-series, which offer incredible speed and class-leading autofocus, in bodies which cost a third of the price of similarly-fast full-frame options.

And then there’s medium format. After deciding not to bother with full-frame at all, Fujifilm decided – like Pentax before them – to explore the market for a series of consumer cameras built around an even larger sensor. While this year’s $10,000 GFX 100 is beyond the means of most of us, the GFX 50S and 50R have proven very popular, especially with studio and landscape photographers.

Technology, technology, technology

The past ten years has seen a lot of technological development in the field of photography – not least in the smartphone arena. But in the camera industry, two companies really made the running at the beginning: Samsung and Sony. Arguably, no other manufacturer did as much as either of these players in the first half of the decade to shift our expectations of what digital cameras could do.

I remember as far back as 2007, even before I joined the team at DPReview, being invited to focus-group sessions with Samsung in London to give notes and feedback on prototype cameras and concept drawings. Samsung was really serious about making a difference in the photography space, and its ambitions culminated in the NX1: one of the most capable mirrorless ILCs ever made. Throughout the process of developing the NX-series, Samsung was perhaps the most proactive of all the manufacturers in seeking feedback from industry journalists and incorporating our notes and suggestions in new firmware versions.

That feeling of collaboration, especially around the development of the NX1, remains one of the highlights of my career, even if it did make the NX1 a very difficult camera to review, since Samsung kept on making changes to it!

Sadly, Samsung left the field before the full potential of its NX system could be realized (one of the few great ‘what ifs?’ of the photo world) but it was very clear that Sony, on the other hand, was in it for the long-haul.

What we might call the ‘democratization’ of full-frame and larger sensors started in the 2000s, but it was in the past decade when really good larger-sensor cameras became really affordable. High-resolution stalwarts like Nikon’s D800-series, and Canon’s slowly-evolving 5D-series (including the sometimes overlooked super high-res 5DS/R) and less costly ‘entry-level’ options like the Canon EOS 6D and Nikon D600-series, all helped put full-frame into the hands of more photographers than ever before. I remember the original 36MP Nikon D800 being something of a wonder, at a time when 24MP was still considered more resolution than most people really needed. Resolution was one thing, but the dynamic range benefits of Sony’s dual-gain sensors actually changed the way I shoot, permanently.

In the five years it took Canon and Nikon to create full-frame mirrorless mounts, Sony had released seven a7 and a9-series ILCs

Which brings us to Sony: arguably the most important manufacturer of the entire decade, in this industry. When it was still evolving what had been the Minolta A-mount, Sony had made a handful of full-frame DSLRs alongside a range of innovative ‘SLT’ cameras, which were sort of a halfway point between traditional SLRs and a pure digital experience. It took quite a while before this experimentation paid off in significant market share, but in the 2010s, with the launch of the mirrorless E-mount, things really took off.

Sony was first to market with a full-frame mirrorless lineup, and – probably more than any of the other major players – really created the expectation that mirrorless could be a viable alternative to DSLR. In the five years it took Canon and Nikon to create full-frame mirrorless mounts, Sony had released nine a7 and a9-series ILCs, and in that time had taken a considerable technological lead in many key areas, including on-sensor autofocus. It’s also worth noting that many of the digital ILCs, and the majority of the compact cameras sold today contain Sony-made sensors – something that has actually been true across the whole of the last decade.

As a technology journalist, I will always be grateful to Sony for keeping us busy and injecting some energy into the industry at a time when we were resigned to cautious, incremental releases from most other manufacturers.

Summing-up

A lot has happened in the world of photography since 2010. The past decade didn’t see quite the same breathless pace of camera development (and heady sales) that characterized the first ten years of the 21st Century, but there’s been plenty of progress, and the digital photography landscape in 2019 is certainly radically different how compared to how it was 2010.

In some ways of course it’s a poorer and more frightening place: certainly for camera manufacturers. The decade began in the shadow of the worst global economic crisis since the 1930s, and in 2012, a devastating earthquake and tsunami caused enormous loss of life and considerable disruption to manufacturing centers in Japan.

Meanwhile, as apps like Instagram and Snapchat turned photographs into units of social exchange, a whole generation stopped buying dedicated cameras. Ironic, perhaps, but totally logical, given that the cameras in smartphones make that process easier, and they keep on getting better, and better, and better. Looking ahead, it seems inevitable that the next ‘revolution’ in digital imaging will be courtesy of so-called ‘computational photography’. That’s a pretty easy prediction to make, given that it’s already underway.

As apps like Instagram and Snapchat turned photographs into units of social exchange, a whole generation stopped buying dedicated cameras.

So that was my decade in digital photography. A period which spanned disasters (both natural and man-made) major technological advances and upheavals, and some major personal upheavals too: a move to the US in 2010 being chief among them. My colleague Richard (another 10+ year veteran of DPReview) will be penning his own look back in Part 2 of our 2010s retrospective, focusing on developments in autofocus and video, so keep an eye on our homepage for that.

While the industry we’re reporting on now is quite different to the industry we joined way back in 2006 / 7 (my three years at Amateur Photographer Magazine in London overlapped with Richard’s first couple of years at DPReview), I truly believe that there’s never been a better time to be an enthusiast photographer. Thanks for joining us on the journey, and I hope you’ll join me in raising a glass to the next ten years.