Dear camera manufacturers, here's how not to become obsolete

Dear camera manufacturers, I’ve been one of your loyal customers. I’ve had a Canon SLR camera for more than 15 years, and played around with all sorts of cameras since I was 2 years old. But today I find myself less and less inclined to take my camera out for a spin, and that’s not for a lack of inspiration. You’re probably already aware that people haven’t stopped taking photos — they just use their smartphones to do so.  According to some sources, shipments of standalone digital cameras almost halved in 2013. I don’t want this to continue. I’ve spent some of the best moments of my life taking photos of people I love and objects that impress me. I believe that even when everyone has a smartphone with a great camera, there will still be a place for standalone cameras. But to reach this place, you need to change. Here are 5 things you can do:

Fix your chargers

In a recent trip, I had a bag stolen with my camera charger inside. Looking to buy a new one, I discovered that the official one from Canon costs at least £30. It’s a bulky box and comes with a very long cable that only fits UK plugs:

So I bought this one instead:

Yes, it’s a made-in-who-knows-where knockoff. But it cost £5.99, it’s slightly more compact than the Canon one, and it comes with UK/EU/American swappable plugs as well as a car adaptor. Guess what, camera manufacturers — a lot of your customers are likely to use your cameras when travelling, and hate having to get extra adaptors. While we’re at it, why don’t all cameras support charging via USB (since they tend to have a USB port anyway)?

Make disposable cameras

“Disposable cameras?” I hear you say. “Didn't these die together with film?” Let me explain: I love my iPhone camera and the millions of interesting things I can do with it,  shooting time-lapse videos for example. But would I leave my iPhone unattended in a corner to shot a time-lapse? Would I strap it on my bike to get an interesting viewpoint? Or would I happily take it out and use it in the rain?

Definitely not, as I don’t want a £500 piece of kit to be stolen or damaged. What I’d love to have is a cheap camera that I can hang off a tree or strap on my bike and I won’t cry if it breaks or goes missing. That’s what I call a “disposable” camera, and it already exists - I bought it for £26.99 on eBay and it’s not made by any of the big camera brands. The 808 #18 keychain camera (pictured right) shoots decent-quality 720p video and also has a time-lapse feature, looping video, and motion-activated triggering (so you could use it to photograph visiting wildlife for example). It’s tiny and weighs less than 20 grams. People have hung it from helium baloons, flown it on kites, attached it to quadcopters and used it for underwater filming. When most images and videos are made to be shared, a unique viewpoint matters more than image quality. You can tap into this by making cameras where such viewpoints can be achieved without much risk.

Build a platform, not just individual products

Not many people realise that today’s digital cameras are essentially small computers with a lens and an image sensor bolted on. Those who realised have gone on to hack cameras and load their own custom software such as CHDK and Magic Lantern. This has allowed photographers to do all sorts of amazing things, from capturing lightning strikes to amazing astrophotography.

Why should this only be available to those willing to take the risk of tinkering with their camera? Why don’t you provide a better way for people to maximise their creative use of your hardware? If a $150 smartwatch can have its own app store, why can’t your $500+ cameras?

Promote your products better

I just went into a camera manufacturer’s website and clicked on the first product I could see. The following screenshot summarises everything that’s wrong about promoting camera products today: Remember, your website is no longer just a brochure. With high-street camera shops shutting down, websites are one of the few places where your potential customers can experience your products. Fortunately, it’s not that hard to fix your websites — you just need to:

  • Show how your products fit in the context where you want them to be: in your customers hands and bags
  • Stop talking about features with obscure names, and start talking about what these features help your customers shoot better photos (“you can control it via your iPhone” vs. “it has built-in Wi-Fi”)
  • Use before/after photos to show how each feature works (if the feature doesn’t have an impact that’s easy to spot in a photo, why are you even talking about it?)
  • Show full-size, zoomable photos taken in a variety of situations where you expect people to use that camera

Remind people to use their cameras

 

Even with your best efforts to create and promote an amazing product, we’re all humans living in an age full of distractions. So there’s still a chance that we end up buying a great camera, only to leave it sitting on a shelf for an extended period of time. Such disengaged customers are much less likely to feel they get any value out of their camera, let alone buy another one in the future. I've already mentioned that your cameras are little computers, and many of them now come with built-in Wi-Fi. Which means that they could be easily associated with a user account, and collect usage statistics. And if they sit idle, they could remind customers to use them. Imagine if after a period of inactivity cameras could send their owners an email. The purpose of that email would be to provide a range of ideas to make a photographer excited enough to pick up a camera again. Based on what your camera manufacturer knows about you, they could propose:

  • Events near you with a photographic interest (such as art exhibitions or music festivals)
  • Photographic challenges and competitions that you could take part in
  • Features of your camera (such as macro photography or slow-motion video) that you haven’t had a chance to explore yet

So, here are a few things you can do. But you need to be quick — some of these opportunities won’t last for long. I, for one, will be watching closely and hoping my current camera won’t be my last one. Kind regards, Alex

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