If you add up all the pre-releases and deluge of new products from Leica on the first day, this year’s Photokina should have been as exciting as any other, yet the ‘fizz’ was definitely absent. It could be something to do with the flat-lining of camera sales right now which goes well beyond the impact of the smartphone because it’s not just the point-and-shoot sector that’s suffering. In fact, the P&S camera is now pretty well extinct, but everybody is working hard to generate some excitement in the other categories… especially the high-end compacts with fixed lenses and the mirrorless models. Ricoh is even having a go at jazzing up the D-SLR with the LED-festooned Pentax K-S1. Still, Photokina 2014 didn’t feel like a party. OK, so nobody puts on real parties anymore – us old timers remember with affection the sumptuous dinners staged by Kodak and Agfa – but trawling the exhibition halls this year it was hard to spot even a coffee machine, let alone a beer fridge. Hard times indeed. Weary journalists had to make the long trek back to the press centre in the sprawling Köln Messe’s northern complex which, this year, seemed even further removed from the action.
Mind you, we weren’t as weary as we once were because Photokina 2014 didn’t seem to be taking up nearly as much floorspace as before. And beyond the big brands, the stand sizes looked to be generally smaller too. The organisers noted that there were 180 first-time exhibitors at this year’s show, but the total number is still pretty much the same as last time (the casualties no doubt mostly being the Chinese makers of nondescript P&S cameras who were once in plague proportions).
Most of the 180 newcomers could be found in Hall 6 which was mostly devoted to the makers of video ‘action cams’. Here, refreshingly, there was a party atmosphere because this sector is doing well, thank you very much. Centre stage was GoPro – the company which started it all – but the imitators are now legion… along with devices for mounting them (on your dog, if you so desire) or transporting them through the air… the attack of the drones is well and truly on, and some of these devices can take a full D-SLR-based video kit aloft. Expect legislation to limit their application – it’s already happening in the USA and UK – before too long.
What the action cam makers have got right is their selling of the sizzle rather than concentrating solely on the steak. Video is dynamic and exciting (especially when it’s a multi-lensed ball you can chuck around while it records funky tumbling footage!) and nearly all these stands exuded cool. Photography has to get back to promoting the picture rather than the process. According to GfK, sales of action cameras recently exceeded those of traditional camcorders (in value terms) in most of the major markets around the world, including Australia. The segment was worth 243.4 million euros in western Europe alone last year.
Elsewhere at Photokina 2014 video was also a big story courtesy of another dynamic emerging sector of products for enthusiast video-makers as well as ‘indie’ pros. Of course, part of this market is the ‘hybrid’ D-SLRs and compact system cameras, but there are also dedicated ‘big sensor’ video cameras from the likes of RED and Blackmagic Design. Both were also newbies at this year’s Photokina and attracting plenty of attention. In case you don’t know, Blackmagic Design is a real ‘Aussie success story’, having started out in little ’ol Melbourne and subsequently expanded to become a global concern. Although it recently opened a new manufacturing facility in Singapore, the bulk of Blackmagic’s hardware production is done in Melbourne… so some high-tech fabrication is still happening in Australia.
While it’s understandable that Photokina’s organisers are happy to have GoPro, RED, BMD et al; have they invited the enemy into the camp? In the not too distant future, video isn’t going to be just about video… or, more specifically, 4K video isn’t going to be just about video. You can extract a pretty good still image (at around 8.3 megapixels resolution) from 4K footage and this is going to make 4K video cameras more appealing to photographers… reversing the market emphasis from still-cameras-with-a-video-capability to videocameras-with-a-still-capture-capability. This may not represent such a big threat at the professional end of the photography market, but video is making more inroads here too, and it’s increasingly likely to be demanded by clients from brides to builders. Furthermore, if content delivery continues to move online in preference to ink-on-paper, then moving pictures is what much of the future will be all about. Tellingly, Panasonic introduced a ‘4K Photo’ mode on its latest Lumix cameras and this can be ‘retrofitted’ to the GH4 which, while ostensibly a still camera, is being purchased by photographers for its extensive video capabilities.
Ironically, the still camera category that has struggled the most recently – digital medium format – looked to be in rude good health at Photokina 2014, if the number of new products are any measure. In addition to Leica’s ‘James Bond’ S (a.k.a. Typ 007) and its S-E stablemate, there was also Hasselblad’s H5X, the IQ150 back from Phase One and the Credo 50 back from Mamiya Leaf. None get within cooee of the Pentax 645Z for affordability, but this largely CMOS-led renaissance addresses other performance issues which may have previously limited DMF’s appeal. It’s a positive sign. And there were others at Photokina 2014 – Leica’s continued resurgence; strong showings from Sony, Panasonic and Samsung (the latter’s new NX1 being highly significant); the huge number of youngsters surging through the halls (something we’ve never witnessed before); and the continuing excitement generated by new mirrorless designs. The photo industry is facing another period of significant change, but as always, it’s those who see the opportunities, who will prosper.