HEART & SOUL
The camera isn’t just another consumer electronics appliance. It’s a fact Samsung appears to have learned the hard way as it exits the still camera business (although there’s actually yet to be a formal announcement), having failed to make any real inroad
The irony here, though, is that while Samsung did indeed initially treat cameras like any other of its (many) CE lines, there had been a dramatic turnaround with its last NX Series models, particularly the exceptional NX1. Here was a camera designed by somebody who really understood the requirements of today’s market while also incorporating plenty of forward thinking. The NX1 proved that Samsung did indeed know about cameras, but it seems to have just been a little too late, the brand never quite gaining traction in the enthusiast and professional end of the market. Pity really… it was arguably close to being the best SLR-style ‘APS-C’ mirrorless camera on the market.
It’s been suggested that Samsung failed here because it didn’t have a ‘photographic heritage’, but neither do either Sony or Panasonic, and both are doing very well across the board. No, Samsung’s downfall was that it believed its own publicity and thought it could just sweep into the photo market and grab a hefty share based simply on the strength of its branding elsewhere. What it didn’t have, then, was any understanding of what a camera means to the serious photographer. It’s not just a piece of equipment. While features and performance are, of course, important elements, photographers have a more intimate relationship with their cameras that’s bound up in the psychologies and emotions associated with creative endeavours. If you’re putting your heart and soul into something, there has to be more to it than simply technology and clinically precise electronics.
Olympus knows this, as the OM-D line clearly attests. So, obviously, does Fujifilm… just take a look at the new X-Pro2. And so does Sony, probably thanks to some Minolta DNA that’s still being passed down to, most notably, the A7 cameras. Does it all start with desirability? That’s clearly been the main appeal of Fujifilm’s X Series cameras, the Olympus OM-D line-up (and now the oh-so-pretty Pen-F), the A7s and quite a few of Panasonic’s Lumix models. And it’s no longer just about the ‘feel good’ aspect of retro styling either, because the practicality of, for example, good oldfashioned dials has now been proven. Sometimes the old ways are still the best ways, but with cameras the visual aspects – perhaps not so surprisingly – are an important starting point. Put simply, it has to look right – which the Samsung NX1 did. Then comes brand heritage and/or reputation (but it’s no longer at the top of the list), followed by capabilities and support. Until recently, I’d have said that lens availability was the most critical element of support, but Sony has proved this not to be the case with its A7 cameras which have been succeeding because they can be so easily adapted to run other mounts (i.e. Canon and Nikon). That said, now there’s a good selection of E-mount lenses – including those from Zeiss – to help keep up the momentum. Lens mount loyalty can no longer be considered a sure thing.
Consequently, Samsung could well have eventually succeeded if it had carried on from the NX1, because it pretty well ticked all the above boxes, except for that all-important emotional ingredient which, of course, doesn’t factor in when purchasing a washing machine, a refrigerator or even a widescreen TV. The people working at the coalface got it – many had been recruited from the photo industry anyway – but management just didn’t comprehend that it wasn’t all about the product… and it certainly wasn’t just about ‘lifestyle’. In photography, the camera essentially becomes part of you.
You work more closely with a camera than perhaps any other device, partly because there’s that very intimate physical connection when it’s held up to your eye, but mostly because it’s an extension of your imagination that turns ideas into images thereby creating a close psychological bond. Photographers often talk about “loving” a particular camera – many can’t bear to part with long-retired models because they’re the embodiment of many memories. And any designer or manufacturer who fails to appreciate the intrinsic value of this relationship will surely end up producing nothing but soulless appliances.