DSLR Price Drops: Let the Battle for the Family Digital Photographer Begin

DSLR Price Drops: Let the Battle for the Family Digital Photographer Begin


The recent announcement of the $599 D40 from Nikon is just the beginning of an anticipated flood of announcements from DSLR makers and signals more reasonably priced units on the way. By the time this makes print we’ll probably have more such announcements, particularly as the CES and PMA season begins. Granted, this is a 6-megapixel sensor camera, but that might just be right for the audience Nikon has defined for this camera. And despite the lower price it’s no laggard when it comes to features and Nikon’s advanced image processor. In truth, if users don’t anticipate going beyond 11×14 prints (which are easily achieved with this and similar 6MP models with a judicious amount of image upsizing via resampling), then this compact unit might be just the ticket. Clearly, Nikon is not about to give ground to other DSLR makers vying for the family photographer dollar.

I can’t help but wonder what affect this trend will have on integral lens, and particularly EVF (electronic viewfinder) type digital cameras, many of which are in this price range already. My gut feeling is that the effect will be profound, and that we might see a dropoff in EVF intros (of which we have few coming anyway), and especially on higher priced integral lens models. Now it all depends on how these lower priced units are marketed to these consumers, whose numbers are going to grow. In fact, a chief integral lens shutter camera design flaw has left the door wide open for a strong DSLR appeal to the family photographer market.

Lagging Behind

Yes, integral lens cameras—let’s call them digicams—have come a long way, and now we have 7-10 MP models with huge screens, diminutive sizes, long range zooms and some rather amazing technology. Menus have become easier to read and navigate and image sharing has become even more fun, like with the WiFi models finally seeing the light of day.

But digicams do have a big problem, especially for family photographers who want to record the lives of their ever-active kids. And it’s been a dirty little secret for quite a while, something not bragged about in the ads. In two words, it’s shutter lag. Anyone who has attempted to photograph children at play, in the backyard or on the soccer field, knows what shutter lag means. You press the shutter release button and wait…and wait…and in photography a second or even half a second is an eternity. By the time the camera decides what the focus and exposure will be the subject is gone and the shot is lost. Yes, experienced users can cut down on this by setting up the shot prior to exposure by putting light pressure on the shutter to give the systems a head start. But that’s not always possible, and it’s not something this market segment appreciates, or even understands. And if the camera all those soccer moms and dads use does not yield satisfactory results they’ll be wide open for any pitch that a DSLR maker can throw at them about getting the shot when they press the shutter release, without delay, especially if the price difference between the DSLR and the digicam is minimal.

I recently attended a kids’ soccer tournament and conversations were struck up with some of the parents and grandparents taking shots of their darting darlings. Those who had a DSLR were snapping happily away; those with integral lens cameras seemed frustrated by the fact that all they could get were group shots, and not action photos. And, when they talked with those using DSLRs they quickly saw the difference a camera can make.

Even those with long-range zoom models with image stabilization were feeling frustrated. Yes, they could get closer from the sidelines, but the camera still stalled (and it was more likely the shots would be out of focus anyway.) When these zoom models came out this segment adopted them as the answer, soon to come up against the same bothersome lag time. Yes, everyone likes the movie clip feature in these and shorter zoom ratio models, but if a budget DSLR shows up with a similar feature my feeling is that the family segment will take to it in droves.

There’s no question that there is some amazing technology in integral lens cameras, and features such as wireless e-mail transmission are quite amazing. But if shutter lag problems are not solved, and DSLRs keep dropping in price, then the integral lens digital category is in for a rough road ahead. They just get in the way of spontaneous photography, which is what photographing kids is all about. (By the way, that’s why cell phone cameras, although fun and convenient, will never be a threat to even the lowest price DSLR. And in general the image quality of these cell phone cameras is so abysmal that photographers see them for what they are—toys, but not photographic instruments for capturing all the moments of their lives.)

Cam phone effect

Cell phonecams, however, are doing one thing—knocking down the price, and the introductions of lower MP digicams. Not very long ago the 3MP digicam was the rage…then the 4…all the way up to those 10MP units we see today. I hear rumors that a 12MP digicam will showcase soon. We’ll have to see how packing all those pixels on relatively small chips works out, and we suspect that this will be a very heavily processed image. But I would also say that even at 12MP the unresolved shutter lag problem will mean trouble for these necessarily higher priced models.

Of course, there will always be folks who remain intimidated by any kind of SLR. It was the case in film days and remains so today. And OTUC (disposable) film cameras still sell. But given the frustration many users feel with their integral lens digital cameras, and how they miss so many shots, perhaps a point-and-shoot type DSLR will begin to make more sense. True, the D40 is not just that, but its price point sure could give the digicam segment a run.

Of course, as prices get driven down the issue of profitability comes to the fore, and at these price points market share will be the key. And, with a DSLR there comes accessory sales, which the camera makers hope will include their lenses. As we saw at Photokina, lens makers are making hay while the DSLR sun shines, and hopefully all will bask in that glow. But one thing is certain – we’ll see lots more affordable DSLRs from just about every manufacturer. And then the megapixel race, with the bar set by the D40 at 6MP, can begin all over again.

No Slowdown in ‘06 Digicam Sales

While early 2006 projections were calling for a slowdown in 2006 digital camera sales, it appears as though those claims weren’t very accurate. NPD tells us that over 30 million digital cameras will be sold this year, double that of 2003, and almost 5 million more than were sold in 2005 (25.2 million). But, as is to be expected, due to lower prices, revenue growth has slipped, with total sales in dollars up only 12 percent in the first 11 months of the year, down from 19 percent growth last year. Those that follow this market most closely claim that price drops are fueling the surge pointing to the fact that a typical 6 megapixel camera can be had for approximately $150, about half its price from a year ago.

Nikon has entered the sub $600 DSLR race with the announcement of the D40 – a lightweight, 6-megapixel model targeted at the “family photographer”.

The changes Canon has made in the Rebel XTi speak very clearly to the new audience that has emerged for DSLRs – the younger, less experienced shooter who simply wants better images and more control.