The “After-Lens” Market

The “After-Lens” Market


In a recent Shutterbug opinion poll, 75% of respondents reported that their choice of a new camera body was in large part determined by the lenses they already own. If there was ever a case of the tail wagging the dog then this is it. And even if the latest and greatest camera from another maker has a great leap forward in technology, most seem hesitant to lose their investment in glass that they had already made. As one respondent wrote, “I will stay with the same brand I always have so I can continue to use my lenses. The investment is too much to switch over, even if there are new features on a different brand. How many new features do we really need anyway?”

Indeed, what would it take for users to make the switch? The reason this is an important matter for manufacturers is that, according to recently published reports, we are now entering the “second body “ phase of digital camera sales; that is, more users are buying up to their second DSLR body than purchasing their first. They make the switch up to gain higher megapixel counts, new tech and because they might have learned enough to get more out of the advanced features the latest cameras offer. And along with that new body they are also considering adding to their arsenal of lenses, even though they might have glass from their first, or even a previous film camera. But you can’t get more direct about this than one respondent, who wrote, “I just bought a new body, and compatibility with my current lenses meant everything when I made my decision to purchase.”

The new Nikon D40 and D40X are interesting in this regard. While the D40, and from all reports the D40X have sold like hotcakes, users cannot get full use of past lenses not in the AF-S group. In addition, Nikon has gone from using CF cards to the new SDHC memory cards in these new cameras. While the gamble seems to have paid off, and will probably tie D40 buyers to Nikon glass, it was a break with the past. Nikon has seemed to parcel off this group and steered this camera line to new buyers, not past owners of their DSLR cameras and glass. As one respondent to our poll wrote, “I want to protect the investment in lenses; new technology should not render them obsolete. If so, why trust the new camera makers to respect the investment I am making in the new products?” Brand reputation is always important, and when tied to highly competitive pricing it is a powerful brew that Nikon has succeeded in blending with their D40 approach. It will be interesting to see if other makers respond accordingly. So far, none have gone down this road.

Love of the Lens

But brand loyalty can only go so far, and without compatibility of old to new systems, avid photographers certainly consider getting whatever strikes their fancy. This is especially true of those finally making the plunge to digital from film. Wrote one respondent to the poll, “My current lenses are Olympus OM mount, which can be mounted on the new four-thirds Olympus cameras via an adaptor, but since they do not meter couple to the camera I would need new lenses anyway, so I’m open to an entirely new system.” Even if some functions are not available when working with the new lens systems, experienced users at least can derive some benefit from maintaining their older arsenal of lenses. I often use an old Canon f/1.4 50mm lens on the new Canon DSLR bodies and am willing to compensate when required. I have no problem working in manual mode, as do most photographers who are not new to the game, and why would I want or need another fast 50mm lens?

Another key factor in maintaining lens loyalty is profitability. It’s an axiom these days that inkjet print manufacturers basically “give away” their printers to make money on the ink. While the analogy does not hold together entirely, the same can be said of camera bodies and lenses. The margins on camera bodies, which swiftly become commodities, are way lower than those on after-market lens sales. And those margins flow from maker to dealer as well. In fact, accessory sales of all sorts are seeing way more gains, in terms of percentage growth, than camera sales will for the foreseeable future. You can even see this factor in auction sites and used equipment sales, where film camera bodies of all formats have taken a recent tumble (except, of course for the venerable Leicas), but the lenses for those cameras hold their value.

In some cases new technology is just too tempting to pass up. As one respondent wrote, “I like the features for dust/anti-shake built into the camera, like the new Sony Alpha 100 and the Pentax K10D. It seems technologically backwards to build special features into each lens when you should be able to build it into the camera. Canon and Nikon are my preferences, but, I don’t want to pay for image stabilization in each lens, nor do I want to purchase a body without a dust solution.” Canon has certainly responded to this with their latest offerings, at least in terms of dust removal. But anti-shake is clearly a buzzword these days, and once photographers realize the benefits they might just make the switch to gain the extra speed advantage.

Shaken’ & Stirred

Just why does anti-shake in a body system make sense? In terms of image quality it allows users to shoot in lower light and get steadier images. That’s the apparent benefit, available in anti-shake lenses as well. But it also allows them to save money on glass. There are “fast” lenses that might yield the same benefits (such as a constant aperture f/2.8 zoom) but these are necessarily larger and quite a bit more expensive. Using an f/4.5-5.6 or so zoom with an anti-shake body saves on both size and purchase price, and gets users into the “fast” track without needing a fast lens. They become equalizers, at least in the buyers’ minds. And when compared to VR or IS lenses (in Nikon and Canon parlance, respectively), they are almost modest in their cost.

But the anti-shake competitive market is about to expand, with the recent announcements from Tamron and Sigma of their latest offerings. And speaking of independents, all those manufacturers are reaping the benefits of the growing demand in the after-market lens category. I can remember when, in the days of the “transition,” these makers were waiting with bated breath for the DSLR revolution to take hold. Now their ship seems to be coming in.

Another item in lens consideration for users is the sensor size and multiplication factor. Canon still stands alone with so-called “full frame” DSLRs, and there are no indications that any other maker will make this move. Yes, many makers still offer “dual platform” lenses, usable with 35mm, full frame DSLRs and APS-C sensor cameras. But the so-called “digital only” lenses seem to be the norm. There are those who still shoot film and digital, and the dual platform lens is their only logical choice, but those numbers seem to be diminishing, fast. And with the recent revival and growth of the four-thirds system it seems that fewer and fewer full frame lenses will be made, or sold.

In all, DSLRs have been a godsend to lens manufacturers and dealers, regardless of brand. Users now want wider-angle primes, faster zooms and an economical approach to anti-shake technology. Getting and keeping a photographer in a lens family is an important factor for every camera manufacturer. That makes “lens loyalty” a key issue that will drive growth and better sales for all.

By the way, if you are interested in results and responses to various reader marketing polls please visit and click on the Vote button on the home page. yy