The Interchangeable Lens Market: Compact,Creative,Competitive

The Interchangeable Lens Market: Compact,Creative,Competitive

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Despite the country's slow economic recovery, consumers are snapping up DSLR cameras at a steady pace. According to a recent U.S. InfoTrends' forecast, the industry can expect continued increases in units shipped in the course of the next five years.

Why? First and foremost, the price of many DSLR cameras is enticing enthusiasts to upgrade from point-and-shoots. In addition, many consumers are intrigued by some of the new product, such as the Micro Four-Thirds cameras, now hitting the market, along with Samsung's hybrid cameras and Sony's recently intro'd NEX system.

The current trend in DSLRs, says Sally Smith Clemens, Product Manager, Olympus, is small, light and versatile. “The appeal of the smaller interchangeable lens camera is their really small form factor,” she explains. “It's really about the size, the weight and the ability to carry a body and maybe three lenses in a purse, which sounds nuts when you think about it.”

Smith Clemens believes the smaller form factor is very appealing to both men and women, especially those who've used DSLRs. She says they like the idea of a small rangefinder-type body for those occasions when they don't want to carry a large bag of gear. “The compact camera can be used to compliment an existing SLR system,” she says. “It's a secondary system for times when they want to travel light, but don't want to give up the focal range they're accustomed to.”

Of course, as with any new technology, the majority of consumers have no clue they even exist. And the assumption, not surprisingly, says Smith Clemens, when it comes to these new compact DSLRs, is they are point-and-shoots. “[Consumers] don't realize the same lenses for DSLRs are available for these cameras, as well.”

Thanks to new technology, lenses can be crafted into much smaller designs; it's a big deal because they have the same functionality, level of sophistication, array of menus, etc., as their larger counterparts.

“Consumers who understand the concept and embrace it, she notes, are excited about the new cameras.” The early adopter in this case isn't the mass consumer; it's the hardened enthusiast and professional photographer with a strong photo background. “These are the folks who have been waiting for years for a rangefinder-type digital body with interchangeable lenses with a large sensor,” states Smith Clemens.

Cute & Compact Makes an Impact

Micro Four Thirds was the first new kid on the block, and the concept has since exploded. “It set up a whirlwind,” says Smith Clemens, “because they got it right away—large sensor, small body, interchangeable lenses and adaptors that allowed [consumers] to use their existing lenses on these same small bodies. It is a little bit of a learning curve for the mass consumer,” she admits, “because when they go to their local camera store, whether it's a large CE store or smaller photo specialty store, they see a lot of cameras in the show case, many of which are traditional DSLRs and not the new, smaller interchangeable lens cameras. It's a learning process now, and it's the responsibility of manufacturers like Olympus to educate its customers—the salespeople behind the counter—so they in turn can educate consumers.” Smith Clemens says how the cameras are marketed is also important, and Olympus is using social media as one way to get the word out.

The best way to sell lenses is to have the product in stock and put it in customer's hands. “Sometimes retailers have a basic kit with a mid-range zoom, but not other lenses on hand,” states Smith Clemens, who adds the company is keen on in-store demonstrations for end-users. “We offer to have reps on hand for in-store demos for stores that aren't stocking a full line of accessory lenses right away. This way, at least they can have opportunities to advertise that reps will be available to show [product], which can generate some interest.”

For retailers trying to sell the newer platform to its customer base, showing the system side-by-side with a DSLR is important. The more visual and the more interactive the demo, the more engaging it will be to the consumer.”

At Sony, Mark Weir, Senior Technical Manager for the Digital Imaging Group, sees a trend in premium quality lenses. “New lenses of very high quality are being introduced as new models and as updates to existing models. Lens technology is continuing to improve with an increased use of aspheric elements, extra-low-dispersion glass and advanced coatings, all of which provide opportunities for better optical performance. Some manufacturers have upgraded classic designs, while others have introduced all new models,” notes Weir. “Premium quality lenses always appeal to enthusiasts and pro-sumers as they understand their value. The higher resolution image sensors found in modern DSLRs are more dependent than ever on the optical performance and descriptive power of premium lenses. High quality, wide aperture lenses are an essential element for getting the most out of modern DSLRs.”

Weir also sees a trend in video optimized interchangeable lenses. “As interchangeable lens still cameras are increasingly used for video capture, lenses are being introduced that are better suited for this application. As the design of traditional interchangeable lenses didn't anticipate video, focus and iris mechanisms were rarely (if ever) optimized for quiet and speedy operation. Video optimized lenses are important for anyone using an interchangeable lens camera for video capture. Better lenses not only deliver better image quality and faster AF, they are crucial for noise-free audio recording.”

Consumers Get Creative

There is a segment of the consumer market looking at entry-level DSLRs because they are no longer satisfied with just documenting their lives—they want to be creative, and so have gone in search of things—software, lenses and more—to help them on that journey.

As you might expect, a manufacturer like Lensbaby wants to help. The first Lensbaby lens was developed for professional photographers by company co-founder and President, Craig Strong. “Most times,” states Greg Sharp, VP Sales, Lensbaby, “when you try to create a product that will hit the masses and be as widely accepted as possible, you get in at the bottom of the distribution chain. Craig flipped the scenario on its head by reaching to the professional first.”

Pros began using it for commercial work to differentiate their portfolios, he notes. Then the pro-sumer—photographers that buy the newest technology in an effort to emulate the pros—jumped on board. “Over time,” says Sharp, “as price and technology advanced and made DSLRs widely available to the masses, [Lensbaby] started reaching down from pro-sumer into the enthusiast market—the hobbyist that has a digital SLR.

“We figure the heart of the market is the bottom end of the pro-sumer,” Sharp continued, “which includes all the enthusiasts and a little bit of the point-and-shoot folks. That said, having such a wide target audience, we really have to make sure we're paying attention to all of them. We have to honor the pro that got us to where we are today, and be ever-conscious of the value proposition for the up-and-coming shooter who wants to consider us as an option. It's a unique situation that we're really playing across multiple audiences.”

To attract photographers of all levels, Lensbaby is utilizing social media and networking to develop a relationship with its customers and followers. The goal is to both engage and educate them. “We're reaching out not only to the customers we have but encouraging new folks to come on board with an ongoing educational process. The other piece is utilizing the e-com platform that's out there today,” says Sharp, who notes that, according to studies, 70 percent of retail purchases are influenced by online research.

The company also wants to create a return path for customers so it's constantly innovating and improving its products, some of which will launch at Photokina. “Every time we launch a new product, it validates everything we're doing,” says Strong. “It's not just a cute little toy, it's a serious system, and each piece gets better, more innovative, and works with more and more products. In the end,” says Sharp, “it's great to have all these products in your bag, but if you're not using them, then we're not helping you be creative.”

Hence, Lensbaby has partnered with the Digital Photo Academy and 60 professional photographers throughout the country that will conduct workshops to bring Lensbaby training events to retailers. Lensbaby will utilize each retailer's customer list to send an e-mail blast offering free Lensbaby clinics. Sample lenses will be sent to the reseller in advance, so when customers arrive for a workshop they have a lens to work with. Then they'll go on a photo op in the field to capture great images with the Lensbaby product. “It's a unique in-depth experience,” concludes Sharp.

And speaking of creativity—with an eye on the burgeoning 3D market, Panasonic recently released a twin-lens digital interchangeable lens for their Lumix G Micro Systems cameras to make 3D shooting possible with an interchangeable lens system camera.

They explain that the 3D lens will allow high-quality shooting in 3D and give consumers the opportunity to create their own 3D content.

“This new compact 3D-capable interchangeable lens allows easier handling and instant 3D shooting with cameras without a special structure for 3D shooting. It produces 3D images without distortion or time lag between left and right images, even for moving objects. The 3D images, even close-up shots, taken with this lens are easy on the eyes when viewed on 3D VIERA televisions,” the company told us.

The Big Two Weigh-in

With all this talk about “new” camera systems and lenses, the two major players in this market, Canon and Nikon, continue their ping-pong match for superiority in the DSLR market by adding new innovations to their lens offerings as well.

“Canon's core has always been our optics, and we are constantly challenging ourselves to produce better and more advanced optical systems for our customers. The recent new products we've introduced advance the state of the art in Canon lens technology and provide new and innovative tools for professionals and advanced amateur photographers,” stated Yuichi Ishizuka, Executive Vice President and General Manager, Consumer Imaging Group, Canon U.S.A.

Among those new lens announcements from Canon that certainly address the consumers' thirst for creativity is what they are calling the world's widest fisheye zoom lens, providing professional photographers and cinematographers with a unique optical tool for capturing 180º angle-of-view shots on all EOS DSLR cameras.

Nikon has had a busy summer on the lens front as well with a slew (nine to be exact) of big announcements. At the core of all the new lens releases is Nikon's promise to allow photographers “the ability to take their still and video work to new heights.”

Innovations such as VR II Image Stabilization, Nano-Crystal Coating and Silent Wave Motor technology are at the core of Nikon's lens offerings and are just a few of the newer features dealers need to delve into with their customers.

Both companies feel the new audience that has developed in the DSLR market needs some hand-holding with regard to a lens purchase and their new offerings all have very specific selling points to match to each segment of the market.

What's Selling?

According to Mason Resnick, Editor of Adorama's Learning Center, “kit” lenses are always popular since they are usually sold with consumer-level DSLR bodies. However, consumers hunger for optics that will transform what they see into something uniquely photographic.

“A typical second lens after a DSLR purchase is a telephoto zoom—a 55-200mm or something similar,” explains Resnick. “Many photographers go for an ultrawide zoom, in the 10-20mm range. Others end up buying a macro lens for the second or third lens in their arsenal; these lenses open up a new world to explore visually, and that builds enthusiasm for photography as a hobby and often is accompanied by other purchases, such as tripods or macro flash.”

Resnick says Lensbaby is also a popular choice. “Lensbaby's unique large-format-like movements and variety of apertures can transform reality in a way that has captured the attention of fine art-oriented photographers; the brand is growing in popularity as a result.”

Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony and Olympus lenses are also steady sellers at Adorama thanks to their consistently outstanding quality. “But,” notes Resnick, “bargain hunters often prefer Sigma, Tamron or Tokina lenses, which offer excellent quality and performance at a significantly lower cost.”

Finally, according to InfoTrends' major study, “Digital SLRs and Other Interchangeable Lens Cameras: A Multi-Client Study,” future Digital ILCs buyers include consumers that currently own a Digital ILC that are looking to buy an additional or replacement camera, and compact camera users that want to upgrade, among others. Mette Eriksen, a Director at InfoTrends, concluded, “To fully capitalize on this market, vendors must give compact camera owners a reason to upgrade to a Digital ILC. Promoting ease-of-use is one way of appealing to compact camera owners who are looking to upgrade to better quality without needing to be a camera buff.”

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