Plugged In: Thin margins separate profit from camera failure

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Although the present is often said to be a “golden era” for photographers, it’s been tough sailing financially for camera makers. That rough weather has occurred even though digital camera bodies are typically replaced every few years as sensor technology improves.

In the film era, existing film cameras could be “upgraded” to the latest and greatest imaging technology merely by switching to a better film. In contrast, digital camera sensors are so integrated electronically that upgrading imaging capabilities requires buying a brand-new camera body. That seems wasteful, but as with so many modern electronic devices, even kitchen appliances, it’s less expensive and more effective to simply replace an item.

One would suppose that this constant replacement process would be great news for camera makers, selling a new camera body every few years rather than once or twice a decade. Even though prices for most electronic equipment normally drops over time, that’s not necessarily true for camera gear, which remains predominantly mechanical and optical. Despite more-frequent camera body purchases and strong consumer interest in digital photography, nearly all camera makers have been on the thin edge of financial viability for years because of tight profit margins on consumer cameras.

Recently, though, Sony, Fujifilm and Olympus all report that their camera divisions are again headed toward profitability. Those improvements resulted from each company focusing on higher-end compact-system cameras while abandoning consumer products and moving-mirror digital SLR cameras.

A fourth major CSC maker, Panasonic, has not released separate financial results for its camera division recently. However, Panasonic has posted strong sales of several higher-end Micro Four-Thirds cameras, including its tiny GM1 and the top-tier GH4, the first affordable camera capable of recording 4K super high-resolution video directly onto the camera’s SD memory card.

Even though overall digital camera sales have declined by nearly half over the past few years, higher-end CSC camera sales continue to improve globally, although not in the slow-to-change U.S. market. Those consistent financial turnarounds are a persuasive indicator that compact system cameras will dominate within a few years.

Despite their excellent products, companies like Nikon and Pentax are bucking the global market trend with their continuing dependence on strong sales of dSLR cameras. That’s never a sure bet, especially because moving-mirror dSLR units cost more to produce than CSC cameras.

Among CSC makers, Korea-based Samsung has historically garnered little attention from knowledgeable users. That should change with the company’s recent release of more competitive products. While I believe that serious photographers will be drawn more toward Sony, Fujifilm and Micro Four-Thirds CSC cameras, Samsung’s current cameras nicely fit the casual needs of the knowledgeable consumers for whom they’re targeted. Some nationally prominent professional photographers like Kirk Tuck have written approvingly of the newer Samsung models.

I’ll admit to some bias against prior Samsung products. Until recently, Samsung’s sleekly styled consumer cameras lagged the competition in sensor quality, range of natively mounted lenses and software support.

That’s changed over the past year or so. Adobe now fully supports Samsung’s current interchangeable-lens models. Samsung’s 20-megapixel APS-C sensors are now generally comparable with other leading brands. The range of available automatic native-mount Samsung lenses, while not as broad as available for Micro Four-Thirds cameras, is adequate, though lacking higher-magnification telephoto lenses.

Generally, Samsung’s lenses are more reasonably priced than the competition, and some are quite good. However, Samsung cameras do not include in-body image-stabilization hardware and not all lenses are image stabilized. Samsung’s lenses are apparently autofocus, auto-exposure versions of Korean-made manual lenses widely sold for a variety of cameras under the Samyang/Rokinon/Bower brand names.

As you might expect from a major consumer electronics maker, Samsung’s digital cameras tend to be well suited to wireless use and come in a wide variety of colors, with larger than average rear LCD screens, and a licensed copy of Adobe Lightroom 5. Some of the more expensive models use the Android system familiar to owners of Samsung’s cellphones.

Illustration 1 — Samsung NX30 NX300 NX3000 NX mini Olympus E-P5 front view.

Illustration 1 — Samsung NX30, NX300, NX3000, NX mini, and Olympus E-P5, front view.

Today’s Illustration 1 shows, from left to right, front views of Samsung’s NX30, NX300, NX3000, NX Mini and Olympus’ E-P5 Micro Four-Thirds camera for consistent size comparison. Illustration 2 shows top views of the same cameras equipped with the most compact electric zoom lens available for that camera. Note that only the larger NX30 has an eye-level electronic viewfinder, although the Olympus E-P5 kit includes a very good detachable EVF rebranded by Leica for its digital cameras.

Illustration 2 — Samsung NX30, NX300, NX3000 with 16- to 50-mm electric zoom, Samsung NX mini with 9- to 27-mm zoom, and Olymp

Illustration 2 — Samsung NX30, NX300, NX3000 with 16- to 50-mm electric zoom, Samsung NX mini with 9- to 27-mm zoom, and Olympus E-P5, top view.

Of the rather wide variety of current Samsung models, the compact NX2000 and NX3000 seem particularly good values. For about $500, Samsung sells the slim and compact NX3000 body that accepts interchangeable lenses, a lower-end 16- to 50-mm f/3.5 to f/5.6 ultrawide-angle through short-telephoto kit lens, a small detachable flash and Lightroom 5.

The somewhat older NX2000 is even less expensive, as low as $299 at Bhphotovideo.com, including Samsung’s well-regarded 20- to 50-mm kit zoom lens. That’s a pretty decent starter kit for a student or casual photographer at a very reasonable price. A two-lens NX2000 kit that also includes the 50- to 200-mm telephoto zoom lens retails for $499.

Despite its low price, I’ve been impressed by the sharpness of out-of-camera JPEG photographs made by the NX3000 when used with a really good (read, “expensive”) prime lens like Samsung’s 60-mm macro lens.

One step up from the NX3000 is Samsung’s NX300, a somewhat more capable model offered in two versions, the basic NX300 ($572 with 18- to 55-mm kit lens) and the $800 NX300M, which Samsung claims to be capable of 3D video and still photos.

Also priced in the $800 range is Samsung’s NX30, a larger SLR-styled camera with more advanced features that’s recently garnered positive reviews at professional review websites. Although bulkier than the other models due to its SLR styling and eye-level electronic viewfinder, the NX30’s image quality is about the same as other current Samsung cameras.

Samsung also makes a highly compact NX mini ($499 with kit zoom lens) that uses a 1-inch size sensor comparable to those found in Sony’s RX100 and Nikon’s 1 Series cameras. I haven’t seen much information yet about the NX mini, but there’s no question that it’s an exceptionally compact interchangeable lens camera. However, given the small size, low price and good performance of Samsung’s APS-C compacts like the NX3000, I personally would tend toward those cameras using larger APS-C sensors unless extreme compactness was critical.

Among Samsung lenses, assuming correctly assembled copies, the 30-mm “normal range” prime lens is sharp, as are the 60-mm f/2.8 macro, 16-mm f/2.4 ultrawide-angle and 45-mm f/1.8 prime lenses. The 85-mm f/1.4 telephoto/portrait prime lens is very sharp, as it should be for its $799 price. Among kit zoom lenses, Samsung’s 18- to 55-mm tests as adequately sharp.

Although not a famous camera brand like Nikon, Canon or Olympus, Samsung’s most recent cameras offer quite adequate image quality and value, making them a good choice for students and casual photographers stepping up to an interchangeable lens compact system camera.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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