In the build-up to Photokina this week, I've been thinking about just how much time we, the photo industry press, spend covering equipment at the top of the heap. Look back at the new product coverage from this past week on this site and others and you'll note that a Canon EOS 5D Mark II announcement earns about five times the number of words allotted to a Canon PowerShot SD880 IS. From one angle, this is nothing short of laughable. I haven't checked the numbers, but it's probably a fair estimate that Canon will sell five times as many SD880s over the next year as there are potential customers, even, for the 5D Mark II. In terms of actual sales, it won't even be close.
Some of the justifications for this general skew in coverage may be obvious to many: the technologies developed for top tier cameras today set the pace for what we'll see in mass consumer models tomorrow. And to an extent, at least, this idea is true. The latest PowerShots are already benefiting, in fact, from the technological prowess of Canon's elite DIGIC IV processor. Along similar lines, look at how much the EXPEED processing concept has done to improve Nikon's Coolpix cameras in the last few years.
There's also the (often valid) argument that there's simply less to talk about in terms of new technology the farther you go down a manufacturer's hierarchy, encouraging this inverse news coverage relationship. The most popular cameras with general consumers are often the ones that are the most "parts binned" – assembled from several long-running, proven technologies into a device that works reliably and without fuss. Manufacturers deserve praise for building great cameras on the low end of the line, but if the guts of the device have been transplanted from previous models, there simply may not be a lot to talk about when we're trying to put the "new" in "news."
But there's something else at work in the buzz around the latest pro-grade tech – something more about psychology than technology. To slightly modify a phrase employed by DCR technology maven Jerry Jackson this week, call it the "aspiration factor."
Consider Pentax's DSLR line, for instance: there's a perception – in spite of photographic results to the contrary – that having a semi-pro model like the Pentax K20D (or until very recently, Sony's A700) as your top option in system puts you at risk of "topping out" at some point – of reaching a photographic skill level that exceeds the capabilities of available equipment. And I don't want to sound like I'm coming down too hard on the sublimated ego side of the process either: upgrading equipment, and even dreaming about new technological toys, is fun for us photography geeks. Hence, having somewhere to reach up to is important for many buyers making a DSLR investment, especially.
Regardless of the complexity of motivations involved, the point remains that (to draw an analogy) amateur photographers are for the most part buying Chevys. But that doesn't mean they're not thinking about Cadillacs.
If you're convinced by the aspiration argument, it's hard not to look at the case of a company like Pentax, for instance – a company without a lot of "pro product" presence at the moment – and not see the consequences of ignoring the top end of the market. Pentax has, by their own admission and the admission of weak financials during much of the last year, struggled to remain competitive in a crowded field, in spite of continued development of consumer DSLRs that perform solidly and provide good value. The reasons for Pentax's difficulties of late may well be multivalent, but one argument suggests that without a camera at the top to build excitement, bringing in customers on the bottom rungs of the ladder is made that much more difficult.
Pursuing this line of thinking to its logical end, if I were running the show at Pentax (which, thankfully for the brand and its customers, I'm not and never will be), priority number one would be the fast-tracked development of a true pro-level DSLR (35 point AF, 6 fps continuous shooting, an integrated battery grip and full weather sealing, maybe even that Samsung full frame sensor we've been hearing about – that sort of thing). Not because this kind of camera will sell lots of units: it won't. But if you're Pentax, what you're investing in in this case is some technological muscle flexing. Consider the development of the "K1000D Pro" – or whatever you care to call the thing – a marketing campaign investment, in essence, but with the added benefit that your primary advertising instruments also retail for about $2500 apiece.
The bottom line, in my opinion, is that like it or not, we're stuck with this line of "aspirational" thinking in the camera world for the foreseeable future. Hence, it would make sense for manufacturers like Pentax to get in the pro game: ironically, the very future of their consumer cameras may depend on it.