Compatibility and Differentiation

It is interesting to consider camera product compatibility and differentiation, as sometimes these factors can work at cross purposes. There are photographers who feel that OMDS should make its proprietary computational photography technologies compatible with lenses from other manufacturers. And, that OMDS should expand the compatibility of these technologies further down its own product line to include less expensive lenses.

Some other photographers are upset that Canon appears to be ready to bar third party lens manufacturers from using its new camera mount and suing them if they attempt to reverse engineer the design. Some folks wonder if this could eventually lead to third party lens manufacturers disappearing down the road.

From my perspective I see two fundamental issues at play in this discussion. The first is photographers wanting to acquire the latest technologies as inexpensively as possible, and having as many compatible lens options as possible. The second issue is the ability of camera manufacturers to differentiate their products, and sell enough gear at acceptable margins to be profitable and survive in a highly competitive industry. These two issues can become conflicted.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge. Photographs have been added as visual breaks.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, 1/250, f/5.6, ISO-200, STF-8 twin macro flash used, subject distance 710 mm

Companies will cooperate whenever it makes logical sense for them to do so. As various brands struggle to survive in an increasingly cutthroat camera market there may not be too much motivation to share technology that may hurt a specific company’s opportunity to differentiate its products and expand its share of wallet with its users.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, 1/250, f/5.6, ISO-200, STF-8 twin macro flash used, subject distance 785 mm

Some photographers feel that the camera manufacturers should band together and pool their purchases of sensors in an attempt to lower some of their manufacturing costs. I suppose the assumption they are making is that those same manufacturers would pass the cost savings on to end users rather than take the savings to increase contribution margins. Thinking that camera manufacturers would pass along those savings is likely a Pollyannaish wish.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, 1/250, f/5.6, ISO-200, STF-8 twin macro flash used, subject distance 745 mm

The camera market peaked in 2012 and has been in a pretty steady decline ever since. Declining camera volumes, even if purchasing power could be combined, still represent a very small percentage of the global image sensor volume. Smartphones dwarf the camera market in terms of sensor volume.

I don’t see any potential for substantial cost savings even if the various camera manufacturers tried to combine their sensor purchases. There are simply too many sensor sizes and differences in resolution to combine purchases in a meaningful way. It’s my view is that some kind of industry wide camera manufacturer sensor buying group is a non-starter.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, 1/250, f/5.6, ISO-200, STF-8 twin macro flash used, subject distance 290 mm

Let’s consider lens compatibility and the business aspects that could be considered in terms of expanding the compatibility of proprietary computational technologies to off brand lenses, or to less expensive product offerings.

When I decided to buy Olympus M4/3 camera gear I specifically chose M.Zuiko PRO lenses as it was logical that Olympus would only make its leading edge computational photography technology compatible with its own, higher end lenses. It also made sense to me that a higher level of performance and innovation would come with an increased investment requirement. In short, you get what you pay for.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, 1/250, f/5.6, ISO-200, STF-8 twin macro flash used, subject distance 700 mm

There is precious little margin in entry level camera bodies and lenses so I couldn’t see any logic in Olympus making various computational photography features compatible with inexpensive lenses. This would only serve to cannibalize higher end lenses that represent the bulk of the company’s revenue and margin potential.

There is no upside for OMDS to make its computational photography technologies compatible with M4/3 lenses from other manufacturers. This defeats the entire strategy of achieving product differentiation with cameras, with the intention of increasing share of wallet with a company’s consumers.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, 1/250, f/5.6, ISO-200, STF-8 twin macro flash used, subject distance 435 mm

In the not too distant future I wouldn’t be surprised if most camera companies exited the ‘entry level’ camera market, and left this first entry step into photography to smartphone manufacturers. There are billions more photographs being created annually than ever before thanks to the proliferation of smartphone photography.

Rather than try to compete with Smartphones, camera manufacturers would be much better served directing their marketing to converting even a small percentage of Smartphone photographers each year into ownership of interchangeable lens camera systems. This could be done by positioning interchangeable lens cameras as products geared for ‘serious’ photographers who want to improve their craft.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, 1/250, f/5.6, ISO-200, STF-8 twin macro flash used, subject distance 630 mm

Canon’s latest move of not allowing third party lens manufacturers to copy their latest lens mount is something that I think we will see from other camera companies in the future.

I never understood why camera manufacturers licensed the use of their lens mounts to third party manufacturers… other than the fact that behind the scenes a number of ‘name brand’ lenses are actually being produced by these same third party manufacturers and have been for many years. These behind the scenes manufacturing agreements have long been carefully guarded by the companies involved. It is also possible that some of the camera manufacturers have an ownership position in some of the third party lens manufacturers.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, 1/250, f/5.6, ISO-200, STF-8 twin macro flash used, subject distance 405 mm

As an owner of Olympus/OMDS products I wouldn’t want the proprietary computational photography capabilities of my cameras/lenses being made available to other M4/3 manufacturers. That doesn’t help my preferred brand grow its sales and margins, or contribute to its longer term survival.

OMDS will grow and prosper in direct relation to how effectively it can differentiate itself in the market and is able to command a larger ‘share of wallet’ with its customers. I support OMDS not making its computational photography technologies compatible with off brand lenses, or expanding compatibility with its lower end M.Zuiko lenses. Allowing those kinds of actions strikes me as illogical and counterproductive to OMDS brand growth and financial health.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, 1/250, f/5.6, ISO-200, STF-8 twin macro flash used, subject distance 575 mm

There will always be photographers who have unrealistic wants. Getting the best quality and the latest technologies at bargain basement prices is not realistically going to happen. There is a simple truth in business… you get what you pay for.

Technical Note:

Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. All images were captured at the Niagara Butterfly Conservatory using an Olympus STF-8 Twin Macro Flash. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard approach in post. This is the 1,229 article published on this website since its original inception in 2015.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, 1/250, f/5, ISO-200, STF-8 twin macro flash used, subject distance 250 mm

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4 thoughts on “Compatibility and Differentiation”

  1. You’ve expressed what I’ve long thought about camera manufacturers allowing third-party lens makers to market lenses with the camera company’s mounts and electronics. Things were very different back in the days of screw-mount lenses and no electronic connections. I’m still surprised that, for the most part, Olympus (now OMDS) and Panasonic cameras and lenses are interchangeable and electronically compatible. As camera sales continue to decline the manufacturers may become even more restrictive in limiting cross-brand compatibility.

    1. Hi Woody,

      I think there will always be a degree of compatibility with M4/3 since it an open format mount. Where manufacturers like OMDS will differentiate its technology is by only allowing certain M.Zuiko lenses to be compatible through firmware updates. Some folks who have no interest in computational photography technologies would still be able to buy and M4/3 body or lens and have them work together at a basic level.

      Tom

  2. Tom, on the other hand, 3rd party lens improve the quality of camera company lenses through competition. Example: Tamron created a high quality 70-180 f2.8 Sony E mount. Sony has now trimmed weight off its 70-200 f2.8 and improved the optics.

    Camera makers don’t invest in specialized manual primes. In my Sony system I use manual primes from Zeiss, Voigtlander, Laowa which have straight aperture blades capable of sharp aperture stars even at mid range openings. Mechanically coupled MF rings are an asset in macro and in obtaining correct infinity focus for astro.

    Thus a reason to choose Sony over other FF mirrorless systems is the plethora of 3rd party lenses which increase the fun I can enjoy with my cameras.

    Decades ago Sony marketed its Betamax VCR equipment but refused to allow open use of its proprietary parameters. Thus the market swung to the open platform of the inferior VHS system. With mirrorless cameras, Sony has kept the lens mount platform open. How do they profit? From greater demand for their cameras and from partial ownership of Tamron.

    1. Hi Richard,

      Thanks for sharing your perspectives, your points are well taken. As you comment states, competition can have a positive impact for consumers and can also lead some third party manufacturers to produce products that a camera manufacturer may not see any value in producing. Consumers can benefit from added competition, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that camera manufacturers do.

      Sony’s main profit driver in the photographic market has been image sensors, not camera bodies and lenses. Sony’s performance as a company has had its challenges over the years. Major investors like Daniel Loeb have been pushing Sony to spin off various divisions into separate entities for a number of years. Apparently this was one of the reasons why its sensor business was spun off into Sony Semiconductor Solutions back in the 2015/2016 timeframe.

      Loeb had been adamant for years that Sony should take money away from its camera business and move it into the entertainment business. That certainly does not indicate that the camera business has been doing well for Sony from profitability and ROI perspectives. One could make the argument that the Sony camera division could have done better financially if it did not allow the open use of its propriety parameters.

      Sony resisted Daniel Loeb’s pressure for a number of years but in April 2020 Sony created a holding company called Sony Electronic Corporation. The camera business (Imaging Products & Solutions) was put into the new holding company along with Home Entertainment & Sound and Mobile Communications. This move makes the financial performance of those businesses more visible, and consequently could make future divestiture of them easier for Sony. Corporate restructuring of this nature is often done so that successful divisions won’t be used to prop up less profitable divisions. We saw a similar situation occur when Olympus spun off its Imaging Division to Japan Industrial Partners.

      I can’t comment on astro photography as this is an area that I’ve not had interest. I couldn’t help but wonder if OMDS computational photography technology like Starry Sky, would help encourage photographers with an interest in astro images to buy into its products and proprietary technology. This may not include photographers like yourself who have a highly developed skill set, but it may attract some portion of the astro photography market as OMDS has differentiated products in this area. If it does, I don’t see any strategic reason why OMDS would allow Starry Sky technology to work with other brands of lenses, or share that technology with other manufacturers.

      Tom

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