How Free Market Economics Gave Us Cheap Digital Camera Technology

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Today I was looking over a few camera accessories that I might want to purchase before the end of the year, and was reminded of how good we videographers and photographers have it, technically speaking. It seems only yesterday that I was wrestling with the almost crippling limitations of tube cameras and tape recorders to try to get images that looked cinematic, decent, or even discernible… and today I take modern camera technology for granted.

In the last 20 years I’ve gone from terrified that I might permanently burn out the pickup tubes of a $30,000 BetaCam camera, to frustrated that a $9,000 HDV camera isn’t compatible with certain broadcast standards, to slightly peeved that I can’t get absolutely every feature I want in a $400 camera (and those numbers, by the way, are not adjusted for inflation).

And in reading through various reviews and blogs and forums today, I noticed that lots of folks are peeved that they can’t get the perfect camera yet; a magical camera that could combine the best features and patents from multiple companies. My perfect camera, for example, would be a small mirrorless body combining Canon’s autofocus technology and color science, Sony’s most sensitive image sensors, Olympus’s in-body stabilization, Panasonic’s wifi remote, and Blackmagic’s high-bitrate recording formats.

Some commenters have complained that this magical camera doesn’t exist because of too much competition in the in the market, not enough government regulation of features, and that darn old capitalism letting greedy camera makers keep the prices too high. This is an odd sentiment, since I can’t think of any product or field of technology that has benefited more from competition, lack of regulation, and free market economics than digital video cameras.

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It’s truly amazing to reflect on the vast leaps in resolution, latitude, color rendition, bit-rate, battery life, etc, that these cameras have seen just in just the past few years. From the 1950s until the 1990s, video camera development was actually pretty stagnant, partly because the underlying technologies were developing slowly, but mostly because the market for video cameras was pretty limited and that kept prices high.

At the turn of the century, the slow, methodical advance of electronic cameras turned into an overlapping series of giant leaps forward. A wave of digital inventions, silicon chip developments, and manufacturing changes boosted camera capability, but it was the perfect storm of new media outlets, new platforms, and new customers that drove camera tech cheaper and better at the same time.

At first, it was really only the Big Three networks that needed video cameras, but then a bunch of cable providers needed them, and then a vast VHS market opened up, and now almost every electronic device under the sun has at least one camera. The first cameras installed on cell phones in the early 2000s were grainy, blurry, and took tiny pictures very slowly.

Today, cell phone cameras shoot amazing images, record high resolution and high framerate video, and boast impressive sensitivity in spite of their microscopic lenses. And these tiny CMOS cameras are cheap, cheap enough to find their way into all kinds of kids’ toys. This Christmas I can get a $90 drone with an HD camera that easily outperforms professional cameras I could barely afford to rent ten years ago.

By today’s standards, that plastic drone camera is terrible, but that’s only because today’s dedicated camcorders and DSLRs are so amazing. Sony’s A7sII can see in the dark, their A7rII has a razor sharp 50 megapixel sensor, and the RX100mIV can shoot 960fps and it fits in my pocket! Each of these cameras has impressive stabilization, amazing processing, and records 4K video in a variety of formats.

Another reason we have some of these incredible features is a lack of regulation. Camera sensors are not subject to the same restrictions or oversight as cars, planes, or radio transmitters, and since most users aren’t bound by the FCC’s ancient signal standards, manufacturers can ignore its bureaucratic broadcasting limitations and invent new standards for higher resolution, higher frame rates, and higher dynamic range as quickly as they can invent the technology.

The free market can determine which standards are helpful and which are obsolete must faster than Federal Regulative Busybodies. It should be stated, however, that the legislative feature-demanding and price-fixing that certain bloggers are pining for actually would get us consistent features and pricing across whole camera ranges… but they would be 1990’s features and prices.

For example, one regulation already has resulted in a truly universal camera “feature,” present in all DSLRs and point-and-shoot cameras from Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, and just about everyone else. As video recording features began to appear in these cameras around 2007, the EU responded by slapping a new 5-12% import tariff on “video recorders” and arbitrarily defining a video recorder as any device recording more than 30 minutes of video.

While their cameras were technically capable of recording video for as many hours as a 64GB or 128GB card could hold, most camera companies quickly implemented a software limit, preventing their cheaper cameras from recording more than 29 minutes and 59 seconds of video at a time. This dodge kept their cheaper cameras cheap, but it’s a serious and unnecessary crimp in what my 5D and 70D and A7S could be.

So, while part of me does wish that there were some way to mix and match Canon’s proprietary color science with Sony’s patented sensor tech, I’m certainly not asking for bureaucrats to step in and make that happen. It is only the unfettered competition between these various companies that has driven their technical excellence to such dizzying heights and retail pricing to such affordable lows.

  1. Thank you for writing this article Isaac. In the current world we live in, we need constant reminders about the benefits of “capitalism”, which is really just a word describing a system where every person gets the best return for their hard work.

    - Luke
  2. Very helpful article. Thanks, brother.

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