2011 has barely begone but in the first 6 weeks a total of 88 new digital cameras were launched. This is slightly up from last year with 83 new models for the same period. Interestingly, a total of 132 new digital cameras were launched in the entire 2010 year. Do note that these numbers exclude medium-format and off-brand offerings not covered by Neocamera.
There are two things that drive new models of digital cameras, or any electronics for that matter, innovation and marketing. Innovation is seen in all models which offer something which could not be done before in the same form. An 18X optical zoom lens in a compact camera when previous compacts only reached 12X is a good example. Groundbreaking advances such as ultra-fast continuous shooting and translucent mirror cameras also fit in the innovation category.
Marketing pushes new models to be released, regardless of innovation, for the sake of having new models and sending out press releases. Both of these increase awareness and therefore – at least in theory – stimulate sales. Of course, slight differences are generally introduced to justify new models. This includes an increase in LCD size or resolution, smaller designs and added non-features such as new scene-modes, memory card support, etc. Price being a driving factor, these models often silently downgrade certain features. Smaller maximum lens apertures, more limited shutter-speed range, loss of control over metering or white-balance, have all had their turns being downgraded. Generally, less noticeable specifications get downgraded first.
There are two more reasons for downgrades, both have to do with greed. Technological greed is apparent when a camera maker wants to one-up its competitors by increased a headline specification. Megapixels and optical zoom are historically the most common casualties of this. In order to offer a higher resolution, camera makers are frequently forced to produce sensors with more image noise, less dynamic range and slower output. Compact cameras would often shoot at 2 FPS for a long burst when they only captured 8 MP or so. Now, most non-CMOS cameras shoot continuously at 1 FPS or less. Longer zooms have produced very dim lenses which force cameras to use higher ISO sensitivities.
Another form of greed shows up as segmentation. This is the art of breaking down camera line-ups, so that people pay more to get features they need. A good example is manual controls. It used to be the case that Canon’s Powershot A-series all features those and could be obtained for under $150 USD. With each A-series renewal, Canon removed manual controls from some models, forcing seekers of manual controls to move up to the SX-series. Custom white-balance is also disappearing at the low-end, as are slow shutter-speeds. Note that this segmentation is artificial and each company is doing it slightly differently. Fuji for example is reducing coverage of LCDs and EVFs, even when such thing does not save anything towards the production of a digital camera. The goal is not to save money on one model but make more people pay for more expensive ones.
Segmentation changes usually get the most complaints, as people lose features by upgrading in the same series. Canon EOS 60D for example omits micro-focus adjustments which were present on the 50D but new people have the option to buy the more expensive 7D instead. They also get more features for the additional cost, including a 100% coverage viewfinder.
Perceived value also drives features. This is one reason that intermediate models regularly appear within a lineup. For example, rugged cameras have different levels of ruggedness, the first ones were extremely sturdy but were followed by less sturdy ones. This happens if the price of ultimate ruggedness is too high but yet the feature in lesser form still adds value to a camera. People may simply not be willing to pay that much more to safely drop a camera from that much higher!