YouTube has become the primary medium for potential camera buyers to get information. Manufacturers have recently focused their attention for new announcements almost exclusively on YouTube pundits. However YouTubers need specialised video features, and this has massively distorted development of of cameras for photography in recent years. Has this been a bad thing for photographers?
How did we get here?
Back when I first started buying cameras, photography magazines and the first few photography websites were the only place you could get expert reviews. The number of specialist photography websites exploded from around 2010 following the growth in in affordable digital systems cameras, and many pro photographers also established a web presence. But it soon became clear that the most immediate way to explore the features of a new camera without actually buying one, was to look at a video, and YouTube proved to be the perfect medium. Even on YouTube, some modicum of personality was required, so the sites that grew were those with the most appealing or controversial hosts. Meticulous but dull reviewers dropped out of the game, and the need to fund the channels and support the ever more elaborate video production values started to drive the style and tone of reviews. We are now in the position where none of the major YouTube presenters make their living from photography, or even produce or sell photographic images on a regular basis. The heart and soul of their business is video production and advertising.
How YouTube monetization drives the camera market
Monetisation is a word I had never heard until prominent YouTubers started complaining about Google’s terms and conditions. It refers to the mechanism by which “free” YouTube channels can generate an income. Primary amongst these mechanisms is advertising, and advertising rates are driven by the number of subscribers to the YouTube channel, and the number of viewers for each individual video. Advertising is delivered either through the intensely irritating breaks in the middle of a YouTube video, or by individual deals struck by the channel with sponsors (of which the primary one at least for photography is a web development platform called Squarespace). Google further influences advertising income by its unpublished algorithm which may drive a particular channel or video into the homepage of a YouTube viewer depending on its recent increasing popularity or total views or some other factor.
This drives the channel to focus on clickbait headlines, video production quality and new items to cover, as opposed to solid and persistent journalism, and in turn affects the industry. For a camera manufacturer, the greatest source of advertising is a positive YouTube review, which will usually only come with a new product. Conventional product advertising is dramatically less cost effective than “free” coverage in the most popular YouTube channels. The audience for the top 10 YouTube pundits in the photography space is now hitting a million subscribers each. Getting a guaranteed delivery of a positive review to a million camera enthusiasts is a substantial prize for the camera manufacturers, and puts the YouTube pundits in an extraordinarily powerful position.
How YouTube bent camera development out of shape
The most egregious impact that YouTube has had on camera development has been in video. As video became more prevalent from 2010 onwards in the consumer marketplace, the smartphone phone became the default means for taking it. I would bet that if any reader of this blog has taken video in the last 6-weeks, it will have been on their smartphone. The phone is the perfect vehicle for impromptu video of family, friends, or special occasions because it’s always with you. Professional photographers, particularly those in the wedding, real estate, or corporate marketplace, need to take video but this is almost never for broadcast and the quality requirement is not onerous. For nearly everybody else, the smartphone is the tool that does the job.
However for YouTube channels, video is the centre of their professional activity. So while video features are of only passing interest to most of the camera buying public, they are a central requirement for YouTube pundits, and particularly for those focusing on photography and cameras. Almost as soon as the big YouTube camera channels were established, they commented unfavourably on cameras with few or simple video capabilities and gave stellar reviews to cameras that had strong video features (often at the expense of basic photography capability). The camera manufacturers could not ignore this increasingly vital marketing channel and so one by one, they all developed sophisticated video capability almost entirely tuned to the requirements of these full-time video producers.
The crazy drive to 4K
In recent years this has led to ludicrously advanced video features being delivered to even basic cameras. For example, broadcast HD quality for television is usually at 1080p or 2 megapixel resolution at 25 frames per second, whatever the resolution of your TV may be. In 2007 the so-called Ultra HD broadcast resolution of 3840 x 2160 megapixels, commonly known as 4k, was defined. A single frame of 4K video requires a resolution of 8 megapixels or 4 times the normal broadcast level. Delivering this even at 25 frames per second was massively challenging for camera manufacturers compared to to 1080p. However 4K was incredibly useful to YouTube pundits, even though almost all YouTube videos are usually delivered at a maximum of 1080p. It meant they had a much bigger and higher resolution frame to work from, which enabled close-up and wide shots to be taken with the same camera, saving complexity and cost. A barrage of negative reviews followed for cameras that did not have that capability and now we are in the absurd position that every smartphone and every digital camera has a video capability superior to the HDTV delivered by the likes of the BBC. A resolution of 4K on the relatively tiny screen of a smartphone is particularly ridiculous.
The most recent bandwagon of YouTube pundits has been to drive up the frame rate so they can do slow motion shots on their outside broadcasts. Almost nobody needs slow motion, even for professional video (except for special effects for which speciality video cameras exist). However, again a stream of negative reviews were given for cameras that did not have higher rates than 25 frames per second, and the benchmark figure moved to 30, 50 and now 120 frames per second at 4k. The amount of data that has to be moved to deliver 4K video at 120 frames per second is enormously higher than required for most photographic needs. The latest camera from Cannon now offers 8k resolution at 25 frames per second, and this will probably drive camera manufacturers to follow suit. At this level we are almost beyond visibility from the requirements of a professional or keen amateur photographer interested in still pictures. It’s also worth noting that for most users, it is complicated enough to take high-quality still images. The additional complexity involved in in making video productions is something like an order of magnitude beyond this, and the vast majority of amateur and professional photographers never remotely approach mastering it.
But was this a bad thing?
Often, competition is a good thing and we might think that the requirement to leapfrog each other in video capabilities drove the camera manufacturers forward. However, all of this activity and development took place in a marketplace that was catastrophically declining. None of these video features expanded the market for any manufacturer, they just became the price of staying competitive. And the development costs of moving to super high-end video capability in every camera were absolutely massive. These huge development costs combined with declining profit and revenue were a recipe for financial disaster, and the red lines in the balance sheet of every single camera manufacturer in the last 5 years have been largely attributable to this totally unnecessary video development. Because all the time, the devices that were taking videos were not cameras, they were smartphones. The collapse of the camera industry is sadly almost entirely due to the sinister effect of unqualified and unrepresentative YouTube pundits, most of whom could not take a decent photograph if their lives depended on it.