Recently I've been taking part in an interesting discussion about the size of cameras, and what type of camera systems are best to invest in with a few people. This is an interesting subject because there are as many ideas on the matter as there are photographers who are curious. Part of that is due to how each one of us, as photographers, work, and another aspect is what we are used to.
There are three basic categories of cameras, and the market agrees for the most part; basic point and shoot cameras, advanced cameras for photography enthusiasts (high end point and shoots, mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, and entry level DSLR), then you have high end cameras (DSLRs, Leica rangefinders, medium format etc). So where are these different groups headed, and what brands are going to be around long term. That last bit is a big question for people who are getting into photography today, because if you are buying a camera you are also buying into a camera system rather than just a body. This applies to mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, and DSLRs.
The basic point and shoot camera is most likely the camera that sells in the largest numbers, and these range from traditional purpose made cameras to the ones you'll find in your cell phone. These point and shoot cameras may be limited in terms of controls, which might frustrate some photographers, but they tend to be small (can fit in jean pockets) and easy to use, which makes them great for taking with you everywhere. If it seems as if everyone you know has a camera like this you're not imagining things, it is almost impossible to go anywhere without seeing one of these in your daily life (in the 1st world countries). In the near future I think we'll see dedicated cameras in this market space disappear, considering that cell phone cameras are far more practical.
I've talked about where I see the mid-range area of the market going in the future before, but I'll briefly cover it again. This section of the market will slowly be taken over by mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, for the most part anyway. Entry level DSRLs are still big, generally speak, compared to cameras like the Sony NEX-3/5, Panasonic GF1/2 and the Olympus E-LP1, so I can see a shift away from them in the near future. For some enthusiast photographers entry level class DSLRs will still be important, sports and wildlife shooters for example, but for most the mirrorless cameras will be great for them. Then there is the ever shrinking demand for high end compacts like the Panasonic LX-5, Canon G12 and Nikon P7000 type of cameras. Short of these cameras getting larger sensors, and/or a price drop into the $300 range, I cannot see them selling well against mirrorless cameras long term.
I'll be addressing my thoughts on the high end market at a later date, so we'll move onto camera brands. Long term what is your best bet when buying into a camera system? That is a tough question to ask. I think Canon and Nikon are here to stay long term, the question is will they command the market the way they do now? Right now it seems as if they are just waiting to see what kind of mirrorless cameras work best, taking their time to develop strong contenders. As things stand right now they seem content to sell feature rich entry level DSRLs, because the demand for them is still there. That demand could change within the next year though, which means they need to get on the ball soon or lose more market share.
Olympus and Panasonic were the first two players in the mirrorless camera market, but Sony's NEX cameras have likely been far more successful sales wise. Long term Sony could easily be the big player this market space, if Canon and Nikon don't get their acts together. I say that because Sony is likely a big player in the electronics space, and their marketing and brand image well known. I think they could do extremely well, if they improve the cameras interface, not to mention expand the lens lineup.
Olympus will be dropping out of the DSLR game in the next year or so, with the only production unit being the E-5 semi-pro model. Their mirrorless cameras, the E-P2 and E-LP1 are okay, but not great. They might be in trouble long term, but they have always been a small player, so they might stick around.
Panasonic is here to stay, no question about it. Like Sony they are a big player in the electronics business and have no intention of backing down in the face of the big Japanese camera makers, Canon, Nikon and Sony. Being part of the m4/3s standard with Olympus means there are a growing number of lenses available, and the small rangefinder like mirrorless GF1 and GF2 are nice portable cameras. Plus G series of DSLR like mirrorless cameras are well thought out products for more demanding users.
Pentax is a real question mark, because to this point there have been no strong rumors about a mirrorless camera from them, and making one is their best bet for survival long term. Like Olympus they have been a small player for a long time, and as a brand they seem okay with that. Pentax is owned by Hoya, one of the worlds largest glass makers, so the direction the brand takes will strong depend on what the parent companies goals are. Pentax has re-entered the medium format camera market, so it will be interesting to see what that does to their business. Pentax's 645D is a nice product, and the cheapest digital medium format camera on the market, so that could be a good thing for them long term.
Sigma, not sure what to think about them as a camera maker. When Sigma entered the DSLR market it looked like they had a strong offering, being the only brand to offer the fevron 3x sensor. That fevron sensor still makes the SD-15 DSLR a unique camera, but doesn't seem to be helping them increase market share. I think the real issue with Sigma is that they are only brand that makes lenses for their cameras. That means if the company dies your system has no future. The Sigma DP1 and DP2 seem like nice large sensor compacts, but are limited by their built in lenses, which are okay, but limited in terms of range.