Selling Cameras From A Plastic Bag – by Tim Bishop

At any party there’s always bound to be a few guests who are a pain.  It may be just a little bit too much wine.  They might get loud and shout.  There’s a scene.  Asked to leave, and it all gets aggressive. These are the people that may even have been just passing by, heard the noise, fancied a free drink, and slipped in without an invitation.

But the worse guests are the ones who were invited, but just didn’t know how to behave.

So at the start of the celebrations for the UK only press photography awards since the demise of the Picture Editors’ Awards (PEG), The Press Photographers Year (PPY), supported by Canon Cameras, four hundred squeezed into the foyer of the Lyttleton at London’s National Theatre complex on the South Bank to see the pictures, buy the book, and watch the winners get their prizes.

These are not photography awards as we have known them.  Forget the grand guest speakers to tell us how clever they are, with some obscure connection to photography: a politician, a celebrity, someone who has had to cope with ‘being photographed a lot’.  Even strike that black tie. As for seating plans: there are no seats.

It will come as no surprise that the PPY, who charge next to nothing for press photographers to enter, and is free for members of the British Press Photographers’ Association, needs to be heavily supported, and simply wouldn’t exist without the long term support of Canon. But in keeping with the emphasis on the pictures, Canon have been content to keep the branding low, and the marketing opportunities by reputation. It wasn’t even noted that all but one of the winners in the twelve categories of the PPY used Canon. No product on show.  Let the images speak. It’s all about pictures, not photographers, images not cameras.

So what did happen to that 35mm camera so many professionals used to use? Surely not everyone shoots Canon? What about Nikon?

Back five years ago, Canon readily agreed to be a sponsor for a project called ‘Five Thousand Days’, put together by the British Press Photographers Association (BPPA).  A number of  BPPA members who were not then Canon users, were keen to involve their camera manufacturer, Nikon, as well. We asked Canon if they might agree to a ‘joint sponsorship’ for the ‘good of the profession’. Then, to our astonishment and delight, Canon tentatively agreed. This would have been a first, and particularly brave of Canon, who had nothing to lose, as they were already by then the market leader in professional 35mm cameras. 

A small group of dedicated long term Nikon champions arranged a meeting. All seemed promising, as Nikon had recently announced they were pulling out of sponsoring the ill-fated PEG awards. These three BPPA members, who between them had scooped dozen of photographic gongs, including World Press, met at the corporate offices of Nikon in South West London.  It didn’t go well. At the end of the meeting, two of the three, Jeff Moore, the Chairman of the BPPA, and Edmond Terakopian, BPPA committee member and a World Press Photo winner, immediately decided to switch to Canon. Since then, they both have become major champions of the ‘Canon brand’, and between them have encouraged many others to switch.

What happened?  The boys were told by Nikon that ‘press photographers were not a target market’. Nikon just didn’t get it did they? It really wasn’t about marketing: It was support. Nikon firmly shut the door in the face of the five hundred or so members of the BBPA. At a conservative estimate, BPPA members have a total spend on cameras in the millions of pounds annually. Nikon’s contempt for press photographers spread through the trade like wildfire, and they couldn’t have made a bigger marketing blunder. Nikon were already losing the technical battle in the digital scrum to produce the quality, speed, and design professionals craved, now they lost the goodwill too.

Imagine the organisers surprise at this year’s PPY, to see amongst the packed opening, someone working the crowd with a mission.  Not unlike a replica watch salesman in Nanking Road, Shanghai, there was a hiss in your ear, and turning, photographers were face to face with a well know representative of Nikon Cameras.

Those Chinese watches certainly look very like Cartier, they sparkle and all is gold, but you don’t have to be a horologist to know that you don’t buy expensive designer watches from a man in the street with a plastic bag.  I suppose by the same token, you’d be pretty silly to be excited by a rude guest pushing a ‘top end’ professional camera from a plastic bag as well.

I’ll leave out the ‘I wonder if they’re fake’ jibe, though it’s tempting. And quite a few camera makers must want to build their own Canon 5D, the camera that many would argue has changed the way many news photographers work: light, small, highest quality full frame file size, and low cost.

“Pssst..want to see the new Nikon D700?”

Author: Tim Bishop

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