Built-in TTL and its implications for the photo accessory industry

What effect will 2013's introduction of 'ready to use' flashes have on future manufacturing?

Market pyramid

It seems that the photography and lighting market becomes more saturated than ever with new products and built-in gear features. The year 2013 had been a truly marvelous year for photography. We’ve witnessed some great new lighting gear being released and at least a couple of new trends emerging.

Before going into details on these trends, it’s important to understand that what manufacturers will offer us, photographers (market supply), will be based on our needs (market demand), or at least the manufacturers’ beliefs of what our needs are. When we talk about the photography market, it’s important to understand that it has become fragmented (in an interesting way) in the recent years mainly due to the availability of digital photography gear. To make things much simple than they are, for the sake of our discussion, we can say there are 3 consumer groups in the photography market, based on the buying habits and photography gear usage.

The top pros/big spenders (1), who not only have the budget, but also most likely the need, because of their high profile clients, for photo and lighting gear from the top shelf. This group has the biggest purchasing power but it’s not the biggest group for the photography market.

The second group, with the least purchasing power, the amateurs (2) use point-and-shoots or DSLRs cameras for recreational and family purpose, without really going into details of how cameras and lighting works. This group is insignificant for our discussion.

The third group, which I believe is the most important group for photography manufacturers, is the semi-pro (or semi-amateur) group. It could be further broken down into sub-groups but we will try to keep things simple here. This group includes photography enthusiasts and professional photographers who use lighting equipment but their purchasing power (and probably needs) is smaller than the top pros/big spenders’. This group, in my opinion, is much bigger than the first group, but they can’t or are not willing to spend $2,000 for a flash. The third group also involves young and new photographers, who are not familiar with ‘good’n’old’ film cameras and often with manual use of flashes. This brings us back to our initial discussion.

Consumer groups

Firstly, and probably the most obvious, we will see wide-spread implementation of the TTL and high-speed sync technologies, specifically built-in receivers, in flashes. Secondly, I think we will see more Chinese lighting manufacturers getting stronger market position, especially among semi-pro/semi-amateur market group.

Built-in TTL and HS Sync

The growing third photo consumer group, discussed above, and especially the younger photo enthusiasts who are self-learners, are not necessarily interested in learning how to manually set up flashes. Not only the technology has progressed drastically in the past 13 years but also the consumer culture has changed. People want everything to be ‘ready to use’ without necessarily learning all the details. Built-in TTL and HS sync radio receivers in flashes, especially that the technology allows nowadays for their integration, seems like a perfect match for the ‘ready to use’ generation’s growing need. It appears that the manufacturers of portable lighting equipment, especially those companies not involved in camera production, will follow recent TTL trends from Profoto B1 and Phottix Mitros+ flashes.

Both companies, the former one from Sweden and the latter from China, have introduced last year built-in TTL radio receivers in their flashes. They offer not only a ‘ready to use’ solution of TTL/HS sync in portable flashes but they also eliminate the need for carrying and battery-maintainance for extra receivers. This is a perfect solution for photographers who need mobility with their gear and who do most photo shoot on location. Many, if not the most photographers like that can be found in our semi-pro/semi-amateur market group; a group I believe is the biggest and the most valuable consumer group for photography manufacturers.

By integrating TTL radio receivers and other features, flash makers will not necessarily gain directly new markets and buyers in the short term but they will gradually become important players as flash producers and they will distance themselves from the camera manufacturers who still produce camera flashes, like Nikon and Canon. What speaks in favor of flash makers are two distinct features when looking at both the Chinese manufacturers, like Phottix, and European Profoto. Firstly, speedlights made in Asia are considerably cheaper, with improving reliability, than speedlights manufactured by camera companies. Secondly, companies like Profoto, have an advantage of market focused specifically for flashes.

Does built-in TTL/HS sync hurt camera manufacturers?

We have witnessed a growing number of flash units produced in China in the past years. While these flashes were at first cheap and unreliable, they have started to play an important part in the global flash market over the years. Their flashes easily compete now with big manufacturers in terms of both prices and reliability and the recent trend of incorporating TTL/HS sync receivers puts them in front of the game. The camera manufacturers haven’t really responded to the growing presence of the Chinese flash manufacturers and they have never presented a product that would try to compete with third-party producers.

I don’t think that the big camera manufacturers are concerned with the growing number of third-party flash makers and the incorporation of TTL in their flashes. Quite the opposite. I believe that the camera manufacturers haven’t paid much attention to the lighting market for long time now and they are happy they don’t have to focus on lighting gear anymore. Instead they’ve put their R&D resources into developing new cameras and expanding their camera markets and that’s where it seems will be their focus for the future.

The role of Chinese manufacturers

In order to understand how the Chinese flash makers came to the point where they now are, it’s important to understand the Chinese culture. According to an organizational and cultural theorist, Fons Trompenaars, Chinese culture is characterized by , what he calls ‘outer direction’ dimension. It means that people believe that nature and their environment controls them and therefore they work with their environment to achieve their goals. Whatever exists in nature or is man-made can be shared and re-used by everyone for the common good. That’s why copyright laws and intellectual property laws as well as their enforcement are not as developed as in other countries. This also explains the influx of a variety of products made in China and which closely resemble products developed in the western countries.

The Chinese lighting manufacturers have been becoming strong flash market players. Their R&D costs are much lower than of other manufacturers, partially because they re-use solutions that already exist and partially because of the Chinese labour market. The same goes with the price of their products, which are so low that the western manufacturers find it impossible to compete with. We have also witnessed much improved reliability of Chinese flash units, like Phottix or Yongnuo. Finally, the Chinese manufacturers have in fact been starting to innovate in the past couple of years and offering new solutions in their products. When we look at all these aspects, it’s without a doubt that their products will easily conquer the market of the third photography group, semi-pros/semi-amateurs.

Flashy future

The photography market, for both cameras and flashes, has been changing in the past few years and I believe we will see more changes in the future. Partially due to the consumer changes and the growing interest in photography and partially because the already existing companies will be adapting themselves to survive on the market.

The recent integration of TTL and HS sync radio receivers in flashes might be only the beginning of incorporating functions that were only until recently available through external gear, like TTL receivers. These solutions fit perfectly the changing market and the growing number of photographers working on-location and with limited budget.

I believe that third-party flash manufacturers, including those from Asia, will progressively take over the flash market while companies like Canon and Nikon will shift away from speedlights and focus solely on cameras. That is unless they will follow flash companies and start integrating radio flash triggers and receivers in their consumer DSLRs and all speedlights.

Konrad Dwojak is a professional fashion and portrait photographer. Originally from Poland, he now resides in Memphis, TN. www.konraddwojak.com

Konrad Dwojak
Konrad is an international photographer, born in Poland and currently based in the US. He lived in Belgium and the Netherlands before relocating to the US and worked around Europe on a variety of photography assignments. Although he enjoys all types of photography, he focuses on conceptual portraits and editorial photography.