The compact camera market is essentially dead, as smartphones have supplanted traditional point-and-shoots for most people’s photography needs. Smartphones have also pioneered entirely new forms of photography, like selfies. None of this is news to anyone.
What might be news to you, however, is that there are still ways to sell compact cameras in 2017, if you can find the right product and the right market. You can sell them for quite a lot of money, in fact. And that’s what Casio has been doing with its TR series of cameras over the past few years in Asia.
The TR series is aggressively focused on one thing: perfect selfies. The current flagship model, the TR-80, looks like a small smartphone with a giant bejeweled lens up top; its angular metallic frame doubles as a kickstand and triples as a rotating handle for group shots. The dual flashes and software give users extensive control over lighting, skin tone, and makeup.
Casio says its users commonly refer to the TR cameras as the “selfie God device,” and although the company won’t provide detailed sales data, the cameras are popular enough in Asia to command a price of around $900 for relatively unremarkable hardware.
The TR series is the result of aggressive focus on Casio’s part. It’s aimed at a particular demographic: young women in the Chinese-speaking world, and as such the facial recognition software is tuned specifically toward them. But Takashi Niida, a manager for digital imaging at Casio’s global marketing division, says that focus took a while to sharpen.
“At that time in China, the social network Weibo was getting popular,” Niida says. “Women tried to take beautiful selfies and post them on the internet, almost like a competition. Cameras at the time didn’t have Wi-Fi, though, so people couldn’t transfer pictures to their smartphones. But people knew that Casio TR photos were much prettier than iPhone photos, so they just took pictures of the TR screen with their smartphones and uploaded them.” Casio has concentrated on this market ever since, adding more advanced makeup and portrait functionality with each new model.
Now Casio wants to broaden the TR line’s appeal. The company just announced the TR Mini (TR-M11), a completely new camera with a smaller, circular design and a ring of eight LED flashes around the lens that give greater control over selfie lighting. It’ll be available in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan for a little over $500.
The ring flash is the main new feature of the TR Mini. “Using the eight LED lights, we can provide uniform lighting from any angle, but also we can illuminate just the left or right sides of the faces to create various looks,” Niida says. “It’s the same thing as when you go to a photo studio and there are lights from various directions.” Different combinations of lights on the TR Mini enable different modes — like Sculpt, Slim, and Shadow — that change the way your face looks, and there are further features designed to remove moles, circles under eyes, and so on.
The TR Mini’s lens has also been chosen for its flattering properties. It’s 21mm, which is a wide-angle perspective that can capture your face and shoulders or multiple people at once, but Casio says that TR camera users also like the focal length because it has a slimming effect on the face. That distortion is actually considered a bad thing in traditional portrait photography, but it goes to show how the selfie phenomenon is causing camera makers to rethink conventional product design.
That extends to the TR Mini’s form factor, too. The clamshell camera is reminiscent of a flip-top makeup case and is designed to be easy to carry in a handbag. The touchscreen is square, with a gesture-based UI, and the camera takes social network-ready square photos by default; the sensor is 12 megapixels, but square shots are cropped down to 8. The TR Mini can also upload the pictures automatically to your phone over low-energy Bluetooth. The lower price and accessible design is intended to widen the appeal of the TR series beyond the previous flagship models; Niida compares the Mini to casual fashion versus the TR-80’s elegant style.
Casio isn’t aiming the TR Mini at its home market of Japan, however. “Especially in China, we did questionnaires and found that people want to show themselves to many others more than in Japan,” Niida says. “In other Asian countries as well, they’re not embarrassed to share their pictures and they don’t really hesitate to upload. But in Japan, for example, on Facebook people upload photos of scenery or meals they’ve cooked but not really beautiful selfies. I think they’re still shy about that. For many Japanese people, when they take selfies they try to make it more fun, like adding dog ears and so on. So there do seem to be some differences in each country.”
Casio also targets the Chinese market by stressing that the TR cameras are made in Japan unlike its other models, adding to their appeal as status symbols. And despite the TR Mini’s more advanced flash features, Niida expects that some people will continue to buy the TR-80 because of its higher price, since the TR brand to date has been associated with expensive cameras in that form factor. “In China, how people look at you is really important,” he says, which after all is the point of a selfie camera in the first place.
Casio also doesn’t seem to be especially worried about the increasing capability of smartphone selfie cameras. The obvious comparison here is the iPhone 8 Plus, which simulates various studio lighting settings in its portrait mode. The iPhone X further uses the front-facing Face ID camera to ascertain depth and blur the backgrounds of portraits, while Chinese companies like Oppo and Vivo have added dual selfie cameras to their phones for the same reason. But Niida says that Casio’s experience tuning its software for faces, as well as the way it develops features specifically for women, will continue to give the company an advantage.
The TR cameras aren’t likely to make their way to the West anytime soon, but that’s a function of their particular targeting and focus. “We think that we can still be competitive in the digital camera market if we can make the purpose of the camera clear,” Niida says. “We don’t sell cameras with interchangeable lenses, so we haven’t been trying to sell cameras to people who are really into taking photos as a hobby. Rather than that, we want to focus on people who want to take beautiful photos more easily and who want to keep their memories.”
Your smartphone might be all you need for that. But Casio has proven that for some people, their phone is not enough.
Photography by Sam Byford / The Verge