13 Jun The Camera Industry Collapse
If you’ve been focusing on improving your shooting skills and neglecting the news recently, you may have missed a portentous trend that has hit the digital camera market: digital camera sales are collapsing.
A quick look at these numbers from Statista will show you that digital camera sales have been hit much harder than most people think. It seems that camera sales are now the lowest they’ve been in many years.
Another eye-opening statistic from 2014 shows that more people were shooting with tablets than D-SLRs.
You may have seen recent articles claiming that buoyant sales could signal an end to the collapse. To verify this, it’s worth taking a look at some projections on Statista.
Here’s a projection of European D-SLR sales:
And here’s the forecast for the United States:
The US is the healthiest market for D-SLR sales. Yet still, the predicted trend is downward.
So, the news isn’t good for the industry. But what does that mean for shooters? Should this news concern you if you’re a professional or hobbyist photographer? From a product point of view, the cameras being released today are among the most innovative and exciting in memory. Things must be okay, right?
Well, let’s look at an example. The Sony A9 has cemented Sony’s reputation for being an innovator in the digital camera world. The A9 is a pricey-but-powerful mirrorless camera that has prompted some to consider jumping ship from stalwart brands such as Nikon and Canon, to enjoy the technological prowess of a feisty new challenger.
It shoots and focuses incredibly quickly, which has prompted many to comment that it could be a great camera for sports photographers. Looking at the specs alone, that would seem to be a fair assumption.
However, a sobering article by DP Review reminded us that the cold, hard realities of professional shooting make a transition like that more difficult – and expensive – than it may seem. Firstly, the Sony FE system is not as vast as the Canon EF lens family and as such, there are not exact replacements for each piece of kit a Canon shooter would have access to.
More importantly, working professionals such as photojournalists and sports photographers can make use of Canon’s Professional Service, which provides loan stock when gear breaks down. Nikon and Canon have established pro support schemes, with well-supplied stock rooms at major sporting events.
A professional, it turns out, has to consider more than just autofocus speed. She also has to think about what happens when gear breaks at an inopportune moment.
So, the market of “pros willing to switch” is a fairly small one. However, will the camera also appeal to hobbyists? Well, with a pricetag of around $4500 without a lens, you’re talking about a camera that costs what some people would spend on a used car. That’s a lot to swallow for someone who’s not making money from their photography.
To justify it, you’d probably ask yourself if the improvement in image quality over your phone would justify that cost. Most people buy their smartphones for a range of purposes, not just for its camera. The camera, in a sense, came with the package. It’s already in your pocket. The best camera, they say, is the one you have with you.
But if we were to be generous, we could say that the price of the iPhone 7 Plus camera was equal to the full price of the device, which is $769. A Sony A9 with a Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM Lens ($1,798) will set you back $6289.
6289 divided by 769 is 8.18.
So, in order to be a tempting investment for a hobbyist, the image quality of the Sony A9 would have to be around eight times better than an iPhone. That difference would have to be clearly visible in a blog post or on Facebook, and that difference would have to matter enough to make them abandon the powerhouse they already have in their pocket.
All of the photographs in this article were shot on iPhones. When viewed in a blog post, at standard screen sizes, do these images look eight times better than a D-SLR or mirrorless camera shot? And is that difference stark enough to motivate a hobbyist to buy a top-of-the-range mirrorless camera with a lens that will do it justice?
Probably not. And that’s the crucial point we have to consider when we ask ourselves how to halt the digital camera collapse. The question should not be how the images are shot, but rather, how the images will be viewed.
The majority of images are viewed in line on a blog post or article. Some will be viewed in slightly larger sizes on photo gallery sites, but the majority will probably come from shares in Facebook timelines. Images in a compressed format, viewed in social media timelines are rarely going to look different enough to justify the price tag for enthusiasts.
The difference for a pro sports shooter will certainly be noticable. However, the potential market consists of those willing to spend thousands on switching gear to a system that isn’t well known for it’s pro photographer support scheme (although one does exist). That’s a fraction of a fraction, not a mass market.
The A9 gained a lot of mindshare around its release, but how big is its likely market? Perhaps it will tempt some pro sports photographers to change formats. It might even attract some of the more affluent amateurs. Will cameras like that be enough to help to reverse the collapse? Probably not. For all of the excitement around releases like this, the chances are that it’s not going to move the needle much.
The bottleneck, it could be argued, is in the way that images are being displayed.
Take the example of the Lytro camera. This was a paradigm shift in photography. It captured “light fields”. This meant that the depth-of-field and even the focus could be changed after the shot was taken. It was the kind of invention that made perfect sense of the famous Arthur C. Clarke quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
This was the first significant update in years to the way that photography works.
However, in order to see the effect, you had to use the right software and file format. Once you exported a plain old JPEG, the DOF tricks were no longer visible. This wasn’t compatible with the way images are “consumed” nowadays, so the consumer camera failed and Lytro is now focusing (pun slightly intended) its efforts elsewhere.
Despite the incredible innovations happening in the world of digital cameras, sales will probably decline until there’s a significant change in both how cameras work and – perhaps more importantly – in how images are viewed. Digital cameras need to be able to do something that smartphones can’t, and to do it in a way that’s easily understood in the context of a social media timeline.
Action cameras do this, and business is booming.
For example, perhaps 8K displays will necessitate better photo quality. On the other hand, it seems likely that smartphones and tablets will continue to keep pace with screen technology.
There are still lots of questions around what’s going to happen to the digital camera industry and how that will affect professional photographers:
Will innovations in the way we view photographs help to justify the purchase of more expensive, higher-quality cameras?
Or can the collapse be reversed by further incremental improvements in camera bodies?
Will a continuing collapse signal a return to the times when fewer people used D-SLR cameras?
If so, will that make it easier to make a living as a pro shooter?
Or will the proliferation of “good enough” cameras mean that every conceivable location and object has been shot countless times already, making it harder than ever to make a living from stock photography?
Does the overabundance of photographers mean that the ability to retouch images will be the only thing that separates the pros from the hobbyists?
BY ANDY HEATHER