Digital Camera Sales Are Declining

(What does that mean for the future of photography?)

Looking at the Camera Imaging Products Association (CIPA) report the news isn’t good. For a while, mirrorless camera sales seemed immune to the downturn in the camera markets but even mirrorless sales are starting to slow down.

CIPA is an international organization, based in Japan. They have been tracking camera sales since the 1950s. Some undeniable trends have been established over the last five years and I think they should generate some reflection on the part of both the camera makers and the photographers who use those cameras.

Let’s start with the obvious…

Sales of point-and-shoot cameras are a mere ghost of what they once were. Interchangeable lens camera sales are off by around 40% from 2017 to the first two quarters of 2019.

We used to have lots of point-and-shoot cameras to choose from. Now, not so much.

We still do have lots of interchangeable lens cameras to choose from, but for how long?

No industry can sustain this kind of downward spiral for long. Something has to give. We’ll probably see one or two major players in the camera market fail or merge or completely re-structure.

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This does create opportunity for boutique companies and startups to capture some of that market share, but it’s only possible if there is sufficient demand.

And demand in part of the big problem.

MARKETS FOR EXPENSIVE ILC CAMERAS ARE SHRINKING

Cellphone cameras have become so good lately that casual photographers are more than happy with the images they can get from their iPhone or Pixel, etc.

The professional, aspirational professional and serious hobbyist photographers make up a fraction of the total number of camera buyers. While I do not see these groups shrinking, I am not sure how much they will grow either. Trends are all down here. I don’t have access to the Big companies five-year pro forma analysis and hopefully, there’s good news on the horizon. But it’s hard to spot today.

The camera companies have traditionally not been good at understanding the role the Internet has played in photography. They also were slow to respond to great cell phone cameras.

Instagram and the advent of great cell phone cameras have essentially disinter mediated the entire point-and-shoot market. And as the report I linked to here demonstrates, the ILC market is also shrinking.

The only thing the big camera companies can do is radically and creatively come up with new innovations. What does that look like? I don’t know. But if I did, I could get paid a lot of money for that knowledge. The problem with the need to innovate is this. The camera companies, both in Europe and Japan tend to be very conservative. They are better at staying the course than they are pulling things inside out and creating wholly new paradigms. But this is something they have to do to survive – at least in my opinion.

The other thing the big camera companies can do (and should have been doing for the last decade) is do a much better job of educating photographers about the benefits of using a “real” camera. Had they partnered with digital printer makers for instance, they could have helped to teach today’s photographers the value of a physical print. But they didn’t and that ship may have sailed.

The sad truth is this. Expect to pay more for “real” cameras moving forward. Just as LP records went away (except for a very few die-hard enthusiasts) the “real” camera may also. But just as you can STILL buy LP records, you will always be able to pay for real cameras. It’s just that you will probably have to pay more than you do now to enjoy that opportunity.

CONCLUSION

Photographers need to get vocal with the camera companies about what they want in the future and the camera companies need to listen. They aren’t going to be able to dictate how this goes from now on. Photographers also need to be realistic about what they can expect for the money they pay. The margins on cameras are tiny. If you want 100 MP full frame sensors that have 256 stops of dynamic range, work with lenses from 8 to 800mm, offer perfectly sharp, crisp photos and videos in packages that weigh less than a pound – then you can’t expect bargain prices. Innovation costs money. Those of us who rely on professional cameras need to support our brands.

As with all seemingly negative change, there is a fantastic opportunity here. If the big camera companies accept that things have changed, they have the motivation they need to overcome this downward trend and remain relevant, even in the smart phone era.


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