Men sitting around NOT discussing technology.
DSLR sales are down this year, worldwide, by 18.5% according to CIPA. The total decline in the entire dedicated camera market is closer to 43.5% and mirrorless cameras are seeing about the same year to year decline as traditional DSLRs. Why?
I think there are two reasons driving this incredible decline. Two bubble bursting phenomena occurring on top of each other. The obvious first cause is the rampant replacement of point and shoot cameras of all flavors and varieties with smart phones and their built in cameras. The advantages to smart phones are size, constant (annoyingly constant) access, multi-task tool set, and the ability to send your images, electronically, to an audience just about anywhere in the world. What's not to like about that? You must pay for a plan so you have a vested interest in maximizing the potential of the tool anyway.
Interesting that we are just now seeing cameras with full operating systems like Android while smart phones have been vested with operating systems since the first rev of iOS. In some demographics that gave the phone a big head start over conventional cameras because owners could populate the phone/camera with a huge range of "apps" which expanded the usability of the phones as photography tools. This capability arrived (in a very, very primitive form) in the Sony Nex cameras last year and is set to arrive in a more mature fashion with the intro of the Samsung Galaxy NX camera running Android, this Fall.
I can only imagine some future photo excursion with the Galaxy NX camera or some other camera that comes complete with a luscious big screen and a full bore OS.. I'll have spent a day shooting images and I'll be riding home on a bus from some God forsaken hell hole and I'll relax as we barrel down the highway by watching Blade Runner on Netflix on my smart camera. Then I'll take a break to run MS Office in Windows emulation so I can do my taxes....on my camera.
As you can imagine point and shoot cameras represent(ed) a huge part of the total camera market and for many years were the bread and butter financial foundation that made it possible for DSLRs to exist at the price points they occupied. Now the market is being effectively gutted. Gone. Non-existent. And as that market dries up you can logically expect the last of the one hour labs and photo labs in major stores to vanish because people very, very rarely print anything that they've shot with a cellphone. Don't know why but they don't. People seem to think that having images resident on their hard drives is the end game for the latent image. When 43% of the market vanishes in ONE YEAR something profound WILL happen to the all of the players in the market.
It looks like Olympus and Fujifilm's response will be to kill off that segment of their product lines entirely. But that hardly means that any of the second tier (behind Canon and Nikon) companies are out of the woods. Another interesting number to emerge from CIPA is the total sales of mirrorless system cameras in N. America. In the last year the makers of these little gems have sold slightly fewer than 39,000 units. Total. And I suspect most of those were sold only in the financially prosperous, tech forward cities of the U.S. The value proposition being lost in more traditional markets.
But cellphones have been gently eroding the market for the past four years. Why the swift and sudden plunge of conventional cameras over the cliff? My take? The vast majority of buyers of all cameras, DSLR's, mirror less, high end compacts, etc. were hobbyists and amateur photographers who, after years of pursuing some sort of competence in the craft have come to the conclusion that the whole art genre of photography is somewhat of a dead end. There's no real cheese at the end of the imaging tunnel. Pros take pictures to sell to people, and companies, and they try to make products that are really, really good so they can sell them for good amounts of money. Their motivation comes in trying to please clients. And get paid. Oh, and they might also do it for the sheer exuberance the craft, well practiced, can bring. But the hobbyists mostly had one feedback loop and that was to share their images with like minded practitioners on the web and to bask in the glory of positive feedback.
In the early days, when images were being uploaded only in the low millions per day there was a chance to stand out from the average, struggling amateur and really show off one's chops. But as the faucet was removed from the plumbing and the pipes started delivering at full and accelerating capacity every day the sheer quantity of images became absolutely overwhelming and impossible to sort and parse.
What's more, the feedback loop of learning about photography from your fellow followers on the web became, more or less, nearly 100% efficient so that any unique and singular vision is copied, disseminated, learned and re-shared in veritable milliseconds. The very hunger for approval fueling the next wave of homogeneous vision in a cruel and immediate way.
Like any trend this one grew slowly at first and then accelerated to its tipping point and started the precipitous slide into ambivalence around the end of last year (2012). That was the time frame when I started hearing from my non-professional friends (but very competent photographers) about their hobby ennui. They were fully equipped but uninspired to move forward. Not just one or two lost souls but a legion of guys who seemed to have lost their photographic drive just around the time that they caught up with, and mastered, the sum of all the technical stuff one needed to know to produce a really well done image. We'd have coffee and they would say to me, "I have all the gear I ever wanted and I just don't know what I want to shoot." I'd talk about taking portraits but beyond flashing their portrait work onto the world wide web for forum approval most friends understood that without the client along for the ride making standard portraits is a shallow exercise for the most part.
If you think about it the hobby of photography from the dawn of digital to now really had very little to do with the desire of most people to make wonderful images. They did want to make the images but not for the sake of the images but only as proof of mastery. Proof that another rung of Moore's rusty ladder of laws had been assimilated and mastered. In the early days the technical workers of our hobby were locked in a war against the stair stepping and lack of sharpness caused by lack of pixels. Not enough dots to make up a convincing image---especially when writ large and examined minutely. That battle continued right up to the introduction of the 24 megapixel sensors hit the market and, if you notice, there was a backwash, a rehashing, and new understanding that maybe, just maybe, 16 megapixels currently represents a sweet spot. Good enough for big photos and small enough to be manageable.
Part of the technical race came to a (maybe temporary) end. The proofs of quality that showed the equation of mastery were handed in and graded and that part of the course was over. See how big I can print this? See how sharp it is?
The contingent that is driven to do photography to prove their technical mastery (and it's a much bigger segment than most will acknowledge) and their understanding moved on to embrace the noble battle against noise and there's been a circular series of spasms empowered with endless energy, driving the expansion of ISO's that one can use to capture a scene. Every time the ISO scale gets ratcheted up the noise comes howling back in like a pack of wolves attacking a frail cabin door and the noble knights of noise saddle up and do battle with noise reduction software, exposure schemes to the left or right, and many other fixes. The battle isn't about producing a wonderful photograph as much as it is about creating a "proof" (using the word in a mathematical sense) which shows off the victory over noise at each setting.
And the marketers for the camera makers have proven really good at creating the "problem" of the quarter for techie photo enthusiasts and providing the (inventory) roadmap for its subsequent solution.
What finally happened? How did the skirmish resolve? I think the camera makers shot themselves in the foot. When the only way to get super high resolution at first was to drop $5,000 to $8,000 on a professional camera body the technographers had the understanding that high resolution was rare and costly and something to be pursued. And mastered. When you could buy a Nex 7 at 24 megapixels that could go toe to toe with a Canon 1DS mk3 in terms of sharpness and resolution for nearly one sixth the price the pursuit of the precious was shaken. When the 24 megapixel sensors got rolled out into a $600 Nikon body the curtain was pulled open and we could see that performance was now on sale at Target prices and everyone was free to share the same basic benefits no matter what their tenure in the technical trenches. And when everyone is special....no one is.
I think amateur and pro alike realize that most of the race is over; at least how the race was understood as an analogy to analog. By which I mean, "How can I match and exceed the quality of conventional metrics that we used to get from medium format film." There's nothing else pressing to solve, technically. And as the STEM education mania pushes everything else out of the way in the U.S. at least, when the non-subjective metrics are satisfied the game is complete then there is no way to advance to the next level. We, collectively, did our "job" and mastered all the new impediments to making imaging work in the digital age. That, and that alone was the quest of the Holy Grail for millions and millions of hobbyists. It was all about mastery and all about the process of perfecting measurable results. Corralling data points. Keeping score by analysis.
And you could see that in the ten years of cataclysmic discussion on forums and web discussion groups around the world as old knowledge met new semiconductor life forms and accompanying constructs of new understanding. Characteristic curves paled next to the arguing power of Nyquist frequencies and interference patterns. Diffraction limitation and artifacts of sensor blooming overtook age old discussions of resolution and sharpness.
Now all the cameras that are coming out in the hobbyist, enthusiast, semi-pro and pro markets are equally good at exceeding all the measuring metrics that the coalesced hive have set down for "good enough." The engineering idea is that we've hit the sweet spot and to go for a Six Sigma improvement would be costly and unnecessary. So, as I've said, the game is over and the photo wizards made it to level 89 and no one wrote anymore code after that. To the vast majority of people who "took up" photography after it became digital the lack of new technical challenges equals having to play an old video game over and over and over again knowing exactly where the new lives are stashed and which key will get you the grenades as you enter the Alien/Predator threshold.
What's left? That's the real question and it's one that people who care about the photographs themselves have been grappling with for decades. Why photograph? What's my motivation? What story do I want to tell? How do I want to tell it? How can I make things in my own style? How do you really learn to see? What's my target for all this work? How does one keep score when everything (everything going forward) is subjective and not bound by the measurement of interferometers or subject to Moore's Law? Is the future of photography all about watching Breaking Bad on the rear screen of your camera and then taking a break from time to time to look into a window on the screen and snap a photo of some meaningless (but colorful and graphic) street scene to share later with other people on the backs of their wi-fi enabled cameras? Dear God, I hope not.
I think the future is something more and less desirable for photography and photographers. As people adjust to the new economy they'll be going back to more secure and conventional jobs and will abandon trying to make a career out of photography. As hobbyists driven by technical contests and quests realize that the quest is over and the game is at level XX and there's no more technical pats on the back to accrue, no more extra lives to collect, they'll move to the next technical challenge and abandon old fashion, non-moving photography. As the market for cameras declines the rate of new product introductions will also decline and everyone who is left will be figuring out what they want use the power to make images for and how to proceed.
Instead of workshops on how to do stuff (step by step, recipes) the new workshops will be on finding that magic spark that motivates you and makes you want to create for the sake of creation. And instead of sharing endlessly with strangers perhaps we'll return to a time when small groups of photographers and galleries and even virtual magazines helped to curate and self-curate and sort and add value to the practice of enjoying the actual image instead of sanctifying only the process. And the tools of the process.
And that, in a nutshell, is why I think the camera market has fallen off a cliff and entered a period of radical and breathtaking decline. To the mass market all images have transformed from being a method of memory and sentiment storage to being consumables. Like cheeseburgers and fries and large lattes. To the technically motivated the major psuedo engineering challenges have been met and solved and won. Why continue?
And now we can get back to work and make images that reflect our tastes and our styles and our engagement with life. Because art should be a conversation that strives to tell us just what it is to be human.
I could be totally wrong. Discuss?
Featured comment from VSL reader, Dave:
Featured comment from VSL reader, Dave:
Another interesting read, this time about Nikon:
in other news: Belinda and I finished working on, The Lisbon Portfolio. The photo/action novel I started back in 2002. I humbly think it is the perfect Summer vacation read. And the perfect, "oh crap, I have to fly across the country" read. It's in a Kindle version right now at Amazon. The Lisbon Portfolio. Action. Adventure. Photography. See how our hero, Henry White, blows up a Range Rover with a Leica rangefinder.....