The Sky is Falling, the Sky is Falling
Reports of declining digital camera sales have made headlines for several years now, with no apparent end in sight. So, what's going on here?
The Camera and Imaging Products Association in Japan (CIPA) recently published their annual report detailing digital camera sales by type. As you may have already read, things don't sound good. As has been the case for some while now, fewer digital cameras were shipped each month when compared to the same month years previous. DSLR sales are down as are sales for point-and-shoot cameras. Even sales for mirrorless cameras declined. It could be argued that the recent full-frame mirrorless releases by Nikon and Canon might reverse this trend, but within the overall context of the report, I wouldn't want to bet on it. It's hard to read the report or what has been written about it all over the web and not come away with at least some degree of concern or at least confusion.
Elsewhere, Canon predicts a 50 percent drop-off in camera sales within the next two years. Nikon may be affected even worse. As an overall percent of the overall decreasing market, Canon actually saw a slight increase last year over 2017 while both Nikon and Sony saw a slight loss of share. Everyone is jockeying for position, but it's hard to escape the feeling that this is a race to the bottom somehow.
But the sky really isn't falling. Or I don't think it is. Or perhaps I hope not. Let me see if I can add some context and perspective on where things seem to be at.
To begin with, let's return for a moment to before the turn of the century when film cameras ruled the day. As warnings about the the impending Y2K crisis began circulating, so too did warnings about the future of the camera industry. People weren't buying film cameras as much yet digital cameras remained beyond the budget for most shooters. Ironically of course, the two potential problems do have a connection in that both relate to transitions brought about by advances in technology. For those who were around or weren't involved in the Y2K problem, suffice it to say that it had to do with the potential for computer systems to go berserk because of the rollover to the year 2000. To save space, it was not uncommon for years in dates to be represented in computer systems with just two digits, and "00" (as in 2000) is lower than "99" (as in 1999). Suddenly, things would be recorded in computer records as having ended before they began. That sort of thing. Thankfully, nothing much came of those fears, but at least all of us involved in the computer industry then were at least a bit worried as the century rolled over and the ball dropped in Times Square. With film camera sales, the dire warnings were brought on by the advances in digital camera technology. One could argue as to exactly when digital cameras resolution became favorably comparable to film resolution, but by Y2K, the writing was definitely on the wall. Everyone was making the leap to shoot digital, and naturally film camera sales fell.
For basically the next decade, digital camera sales soared. Starting from obviously nothing before the format was invented, sales peaked somewhere around 2010. In less than half that time though, they had replaced film cameras as the dominant format in terms of production and sales. Sales then continued to grow year over year over the second half of the decade. At the peak, digital cameras were flying off the shelves (er, I mean, "websites") at more than twice the pace that film cameras ever did. The convenience of digital photography in the age of social media clearly had a favorable influence on the popularity of cameras and the very idea of using one.
But more than this was behind the rapid growth in sales. For one thing, anyone and everyone who owned a film camera was all but forced into making the jump to digital due to the decreasing availability of both film and film processing. Regardless of how many years we want to consider that it took all those film photographers to acquire their existing film bodies, they all made the jump to digital over the span of a few short years. Furthermore, the quality and capabilities of early digital cameras had, shall we say, quite a good deal of room for improvement, so digital technology naturally improved by leaps and bounds with each new model released by Nikon and Canon, with each competing against the other for bragging rights and sales figures. As such, many of us upgraded digital bodies more frequently than we used to when we shot film, A film camera is a fancy, light-tight box. A digital camera is all that plus the equivalent of the film we used to put in that box, but now in the form of a digital sensor. In order to get a higher resolution sensor, we had to buy a new camera body. No more could we simply pop in a better roll of "film."
So, for some years there, all current and newly introduced photographers were actively participating in the digital camera marketplace, and most of us playing our part as consumers more often than in years prior. The boom in digital camera sales was in part an authentic representation of an expanding market. But in part it was the result of forces not previously at work when we were all buying film cameras.
Curiously, if we add in the sales of mobile phones with built-in cameras to our statistics, the sales slump vanishes completely, and then some. Rather than looking like a bell curve, rising from zero when consumer cameras first entered the marketplace close to a century ago and peaking at the height of the digital sales boom, only to experience a severe fall off into the current century, our graph would now appear to accelerate upward unabated, from the beginning of the consumer adoption of photography in any format right up until the current year. At this point, smartphone sales dwarf the peak of standalone digital camera sales by several orders of magnitude. More photographs are taken today than ever, with no letup in sight. If one is willing to count smartphone cameras as being real cameras, there is no sales problem at all. Camera sales are healthier than ever.
For many casual shooters, it has become completely realistic to consider a smartphone to be all the camera they need. Posting to Facebook and preserving memories of and with family and friends doesn't have the demanding needs of "serious" photographers who are able to make full use of interchangeable lenses and full-sized sensors. And there's clearly no way to beat the convenience of having your camera with you in your pocket whenever you need it. It only makes sense that the mobile phone has made a huge dent in the traditional camera market. And what with phone technology now improving by leaps and bounds, many of us are buying new smartphone cameras as often as we can afford to. We have to, not only to get a better camera and better "film," but now also to get a better calendar, datebook, email and web browser, road maps, music player, solitaire games and other diversions. Oh, and a better phone too, of course.
There will always be those of us who want and, in some cases, need the best camera they can get. And there will always be companies willing and interested in catering to that need by producing and selling increasingly exceptional cameras. One might assume that DSLR and even interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras could effectively become niche markets, but that seems unlikely to me. While all these other changes in the marketplace have been taking place, other forces have also been at work. Improvements in manufacturing technology have brought lower costs at the same time they've ushered in improved capabilities.
So, will these warnings about the collapse of the digital camera market turn out to be as much of a false alarm as those Y2K scares turned out to be? Gosh, I hope so.
There's no way to predict what sort of stasis, we may achieve or if things will simply continue to shift and advance endlessly, but I can't help feeling it will work itself out somehow. Some will give up on carrying around a dedicated camera. Others will readily jump at the chance to purchase newer and better such cameras.
Same as it ever was.