Has the bubble burst? Is that why camera sales in N. America are down by 43%?

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: 

I decided to test your hypothesis by looking at site rankings for dpreview.

Dpreview is largely made up of people with a strong technical interest in photography and if that part of the market is going away then it should show a similar decline.

In fact, it does!

Since the beginning of the year there has been a major drop off in dpreview's rankings with somewhat of a rebound occurring last month.

This rebound does not take the site anywhere near as high as its rankings sometimes hit last year.

Another interesting read, this time about Nikon:


Studio Portrait Lighting

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.....

Remember, you can download the free Kindle Reader app for just about any table or OS out there....


Eli Burakian said...

Kirk, this post immediately resonated with me. You have a unique ability to tie a market trend into what we hope to achieve with our craft.

As a photographer who just discovered my passion as the digital age became mainstream, and then the only stream, I too have fallen into the mode of evaluating the technical results versus evaluating the image. I also always am wanting the next greatest thing. As a professional photographer, the perception of having the latest and greatest is often as important for my career as the benefits the technology provides.

Every couple of months I'm reminded that the images that resonate with people, or even just myself, are very rarely due to the technical qualities of the photos.

But I think the one part of the conversation that was only briefly mentioned in this post relates to the process of making photos. For me, the most magical part of photography is in the act of taking pictures itself. The arrival of photography in my life was literally life-changing. All at once, the world became a canvas, and I started to pay attention to everything around me. It has made me mindful. Aware.

I think once the battle is over and we are beyond the current trend in digital photography, the true photographers will not be the ones who have mastered the craft, but will more likely be the ones who enjoy it the most. And although I strive to be the former, I care most that I do the latter.

Anonymous said...

You're not wrong ... This is an excellent piece about the current state of the industry and the bulk of the "consumers" that make it up. I have to admit I've been thinking some of the same thoughts and so has several other advanced amateurs I know. Some additional points to ponder...

1) Good Enough - the current level of technology (pixels, dynamic range, frame rates) is good enough to satisfy virtually everyone's needs. Once you own the 24 or 36 megapixel camera where do you go... In some ways the current camera market is like the PC market. The technology is now so good and so fast there is no need to replace it continually as the upgrade brings you nothing of real value anymore.

2) Technology has made us all pro's - the current technology on digital cameras makes it difficult to not take quality pictures from a technical viewpoint (not an artistic viewpoint). Anyone I know that has purchased a camera in the last couple of years and has come to me find out out to use it gets pointed to the automation built into the camera as the starting point. A lot of people don't move past this as they don't need to.

3) This inst the end of life as we know it - Digital changed film and morphed into something a lot different. I suspect the current situation will also morph into something else. Likely there will few camera makers, a lot of people will look for customized technology or maybe revert back to film.... its hard to say.

I definitely agree that a lot of people will be leaving photography over the next few years.

I'm sure things will be interesting.


rlh1138 said...

I'm repeating some earlier remarks a bit, but.. for me it isn't about shooting less or not knowing what to shoot or why I'm doing it in the first place - those feelings/thoughts come and go over the years. (To be clear, amateur/'art' photog) It's about the cameras got all so good, no need to keep upgrading/buying. From 3 meg to 6 to 12 and now 16, yes I bought cameras every other year or so. But.. not for some time now, as I'd just be getting incremental improvements. (For me, for my size prints, etc.) My photog friends are not buying for the same reasons, more or less. OK, one guy did buy a full frame last year. So.. my 2 cents. Keep writing about Sony Nex tho - I'm feeling something stirring.


AndrewBCN said...

I think you are right: photography gear for photography as a hobby has reached a technical plateau of "good enough" at the same time as "snapshooting" is being completely taken over by smartphones. So the market for compact P&S cameras is disappearing fast at the same time as hobby photographers have lost their incentive to renew their gear. Hence the decline in sales worldwide.
Will the Japanese companies recover from this? I think so. I believe they'll adjust their production to the new sales levels in the short term and diversify in the longer term. Business cycles happen and this is just one of them.
Also I don't think much will change for experienced pro photographers such as yourself because of the declining digital camera market. For amateurs like me, I am seeing some excellent used gear getting sold at rock bottom prices, so no problem!

crsantin said...

I think your observations are correct, specifically those about the hobbyists (people like me). In the many fora to be found on the web, very few actually deal with the why. There is a discussion right now over at the site that shall not be named regarding the new Panasonic GX7...about sample images taken at ISO 25,600, and how the new camera is perhaps disappointing because the images don't look usable. I need to stop visiting that site.

If I could add another reason, it would be a simple one. How much gear, how many cameras does one actually need? If a new and improved model is released every 6 months or so,and micro four thirds seems especially guilty of this curious marketing approach, how long can that trend continue? At some point, people are going to realize that a new camera simply isn't going to change anything. At some point the consumer is going to tire of the upgrading treadmill and get off. The consumer can't keep up, his wallet runs out of oxygen and begins to cramp. I think this is what might be happening. The Olympus EPL-1 was released what seems like ages ago, it's an ancient camera if you are dealing with that format, and it was released, what, 3 years ago? So the hobbyist hasn't spent any time, energy or money trying to figure out the why part of his hobby, and now he's used up most of his disposable income, and the wife or husband has started to frown upon any new camera or gear purchases. The new gear is all good, it all performs the same (the advantage of switching over to brand x is now gone)and the market is saturated.

I've stopped posting on image sites and stopped putting up images looking for likes and nice capture comments. I really have been struggling with the why, consciously for the last year. Still many question marks for me but I don't feel like giving up as I've also experienced some moments of enlightenment when I think about the why of this hobby. Every time I think about buying new gear my bank account reminds me that I can't. That, and the realization that the pictures I was taking with a 16mp Nikon were no better than the ones I had been taking with the 6mp Nikon. I doubt the rest of 2013 will include any camera purchases for me.

hbernstein said...

I think that you are absolutely correct in all of this. The digital wave has washed over us and left so many of us stunned as to what to do next.

If images can be compared to individual droplets,and whose current existence is just as ephemeral, then we are in danger of drowning from the number being generated.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

But why the big drop all in one fiscal year? And it's an economic recovery year? Why so much so quickly?

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Just to be clear, it's not just point and shoots losing to cellphones. The numbers for DSLR cameras are down 18.5% year over year. That's huge.

Bill said...

Technical clarification: smart-phone operating systems go back a lot farther than iOS. Some examples of earlier smart phone operating systems include Microsoft's Windows Mobile Smartphone around 2002 and PalmOS 3 running on the Treo 600 in 2003. The iPhone wasn't publicly released until 9 January 2007.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

If it's any consolation I am also in the same boat and wondering why I keep shooting (and spending).

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

And I actually saw one of the seven actually built Window's Mobile Smartphones. I made a call on one. I only had to re-boot it three times during the course of my call.... You are correct. Did any of the phones you mentioned allow the addition of apps for photography?

Bill said...

The first cell phone with an integrated camera was the J-Phone released by Sharp in Japan in 2000. By 2003, more camera phones were sold worldwide than stand-alone digital cameras. By 2005, Nokia became the world's most sold digital camera brand. By 2006, half of the world's mobile phones had a built-in camera. When the iPhone was released in 2007 Apple was simply riding the wave, this time with a decent (for cell phones) camera.

This collapse is so apparent now because it's been building for over a decade. And yes, primitive camera phones had simplistic camera apps, along with the ability to attach them to text messages, and later to emails.

Ash said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill said...

Here is my take on the "problem" from a different direction. Same sort of observations, but different resolution. Written 29 July. of cameras and photography, a personal journey

Anonymous said...

Because the price of smartphones has dropped. Now you can get a Glaxy SIII for $50 bucks.

Anonymous said...

I love to take photographs. But I've no much time to put them in internet, nor I have accounts in flickr or similar. I don't like so much to work my photographs in a computer so I bought a bubble level, grads, polarizer and a big stopper to do the less edit possible and be more time outside walking in the nature. I almost shot in basic iso except when I want some effect or distortion and make white photographs with subtle colors and then I shot maximum to 400 iso.

I don't need wifi, smile detection, movie record, hdr, vivid mode, and not even auto. Just a camera I can set in aperture or shutter priority or manual with an evf and a screen to see my images, a shutter that doesn't sounds like a shooting gun and with enough size to carry with confidence and raw to work with freedom. I haven't used film cameras except twice these year but I appreciate learn about my tools capabilities to do what I exactly want. For that reason when I searched the several cameras in the sea market these year I bought an old Sony R1. To me go with a fixed one focal lens would be downgrade, go with a camera with noisy shutter would be downgrade, go with a camera without evf would be downgrade. I just want to go outside and take photographs about things I feel close to me. I could do good prints for my hobby (I am not a pro and have no desire to be one in photography) with a 6mpx Olympus so to me 10mpx is more than enough.

In USA I understand the DSLR is the most wanted camera. I am not sure why except I see in reviews that the most customers are dads and moms that want fast autofocus to shot their children in their games. In Peru the DSLR is most wanted because in USA is the most wanted, that is I feel from the people who has bought DSLR's others buy what the seller says, mostly compacts that are the cheapest and the IQ is similar to cell phones. Actually I think that facebook is the place were my friends put photographs, and in these days to they is easier take a photograph with a cheap cell phone, I think the facebook society is part of the equation at least in my country, in that society the photos are little pics that doesn't need quality but rapidity.

Well, I am writing long in a language where probably I sound like a drunken guy lol. It's a pleasure read you sir. With the time I am not interested in isos countings nor mpx so is great to read thoughts not about cameras per se but cameras as part of the act of photographing. Regards.

C. Kurt Holter said...

I'd just like to say that this is the best and most thought provoking thing I've ever read here.

caerphoto said...

I think you're pretty much on the money, Kirk. Like others have said, too, when combined with the 'good enough for almost everyone' technical quality, digital photography is a 'solved problem' for a certain subset of people, so there's nothing more of interest to them.

It does make me wonder about Thom Hogan a bit, though – he basically thinks it'd be great (for sales? for users?) if cameras had the photo upload/sharing facilities of phones (and these features were as easy and efficient to use). Given what you've said in this post, I'm not so sure – for press photographers and the like, sure, but for those of us who take photos for some nebulous 'higher purpose', I don't think there's much benefit at all. Of course I'm only speaking from personal experience, but I'm pretty selective about what I actually upload to various places: Facebook gets my 'social' or 'I went here, this is what it was like' pictures, which, while I could probably have used my phone for them, I generally prefer using my X-E1 just because it's pleasurable to shoot with. I have thousands of photos on my Flickr account, but the latest ones are really quite spread out over time.

Noons said...

At last, art may get its day back! Instead of megapixels and technobabble.
Nothing wrong with that, in my book.
Does it mean there will be less "pros"? You bet!
We'll be back where we were before digital.
Some folks will know what to do to make an image be interesting.
The vast majority will do smartphone images.
As it should always have been - and was, way back in the film days!

Unknown said...

Hi Kirk

Well, I can't say I always agree or want to agree with what you have to say but I've been having very similar thoughts myself, particularly about the proliferation of images and how this has diluted quality to the degree where it's a bit like panning for gold - anyone can do it if they have a pan and access to a river but really, the returns are relatively poor. That's not to say that there's not plenty of nuggets out there, just that one nugget looks pretty much like another, more about my own concerns about thje death of photographic 'art' over here http://bit.ly/13hCRZ5 if anyone is interested.

Meanwhile with regard to your article's wider and very lucidly made point, for me the consumption of cameras and DSLRs in particular very much reflects the kind of consumerist 'craze' we see in everything from fashion to vehicle purchase - everyone gets the idea that they need product or lifestyle accessory 'x' (because someone else whom they consider cool has one and they believe it will therefore make them a cooler and more attractive person). They get x and if they receive a certain positive feedback from it, so pursue x+1. Sooner or later the power of x+1 diminishes and they have to go off and find their consumer buzz elsewhere. That perhaps explains for me the drop-off for 'enthusiasts' but equally loads of people got DSLRs, many of whom discovered that the reassurances of the marketing people that they could just select auto mode and make great images were pretty right, and they didn't have the time or inclination to study whether their images were technically any good. The market achieved saturation and mainstream photography as an activity has, or perhaps is, passing the enthusiast by as 'good enough' means the effectively free camera that came with your phone.

My initial emotional reaction about your article was that it seemed pretty pessimistic in tone, and although I do hope your more optimistic conclusion comes true I reckon that you're about right overall, unless your a pro then you're only doing photography for yourself, everyone is already swamped by imagery so the chances are your stuff isn't even going to get seen, so you might as well enjoy yourself. Meanwhile equipment is subject to a law of diminishing return. Up there in the stratosphere, I'm not sure than an extra £3000 for a 'pro' camera is anything I could ever justify to myself for a couple of extra FPS - I'm just making pretty pictures, and I'm enjoying it!

Frank Grygier said...

Hobbyists have become camera collectors. I have a drawer full of little mirrorless wonders with low shutter counts waiting for their place in the glass curio cabinet. A sobering post indeed.

Unknown said...

I "took up" photography way after the advent of digital(around 2010) but, after much discussion and angst, decided to shoot film. Something about having to control only 3 parameters (aperture, shutter speed and ISO) and yet having a large degree of control over the image resonated with me. At about the same time a lot of my friends bought DSLRs (we were all 2 years out of university and into our jobs and were looking to spend part of our preliminary savings on something indulgent). Lots of discussion on ISO speeds and film versus digital debates were had.

I hope this is not seen as one of those debates but the fact is, today, I look around and almost without exception all of those who got DSLRs have lost any interest in photography and use their cameras only when they go on holiday (usually complaining about the weight). On the other hand, I still regularly shoot with my FM2 and have attempted to increase control over the image by getting an enlarger and setting up a dark room. I have also recently got a nice Shen Hao 4x5. When I speak to a friend with "hobby ennui" I lend them a Olympus RC35 for a week and watch the fun - frustration and trepidition at first, then wonder when they receive the prints. Not all of them go out and buy a film camera but all agree it was an enjoyable experience to shoot film (we are talking about a generation who don't remember using an analog camera).

On this basis I believe there is a new and expanding breed of 20 something hobbyists shooting film and, while this won't help camera sales much, it does provide another illustration of Kirk's point on what drives photographic sales - the ability to differentiate oneself.

This may have been covered in another post but it would be interesting to have some stats to track the level of film sales in recent years.

The Quacks of Life said...


didn't a similar fall happen in film cameras ??

as far as digital? we've reached saturation point I'd imagine. Virtually everyone you see in a major city these days has a camera.

many internet commenters (e.g. you ;) ) swap systems a fair amount. The other day for instance you commented on the GH3 and going back to m4/3. I'd suggest the average punter doesn't do that and they are not constantly updating. They buy a camera it lasts for a fair length of time and they upgrade.......

Enthusiasts KNOW that sensor technology moves on. IMHO even a camera like the Nikon V1 is better for most people than an older dslr like the d80. The average punter however thinks that their dSLR is still better OR frankly doesn't care since its good enough for their needs.

Cameras are also recycled way too quickly these days indeed most upgrades are so minor as to be laughable. Do check out the camerastores review of the new canon 700d/T5i.

how many sony nex 5's have we had that frankly don't add that much? Nikon launched the d40x / d60 / d3000 for goodness sake.

Thom Hogan wrote that the technology is now so good that most people could be on their final camera.

I've certainly reached a point where I don't NEED a new camera. I have a nice m4/3 system and I have a very nice fuji XE1. Pick up a new entry level APS-C and m4/3 camera and it is way better in terms of image quality than dSLR's 7 years ago. Pit a good prosumer camera like the Canon 30d and Nikon D200 against a modern camera and ...... That isn't something you could say about film. A Nikon F50 had the same IQ as a Nikon F6 for instance, a Leica M3 had the same IQ as a Leica MP etc etc.

..... that doesn't mean I don't WANT that new Panasonic GX7

as to the number of bad images on the net (and I definitely include myself in that) well I think film taught people about photography in the way that digital doesn't. on digital if I shoot 600 images and get 1 keeper who cares? on film that would cost me real money.

hey ho

j said...

Digital Cameras have matured. I think we will see a camera pattern return to that of film. Cycles will get longer, maybe back to a 5-10 year cycle instead of the 1 year cycle. Most people who have a camera in the past couple of years are happy with it.

We have to remember that this is problem for the camera companies, not photographers. People have to be honest with themselves about what they enjoy about photography. There will always be GAS, however, for the rest of us, the thought of having a state of the art camera for 5-10 years is wonderful.

Anonymous said...

I would guess a lot of people bought DSLRs and were disappointed at their results and/or they didn't realize how much of a burden they are to carry around.

Unknown said...

Our Northern Florida Large Format Photographers Group has been discussing many of the issues that you and others have raised during this discussion. There is little need to reprise many of the comments here which to my mind are both relevant and correct. A few of us have attempted to merge our preference for film with the advantages that a hybrid work flow offers,i.e., the possibility of creating larger prints without the necessity of carrying around large cameras, and the "relative ease" (:}) of editing photographs via the digital paradigm. Indeed, the availability of "digital editing" is perhaps one of the less appreciated benefits of the apparently stale digital revolution.

There seems to be little doubt that the "market" has spoken and that the move to sophisticated phone cameras is well under way.

The proof that the digital revolution has stalled will occur when Nikon, Canon and others "reinvent" their 35mm film cameras, and retool their "digital lenses" to fit on such cameras. Such film cameras will create an entirely new generation of "photographers" who will consider themselves more expert and accomplished than their digital carrying colleagues. There will still be the parallel universe of the digital group and the film group with the latter appearing to be the more expert and accomplished and the former being the phone camera group snapping while talking.

There will still be the obvious benefits of digital capture in fields such as magazine and newspaper photography where rapid reportage and quick editing is necessary. And of course there will still be fine art digital photographers who will continue to create, recreate, and then recreate again the same images with ever more surreal colors, blurred edges, and "their own unique style": The "Pollacks", "Picassos" (sic) and "van Goghs" of our time. Good for them....

The dual "universes" of film and digital will exist together. However, one might be excused for thinking that the fungible digital cameras of all types when broken will no longer be serviced. Why repair when the camera phones can satisfy the same needs?


Anonymous said...

Hi Kirk,

This reminds me of the last days of the film cameras. People had relegated the SLR with the heavy photo bag to the closet and had started using p&s cameras which had become good enough.

And what happened to the dslr camera? Well, they made it even larger and heavier. I've met many dslr owners who are now using lighter bridge cameras with their 20 to 45x zoom which have become good enough.

Second reason that I can see for the decline in sale: the novelty has wore off as people are getting the same boring snaps even with the lastest and best camera gear.

Third reason: the analogy to baseball applies to photography. Getting the best baseball glove will not provide the ability to play in the major leagues.

Anonymous said...

From 1889; "You press the button, we do the rest"

To 2013; Universal still pictures and video, available to all.

Yep, it's over.

Anonymous said...

It is also noteworthy that the 18.2% decrease in DSLR shipments occurred despite a 37.3% increase in shipments to Japan. Shipments to the rest of the world were down 21.8%.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for an insightful article. I agree with all of it.

Many years ago I urged newbie photographers to get over the technical hurtles so they could explore the art and craft of photography. Mastering the technology was the beginning, not the end. Learn to chose film, expose correctly, chose a developer and time and temperature, learn to load it on a Nikkor reel without crimping the film, and then enlarge it for your end product. Learn it well enough that when taking a photograph the technology is automatic while you watch the light and the composition. The technological hurdles kept many artists from exploring photography.

Now, the technological hurdles have been all but eliminated, and the field is open to creative artists who lack an engineering mind. While the equipment market is shrinking and the snapshot folks are gravitating to camera phones, these artists new to the field are comming along and will be making more good images and the art of photography will continue to improve. Just my thoughts.

Jerry Kircus

Olaf Hoyer said...

Depending on what you shoot, the border of "good enough" is different on the technical side. For a Portrait outdoor in Sunshine or in a studio with controlled lighting the technical level of "camera good enough to provide great image quality" ist actually quite low- subject does not move etc. - with different targets like sports or wildlife or photography in near darkness (like event photography sometimes) cameras with very good AF or High ISO will help you to significantly push some limits. I think that there is a certain level of gear you will need to accomplish some task given, and that quality gear makes it easier to work, to work more precise or simply enjoy working with good quality equipment. Just like a hairdresser having a certain set of scissors ready for action.

Also partly thanks to VSL, i learned some lessons perhaps before shelling out uneccessary money- and my actual investments are going towards lighting stuff and other gear- also I try to define a personal style in the images.
This is something I think also has to be the goal of any artist that takes a craft serious: To develop his skills to a point where he is able to create a kind of style that is distinguishable from the "grey mass".

And, most important to not become bored and not drown in the mass output of the surrounding world: One has to set himself goals what to achieve next- mine goals for this year involve doing some more photo trips with fellow photographers using only analog gear (my last rolls of APX100 are screaming in the fridge), defining and refining some style concerning low-key portrait lighted with open flame like candles, and generally getting out where social action takes place.

Spending: will of course also occur, but not towards newer gear, but towards travel to reach exciting destinations, and the beer after some group trip.
The ROI of this is consequently not measured in income, but in happiness...

Peter said...

Good post Kirk. I agree with what you say, but I believe that the rise of the camera phone is such that it is killing off the DSLR sales as well as the point and shoots. Most DSLRs are bought by the soccer moms and dads, but now that the camera phones are so good, these customers are discovering that for their type of pictures the DSLR is a hinderance. Much worse however – the DSLR is no longer cool! It is becoming the camera equivalent of the family station wagon. So be assured it's going to be dropped like a hot brick by the 20 somethings.

The camera of the future for enthusiasts will probably be high quality, expensive, and mirror-less. Sounds like we will all be shooting versions of the Leica Vario! (But some with interchangeable lenses I expect.) For everyone else, an iPhone will do.

I went through my own "mastery and then what?" phase during film days. I got to the point that I could emulate my chosen heroes so well that no one would know if one of my shots was one of theirs or mine. Then I realized how pointless this was and gave up photography almost altogether (sold my tiltall, my Hassy, my FM2; how I wish I had them back!). I got back in (still in film days) just as digital was emerging, in order to get some pictures that I really needed, but from then on I have kept at the front of my mind my reasons for taking the picture: my vision, not someone else's. If it is sometimes to master a technique, I try to be very aware of that and then use the technique for myself. I don't much care for landscapes, sports, or formal portraits. I discovered what I like by going back over my old images and seeing what really 'did it' for me. Like the image I made 50 years back of a major bridge under construction, (developing and making the final print myself).

My recent camera purchases have all been film cameras. Got back that FM2 (but as a FM3a), that Hassy, (but no tiltall), and I'm having lots of fun and getting more of the kind of images I like. I haven't entirely gone analog; I still scan and then print my favourites using Lightroom and an inkjet printer. And I still haul out my OMD quite often. But I'm going more slowly. And I never post on Flicker, or Facebook!

The other thing to keep in mind is that photo blogs that talk exclusively about the latest equipment, will also have a major shake out very soon. So keep on about the important stuff, ...please!

Unknown said...

I have been reading your blog without commenting for long time. This is one of the few post on which I disagree. Every time technology changes at some point there is crisis for the old products so probably in the near future we shall be shooting strange hybrid between cameras, computers and phones, still the challenge will always be the same: compose, light, process. Despite the "available to all" technology I don't see a big improvement in the images produced by the average photographer and the need for good images seems to be as high as always. Everyone making a living from image products, photographers, tech companies etc, will need to adapt but in the end there will always be images to be produced and the good ones will always need the same skills, such as good eyes mixed with a good understanding of the technology involved.


wils said...

Chin up Kirk .. you're making $, and enjoying it .. and if all you perceive is true that's just less competition, and lighter cameras to carry around. I do think you've read the correct tea leaves. Thanks, I always enjoy your writings. Wil

JJ Semple said...

I took three cameras to Europe without realizing it. I thought I only had one. But at certain times, The E-PL5 was either ungettable or disallowed (planes, stores, etc.). Then I remembered, "The iPad has a camera, so does the iPhone."

I used them both and the results weren't half bad. There's even a free iPhone version of Snapseed (the Nik app you once touted) for editing and sending.

Does that mean I won't keep buying mirrorless cameras? No, but I will probably end up with a Nikon v1 and a m4/3, both, for which, I already have a full complement of useful lenses.

Anyway, your post deserves to be studied in Art Schools; it gets one pointed in the right direction.

Michael Matthews said...

It's a given: improvement in camera phones has made the point-and-shoot, well, pointless. Just like much of the phone photography seen online.

Ennui among DSLR owners, though, is not the byproduct of an overwhelming avalanche of bad photography clogging the internet. It's the avalanche of good photography.

After acquiring and mastering all those hi-tech, high priced toys many look at 500px and the other aggregator-display sites and realize: it's already been done!

Really, it may be imitative, duplicative, redundant -- but the mass of well-shot, well-processed, strikingly good photography on the internet is so huge it threatens to tip the planet.

Am I going to spend thousands of dollars to travel to Arizona for a workshop on how to make one more view of a sunlit slot canyon? Not bloody likely. Will I, instead, propel that cash toward acquiring a 36 mp camera with macro lens and multi-strobe lighting rig to nail the ultimate shot of one more damsel fly? No. How many jumping spiders shot 1:1 do I have to confront eye-to-eye-to-eye-to-eye before I've seen enough?

And, let's face it, no amount spent on new gear is going to make the sun rise behind Mesa Arch in a new and different way.

When it comes to cameras and related equipment, I think the Emperor may have altogether too much clothing. The fascination which fueled the spending binge of the past dozen or so years has peaked. New toys are no longer that attractive; releasing a new set of them every six months, as pointed out earlier, makes them even less so.

For the camera industry, it's Welcome to Wall Street, 1987.

Carl Frederick said...

I don't want (or need) a new camera, I want great lenses to get cheaper. If less demand for cameras also means less demand for good (used) lenses (and, hence, lower costing good lenses), I won't complain.


Anonymous said...

I started with a Kodak instamatic (film P&S). I then took over my Dad's Voigtlander ultramatic CS camera in the 70's and used it in aperture priority mode. I bought a Minolta 7000i in the late 80s and again used it in aperture priority mode most of the time and loved the autofocus feature. At work, I used a Kodak DC40 then a Toshiba PDR-M4 2.15 MP camera! I stuck with film because I felt that film still had an edge. Work upgraded to a 12 MP Canon Power shot, which had pictures that were way less sharp than the Toshiba. I kept looking at digital, but managed to put off my desire until recently. I couldn't hold out any longer and bought an Olympus E-M5. Well, I am an EE and still work as an engineer. I love gadgets, but I also firmly believe in KISS and very much try to control GAS. Point of all this background? All the cameras I have owned have been relatively simple compared to the E-M5. I find the menu system and all the buttons, etc on the Olympus somewhat daunting and somewhat of a steep learning curve. Some of the menu items are downright confusing. I have provided tech support to non techies and have seen their frustration level with technology. I totally understand why cell phones are the number one selling cameras today. The simplicity of a point and shoot, instant connectivity, no need to carry a second device, simpler interface, small, and so on. Most people just take snap shots of themselves, family, friends, food, and so on to share on the internet. I may be just a step above a snap shooter, but I still consider myself a camera geek. I wanted a larger sensor (than a cell phone), better IQ, ability to change lenses, choose F stop, and so on, but for the typical person, this is just not part of their vocabulary. For the most part, they don’t care. There’re not pixel peepers. High ISO. Who cares. Can I share quickly the self-portraits on facebook. That’s what is important to a lot of the younger crowd. Stand alone P&S cameras and more expensive cameras just cannot compete with them. Initially when digital cameras arrived, every year saw significant increase in IQ and sharp decrease in costs. This led to increasing sales year after year for digital cameras. Today, digital is maturing to the point that IQ changes are from year to year minimal and costs for the new is not necessarily a good return on investment. Cell phone cameras have come into their own. For most, the IQ is good enough. They are the future for most people.

MO said...

More rants! More more more

Anonymous said...

You're probably right, but...

Remember the Hi-Fi craze - especially in the 70s and 80s? Grown men fighting turf wars in scene magazines over cables, what kind og lacquer to use for the edge of CD's etc.

Then the PC went into overdrive - especially from the mid-90s, when the Internet started to open new frontiers. Grown men fighting turf wars on scene BBS' or in news groups over hard disk this and RAM chip that and how to tune the monitor to display less flicker, when you looked at it from the edge of your eyes?

When PC more or less became household items and - roughly - good enough (a few years later it also happened for notebooks), the craze with digital photography started. Grown men fought turf wars in internet forums on how to do this, that and the other, and why this that and the other piece of hardware - camera, lens, tripod, you name it - was the only true way forward.

All these crazes was mostly driven by mens need to tinker. To do something. Sometimes even to make things better. The ultimate DIY in Hi-Fi, PC, or digital photography. All men have this "urge" to some degree. A thousand years (or more) ago, there were learned and very heated (male) discussions on how many angels you could fit on the tip a needle. Not that it mattered, alas...

The common denominator is, that art or output has very little to do with the "hobby". I'm old enough to remember, that most H-Fi enthusiasts had very little need for actual music (I earned a living as a Hi-Fi consultant, and of all the crackpots I met... ahem... ;-). Extremely few played or wanted to play an instrument, and very few enjoyed actually listening to music. Except the few "examples" that clearly (or not) displayed the need for the special kind of lacquer on the edge of the CD. And they had a huge collection of non-musical media with white noise, pink noise and... you name it, they had it.

Very few men actually used the computer for producing anything. Writing books, poems or calculating the answer for everything (it is "42" if you need to know) or even developing software, that actually did something for anyone. You needed to have a PC, if you wanted to discuss your views online, but that's all the "output" most men produced. Ever. As an entertainment machine, the PC (notebook or not) was relegated to the cellar due to the noise it produced. Most Hi-Fi enthusiast even forgot, what their previous craze was about.

Now we're about to reach the end of the male craze with digital cameras. Cameras are becoming good enough. Lenses too. Even small, pocketable cameras have reached a level of image quality, that was inobtainable with even the biggest "bazookas" not long ago. If you entered photography to produce YOUR art, or as a means to produce YOUR "thing" (i.e. YOUR way of journalism, portraits, travel reportage etc.), then you're probably not affected by the "good enough" factor. You're just happy, that you can redirect funds in other directions, instead of into new cameras and lenses and...

You will continue to PRODUCE, if ever possible, with the tools available. But most men did NOT enter and use digital photography as a tool to produce anything. Some did not even enjoy the results (good or not). They were not significant. It was the tool and the process as such, that counted. Results, if any, were secondary.

It was the good old tinkering gene combined with the age old "p*ssing off the turf" mechanism.

So in many ways you are probably right. But it is nothing new. There's really very little new "in it" new under the sun ;-)

Now, the interesting thing is: What will be the next craze?

Regards and a big smile
Kurt Friis Hansen

Unknown said...

I think the market is simply saturated. There's a vocal and strong contingent of hobbyists on the internet, that love gear and upgraded constantly. I strongly believe their voice being so loud has masked the fact that they are the few, and most consumers buy a DLSR and keep it for many years. Which is exactly what happened when the price of APCs dropped as photography enthusiasm increased dramatically.

I shot a wedding last weekend where every 3rd person held a DSLR, and a few who had ridiculous 300mm 2.8 bazookas at the end of theirs. Clearly the market is there but the retailers and pundits have over estimated the size of the market.

Smart phones will continue to eat away at the PS market, because a PS is now a pony with no tricks where a smartphone is literally a personal do-it-all device. That said a do-it-all device will not be able to contend with specialty devices like DSLRs.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

I think it's far beyond just market saturation. The market was saturated last year and the year before that but sales kept expanding and new markets kept opening and then....all of a sudden....in a short time frame....sales of cameras drop nearly 50% ????? A saturated market would have a gradual curve of disinclination not a radical cliff edge... Sorry, I don't buy it.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...


Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Just because some people presume this is a passing trend and that cameras sales and a keen interest in the hobby will revive doesn't make it so. Look at hi-fi, look at building your own computer, look at fad diets and all sorts of other pursuits. Some fall out of favor and lose their panache as they finally, completely enter transparently into the mainstream.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...


Bruce Rubenstein said...

I think the most fundamental change is that pictures used to be something tangible that you held in your hand, put in an album, stuck on the refrigerator and sometimes, even framed and hung on the wall. Now it’s fleeting image on a screen that’s viewed and tossed. Why spend thousands of dollars on gear when all you’re going to do is throw away the end product?

I take pictures with the objective of making prints that generally range in size from 8 ½ x 11 to 12”x16”. µ4/3 and APS-C are more than adequate for that, so that’s what I use. I shoot, I look at what I got, if I like something I print it out on my Canon 9000 II as cubicle decor for work or larger if I really like it put it in a frame and hang it on the wall. It’s sort of like going out hunting and bringing back dinner and having a great meal. Except I may enjoy the meal for years.

I also stay in the digital domain for things I want to share with family or friends. I’ll edit down a shoot to a reasonable number of images that are cleaned, prepped and loaded into a flickr set. If nothing else, it avoids having to email a load of pictures to people.

The point is that my pictures have value to me so the gear is the price I pay to get something I want (aside from playing with toys).

G Gudmundsson said...

This is a good thread. Very good article and many thought-provoking answers.

Why this sudden drop in sales? Saturation in one answer. Lack of real improvements in another. The current 'hype/war', the sensor war is one that the ordinary customer does not understand. (Mine has more pixels than yours was better at enhancing our testosterone levels).

All cameras today are more or less good enough. We have mastered the technology. 1 million pictures of red flowers a day. 1 million silky waterfalls, 1 million pictures of lions in zoos. Zillion pictures of man walking in street, old lady sitting in front of old italian house. All great, all the same.

Why suddenly so sharp a fall? We are heard animals, we humans. We follow mysterious psychological trends. Everybody goes to club 77, and suddenly club 77 is empty, everybody is gathering in Maaestro's or whatever. The heard has scented something new, a new club, it has bolted. That's one of the answers.

Personally I found the digital technology advances fascinating. For a number of years. So I bough IXUS, G6, G10, G12, 350D, 550D, 5D, 5D ll, 7D, 60D, E-P3, OM-D and more, plus lenses and lenses and lenses. And bags and bags, plus flashes, cards, lights, cords, books, pens and stuff and stuff...

Gradually I got tired of carrying this all. Like a lot of you guys. Hence the m4/3. But that got out of hand as well.

Funny part is that the better the gear got the angrier my wife got. Not because of money spent. She did not like her portrait taken with the 5D ll and the 85 f/1.2 or the 135 f/2. Not to mention the bitingly sharp macro lenses you can also use for portraits. According to her, the great full frame cameras + L = bad gear. iPhone photos? Much better.

Eventually I got to the point of asking, why am I taking photos? The focus changed from technology to my voice, my vision. Do I have anything to say? Do I have an eye for anything at all? Have I anything to contribute?

I guess lots of people are in this situation. We have all this gear. And we realize, we don't really need it. I'm not a professional. The wife, girl friend, ordinary Joe does not appreciate blindingly sharp photos with creamy bokeh. The wife/GF actually rather dislike the clinically perfect output.

Is that one of the reasons that interest is waining? The technology today has got to advanced and alien for the human eye and the human brain to appreciate? So, we don't care any more? So, we stop buying? We don't need cars with 16 cylinder and 700 horsepower engines. We don't need those new photo machines? We have come to realize that? Or at least a large number of us... ?

On top of that, to get back to my vision thing, do I have a vision, maybe the honest amongst us have come to realize that we don't have anything unique to add to all the photos flooding the world.

Then we stop taking photographs or we say, so what, I'm going to enjoy this hobby. I'll scale down. I'll use this perfectly fine camera I bought last year. I don't need to upgrade.

Personally I'm in that boat. Today I have sold off nearly everything. I only have a Panasonic LX7 with a LVF2 viewfinder. I love that little machine. It's plenty good enough for me. So, I'm out there taking pictures for myself. (Waiting to see if anything really new comes along. Not really expecting anything.)

G Gudmundsson said...

There is also disillusionment. The digital revolution opened up a floodgate. Lots of people thought: I can become a photographer. So, we went out and bought cameras and lenses. Gradually we have found out that it's not so easy.

You need a camera and a few lenses, sure... but you also need lights, umbrellas and reflectors, you need filters, you need to travel, do marketing, find you voice etc... not to talk about PP software etc, etc... You need that all in order to to really stand out and become a pro...

I think part of the fall in sales is due to more and more people realizing this fact... plus everything else people have been mentioning...

why now exactly is probably a number of factors coming together ... in 2013 the grain ... ...

Anonymous said...

We all have times when we wonder why we keep shooting. They pass eventually. As for why we keep spending, that's the real question.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

That's a great narrative. I love the arc of it.

Michael said...

I have a decent day job so with some saving and sensible money management, I could afford a nice new camera.

But let me tell you. I will NEVER buy a nice new camera because there are so many cheap, amazing used cameras that were bought by people who never did much with them.

The camera companies made too many damn good cameras too quickly, and they quickly hit diminishing returns and peaked. The incentive to 'upgrade' to a new camera is just not there.

I tried the 5D Mark III in a store and loved it. LOVED IT.

But for $3500? Blech.

Last year, I upgraded to full frame by buying a Canon 5D for $550. A couple weeks ago, I got a Sony R1 in dead-mint condition for $200 because I didn't want to pay $750 for a Canon 24-105mm zoom. I also picked up a Canon 70-300mm for $250 refurbished.

So I have a whole great system for $1,000 with all focal lengths covered from 24-300mm.

My next buy will be a Canon 1DS Mark III... once they drop below $1,500.


Seriously, what's the point of buying one new camera when I can buy multiples for less than half the price?

Anonymous said...

Ahh. The various levels of cat whisker sharpness. You have discovered the important part of art for IT people.

Pete Appleby said...

This has been a very interesting post, as are the many thoughtful responses. I look at this in a couple of different ways. My perspective is that of an amateur of 40 years of experience. I currently have a great m4/3 camera and several of the "best" lenses.

First, the progress of the technology. Many have mentioned "good enough", but I think that a followup to that is "what will I get if I spend x dollars on new equipment?" At some point the incremental returns are abysmal. Not sure about the rest of you, but I've seen my discretionary spending shrink a lot over the past several years. In earlier times, the money was somehow easier for me to rationalize. Not so much any more.

Second, I often find myself a bit overwhelmed in looking at photos on the web. There is a lot of good out there, but also a lot of junk. The good stuff intimidates me a bit, and sometimes I feel that my posts will just be adding to the junk. So I find myself taking fewer and fewer pictures. And posting less and less. Now I tend to only go "on mission" when there is a special event like a family wedding, vacation, birthday party, etc. By taking fewer pictures, I have more difficulty in convincing myself that I should buy that new camera or lens.

Third, I think about what really brings me enjoyment and satisfaction in my life. After I buy a new camera, computer, cell phone, car, etc. some time passes and then "the shine is gone". I somehow have met the goal of purchasing the desired object, and the satisfaction fades. Sometimes I think back on the many computers, cell phones, and even cars that I've owned and wish I had been more frugal in making them last longer. May be I need to be setting better goals in my life, like my relationships with children, grandkids, and friends. Seems that the satisfaction there never fades. I have a lot more happy memories of family and friends than I do of computers, cell phones, and cars. I am a child of the TV generation and am a well trained consumer.

Anonymous said...

Not just equipment, software, and technique. many people have these. There are 3 intangibles that some people seem to be born with.

1. business smarts
2. market smarts
3. people smarts

Photographers who make a good living seem to just be smart. Lots of hobbyists find one or more of these smarts are unobtainable for them

Anonymous said...

Well, Kirk, I think you're quite right - double ennui has set in.

Just recently I bought a D7100 for some very specific reasons - instant AF and IQ being two of them. But as beautiful as that camera is, I couldn't shake the feeling that Nikon had finally jumped the shark. It's so loaded with every possible operational goodness in Nikon's arsenal that it's lost much of its general utility and friendliness while not advancing photo quality in any major way, with the exception of those niche users who can use its fearsome arsenal fully.
Then Panasonic comes out with the GX7, and it's clear; this is the dieoff; the D7100 is my last DSLR, and it may not last me more than a couple of years. With sensors now so good that u4/3 matches a D90 punch for punch, and with a convenient sized camera that's clearly photographer-centric (two dials and a viewfinder, for heaven's sake), the only question left is why it costs so dang much to switch.
Oh, and the other question is, as you've said: what can I photograph and how can I tell its story in a new and personal way...if anyone is listening.

Eric said...

I'd pretty much forgotten about the lacquer for CDs. I guess I know now why some peoples' fussing about DxO ratings seemed so... familiar... to me.

Marvin G. Van Drunen said...

Three thoughts:

1. In the film days we would shoot our pictures on vacation or at family events or friends parties, take our film to our local processor and get back a yellow envelope with 36 or 72 or 300 4x6 prints, only a small fraction of which were technically acceptable and share them with our family and friends... not the whole internet world. The pictures were important only to me and a very close circle of family and friends. And then along comes the internet and we suddenly realize we can post them up on 500px and get likes and votes from people all over the world... but so what? The pictures are still only important to a very small audience.

2. Tomorrow my wife and I will be attending the funeral of a very close friend who died at the age of 58. Her husband asked me to look through my photo files for pictures of his wife to be included in a video the funeral parlor played in a continuous loop on large screen TV's at the wake this evening. This was to me and our friends an important use of my photos.

3. Yesterday I shot some pictures at my granddaughters' 5th birthday party. I hope my efforts will be valuable to my daughter and granddaughter in years long after I'm gone.

I think that this is what many of us are realizing. For us photography is very personal and I think we've come through a period when a lot of thought we were creating great art. Some people do. I love to look at the photos produced by Kirk and Joe and Zack. I marvel at their skill and artistic vision. But what's important to me is way, way more personal.

Thanks for a very thought provoking post!

Brad Burnham said...

Well written Kirk. Very fascinating and I agree. I am young enough (30) to have started in film and made the transition to digital not too long after. I did spend quite a few hours in a wet darkroom, and I really enjoyed that. For me personally, I like gear and would like to buy new cameras more often, but I know it won't make my pictures better. Just like making that switch from film to digital several years back didn't make my images better. As a matter of fact, I look back on the body of work I created then and my more recent work and I feel like there was an extra...'something' in those B&W images taken on an old Nikon Nikkormat, an FM10 or a Holga that at times isn't present with my new work made with my fancy digital camera.

I find myself moving backwards, collecting old cameras and shooting with them and trying processes that I haven't before, like image transfers with instant film. Then again, maybe I am caught in the same pattern of technique mastery you describe, albeit anachronistically.

Patrick Dodds said...

I agree Olaf - I think for certain types of photography (essentially, those where there is plenty of light), most cameras today will take a technically competent photograph without placing a great deal of stress on the photographer's abilities. However, take away that light (inside an English country church, for example, or, so it sometimes seems, in any venue a wedding couple choose to hold their reception)and cameras start to struggle. Sure, ISO 3200 is sometimes usable on my D700s but but but... when cameras give a quality at ISO 3200 similar to ISO 200, only then they will have reached another peak in the range. I'd still contend that another mountain top will appear through the mist though.

All of which is not to deny that there is something intriguing in the precipitous decline of new camera sales mentioned in Kirk's post of course. Strange new landscapes ahead methinks.

The Quacks of Life said...

i don't understand your point?

I don't think camera sales will bounce back. Hifi is an interesting analogy. you could almost equate MP3's with phone camera's with people valuing convenience over quality.

to me photography has never been a technical challenge. it's about going to different places, recording my memories. trying to take better images. They remind me of a special moment.

What, I think, you have to accept is that digital meant a lot of people bought cameras with no real intent.

Any one can pick up a camera and indeterminately snap. but very few of us will ever take a great picture. those of us who treat photography as a hobby just try to learn and get better

Claire said...

I think your post is both very interesting and very true.
Personally, I'm a HAPPY hobbyist photographer. Yes I do get frustrated with some gear limitations sometimes (I shoot NEX almost exclusively now), but overall I am having a grand time making pictures that *I* like, because I know what *I* want to shoot and what is art for *me*. All of this is so subjective anyway, who can tell me that shot I love isn't great ? Who are they to judge ? We're all sensible to different things in photography. Knowing *what* makes you tick is what matters. So you got the right questions : "what do I like to shoot", "what story am I trying to tell" ? I think frustrated and bored people never even saw photography as storytelling. Those of us who do are rarely frustrated and never bored. I personally embarked on a project to document my kid's childhood from birth, and our family life in general, and it's proven highly enjoyable so far. Messing with the gear (the research, the buying, playing, reselling, whatever) is only an added fun bonus. When it comes to actually making photographs I think pretty much all the cameras that I've tried were more or less up to the task. The NEX seem to inspire me than others and be more versatile and that's the reason I shoot them. I think most hobbyists would be happier if they realized how FREE not being pro make them, and instead of trying to get cheap praise from a bunch of internet self appointed experts, they should rather use this freedom to shoot whatever it is that THEY truly like !!

Claire said...

While your story is interesting, I've found y personal entourage sensible to "better" photos. Clean subject and nice bokeh with decent composition always earned me a lot of praise (friends, in-laws, spouse) who themselves take cellphone pictures. Just a different experience I guess.

Unknown said...

Well put sir!

Simon Morgan said...

I think between you and Kirk you've hit the nail squarely on the head. We are just seeing the end of the "big digital camera" fad. I suspect the new fad is smartphones, judging by the bickering and spec-lust on show on gadget websites.

I bet there was a similar fad when film photography first hit the masses a hundred years ago, and all the professional photographers in high street studios with their large format cameras were bemoaning the inferior quality that the great unwashed seemed happy to put up with. Plus ça change...

Biro said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Don Parsons said...

I bought a new model canon that's about to be discontinued for about half the price of the new one because I needed a camera. I hadn't had one for about 8 months. My three year old point-n-shoot filling in when my iphone wouldn't do the trick. And I love taking pictures...I just couldn't see spendng the money unless I really needed it.

Biro said...

While camera sales have been flat over the past few years, I do think there has been a relative boom since the digital era really got rolling a decade or so ago. At least compared with camera sales in the last decade or two of the analog era. But now the boom is deflating for reasons that are fairly simple, methinks.

We've reached a point of diminishing returns with camera improvements and 16mp really is a kind of sweet spot. So those who are pretty serious about photography - whether pro or hobbyist - have less reason to upgrade. But I also think a busier than ever work schedule and other complicatins have given many of us less time than ever to dedicate to photography - and less energy (both physical and creative) when we do find time.

For the masses, smart phones - which themselves have reached a sweet spot in terms of price, availability and picture-taking ability - offer the convenience that really is the most important thing for them. These people were Instamatic and Poloroid camera buyers in the 1960s and 1970s. I think Kirk gives these people far too much credit. They aren't looking for art or technical mastery. They simply want decent pictures of friends and family and an easy way to share them.

Add to this the economic situation. True, the U.S. is technically in a growth cycle, even if a weak one. But I can only use myself as an example. I weathered the financial crisis and recession fairly well. But it is in this year - 2013 - that I find my flat salary and rising expenses have caught up with me. I have far less money to blow now than I have had in quite a while. so camera purchases go on the back burner, especially since I have a nice kit already.

Perhaps now we'll go back to something closer to the more-sane world of photography prior to the digital age. But, with a camera market that's shrinking as fast and as much as it is, some players are likely to fold.

Ken said...

"Mama don't take my Kodachrome away." Not that long ago in the history of photography everyone used the same films, Nikon introduced a new pro model every ten years, advancements were useful like a faster shutter speed. You took pictures because you wanted to document your life or had wanted to capture slices of the world in your own unique way... self gratifying. Digital is when photography shifted to the computer mentality where bigger and faster was better, the image was incidental and updates came every three to twelve months. As a result, just like the computer industry, the thrill is gone, diminishing returns are obvious and the need for continual updates is unnecessary. Both industries, connected by the micro processor, are fading into the obscurity of ambivalence. Photography will continue to survive for those who view it as photography and not a technological arms race. Paul Simon summed that up too with the two brief lines preceding his professed love of Kodachrome... "I got a Nikon camera. I love to take photographs."

Anonymous said...

Absolutely, Kurt. I used to say there were "audiophiles" and "audiophobes". An "Audiophile" appreciated listening to fine music through an excellent audio reproduction system. An "audiophobe" used fine music to find flaws in their excellent audio reproduction system. The same situation has existed in photography, but like in audio, there really isn't any point to it anymore.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Have a look at the graph in this article and notice the behavior after the first saturation point in say the Autos data...


Take care,

Mark Roberts said...

I agree. I live in a provincial part of New Zealand. I'm staggered at the number of photographers trying to make a living here, which includes part-timers doing it on the cheap. Weddings are their bread and butter. For whatever reason the portraiture market down here isn't what it is in the USA, although I'm not sure what happens in USA. We don't have a high-school senior photo shoot. Pity that. I don't know anyone who's paid for a professional portrait sitting, apart from the one my mother arranged for me and my brothers in about 1957.

By the way, I've just bought my third reflector/diffuser. I'm a gear-head of another stripe. I want to show my friends what a decent outdoor portrait looks like.

FM said...

An almost perfect analogy but.... Nobody ever created an excellent piece of music with their hi-fi setup either on purpose or accidentally. One can produce an excellent photograph with all their fancy, or not so fancy equipment and sometimes accidentally.

Weirdly enough, I thinking I'm welcoming the collapse of camera sales and the obsession of the connoisseurs of equipment even though I happen to own some fine equipment. I came about my obsession with photography in the darkroom and all my heroes are photographers and their work. I recently had a neighbor comment very favorably on my photographs but I bit my tongue when said I must have really great camera. I do, but I can show him thousands upon thousands of photographs with that "really great camera" that are trash worthy.

Maybe, just maybe, we can get back to great photography where the question of which camera was used is a mere afterthought.

Anonymous said...

Mayhaps all this is the reason for a continuing interest in old film cameras and processes. Over at the UK site 'Filmwasters' the folks get all excited about a homebuilt 8X10 pinhole camera or Ilford's latest Obscura 4X5 pinhole kit. There are long discussions about how to get the best tonal range from paper negatives. And, and.....well you get the picture.

Slow fun under a soft, benign safe light.

John R.

Brad C said...

Is a decline in sales a big surprise? As photographers we keep talking about how the latest cameras don't matter at all when it comes down to IQ, especially for a consumer looking to upload to the web. Why is it surprising that people are not upgrading their dSLR's? Everyone I know has fancy iPhones and still keeps a dSLR or P&S handy. 2 friends have asked my advice on getting a P&S size camera in the last 6 months and both own Smartphones with cameras. Consumers still see the advantages of a better camera when it comes to taking shots in low light of the kids, or an optical zoom to catch some sports. But they don't see a need to upgrade over and over like the enthusiasts do :)

A quick list of my friend's and family's cameras: Canon Rebel T2i (x 2), Canon G12, Sony RX-100, Canon S90, Canon S95, Nikon D70, Panasonic GF-3, Fuji X10. Why would these people upgrade? What would they gain? They aren't photo enthusiasts, and their phones do video well enough (if you aren't willing to edit, or use a tripod, etc.)... I think digital came of age, and the performance is good enough that people don't see a strong need to replace their cameras. But they keep buying new phones because their plans run out and they get offers for a new phone. I don't know a single person who bought a new phone and got rid of their 'old' digital camera.

Anonymous said...

Thom Hogan made a similar sounding argument when he wrote his "Last Camera Syndrome" article. There has been tremendous advancement in the technology since 2003, when I bought my wife a surprise birthday gift, spending over $2,000 for a 5 mp Nikon "prosumer" DSLR and lens (which we just recently donated). We are now at the point of diminishing returns, and a commensurate disincentive to upgrade, a situation that Dell also faces. Also Apple.

So ... stuff like that happens. Always has. Probably always will.

And fads come and go too. Pet rocks. Cabbage Patch dolls. Ninja Turtles. Hello Kitty. iPhones and iPads. Instagram. Bulky DSLR's with big honkin' lenses, preferably white, preferably with that fine red line around them. Eventually, froth and ferment passes. Meanwhile, most of us are probably doing what we once did with a Kodak Instamatic, just much more expensively.

For me, I'm trying to return to where the "magic" of photography was for me: Creating the print. For this, I really love digital, and the freedom from the chemicals, the smell of Dektol and fixer, the long nights, the running water, and the mess. I want to work an image that I think has potential, and make a really nice print. For that purpose, all of my gear is just plain good enough. Heck, I sold a framed print of an image taken with a Canon A590. What I could really use is an upgrade from my very old Microtek scanner, to maybe an Epson V700, so that I can make good use of my 35mm and 4x5 negatives, including current film work.

One more point: With the exception of the Lumix 20mm f1.7 prime, I bought every other current item in my kit second-hand, the GF1, the GH2, the E-PL1, the Lumix zooms, a couple of legacy primes. In a year or two, when the GX7 price plummets, I might buy one of those, and send the GF1 out for an infrared conversion.

Meanwhile, I think that, for folks like you who actually make a living out of photography, this shakeout may be good news. As I read your comments, I kept thinking, "Opportunity."

I've got to say, you're a thinker, Mr. Tuck, and a thought-provoker. Well done!

Thank you.


Unknown said...

The irony of all this is that, prior to the internet opening the flood gates of photo sharing, there were undoubtedly millions of hobbyist photographers, some of them producing interesting, beautiful work, whose photos were never exposed to a wider audience than their friends and family. This work is mostly lost now, never having really existed for the wider public in any meaningful sense.

Now, millions of hobbyists are sharing their photos with the world, such that anyone's work could potentially be discovered and appreciated by a wide audience. However, as you note, there has been such a flood of content that separating the good from the bad and curating this work has become almost impossible. Most of this work will still only been seen by friends and family and the result is that most of this work will be lost and forgotten just as surely as if it had never been shared in the first place.

I can't help but wonder if part of the crash has been countless hobbyists thinking their work was worthy of wider appreciation confronting the realization that our work is just not that exceptional or creative and, as always, the only people that are likely to care about your photos are those you actually know personally.

Dave said...

I do not have access to the numbers but if you want to understand the meaning of the sales drop there are other figures to check.

First, if there is a real drop off in interest in high end photography this will show up in a reduction in lens sales.

If companies, like Sigma or Tamron, which mostly just sell lenses, are doing well then the drop in DSLR sales means either people do not see a reason to upgrade their camera (even though they are as interested in photography as ever), or that the low end of the market (soccer moms, etc) have decided that their phones are good enough to photograph their children.

Many high end photographers use Lightroom. If Lightroom sales are strong same as the above.

If the drop off in sales of DSLRs is because people have decided to upgrade their cameras every 15 instead of every 12 months this is tough on the camera companies but not very significant beyond that.

If the whole industry - lenses, editing software, lighting, etc - is on a downward spiral then that means something very different.

I personally think the enthusiast side of the market is still strong. At this second if I wanted to spend money to improve my photography it would be on lenses to handle difficult use cases. (Sadly I just paid my son's college tuition so I do not want to spend money to improve my photography at this second.)

A couple of years ago a new camera was a much higher priority. I think I am fairly typical of the high end camera market.

The Quacks of Life said...

i'm not sure i understand....

i certainly don't think cameras sales will jump back. and yes I get the hifi analogy. And I think many of those who bought into digital didn't join a hobby. for me it changed my life but for many? nah.

ultimately my goal for taking photos isn't governed by technology. I am trying to take better pictures. I am trying to share what I see and enjoy with my friends.

I think the reason camera sales have fallen is that too many of us have decided we either can't afford to keep updating or don't need to.

Frankly I am amazed at the number of pics posted by people with their "luxes" that frankly could have been shot with a flipping point and shoot.

curiously whenever I look at Steve Huffs site (and I wasn't ripping on Steve) its the pics by the likes of Ibraar Hussain I find most interesting and his are normally film. and I get as much buzz from picking up and old Olympus Trip

I know I don't need better equipment. i just need to learn how to use it.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree. It nails something I've been feeling about my own photography and unable to put in focus.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

But why would the fall off in sales come all at once? Why now when cameras have been more than good enough since the 5d2, the D7000, etc..? It happened all at once. These numbers are year over year. They're comparing this year with 2012. The real question is why such a sudden pull back.

Biro said...

People don't have the money, Kirk. The rain may have stopped but the creek is still rising. The financial crisis and recession may technically be over, but most people I know are more strapped than ever.

Anonymous said...

We're simply experiencing a well understood technology adoption process best described by the Gartner hype cycle:

1. "technology trigger" (introduction of DSLR)
2. "peak of inflated expectations" (resolution, iso, noise, dynamic range, etc.)
3. "trough of disillusionment" (resolution, iso, noise, dynamic range, etc.)
4. "slope of enlightenment" (incremental improvement of above)
5. "plateau of productivity" (where we are today)

I have no doubt another disruptive innovation will occur causing tech heads to once again rejoice, but for me it's about telling a story and technology simply provides more options for the telling.

Nice post, Kirk, I enjoy both your work products and insights.

Anonymous said...

One year does not make a trend. I agree technical quality is now a commodity (save demanding cases involving low light, fast motion or extreme resolution). I'm less convinced there is a loss of interest, or sudden decline in GAS.

I did a quick check of 1H '11 vs. 1H '13 interchangeable lens camera production and if I read correctly there is a modest increase - so I think the better question is 'what was unusual about '12?'.

The obvious answer is mirrorless. Few gave up their DSLRs in '12, but many added mirrorless to learn if/when mirrorless could replace DSLRs. Now the verdict is in (mostly yes), and buying should revert to long term trend after a dip as those who own both work off their excess investment.

We are finally really going all-in digital and letting go of limitations and complexities left over from the film era. I am optimistic that innovation will continue, as will the human need to record images.

The technical glass is half full, and rising.

As has been true all along it is the artist, not the tool, that conjures the great image. Be the artist.

Dave Jenkins said...

Kirk, if you think this is an "economic recovery year," I have some waterfront property in Florida you might be interested in. Or a bridge in Brooklyn, if that's more your thing.

Andre said...

Excellent analysis, and many excellent comments as well. Like you, Kirk, likely most are right on the money as to the causes of it. As an old film horse I just keep doing what I like: creating images I like. I use. for the most part, old gear -heck even a D100 and a D80- and old legacy glass. I like to eke the most out of all of that. With some careful processing I'm generally pleased with the results. No doubt the newest gear would make it easier, but I don't always "want" easy.

Maybe that's another factor - the gear we already have is (more than) good enough for most applications. And for the majority, a smart phone with a decent lens and sensor just delivers that; good enough. The momentum to this phenomenon - sales falling off so sharply, must have been building quietly over the years, until the tipping point had been reached. Low prices of good enough smart phones only accelerated the inevitable.

For me, I don't care about it. A old Contax rangefinder with a Zeiss 50, loaded with Velvia 50, and maybe a relatively old digital body, and I'm happy. It's good enough.

Feri Naf said...

The article is pretty much on point but i still think the "good enough" threshold will continue to move with the capabilities of an entry level DSLR camera or whatever replaces it.

Why would we limit our expectations to only beating medium format film. Why would we settle for needing bracketed shots to do HDR images, or to using tripods for optimum results in landscape and i could go on and on.

The point is, that there will always be too much noise and the AF will never be fast and/or precise enough. Most expert photographers scoff at the need to shoot at ISO6400 and i can't understand why. What's wrong with taking picture of your kid in an indoors event with a kit zoom and getting a decent result. In a few years it will be possible for sure.

My only guess for the decline of 2013 is that last year the cameras made a significant capability jump in most consumer product lines. The EPL5 for M43, Nikon D3200 for entry level DSLR, RX100 for compacts, Canon 6D and Nikon D600 for full frame DSLR and so on. All those cameras became "good enough" and more. But only until new cameras come that offer superb on-sensor PDAF or maybe 1-2 more stops in ISO or DR capabilities.
This year there are not many enticing new cameras to jump on for the enthusiast "techie" photographer.

Feri Naf said...

That's a really interesting point you are making. But i guess the HI-FI and the PC scene pretty much all conquered their limitations. With HI-FI it was the limitations of human ears and with PC's it was that most software mostly runs smoothly on most machines. With photography where's the limit? Why not take a clear picture of stars in the night sky at f5.6 and 1/250 with a point&shoot camera. Currently we are so far from that, but it could happen one day. Imagine all the possibilities. And what about Lytro? What happens if that technology goes mainstream?

Robin Smith said...

Great post, Kirk. Agree 100% with what most of you have said. Men are indeed foolish and always have been. It is a fact of economics that people always want more...until they don't and move on to the next thing. They are moving onto the next thing. I too remember the 70s Hi Fi craze. Sound quality was THE most important thing (with the equipment to produce it). Now sound quality really counts for very little. This always surprises me. How could something matter so much once and now seems not to matter at all?

Like you and everyone else here, I too wonder why I keep taking photos. There is no real purpose in it, but frankly it has always given me pleasure, so that is why I do it. It also gives me a purpose. Rather pathetic, but there it is.

I agree also with those who thought that many people buy all this photo gear and then find out that they just don't particularly like photography, and hence stop buying the stuff. Young people, in particular, have to spend their disposible income on something and "techy stuff" is where it is at the moment. As an aside, I am fascinated by people who still seem to find PCs (well desktop/laptop Macs at least) interesting. They stopped being interesting in 1995. What exactly are people doing on their machines that is so worthwile and significant? - Ah yes, photo image processing of course.

Unknown said...

I have not read all the posts and I am sorry if some of what I am saying has been said already. Kirk, you have touched on something important when speaking about the ease of use and technical progress making it easier to create pictures that have a greater quality. sharper, more vivid and less likely to be messed up by a technicallly incompetent photog behind the controls.

One important aspect is missing. Creating Art. Put a million dollar camera in the hands of a non-artist, one who may be a great technician and he won't be able to create a haunting image with something beautiful expressed in it. Give a cheap instant camera to a true artist and he will still create art.

That has not changed with technology. No camera tells you where to point when a breathtaking moment is about to happen, which is 90% of photography IMHO. So we have exceptionally sharp images of dull events and badly composed scenes. No amount of technology will ever change that.

To an artist however, this is the best time to be a photographer. all technical constraints have been lifted. no more shackles. one is free to innovate, explore, utilize every new technique, HDR, be confident that even the iPhone photo will be a masterpiece. Nirvana!

Unknown said...

The slump in sales for most camera makers is the change in direction, of peoples focus.
Here in Toronto and I guess every major city, city, town ,hamlet, farm or shelter, folks are busy texting..Images are needed but not high end resolution.Nor good color, dynamic range, sharpness or some kind of composition.
I always believed that the small point and shoot digitals had actually gone too far..
Way too many features.Great images.The DSLR became unrealistic in weight, size and general clumsiness. In film there were fewer parameters, but way more interpretation..
A new model every few weeks is kinda dumb. Eventually everybody is browned off, with more purchases.
The total dedication to playing, reading, snapping,interneting on the major Social places will not be sustained!I can't imagine why folks are spending their lives in this mindless pursuit. People speak of many friends. They have none. Zero, zilch.
A friend will help with a loan, assistance in sad times, a helping hand at a harvest, whatever. This networking adds nothing to ourselves, humanity or a simple person like myself. So watch as some other item grabs attention..

Dave said...

I decided to test your hypothesis by looking at site rankings for dpreview.

Dpreview is largely made up of people with a strong technical interest in photography and if that part of the market is going away then it should show a similar decline.

In fact, it does!

Since the beginning of the year there has been a major drop off in dpreview's rankings with somewhat of a rebound occurring last month.

This rebound does not take the site anywhere near as high as its rankings sometimes hit last year.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Gosh I love it when I'm right...and when I'm backed up by my smart readers. Thanks Dave.

Clay O said...

Sigma's new service to convert lenses to a different mount is a great idea, but two years too late. If they had done it when Canon and Nikon were leapfrogging each other and the improvements were noticeable, they would have made a mint.

Clay O said...

It is mysterious for for the fall-off to happen in a year of a recovering economy. You'd think people would have held off buying new gear while the economy was down and the improving economy would have led to an uptick in sales. Maybe most people who had been holding off bought gear last year, so this is the year that saw the saturated market.

Charles "Rain" Black said...

In addition to the various points made, I also think we shouldn't underestimate the "pro gear coolness appeal factor". There are pro photographers using iPhones and Android phones for paying gigs. So a new demographic of "I want to use what the pros use" people can now look at the work of Jim Darling or Kevin Russ and say "Hey, I use the same phone, so I AM using a professional camera..."

Oh yeah, one more thing: It's a heckuva lot easier to take a self portrait with a smartphone camera than a regular camera (especially the latest phones that have a front facing camera just for that purpose).

Clay O said...

Could be. Maybe this is the year that the dreamers realized that being a photographer is a lot of work, so they went back to what they were doing before the crash.

Anonymous said...

I think you're spot on about this. I'm fortunate in a. having come to photography (in 1983)in order to record another interest (medieval churches)and b. find myself retaining a strong interest in using images to record experiences/memories (not family shots, more landscapes/locations), rather that (only) as standalone artefacts.
Even so, after years of struggling to become 'good enough' with digital technology, I'm bored by it. Result - I'm shooting film again, charmed by its LACK of convenience, technological simplicity (hardware-wise), non-instant gratification, etc. I hope that what seems to e a modest trend in this direction will be enough to keep analog(ue)alive,

Jallu said...

Very interesting analysis.

I think one interesting thing to point out is that the latest generation of smartphones (iPhone 4s & 5 and Samsung Galaxies) have finally achieved sufficient image quality to the point that you are not wishing you carried a proper camera with you. Most family photographers I know are women - they are the memory keepers of the family. Since they tend to have a smartphone with them, only a few see the need to carry a separate camera and deal with downloading pictures before they can share them.

I think for this reason, if camera companies don't have a strategy for playing nicely with cellphones, they are doomed for a minuscule share of the market. The rumored Sony 1" camera module that wirelessly connects to the smartphone is interesting for this reason as it might point a way forward for compact cameras.

Another reason for a shrinking market for compacts I think, is the lack of innovation at the software level. Japanese companies are traditionally weak at creating software. We have seen a lot more innovation in cell phone camera apps in the last 4 years than throughout the entire digital photography era.

I think the decline in the enthusiast market (which was relatively small to begin with) is also due to the fact that it is becoming harder to justify an upgrade when any camera bought over the last 7 years or so can create wonderful images.

Fabio Amodeo said...

I think there are two long term factors in the process going on. The first is the conservative approach of the dominators of the market, Canon and Nikon, who tried to keep alive a decading concept, the DSLR, a concept upgraded with new technologies (TTL, autofocus, digital recording) from an original model not without compromises (the swinging mirror is not the best solution to viewing). The DSLR is tired, but Canon and Nikon want to keep it alive, because it has been their cash factory. At the same moment, mirrorless technology is not yet mature, because the viewing experience is still behind photographer's expectations. We are in a similar situation to when the first ideas of videorecording came to the market. The technology was not yet there (it tooks years to develop properly), but the idea itself killed the Super 8 market, which was based on a costly, unattractive, impractical technology. Super 8 died when VCRs were not yet there: the announcement had been enough.
I think there is a second point. High grade cameras flooded the market in the 70s and 80s, when for not much money I could buy the same (or similar) instrument the Masters used. And the Masters gave a (fictious, in my opinion, but very convincing) illusion of interpretation of the world and capability to render history. Today there are no Masters in that sense: there is a continuous flow of images. History is left to our own filters. And the Masters ar of the cenceptual kind. they build their concepts, like a film maker, and they give us their interpretation of history and the world through fictional imaginery. I can buy the Deardoff camera Jeff Wall uses, but I will never have the resources to pose people, maybe for days, until the light is right. And suddenly I may discover that I have not the talent, the knowledge of history of art, the intuition to build a powerful visual statement.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

I agree with everything you've written!

jayKayEss said...

I live in NYC and it's comical how many people walk around with DSLRs around their necks. Is the market merely saturated?

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

I think it's different than saturated otherwise the fall off in sales would be a more gentle curve. We're seeing camera sales just falling off a cliff. Somethings going on.

Anonymous said...

Hi-fi has had a rather massive renaissance in the form of headphones and, to a lesser extent, headphone amplification. Hundreds of millions of dollars being made there thanks to portable players. Purists would call it mid-fi, but it's certainly found a new niche.

I certainly think that there's room for a Fuji, Olympus, or even CaNikon, in the smartphone imaging game. Partnering with an established player to provide imaging tech, for example. Smartphone cameras, with the exception of the 40+MP Nokias, are still laughable compared to a *good* P&S from 2005 in image quality.

I think Pete's right about the speed of the upgrades. I'd certainly appreciate it if the dSLR majors simplified their product line-up. I'm a pretty keen enthusiast and gearhead, and even I can't tell you the differences between the EOS line-up from 450D to 700D.

At least Canon and Nikon have a few tricks up their sleeves left to encourage new spending in the dSLR market - in-body stabilisation, and cost driving for full frame sensors.

Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure the market was saturated last year. Perhaps in the USA. But certainly not everywhere.

People are suckers for megapixels. Your 'mainstream' smartphone here in NZ has perhaps 3-5MP. Only now are we starting to see affordable phones with 8MP cameras. People look at those numbers and compare them to what they know - their 4MP camera from 8 years ago was nasty, their 8MP camera is just fine for their needs. So out it goes in favor of the new phone, and at the same time out goes any notion of buying a separate camera. It's good enough.

You have to look at where the money goes in the smartphone market - and realise that in the 'mainstream' segment, it's only really the last 12 months where cameras that really can compete *in numbers* with what consumers deem to be 'acceptable' quality levels, have cropped up en masse.

It also is a gradual curve. It's been happening for years now. It's just a bell curve, and we've just hit the peak slope.

baaron said...

A large part of humanity, now on an almost level playing field (practically every one who can afford a smartphone/laptop and has the time), so it's harder to stand out in your craft, but isn't it wonderful, the opportunities now open to all, not just a niche few. Sounds like the dawn of a creative utopia :)

Zvonimir said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zvonimir said...

Kirk, in addition to reasons mentioned in your analysis, there is one more aspect that hasn’t been explored.

At the moment, camera manufacturers face similar problem car manufacturers face; thriving and rich second-hand market.
Each camera and lens sold and bought in the second-hand market is a lost sale of the brand new camera and lens. Thanks to over-generous supply of cheap entry level DSLRs with great imagers— especially by the leading duopoly during the last 3-4 years — users can pick and choose an excellent sensor exposing box for almost a bargain.

We can comfortably say that drive to make short-term yearly figures as flattering as possible has cost Canon and Nikon significantly lost future sales.

Second-hand market is now rich and allows all enthusiasts to try just about anything, go up and down the megapixel ladder, camera models, camera size, camera complexity and delivered image quality, and find out what suits one’s current desires and fantasies. There is absolutely no need to buy new first, when the old offers very much same taste for half the price, or even less.
Second-hand market of enthusiast DSLRs also kills sales of higher-end mirrorless cameras, also visible but not explained from the mirrorless sales numbers. For enthusiasts, there is little need to get a brand new Pen 5 when they can get a former undisputed king of the APS-C image quality, Pentax K-5 for example — a totally weather-sealed, mag-alloy, compact semi-pro camera in excellent condition — for half the price! Add two good, smallish lenses to the pack and off they go with much better value proposition; they get an entire little system for the price of a new camera alone.

While car manufacturers have found ways to exploit second-hand and post-sales markets, camera manufacturers have not yet find secure ways to thrive from it. In reality, they need to invent ways for users "to stick with them" even if users buy a second-hand camera and lenses. One way to do it is marry them with a camera of a different kind, that “goes well” alongside their second-hand purchased system camera — something of a brethren spirit, and highly desirable.

I believe we are beginning to see something in the form of hi-end compacts. Cameras like Ricoh GR, Fuji X100s, Leica X2, and similar, are clearly cameras designed not for soccer mums and dads, but for enthusiasts who won’t spend on another DSLR every 18 months, but will on something else, and for less money. So far, demand for such cameras exceeds supply (X100s and GRs are seldom in stock) and we can even suspect that camera makers like Fuji and Ricoh are willingly choosing smaller production batches and deliberately undersupplying the market to make appear their compacts highly desirable, and build more sustainable environment for their future models.

Anonymous said...

Without reading the other comments to see if anyone mentioned this, but a small point of correction. Cell phones have had full operating systems since before iOS. Smartphones may not have been as popular, but Lets not forget where they came from. Palm, Windows Mobile, and Symbian. Eventually RIM/BlackBerry. Cellphones with cameras and full operating systems have been around for a very long time.

That aside, I think a great example of what you're talking about is the Nokia Lumia 1020. A smartphone with a very modern OS, relatively light, attractive, massive screen, access to MS Office and other tools like that, and a 41 Megapixel camera. As soon as lenses and other accessories come out for the phone, what does anyone ever need a DSLR for? With companies like Nokia pushing the envelope and editing software getting more powerful and the ubiquity of cellphones, we may get to a point where someone owning a DSLR is quaint archaic, like someone using an old Polaroid for nostalgia. Or people who restore and drive vintage cars. Nothing wrong with it at all. Just the ownership of the device becomes the art rather than the pictures taken with it.

Anonymous said...

Well said.

VonRiesling said...

There is an allure of The Photographer as a creative individual, and for the price of a camera (and perhaps a whole lot more) you can have the costume. When the images approach the look of a pro photographer, and the cliché shots and iconic places have been captured, a razor thin depth of field or a high speed flash sync...then what?

Part of this is a discussion I think is about market saturation. Everyone has a camera. Another is about image saturation. The best shooters and most amazing shots are two clicks away. The real challenge after figuring out how the tools work is aesthetic. I don't know if this figures in to the sales drop. I know since I have a nice DSLR and some good lenses I'm not shopping any more.

Unknown said...

Consumer electronics as a whole seems to (more or less) have the same problems as photography.
Except from a few technologies (tablets for example) everything is good enough and no real innovation seems possible.

Some people here said that photography is just one of those technologies that got completely assimilated by the mainstream (like Hi-Fi, PC ..) Everyone will use it, and it loses its appeal to obsess about it.
I think they are right and the next Big Thing will come.

Of course I don't know for sure but I think this next big thing might be:

Makerbots, 3D-Printing, DYI Electronics... a combination of these things, probably with a cool name..

The Technology is making huge steps forward and is on the verge of entering technology enthusiasts realms. Maker Fairs are popping up all over the world.
And because no innovation is moving the commercial technologies forward, these "copy-cat" technologies can play catch-up.
In a few years I might be able to build my own ipod in the living room. These possibilities feed perfectly into "men's need to tinker" that people in this thread have mentioned.

I hope I'm right because i like to tinker with electronics - and I would definitely post a picture of my ipod to the net.
The camera I use for that will probably still be the same I use now... It's still just good enough for that. :)

David Merrill said...

Kirk - thoughtful piece, thanks for writing. I was shocked at the 39,000 mirrorless-cameras-sold number you mentioned, and tried to find the source of that information myself. I found this page which seems to be the right place to find those reports, but in looking at them the numbers for point-and-shoots seems much higher. Can you cite the specific report that the figure came out of? Trying to get a bead on just how quickly the industry is plummeting! thanks.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...


Mr. King said...

As someone else mentioned, as far as DSLRs go, the recent round of upgrades seem less enticing than they were a few years ago. There were certain key improvements / features at each round of upgrades (full frame, HD Video, etc.), but the megapixel war is probably over. And even most consumer-grade DSLRs have video capability.

Probably most of the "serious hobbyists" are content with their last generation cameras (you can make great-looking 16x20 prints from a 12MP DSLR), so the latest round of camera models aren't enticing enough to make the leap.

I can absolutely see the next generation of consumer / prosumer DSLRs having an OS, with wifi capability and maybe even access to custom apps to tweak, resize, and post to Facebook straight from the camera.

When that happens at a Wal-Mart price point, we'll probably see a bump in DSLR sales.

Either that, or the camera and lens on the iPhone 10 will be so good that we'll all throw out all our expensive gear...

Great article! Thanks.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the discussion paper Kirk - excellent analysis! I also wonder if the values of younger generations (i'm now retired) have changed with regard to still photography. Perhaps with the immense popularity of youtube videos, still photography may not be considered the creativity leading edge among young folks. Witness the continuing popularity of Go cameras that strap on the head.

Raven Dorr said...

Kirk, you suggest smartphone users and being a pro are mutually exclusive. I think the fact that more and more smartphones are in the hands of users means more and more good photographs are being taken. Even if a lot of those photos aren't by trained professionals they are being taken nonetheless at increased rates. I think you may be threatened by the new pool of photographs, and a resulting new pool of talent. Also, a smartphone user may not know what point and click camera to carry around all the time and how to use one, but they do know how to turn on a smartphone and take a picture quickly. The lighter more compact smartphones are more likely to be taken with someone at all times, unlike a point and click camera, and therefore more pictures will be taken which otherwise wouldn't be taken. That's a good thing unless you're threatened by it.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

I didn't suggest anything of the sort, nor is the ubiquity of cellphone imaging part of my treatise. As to being threatened, can we give that tired and incorrect notion a rest?

Anonymous said...

You couldn't be more right, Mike. Two days of travel shooting with a DSLR hanging around your neck plus the rest of gear in your camera bag and the dream is over for half the dreamers...

Anonymous said...

Very much on point, great post.

David Merrill said...

Here is some new data: http://www.nasdaq.com/article/apple-nokia-and-samsung-are-killing-the-pointandshoot-camera-market-cm258891

CIPA figures only total up the Japanese manufacturers, so adding in the other brands should make for a larger total (In particular, Samsung is taking market share from the Japanese manufacturers). They are dire numbers (CIPA shows a 43% drop between 2011 and 2012), but still 1000x of 39k :)

Oh, and here is a source for the 39,000 number:

It's shipments of mirrorless cameras (not point and shoots) in April in the US.

Cheryl said...


Unknown said...

An excellent article Kirk. For me as an enthusiast I have never had to worry about making a living as a pro.
I am an airline pilot flying on different contracts around the world and photography has been my favorite hobby for many years, and the only one I can continue to do whilst not having a fixed base/home.
My motivation has always been that one day I will be old and retired and not be able to travel the world, see places meet people that I do now and the images/videos are pictures windows into my(and others') life's story.
With that in mind I want (and can afford these days ) the equipment the will give me the best images I can get - which has always been high on my agenda.
I quite like when others like my pictures and when i take pictures of friends/work colleagues I normally give them a copy but this is not my main motivation.
I realize that I may be in a minority of photographers but for me i will never go to a small 'compact' camera as they are less enjoyable to use and create a good picture with.
My current gear is Eos 5d3 ef 85mm 1.2L, 70-200 2.8L is, 100-400 f4-5.6L is, 24-105L, 17-40L 100mm macro 1000mm russian mirror lens ex 600rt metz 60ct-4 manfrotto 161 gitzo gt2531ex (I didn't get it all at once by the way!)
I love photography and it has and continues to give me lots of pleasure - I have mastered most of the technology I need to but at my own pace.
My wish is that many other people get as much pleasure (without getting caught up in the competitiveness) as i do from photography.
best regards
Dave J.A Willson

Unknown said...

It's because people bought their cameras last year, and don't need to upgrade again yet. Last year, so many good cameras finally became available out that people had been waiting forever for: D800, 5D III, OM-D, etc. This year? Nothing on that scale has come out. Therefore sales are down. Except this time it's going to take people a lot longer to outgrow their current cameras than last time. I have an OM-D and I think I could shoot pictures the rest of my life and never tap the limits of what it's capable of. I'm sure many people with 5D III's and D800's feel the same way. So why buy another one?

Home sales and car sales are up. People aren't going to buy a new camera the same year they buy a new car or a new house. Am I wrong?

People are still going to want to own a good camera but the problem is that most people already have one now. Until something comes along that is significantly better then you'll continue to see people sticking with what they have. And what they have is very good by and large. But the camera companies could do a better job advertising too.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic article. As an amateur who shoots both DSLR and medium format cameras with no desires other than to shoot locations and make great images, I can see how the "look at me" type amateurs are becoming bored with photography because everyone on the Internet is already doing as good or better than they are. These people might not be motivated by photography but rather used photography as a way of gaining attention to themselves. I don't participate in photo competitions or shows. I don't sell my work. I give away a few prints to friends who want them. For me though it is all about capturing the best images possible in the venue where I am shooting. I have yet to encounter a shortage of venues.
Newport Beach, CA

NancyP said...

I am a typical hobbyist photographer. I have this fancy 2010 DSLR with all sorts of automatic features, and I use it on manual exposure, manual focus 50% of the time. The rest of the time I use aperture priority and autofocus for action shots. Unless I take up video, I really don't need incremental improvements in dynamic range, number of AF points, number of megapixels, and so on. My photography dollars go to lenses, tripod, software, printer, gasoline, how-to books, monographs of individual photographers. I don't sneer at technical mastery, I regard it as a necessity for self-expression. Like all other photographers, I can review a day's shots and say to myself, I should have done X with this shot, X being either correct technical execution or more interesting composition. I like experimenting and don't mind total flops. I am not hugely interested in competitions, but do like some feedback on what other people do and don't like about an image. I like seeing other people's images, especially when there is a story associated with the image. For me, photography is a way of looking more intently at the world. Sometimes this is done by a conscious process of composition. Sometimes the photos show things not seen at the time of taking the photo. Sometimes I use photography as a documentation tool to learn about the subject - identification of birds, insects, plants, etc. I am not big on "snapshots", but when I want one, the phone is just fine.

NL said...

I agree with this view on most points. The real end game for photography, among amateurs, is to decorate your house. Yes, home decoration -- in the form of framed and matted prints. This is what people have always bought framed and matted prints for, in galleries for example.

However, few amateur photographers ever understood or embraced this. The mentality of most photographers -- gear fondling, technical excellence, rehashing certain genres ("portrait", "street", "landscape" etc) for no particular purpose -- is well summed up here, and how it has reached a sort of dead end. This is what drives sales on the aggregate level.

When you understand that photography is a process of decorating your house, your mentality changes. I have 24mp digital cameras, but this morning I am scanning Acros 100 BW film from a Mamiya RZ67. (Although I may abandon this process and go all digital soon.)

For me, I like to change my (framed, matted) prints about twice a year. This is a lot, actually. It takes a lot of work to put together a dozen or so good prints twice a year.

Home decoration ("fine art") is actually the highest and most challenging photographic pursuit. And, since you're not doing it for money, why not pursue it?

If someone else would like a copy of my wall decorations for themselves, I would give them one. Nobody has ever asked. That's fine with me.

Unknown said...

Digital Cameras have matured. I think we will see a camera pattern return to that of film. Cycles will get longer, maybe back to a 5-10 year cycle instead of the 1 year cycle. Most people who have a camera in the past couple of years are happy with it.

Thank's for post.. Good Job Man !!!

Mike Gaskin said...

Kirk, Mike Gaskin here from the now gone Austin Photolab. I remember Reagan (Bradshaw) saying some twenty odd years back at a digital imaging seminar put on by whoever was making 4x5 backs back then. Reagan looked at the image of a table top shot (lit) with the perfect white balance, the no need to buy bricks of film same batch, then test, test, test, filter, THEN begin shooting live work. Reagan looked at the computer monitor with the just shot image and said "when this goes mainstream all we pros will have is lighting. We better all learn to light like a mother".
Craft will never go out of style, regardless of where the equipment goes. M.

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