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....

Little camera. Big shoot. Nice stuff. The paradigm of what constitutes "professional gear" keeps changing...

My friend, Lane, asked me to volunteer to shoot portraits for Aids Services of Austin. Every year they do an "Aids Walk" as a money raising event to continue their good work of providing critical services to people in central Texas living with HIV. Lane is producing public service announcement/television spots to promote the Aids Walk (more information: here). Lane needed an assortment of images that represents a cross section of ASA supporters and I was happy to help out. He started casting a couple weeks ago and by yesterday morning we had a roster of 38 people who were eager to help by being on camera talent. We scheduled 20 minute sessions starting at ten a.m. and ending around six p.m. 

We wanted a cool, gray background and Lane wanted the images shot in 16:9 to fit (without cropping) in his HDTV frame for TV. I set up a gray background and lit it with a 18 inch beauty dish covered with some white diffusion. I added a 1/2 tungsten to daylight conversion gel filter to the middle of the diffusion on the light to cool down the spot that would be created directly behind my subjects.  I used an Elinchrom flash into an 80 inch, white umbrella as my main light and used no fill whatsoever, depending on the white walls of the studio to provide enough bouncing fill light to keep our shadows from going inky black. I was very happy with the light. 

Now, here is the interesting twist....instead of pulling out one of my full frame Sony cameras I decided to put my philosophical money where my mouth is and use......

....the little, Samsung NX300 camera instead. I've been writing about small cameras for years, and using them since Olympus came out with the very first Pens. And I've used them as back-up cameras and as main cameras on smaller projects or person work but I've never really pressed them into service as full on commercial cameras for a day long shoot. My biggest concern was that the two batteries I had on hand wouldn't last through the day with constant shooting and chimping. I was wrong. My first battery lasted nearly 1,000 frames and my second battery was still going strong as we ended up the day. Our total frame count was around 1350. I was pretty much stunned by the battery performance.

One of my other concerns was my own prejudice that the contrast detection AF, while very good in bright sun, might fail me in the darker studio. I set the AF for single shot and engaged the face detection   magic. This is NOT how I would have shot in times gone past. The camera was set up at ISO 100, shutter speed at 1/160th and the aperture around f5.6 to 7.1.  I used two Elinchrom monolights and I triggered them with an older, Wein infra-red trigger that I mounted in the (pleasantly conventional) hot shoe of the NX300. In the Sony cameras, if you want a bright image in the studio in your EVF you have to click a setting called, "Turn setting effect off."  Samsung calls the always bright setting the "framing mode" so I set that in order to compose images with a bright image on the back screen of the camera. 

I mounted the camera on a tripod and we got started. Once I got to the point where I trusted the camera to nail the focus on faces (every time) I stopped trying to be a control freak and let the camera do the face detection AF for everything. I shot in the super fine Jpeg mode and I was very happy with the camera's choices of contrast and color. I left the imaging parameters in "standard" with no customizations. The files come into Aperture needed a little bit of contrast boost and, frankly, that's just the way I like them. Better to need to bump up a little contrast rather than trying to pull contrast out of an image. And I think the way the files are set up they do a good job protecting against blown highlights.

Lane and I have worked together on photography and video projects for over ten years now. We've always used typical, big cameras in the work we've done for his advertising agency. He took one look at the Samsung CSC camera, shrugged and never blinked. The idea that non-photographers care about which camera is used on a shoot is, for the most part, a silly myth invented by forum rats to justify their camera purchases.

We used the kit lens for this project and the long end was just about right for covering a nine foot wide roll of seamless paper from a good shooting distance. I would have preferred a longer focal length for a few of the close ups I did but they were not for the client, the close ups were just for my own fun. When I look at the results from the 18-55mm lens I'm pretty much satisfied. We were shooting about a stop down from wide open at the long end but the lens still delivered very sharp files. When you consider that the primary use for the files will be in 2K television you realize that you'll just be throwing sharpness away at a certain point. And we had a lot of sharpness we could throw out, if needed.

We moved pretty quickly to get everyone through yesterday and not clog up the works. We had couples with babies and moms with toddlers and a mom and fourth grader team. Everyone really got into the spirit of the day and relaxed and played. The images I've included in this blog are just quirky, fun selections I made while scrolling through the thumbnails in Aperture. 

While I was using the Samsung NX300 in this instance, it's safe to say that any of the cool, little mirrorless systems would have worked equally well on this project. We weren't in a situation (more than once or twice) where we were shooting individuals, we were mostly shooting groups of two and three where focus on everyone in the group was much more important than using a style that calls for extremely narrow depth of field.

I decided to use the smaller camera because it seemed like a fun thing to do. We were in the studio. If I concluded that something wasn't working I was just a step or two from the equipment cabinet. But what I've found is that the whole industry is changing and camera selection along with it. Smaller and lighter is more fun and less precious. I was sure the smaller camera would do a great job and I like the way the jpegs work in that camera. I didn't want to shoot raw and process through 1300+ big, 24 megapixel raw files to get to what we wanted. When you decide that you are going to shoot Jpeg in the studio, at normal ISOs, you basically put most cameras on even footing. Once you set a custom white balance in a studio space you've eliminated a lot of the reasons that people choose to shoot in raw.

I've written a lot about my camera selection here but it was really one of the unimportant decisions in putting together this shoot. We're getting to the point again where most of the new cameras are interchangeably competent and that's nice because we can stop making them such a focal point in our process. A bigger concern for me was how to create the kind of back light Lane had in mind and how to do the amount of vignetting on each frame to match the ad agency's original vision for the lighting.

I struggled in trying to decide what kind of lighting to use. I've been working pretty steadily with my new fluorescent fixtures which I augment with a few LED lights but for this project I decided to play it ultimately safe by choosing electronic flash. I figures that I'd have some fast moving babies and toddlers as well as very active adults and I'd want the "freezing" power of flash. I also want to use a big light source that wouldn't suck up all the space in the studio and which would be easy to move around and reconfigure for smaller and larger groups of people.  That meant that I was less interested in setting up a six by six foot diffusion screen and all the attendant light stands and more interested in a combined solution, like a big umbrella or a big soft box. I chose the umbrella light because I like the wrap around of an 80 inched and I really valued the portability and flexibility for this project.

The choice of camera and lens took all of 30 seconds while the lighting took just a bit longer. The hard part of the shoot was making a uniform style for all the images and then working to keep everyone's energy levels up so they felt good and genuine in front of the camera. That's the part that took up the next six hours.....

Sometimes I think we focus on the wrong parts of photography. Choosing and buying cameras is the easy part. So is reading the owner's manual and figuring out the right settings. The hard part of this business (or craft or art form) is figuring out what to shoot and what you want your images to ultimately look like. Lots of stuff is binary but the human reactions you want to get from your subjects in a photo are totally out of the science grid and firmly in the random, chaotic and unpredictable category. It's really your experience and your ability to mentally and emotionally change gears that makes or breaks projects that depend on getting good performances from other humans. All the spread sheets in the world aren't much help there....

We've seen workshops about the Zone System and about One Light and every permutation of waiting for the light in landscape photography but I'm going to be first in line for the workshop about how to make people happy, engaging and part of a collaborative approach to making fun photographs. That's a course I never see and it may be the only important or useful course for smart ( or overly smart) photographers.

To wrap up and summarize:  We had a project that needed to yield images for television, social media and some print advertising. We used a smaller camera but I didn't worry because it cranks out sharp, nice, 20 megapixel files in a competent and straightforward way. The lighting was much more important than the camera and lens selection in this instance and keeping people engaged and giving their best energy to the photograph was more important than the lighting. If nothing else the use of a non-traditional camera in this setting was like a tacit excuse to be a little less serious and have a bit more fun. Certainly there was nothing intimidating here for the portrait subjects. They had a great time....

Shoot essentials: Cold, bottled water for everyone. Coffee for everyone in those critical, first two hours of the morning. A lunch break where we could leave the studio, sit around the dining room table and decompress and talk about what's working and what's not. A close by bathroom. An extra camera battery. A lot of energy. The stamina to be on your feet for six hours and the patience to wade through a thousand images.

Just another 
fun day 
at work in the orchard of photography. 

Support the Aids Walk.