Trends in Photographic Retailing as Seen in Conversations With One Shop.

I have a friend who has been a photographer for as long as I have known him and that's about thirty seven years. A few years back, in the great recession, he decided to get a job in a camera store. A wise decision, I think. His specialty is working with professionals, state agencies, schools and other areas that are both retail in nature and not directly consumer driven. He handles purchase orders and large order fulfillment and stuff like that. He's a smart guy and he's been around the block a few times. 

I had occasion to spend some time with him this afternoon and I asked him what was new. Now, when I first met him he was an avowed Nikon shooter. At some point, when he became interested in architecture he switched to Canon for the wonderful tilt/shift lenses. But when I talked to him today he told me that, "what was new" is that he just purchased his own Sony A7R2 and he's been shifting his institutional customers away from Canon and Nikon in favor of Sony and Olympus cameras. With dubious innocence I asked him why. His response was more nuanced than the one I have the time and energy to write here but essentially the combination of brilliantly done electronic viewfinders, the absolute accuracy of the on-sensor focusing and the magic of 5 axis image stabilization makes the Sony and Olympus cameras much more usable and virtuous that the cameras with flipping mirrors. 

He mentioned one school district that conceded the superior value of the mirrorless cameras for most things but sighed, "We still need the high frame rate cameras like the Canon 7D mk2 for sports and stuff like that." My friend gently pointed out that the mirror was the roadblock in effective frames per second and went on to tell them that a number of smaller, less expensive cameras had
even faster frame rates.

We talked about how he ranks the cameras in the market today. He said, "Fuji, Olympus, Panasonic and Sony are all up here on the value and performance curve. (he held his hand up at eye level to denote the position) Nikon is here (hand at chest level) and Canon is way down here (chest level). I don't know what Canon will end up doing...." 

It was all very interesting to me because my long time readers will remember my prediction in 2010, when the VF-2 came out with the Olympus EP-2, that in five or so years all photographers will be shooting with electronic viewfinders. I also wrote about it here: electronic viewfinders/online photographer, for Michael Johnston. The one thing that would make the Nikon 810 perfect for me would be the inclusion of a state-of-the-art, electronic viewfinder. 

My friend predicted that I'd be shooting with a Sony something before too long just to take advantage of the great finder and the in body I.S. He may be right, if Nikon can't read the writing on the wall. I went on to ask him how sales were since I read data frequently that tells me camera sales as a whole are dropping quarterly. 

He educated me a bit. I presumed that phone cameras were butchering the camera market and he agreed that I'd be correct if I look at the market as a whole but his contention (borne out by his sales experiences) is that the phone based cameras are introducing many, many people to the idea of good photography for the first time and that many of them bump into the limits of the phone handling and image quality and become first time customers not for point and shoot cameras but for real "step up" cameras like high end bridge cameras ( Hello Sony RX100IV, RX10.2, Panasonic fz1000, Itty-bitty Leicas, etc.) as well as all manner of mirrorless cameras --- which are the logical step up for someone used to the constant live view of phones. 

His store saw record sales last year and are ahead of last year's sales this year. An enviable position for a company that must compete against the likes of Amazon.com and B&H. I asked him about the store's strategy for success. He mentioned the fact that a number of affluent customers understand the idea that touch and feel are part of personal taste and proclivities and want (no, NEED) to come in and feel the camera in their hands before they buy it. They want someone to answer their questions and guide them into the process of using better cameras. They value the free introductory courses that the store gives to every new camera buyer. 

The high end of the market is growing and that's the demographic that the store has successfully targeted and serviced. 

In his estimation the market for photography isn't dying it's just changing. People see the value in smaller cameras that deliver the same (for all intents and purposes) quality in most uses. Very few customers in the world are really professionals who use the cameras at the extreme edges of the performance "envelope" (apologies to Ming Thein for stealing his word...). Most just want better images of their kids, dogs, spouses and vacations. They don't want to learn the gibberish we love to quote to each other as ardent "enthusiasts." And they are less and less willing to put up with complexity (someone alert Olympus about those damn menus!).  They don't mind spending the money but they don't need a rocket camera to take the kinds of images they want to take. 

I asked about video and he told me that video continues to grow and he credits the inclusion of video on phones and on entry cameras as being responsible for an increased interest in stepping up. To that end they carry lots of microphones and LED light solution and currently have zillions of Sony's recently announced FS5 cameras ($5,000) on order. With every expectation that they will run out the week of delivery. 

Could be that Austin's market is a bit of an anomaly but I think most other affluent markets are experiencing the same shifts. They are the shifts I wrote about here: The Graying of Traditional Photography.  People my age look back with nostalgia while people just younger look forward with the innovations. 

I was in the store today because I was very happy with my recent purchase there of the RPS CoolED 50W LED lights I've recently written about. How happy? Well, I was trying to exercise my credit card to cover the purchase of two more units. But alas, it appears that my blog post about the lights worked to my detriment. There's been a run on that model at the store and they are currently out. In fact, it's backordered at B&H and Amazon as well. Drat. I guess I have to stop writing about gear that I still want to buy...... Guess I shouldn't mention that I'm eyeing the Panasonic Fz 1000 again. I'd hate for that one to go out of stock before I have a chance to get my hands on one...

On a different tangent: why am I showing beverages and talking about gear? Well..... both make us a bit irrational and seem like so much fun when we get started.. I like the shots, which have not been through the post processing wringer, and I think they are more interesting than more shots of gear.


theaterculture said...

I just called my local today to get on the pre-order list for the Oly EM10ii - I know it's technically "out," already, but the entire first production run was apparently recalled by Olympus, at least in Canada. The person I talked to said they have had a LOT of interest in that camera, but that I should get one out of the first shipment because I'm not particular about color, and the vast majority of the orders are for lens kits but I want a body only. That suggests to me that a lot of people are homing in on the smaller, funner little cameras that will whoop your iPhone for image control and don't cost a whole lot more than the iPhone 45 (or whatever number they're on right now - my 5 year-old flip phone is still chugging along too nicely for me to care) when they decide it's time to get a "real" camera.

Anthony Bridges said...

I really like the drink photos. The martini photo with the two olives is especially tasty. :)

Anonymous said...

I've found over the years that retail clerks in camera stores tend to promote whatever brand gives the best spiffs.

And business is always great, and we'd always be well advised to place our order early.

Howard said...

Kirk, as a daily reader, of several mainstream "blogs", each with its' own perspective I find this particular report strikes the most clear view of todays' photography. There seems to be extreme pros, grumpy pros, and merchandising pros. This concise report in conjunction with your friends hands on experience presents an unbiased status report as to how photography today is actually evolving. Well done. Anticipating periodic follow-ups.

Unknown said...

Interesting stuff. My local camera shop (in the UK) has gone even further and doesn't stock Canon or Nikon SLRs at all. They explain their reasoning on their web page: http://www.myimagex.co.uk/we-sell/ but the short version is that as a small independent camera shop they can't sell enough of them to make any money because of the terms imposed on authorised resellers.


Tom Northenscold said...

Actually, the phrase "performance envelope" has been used forever in the aviation world, so don't feel sheepish about stealing it from Ming. It's not his to be stolen from.

Your original question is an interesting one. The first criteria for me is that the camera be full frame. I do a lot of shooting for our church, where the light is often a challenge, so high ISO performance is important. I prefer shooting prime lens for my personal work, so a good selection of reasonably priced f/1.8 prime lenses between 28mm and 85mm is important to me. For my event work at church, I need fast f/2.8 zooms. I prefer an optical viewfinder. I've used EVFs, the most recent camera being my GH3, but I still prefer an optical viewfinder. In a few days I am leaving on a 500-mile hiking trek that will take roughly six weeks. I am not planning on recharging camera batteries and every ounce counts, so long battery life is important to me. That's also a reason why I want an optical viewfinder. I do a lot of shooting in bad weather, so I need a more rugged camera that is weather sealed. Finally, I prefer printing large, so high resolution matters to me. With all those criteria as a backdrop, I'd still choose the Nikon D800, or its current incarnation, the D810.

Michael Matthews said...

Added advantage of the RPS CoolED 50W LED -- it has no digital numeric display. Less liable to be led away in handcuffs. Although there is a rumor that Texas is now jailing anyone with an IQ over 70. Watch your step.

Michael Reed said...

I totally agree about your friends assessment that camera phones introduce photography to people and eventually, many of them will upgrade to take better pics

Kirk Tuck said...

MM, "Over 70"? Phew. I'm safe! I think. But math was never my strong suet.

Kirk Tuck said...

Anonymous, not everyone in sales is a lying shill. If you can't trust a friend of 37 years you may as well just chuck it in, get on a Greyhound bus and ride into the sunset. Let's not over cynicize the data.

Michael Reed said...

as long as you keep the alarm off and only show your stuff off to camera nuts, you should be OK. and no exposed wires. Gotta remember, half the population is on the left side of the bell curve

calling someone a friend implies a level of trust Can't trust your friends, as Kirk says probably need to hang it up.

I think the camera market is getting back to the traditional model (example: start with a Kodak, upgrade to an SLR) which was disrupted by the advent of digital.