11.13.2015

State of the Industry. Are the new "super" cameras enough to save camera makers?

Photographers looking into the mirror.

It's easier than ever to make a photograph these days. It's easy enough to send them as well. And pretty much anything you screw up can be fixed, to a certain extent, in post. So is there anything left to the industry of taking photographs for money? And what is going on in the enthusiast's space?

I just read some numbers from the video/cinema world (Futuresource), the sales of DSLRs into that world (video) fell over 40% in 2014 in Europe with steeper declines expected this year. At its height adaptation of DSLRs for professional video projects comprised about 31% of their total market. Now the rate is closer to 3%. According to the study (http://www.iptv-news.com/2015/06/futuresource-predicts-decline-of-dslrs-for-pro-video/) the reason for the decline is a retrenching back toward traditional camcorders (with XLR connectors, long run times, built-in NDs etc.) or in the other direction toward mirrorless compact system cameras like the Samsung NX1, Panasonic GH4 and Olympus OM5.2. The introduction of less expensive 4K cameras like the Panasonic G7 will accelerate this trend.

In the world of still imaging the numbers, world-wide, are equally bleak. And this in the face of a huge economic recovery in the U.S.A.

My sense is that photography as a 21st century hobby is in major decline. At the recent math conference I attended there wasn't a traditional camera in sight (except for mine). If someone made a photograph of a newly made friend, or to document a demonstration, the whole adventure was done with a cellphone. When I attended the Freescale FTF show it was pretty much the same story. Now, these shows were never overwhelmed by photographers but there were always a contingent with Canon Rebels or Nikon Something DSLRs who were making their own documentations, playing with the camera gear as a "side bar" to the main convention function. Not so anymore.

I've also noticed that among my friends, the ones I would call "committed photographers"; both professional and amateur, have largely stopped carrying their cameras around with them when we meet at restaurants, coffee shops and other routine places. It's only big events where the shooting is easy and the risk of seeming to be an outsider is low where I routinely see any remotely interesting cameras anymore. It seems more of a psychological burden to introduce your conventional camera into regular society now. People are used to, conditioned to, being randomly photographed by camera phones but being photographed by someone with a conventional camera has quickly fallen from the mainstream and become---less usual. More suspect.

But will this change toward fewer public cameras, and fewer hard core pro cameras continue given the introduction of a new generation of "Super Cameras" like the Sony A7r2, the new, beefier Canon 5d's, and the older timer of the group, the Nikon D810? Will the new capabilities of these high performance cameras cause  renewed excitement and bring a wave of new professionals into the fold?

I wouldn't bet on it. While I have no first hand information (having severed my ties with Samsung and their public relations agency over a year ago) I'm inclined to believe the recent rumors swirling about the web-o-sphere that Samsung is withdrawing from the consumer camera space in Europe and north America. After making enormous investments into the NX-1 it seems that they've done new market research that tells them that the overall decline of the camera market coupled with their inability to get any traction at all in these markets with their "ditch the DSLR" campaign, have led them to the conclusion that it's better to exit a dying (or downward trending) market rather than continue to lose money and reputation trying to buy acceptance and market share.

And that's too bad because the NX-1 was actually a good camera: at least after it received numerous firmware updates....

I am paying attention to sales numbers out of idle curiosity but I find it interesting that most of the innovation is coming from the mirrorless space. The exceptions are the cameras from Sony but even there I'm not sure they are gaining new customers to the industry but instead are just capturing Nikon and Canon customers who crave better video, the ability to use a wider selections (and mixed brand selection) of lenses while taking advantage of the always on, live view nature of electronic viewfinders. The CIPA numbers and other measures say the overall market for the "Super Cameras" is still on the definite decline but that Sony's entries are helping only to rearrange the deck chairs on the decks of the Titanic.

There will always be the stalwarts of the industry who will embrace the highest and best of the camera breeds and create an (almost delusional) rationale for the features and benefits of the "best" cameras and lenses on the market but I think the rest of the enthusiasts --- the ones more interested in making photographs rather than comparing test charts --- have come to understand that sufficiency  or good enough is just fine for huge swaths of the profession and general requirements for our hobby.

I think there is still a place for top end equipment if you are willing to leverage the benefits of the gear into your work, and if the work requires that level of quality to be successful aesthetically. Examples would be people who print large or people who require a noiseless final image. Landscape photographers, product photographers, and portrait photographers who want smooth skin tones without having to selectively blur the crap out of their images in post processing.  But things like sharpness and resolution are largely available, across formats and brands, in enough capacity and capability to provide a professional image for most uses, and especially almost any use on the web.

But here's the deal: My observations (anecdotal and statistical) aren't meant as a rending of cloth, a cry of anguish or a note of bitter despair. Far from it. As photography shifts and swirls around from popular to diluted and ubiquitous (but lesser quality) there are fewer and fewer people doing the kind of work I do with the cameras I like to use, and it's clearing out what was once thought to be an infinitely expanding pool of images and distilling new work into a more manageable collection of  high quality content.

There are more and more phone images. More and more manipulated phone images, but fewer and fewer large, printed images. Fewer instances of great lighting design and control. Fewer constructed photographs and more "caught moments of generic exchange." Fewer images that are directly competitive; especially in the professional space. It's almost as if the age of: "I only shoot available light..." photography is coming to an end of sorts, as a viable, full time, commercial venture. Replaced by a return to discipline and control.

The same things are happening in video. There's a movement toward shooting everything with iPhones or their competitors. At the same time the higher end practitioners are moving from the lower budget options of hybrid still/video tools back into video cameras made to work in the traditions of the industry (pro audio inputs, long run times, higher quality codecs, higher bit rates, etc.). It's a shift that's leaving the vast mid-section of the market behind.

All I really know is this: As camera sales have declined my business has returned on almost the same tragectory (but in an opposite direction). We're up in terms of sales and profit per engagement in an almost direct inverse of equipment sales by manufacturers. I can only conjecture that a great number of (talented) amateurs, and in-house enthusiasts at corporate offices,have moved on to other pursuits or have gotten too busy in their core jobs to volunteer to make the critical photographs that move enterprise forward. That's fine with me. I'm happy to be welcomed back.


If you missed it here is a link to a good article at the New York Times about Henri Cartier-Bresson

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/15/magazine/perfect-and-unrehearsed.html?_r=0

His work inspired me to roam the streets looking for images for the last 40 years. Like the one below from a Paris Metro station...

©1994 Kirk Tuck.