Dispassionate watchers of the photo and business press wouldn’t be deemed drama queens if they were to conclude the industry …


Dispassionate watchers of the photo and business press wouldn’t be deemed drama queens if they were to conclude the industry is going to hell in a hand-basket.

An article in the Wall Street Journal last week,  The point-and-shoot camera faces it’s existential moment  pulled together a wad of bad news to highlight the plight of camera makers: The latest (May 2013) figures from the Japanese Camera and Imaging Product Association (CIPA) show global shipments of digital compacts are down 42 percent for the first five months of the year. IDC predicts that the  global camera market may shrink to 102 million units this year, compared with a peak of about 144 million in 2010. Canon has revised down production figures and revenue significantly, sheeting home the blame to plummeting digital compact shipments. Most camera makers are reducing their range in 2013 and some, like Olympus, have abandoned the bottom end of the market altogether.

In consumer technology lifespan terms, the demand for snapshooter-type digital cameras has dried up virtually overnight, and except for plucky support from the Japanese market, almost universally. The last 10 years have been a wild ride, and it appears to be coming to an abrupt stop.


Smartphones the new Instamatic

Taking pictures became a mass market activity when George Eastman introduced the simple and affordable Kodak camera way back in the 1880s, and more so with the introduction of colour print film around 50 years ago.

With the introduction of digital cameras it was still a mass market activity, except that people no longer had the need to get prints made to see their pictures. And with the introduction of smartphones, and now tablets, it remains a mass market activity, except people no longer even need to have  cameras  to see their pictures.  

For the first time since those first Kodaks, it appears a personal or household camera is not something that everyone wants or at least aspires to. A smartphone with an eight-megapixel camera probably takes better pictures than a digital compact from the film era, and is perfectly adequate for most people’s needs – judging by the fairly clear pattern of smartphones replacing compact cameras – especially if they don’t print their photos. And smartphone cameras are getting better all the time. While digital compacts languish, improved camera performance seems to be a major selling point among the competing phones and phablets.

Photography as we used to do it – with cameras and photographs – is in the process of becoming uncoupled from the mass market. First the majority of households stopped printing their photographs. This has been a blow to minilabs but more important from a cultural point of view, denies people and whole families a pictorial heritage. Those photos carelessly thrown into the top draw can become priceless 10 years down the track.   People aren’t going to have that any more. CDs? Computer hard disks? ‘The Cloud’? Let’s hope so. Possibly printing will enjoy a revival – who knows what those crazy hipsters will get up to next?

So not only is there no reason to walk into a photo store or up to a department store photo counter to have photographs printed – now most people don’t even need buy cameras. This is the second stage of the uncoupling. It’s a wry irony that with more photos being taken than ever before – massively more – the friendly local photo shop hasn’t much of a role left.

Enthusiasts are camera companies’ New Best Friends  

But – while those CIPA figures quoted in the  Wall Street Journalpaint a grim picture for digital compact cameras, they also show that the demand for DSLRs and mirrorless interchangeables is holding up. More camera owners are opting for cameras which mark them out as enthusiasts; as seeing photography as more than an incidental thing. And why not? The technological brilliance and performance of even an entry-level enthusiast’s DSLR in 2013 is astounding, and photography has never been more affordable and accessible. Throw in easy-to-use editing software and home printers capable of superb quality, and there’s a lot to like about photography.      

There are also more people who would classify themselves as semi-professional photographers, making a little from their photography, but keeping the day job. This group has further swelled the ranks of people with a keen interest in the practice of photography.  

What might emerge is photo shops which are more like bike shops or music shops – catering more exclusively to the aficionado rather than everyman. They will probably need to be able to produce high quality prints and enlargements in store, maybe framing, as well as having a broad range of hardware and staff with excellent product knowledge. Photo education. Exhibitions maybe. These kinds of stores could be a real hub for photographers, and a convivial alternative to scrabbling around on the internet.  

So as photography shakes off its mass market status, the focus goes sharply onto the people who have always taken the pastime/hobby/passion of photography seriously – only there are more of them than there used to be!

The best stores are already heading towards this kind of model, just as the best music stores are running drum and guitar lessons and bike stores free 12-month bike servicing. Whether the rest can rise to the challenge, upskill a little, invest a little, remains to be seen. You would hope so.