Lion of the Blogosphere

About declining camera sales

There have been many news articles, such as this one from the Wall Street Journal last week, about how camera sales are declining.

Sales of compact cameras are down 26% at Nikon and 30% at Canon.

“High end models” (I assume that means interchangeable lens cameras) are down 4% at Canon and 5% at Nikon.

Olympus, my favorite brand, is doing even worse.

The vast majority of articles about declining camera sales mention smartphones. If you were to count smartphones as “cameras,” then sales of cameras have never been higher. There is definitely a connection between smartphones and declining camera sales. For a large percent of people who just want the cheapest camera possible and who already own a smartphone, then the camera already built into their smartphone has zero-dollar marginal cost, and in fact they may find it easier to use than a standalone camera. Apple, at least, deserves credit for making the built-in camera very simple. (I’m not so sure the camera on the slippery and oversized Samsung Galaxy is that easy to use.)

The vast majority of people who take pictures don’t really know anything about technical details of photography, they don’t know why high-end camera are superior to smartphone cameras, they don’t know anything about ISO, aperture, shutter speeds, the relation between focal length, field of view, and depth of field, they don’t know anything about post processing, and they have no idea what “RAW” means. Digital photography is actually quite complicated and probably requires a well-above-average IQ to obtain a basic mastery of it. Although on the other hand, for those with sufficiently-high IQs, digital photography is easier to learn than film photography ever was because everything you know can be learned through self-study. In contrast, I’ve never seen a single book that really explained film developing in such a way that one could figure out for themselves without a teacher.

For most people old enough to have used film, film was something you put in your camera, you took pictures, you took the film to some brick and mortar store for developing, and then you got back a lot of little prints with bad colors and a roll of scratched negatives (unless you paid extra for “dip and dunk” developing which didn’t scratch the negatives). The first time you used a digital camera, it was an amazingly fun revelation. You take a picture and then instantly you can see the picture.

The spike in digital camera sales during the last decade was the result of a fad. Affordable digital cameras created an initial fad, and then affordable DSLRs created a second fad. But sales are now declining because the fad is over, the fad today is with smartphones. People who bought standalone digital cameras, even standalone DSLRs, are for the most part not aware of why cameras today are better than their five-year-old camera, so they don’t feel a need to upgrade to a newer model.

As I wrote above, most consumers don’t understand any of the technical aspects of photography. They only compare cameras based on megapixels and how much zoom the camera has. Maybe they also value a viewfinder. Younger people who grew up with viewfinderless cameras may not even want a viewfinder (although most cameras don’t have LCD screens that are visible in sunlight, and it can be difficult to compose with a large and heavy camera by holding the camera out in front of you).

I doubt very much that standalone digital cameras will disappear. However, smartphones and other multi-use devices (like an iPod Touch) will become people’s first introduction to photography. A certain percentage of people will always get interested in photography and they will want to upgrade so they can take better pictures. Although for most who are too lazy or not smart enough to learn anything about photography, the goal of better pictures will not be realized, or will only be minimally realized, and many will not be smart enough to figure out how to use their more complicated cameras, or not be astute enough to observe the improved quality in the photos.

You can probably find some people on camera forums who will say something like “it’s the phographer not the gear that counts,” but in fact I’ve viewed a multitude of photos on Instgram that have excellent composition but suck because they were taken with crappy phones and the person who took the photo didn’t know what they were doing technically. My impression from Instagram is that the ability to compose a photo is a lot more common than knowing how to make the well-composed photo look good. (Of course, I’m ignoring the 95% of photos on Instagram that a crappy “selfies,” food pictures, and pet pictures.)

Ironically, the lack of zoom on a smartphone and the fact that it’s stuck at a slightly wide angle focal length may actually be leading to improved photography because they are avoiding telephoto shots which are usually ugly and they are becoming familiar with how to compose for that single focal length.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

August 21, 2013 at 12:31 PM

Posted in Photography, Technology

19 Responses

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  1. My iPhone has zoom.

    Blog Raju

    August 21, 2013 at 12:49 PM

    • Digital zoom, not real zoom. Real zoom requires a convex lens.

      Blog Raju

      August 21, 2013 at 12:50 PM

  2. Aside from cost, there is also the matter of convenience. My Minolta is outdated and a bit damaged. I thought about replacing it, but I realized that I’d more or less switched to my smartphone’s camera full time simply due to the convenience. It’s always with me. With a baby, this is particularly important. But even when going somewhere, it’s nice to just have the camera with me. The convenience is worth the difference in quality.


    August 21, 2013 at 2:07 PM

    • Agreed. IMO the convenience factor is more significant than the IQ factor. Most people just want something that will take a decent, but not necessarily great, picture. Smartphones are increasingly approaching that quality. I put some thought into framing my pictures, but not much else, and by and large they’re good enough for my purposes.


      August 21, 2013 at 2:47 PM

  3. Smartphones have taken over the middle and lower range phone market. But how are the highest end cameras doing?

    The Undiscovered Jew

    August 21, 2013 at 8:11 PM

    • The highest end camera market is somewhat stagnant as well. A victim of its own success, in that cameras have gotten good enough that users don’t see much reason to upgrade regularly.

      Some Guy

      August 22, 2013 at 12:37 PM

      • Then phone manufacturers are destined to work as development shops for phone makers then. How long will it be before the best cameras are miniaturized to the point where they can be placed in an iPhone.

        The Undiscovered Jew

        August 22, 2013 at 6:06 PM

  4. Can the technical aspects (i.e. depth of field, ISO, etc.) be replaced with automation? If there is some intuition involved, can that get replicated with machine learning and basic computer vision?


    August 21, 2013 at 11:46 PM

    • They largely have, most cameras today take pretty decent pictures in “green box mode” where the camera controls all the technical aspects of the picture.


      August 22, 2013 at 9:30 AM

  5. ” The first time you used a digital camera, it was an amazingly fun revelation. You take a picture and then instantly you can see the picture.”

    There were instant cameras before digital. The photo just popped out after you took it. Was it called an Instamatic?


    August 22, 2013 at 12:20 AM

  6. I am very impressed by the quality of pics that come out of my iphone 4s. I think to do any better I would need to spend a lot of time and money, and I doubt it would be worth it. This, combined with the convenience factor, means I have no desire to buy another camera.

    August 22, 2013 at 12:54 AM

  7. smartphone cameras take awful photos and seemingly always will. how so many people can be satisified with their murky, grainy dull coloured photographs is beyond me.


    August 22, 2013 at 6:36 AM

    • The latest iPhone CAN take really good photos, in certain circumstances, if you know its tricks and limitations, but few do.

      For starters, you should turn on the HDR mode for all photos of non-moving objects.

      Lion of the Blogosphere

      August 22, 2013 at 10:17 AM

      • Lion is right. Smart phone cameras are improving quickly. Look at the difference between iphone4 and iphone4s

        You will have a difficult time convincing many people they need a separate camera when their phone can take pictures like this. The commenter below mentions printing. I don’t do this much anymore, it’s true. If I want to look at pics I use my laptop or my hdtv. It looks better and is more convenient. The trouble with printing is that either I do it myself, with my cheap-o printer (looks pretty bad) or I send it over to the local camera place. They print it for me, and it looks ok, but it never really looks how I want it. Colors change a bit, darkness changes a bit. It’s a crap shoot.

        August 22, 2013 at 12:34 PM

    • Maybe because they don’t percieve them as dull and grainy? Smartphones are perfectly fine for posting to facebook, Flickr or sending to friends in an email. If people are looking at photos on computer screens any quality the screen can’t show is wasted.. I wonder how many people even bother making a photo album anymore? I’m sure the number of people who actually print out photographs for framing, probably the only time an amateur would notice the grain, is fairly small. Like bread, prole standards are taking over photography.

      Peter the Shark

      August 22, 2013 at 10:53 AM

    • Good smartphones (like the iPhone4) can take very good looking pictures IF they have enough light and the subject isn’t moving. The sensor tech and postprocessing on high-end camera phones is amazing, They can definitely look SLR-grade if the lighting is optimal.

      On the other hand, the tiny sensor, small lens, and (unavoidably) poorly-placed flash cripple them in low light situations. Those shots are more common, and often look just as you say.

      David Flory

      August 22, 2013 at 1:25 PM

  8. Leoanrd Pitts writes 2 excellent columns/movie reviews:

    These will help explain the anger and rage People of Color (and their allies) feel towards the traditonal America.


    August 22, 2013 at 9:23 AM

  9. “I’ve never seen a single book that really explained film developing in such a way that one could figure out for themselves without a teacher”

    I taught myself processing and printing from a single book in my teens. It wasn’t that technical and the equipment was affordable used. Before digital there were a lot of camera hobby shops selling the chemicals, and used enlargers.


    August 25, 2013 at 8:56 AM

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