According to a chart at Statista sourced from CIPA, CIPA members shipped 121.5 million cameras in 2011, and the interchangeable-lens portion of that was even greater in 2012, 2013, and 2014. But now both categories are down drastically.
(The chart is deceptive as regards 2016, because it reports the first half of the year, whereas the big shopping months are mostly in the second half. So the 13 million sales in the first seven months of 2016 might not be predictive of the final number for this year.)
Statista blames the downturn on smartphones. While I'm sure that smartphone cameras have had a large effect, mostly at the lower end of the market, I don't think it's the whole story at all. There are other things happening that I've observed firsthand among photography enthusiasts.
1. Single-chip digital cameras are reaching a point of sufficiency. The frenzy of excitement and desire for the latest improvements that we witnessed in the decade from 2003–2013 can't reasonably continue forever (at least not without another technological shift). More and more photographers are realizing they're perfectly happy with their older cameras. They're still upgrading regularly, but the intervals between upgrades are growing longer and more leisurely.
2. It's expensive to keep up with the very latest thing, and many of us have gotten burned...by ourselves. We overbought and got left with that faintly sick feeling of money flushed down the loo with no one but ourselves to blame. That breeds greater caution when making purchases...even when the latest toys still inspire strong acquisitive lust.
3. New digital cameras have to compete more than ever with secondhand digital cameras...more like the way film cameras once did. Call it the "Model T Effect": Henry Ford was strongly motivated to make the Model T into an Everyman's car, and he succeeded wildly in bringing the price down—way down—over the years. But one thing he didn't take into account was that, once three out of every four cars on American roads were Fords (true in the early 1920s), new Model T Fords would be competing with used Model T Fords...and even Henry couldn't make new ones cheap enough to compete with his own cars bought secondhand. Especially as cameramakers have learned that they can charge a price premium for the latest and greatest gear, more and more price-sensitive buyers are finding they can save money, lots of money, by buying cameras at the end-of-model-run closeouts or by buying little-used cameras that are one or even two generations old. These customers are upgrading regularly too, but it's not being reflected in the numbers for new camera sales. (This particular buying solution was much less satisfying when the pace of improvements was still rapid; it works better now.)
I think these three factors are having more effect on the sales of the kinds of cameras we tend to care about. (A possible fourth influence is that whenever some recreational activity becomes "all the rage," a certain percentage of those participating are just people who jumped on the bandwagon or who got carried along by the wave. As the period of excitement and popularity settles down, those people drift away. But I don't have reliable inputs about that effect.)
I came of age in photography in an era when the market for cameras was one of "measured growth," and the market for darkroom equipment—my niche, back then—was sleepy and all but saturated. It was the opposite in 2003–2013. Part of what we're witnessing is not a paradigm shift (although part of it probably is—I plan to upgrade my phone as soon as I can, entirely for the camera), but rather the inevitable ending of a period of unprecedented growth and activity.
Original contents copyright 2016 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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Featured Comments from:
Gato (partial comment): "A big factor, I think, is saturation. Almost everyone who wants a digital camera and can afford one already has one."
Bruce McL: "Desktop and Laptop computer sales have slowed down for some of the same reasons. Computers are 'good enough' to last six or seven years. Fifteen or 20 years ago, three years was a long time to keep a computer. By then the new ones were substantially better in ways that people could appreciate in day-to-day use."
Paul De Zan: "Spot on. Last DSLR purchase here was a Canon 6D three and a half years ago (still a current model today); last camera of any type was a Fuji X100T going on two years ago. Two certifiably ancient Nikon D40's still get 30% of my shooting time. Right now I barely look at new cameras. We have reached a certain equilibrium that really has nothing to do with phone cameras, although if sales keep falling they will inevitably get the credit for 'killing the DSLR,' because that's how feature writing (not journalism) works."
matthew: "It's really hard for me to pay $1,000+ for a new camera. Yes, the new camera will be better than what I have, but is it $1,000 better? Right now, the answer is no. And so every time I take my camera out, a small part of me secretly hopes that I break it so I can justify the upgrade."
John Krumm: "Everyone is trying to inflate a smaller bubble within one larger shrinking bubble. It's interesting that camera sales proved pretty recession resistant, unlike homes, cars and other big items. I found this chart on motorcycle sales, which is quite different. Unlike cameras, they are making a slow recovery. But also unlike cameras, they don't have a smartphone equivalent to compete with."
Wayne: "It kind of reminds me of my younger years when I purchased a new car every two or three years; now I purchase a new car only when I absolutely need one. It is not that I do not like new cars any less, it is just that I have finally figured out that new cars, once purchased, do nothing meaningful to improve my life...at least not beyond the two or three weeks of initial ownership. While my spate of new camera purchases did not last as many years as the episode with automobiles, I have finally learned the same lesson. Stupidity? Yes. Eternal stupidity? No."
Mike replies: I don't know...after spending 9–10 years each with a series of cars, I was prosperous enough for a few years to buy a new car every 2–3 years, and I'd do that forever if I could afford it. (Although I think I remember reading recently that the average American family can no longer afford the price of the average new car.) And I'd be very happy to have a cabinet full of the latest cameras without having to worry about the expense. I do see your point, though, and it's a good one—that the shine wears off quickly and the sense of reward fades.
John Robison: "Seeing this made me think, 'have I ever bought a new camera?' Looking back over nearly 50 years of messing with cameras I have bought dozens of used cameras paying anywhere from $1 to $900 (yeah, it was that Leica M that I had always dreamed about). Thinking about it the only new-in-box cameras I have ever purchased were discontinued and discounted models: a Minolta HiMatic 9, Rollei 35B, and Olympus E-410. I think the camera companies view customers like me as useless."
Salar: "I think the biggest factor is economic uncertainty. We're in a deflationary cycle and people tend to save instead of spend."
Steve Jacob: "2010. That was the year Sony's 16MP 4T IMX071 Exmor sensor hit the market and more or less maxed out the capabilities of Silicon mosaic sensors. It appeared in the D7000 and D5100, Sony NEX5, Pentax K5 and Fuji Xpro1 among others. It also got enlarged to create the 36MP sensor in the D800, which has identical pixel architecture. Why was this significant? Because nothing has radically improved on the QE and read noise performance of this sensor since. Nor is it ever likely to until we start using some different kind of light detector than a photodiode. You can only store so many photoelectrons in a certain volume of doped silicon. There have been small improvements—copper wiring, 5T dual gain, better processing—but nothing radical. Sixteen megapixels is enough to make 24x16-inch prints with exceptional quality; all these cameras have good DR and noise performance; and other than going full-frame there is little you can do to improve on them.
"There are other factors too—general weariness with hype and expectation, the crash of 2008 from which the world has barely recovered, stagnation of western living standards....
"But perhaps the most significant is that all these cameras appeal to traditionalists. They are just digital versions of film cameras, to which we all migrated with all our skills and expectations. A whole new generation that never owned a film camera find them cumbersome, complicated and plain hard work. They still resonate with a core enthusiast set, but outside that set they have limited appeal. Most people want something that has all the automated features of their phone camera (including 'intelligent' scene-sensing tone curves) but the IQ of an SLR. It will come, as phone cameras adopt the multi-module approach.
"Camera companies are trying to sell stick-shift muscle cars to a generation raised on the equivalent of self-driving Google cars.
"The mass camera market was always about lifestyle snaps, not art, wildlife or sport. Many of these people bought into SLRs simply because there was no alternative, but seldom took them off auto. Smaller film formats just weren't very good. Now, the same folks simply don't need to. Phone cameras are getting good enough and don't force you to use a PC, or complicated software. They just need to cross the quality divide, which means something that works like an iPhone camera, is no bigger than an iPhone, and does all the processing internally using its own scene analytics.
"It's quite possible to make a 'flat' camera using multiple phone camera modules which can even simulate variable focal lengths, arm it with a dedicated quad core Snapdragon processor and plenty of flash memory, and hey presto."
Barry Reid: "I live in a very trendy part of East London (by default as we arrived before the Hipsters). What I think may be happening is that as we enter the always-streamed digital world, the transitional technologies (CD, DSLR, BluRay etc) are being ditched. But the appetite for 'authentic' (read analogue) approaches to creativity remains and is increasing. These kids love their Vinyl records, OM-10s, Trips and Polaroids. I probably see more film cameras than DSLRs on a Saturday at our local market!"
Ilkka: "I am continuously surprised how good the digital cameras from a few years ago are. I have bought two 'new' cameras in the past two years but both were old stock of discontinued items. I just took my five-or-so-year-old Olympus digicam (XZ-1) out for use. Needed a small compact with decently fast zoom. Even that was bought secondhand at the time. Served its purpose very well. Couldn't have hoped for anything better. Very little reason to buy new cameras anymore."
Mike replies: We recently had a similar experience when I dusted off a Panasonic LX7 for my brother, who was visiting but had inadvertently left his own camera at home. He loved using it, and was very pleased with the results he was getting. And now that he's gone again I can't find it around here anywhere...seems to have disappeared...hmm....