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Saturday, 25 April 2009


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"Almost 9.7 million of those were DSLRs, which is at least 2 million more units than were sold in 1981 when film SLR sales peaked at somewhere between 6 and 7.5 million, depending on your source."

Guess we should remember that film SLRs were not dramatically improving year by year; therefore, film photographers could keep the same camera for a long time. In the digital world, one has to keep "rotating" his gear almost yearly...

"...shipped nearly 120 million quite definitely non-disposable digital cameras in 2008, according to the Camera and Imaging Products Association."

In 2007 (couldn't find the 2008 figures), camera phone shipment reached 700 million units. That year, cameras shipped were 101 million. That's a 7 to 1 difference.

The dedicated camera is already a niche product. Wrote more about that here, but the short point is that the dedicated camera is becoming a specialist tool for hobbyists and professionals; the mass-market imaging device is a phone.

Well, they are still practically disposable, (after a year or two). It's just that the decimal has moved by two places from $9.95 to $995.00.

"...I've often thought of pitching an article that examines that very question..."
Likewise I wish the same would be done for financial analysts, like Jim Crammer had to endure recently.

I believe the Economist was correct in one area, disposable cameras have taken over the world, except they're not using film and they don't cost $10. Every time I have upgraded a digital camera, it's been worthwhile trading in or selling the previous camera.

"...shipped nearly 120 million quite definitely non-disposable digital cameras in 2008, according to the Camera and Imaging Products Association. Almost 9.7 million of those were DSLRs,"

I saw the numbers from Norway for 2008, and here DSLR sales are 20% of the total market. Almost everybody I know have a DSLR, while in the film days I was almost the only one with an SLR. Time is changing.

Speaking of camera phones: has anyone a pointer to a list of "top ten recommended camera phones? One with focus on image quality?

And one could say they did join the electronics industry. Well, the computer industry, anyway.

The suggestion that "all most consumers want is convenience, at rock bottom prices" has not been incorrect. A $200 digicam with an auto mode adheres to this description even more closely than a disposable camera, in both ways. Convenience is obvious. And considering that a digicam easily takes more than 40 x 36 photos (assuming a disposable costs $5, 40 = 200/5), along with more features like zoom, its definitely more economical.

I have always recommended the Economist as the best magazine around. In my defence, I missed that issue.
It is kind of strange that as fast as things move in the photo hardware field, the companies that get out in front with new tech do not take over. Olympus, Fuji, and Minolta moved the goalposts a few times, but haven´t scored much.

Eamon Hickey wrote:
> I've always wondered what kind of accuracy rate
> these articles, and especially the "expert"
> prognostications they depend on, would prove to
> have if anyone went back and checked them.

LOL ... I remember an editorial in a German-language photo magazine in the late '70s where the author said there is hardly any more progress in the development of the SLR camera to be expected, now after the current SLRs have matured to the point of providing both aperture priority and shutter-speed priority modes in one single body.

-- Olaf

By now I'm starting to feel that it was I who bought those millions of cameras. My photo bank account is missing a lot of final zeroes. And really, all the now prematurely obsolete digital cameras I've bought, are indeed disposable. So I think the future was, in some way, well predicted.

Articles such as the one in the Economist provide interest while the issue is current. When the next week rolls around, the previous week's prognostications are already forgotten.

Eamon, let me quote Bruce Sterling:

"If you just had anybody who ever made a bad prediction immediately shot, people would stop. But if you had a thousand bad predictions and then had three that were vaguely dead-on, people would be just... crazy to the sky. 'He said something!' They remember the successes and easily forget the missteps."

Predictions are like opinions. :-)

Hyperbole aside, not so far off for crystal ball gazing. Fuji did come to dominate the consumer film market. Camera makers did join the electronics industry. DSLR sales are up, but most of the DSLR's being sold are inexpensive, automated, easy to use consumer-oriented gadgets. The big miss was that consumers apparently do prefer quality--when it is also convenient and inexpensive--and that dSLR's would become affordable point-and-shoots.

Dear Eamon,

An interesting bit of history. As one who's been paid to do that kind of thing (with enough modest success, at least, that I got paid more than once), I would point out something the authors got wrong. They didn't understand the market.

The photographic business has constantly reinvented and revised itself to grab new sales (see my column: The Shape of Things That Came http://tinyurl.com/3qjdtm ). They were correct in noting that it was going to have to do so again; they just didn't correctly understand the import of that observation nor imagine it would do so.

The reality is that we are far from the ultimate "you-push-the-button-we-do-the-rest" camera. That would be something beyond even Bob Dale's "that's your shoe, Bob" camera (see comments to the aforementioned column).

Until photography becomes so intuitive that we don't even think about using the word intuitive manufacturers will find new and profitable market niches.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Alternate history: what if things had happened just a little sooner -- disposal cameras had come along ten years earlier -- and the big cameras companies had gone on the rocks. When would we have gotten digital? What if the technology for oil extraction had come along fifty years later, and we'd been forced to develop better electric batteries to drive our cars? What if Hitler had blamed the Russians, Poles, French, English, etc., for Germany's troubles, but had warmly embraced the concept of a multi-ethnic nation, and all the Jewish physicists who were so critical in developing atomic power had stayed in Germany? What if there were red-light districts in every town, and there was no need for on-line porn...would we still be stuck with the 386 chip?

I could go on...

The author of the article was looking at the short-term and projecting long-term. Photography is a hobby for most of the people who purchased DSLRs. In another 5 years most of these people will have moved on to other hobbies and the DSLR will look to be a relic of the past (long live the camera phone!). Another 15-20 years after that, a new generation of photo-hobbyists will come to being and there will be another "golden age".

In my opinion, it's all in marketing and sales. Most consumers' needs (simple point, shoot, good photo) haven't changed. The industry has just got better at selling them much more expensive kit.
I'm constantly recommending to friends much cheaper kit than they'd been contemplating.

On a similar note, I used to love reading about emerging technologies in Scientific American and the like. But since then I've noticed that pretty much nothing they predicted has come true even if it's more than twenty years ago. So I now withhold my excitement until the 1.0 product actually is for sale. (Sometimes even that won't do it. Where is the 5.0 version of the 3D glasses/screens I saw over ten years ago?)

Recall a sign at the front of a classroom
where mathematics was the primary subject.

"Time passes, will you?"

However the comment has now changed:

Time passes, and so will all things,
living or dead. Digital or otherwise.

"I could go on..."

What if the PC had been invented when I was an undergraduate, and I didn't spend hours in the darkroom? If my grandmother had wheels, she would have been a trolley car.

Apropos of your thoughts on prognostication, an excellent blog concept: tracking testable predictions made by pundits, and seeing where they go!!!


I am a photographer who is dying on the vine. I have had a successful career in photography for the past 18 years working anywhere from 5 to 7 days a week. 3 months ago the phone just stopped ringing. No trickle down, no slow down, just stopped. I am a creative and talented photographer and I take great pride in my work, and the people who appreciate it. But when the phone goes silent, and the checks stop coming in, the appreciation for my ability isn't enough to sustain my fight not to wave the white flag- I have given myself the rest of this year to figure out how to survive.

Not Doing Well,
I sympathize. The same thing (more or less) happened to me after the first Gulf War. It wasn't so much that the phone stopped ringing, but the big jobs that paid the bills dried up. The little piddly jobs that I took in between the good ones, to fill up my time, didn't stop. But I had been used to getting a few lucrative jobs every year to keep me going, and those just went away.

Very frustrating. We are at the mercy of these cycles. The canaries in the coal mine, so to speak. Good luck to you.


As someone pointed out, cameras in cellphones far outsell regular cameras, and that gap is growing. Disposable cameras haven't gone away (though I can't seem to find any solid number for any recent year, the volume is still quite high). There are cameras in my computers, attached to my computers, in my camcorder, in my microscope (yes), and heaven knows where else (oh yes, my car). A DSLR is a niche product, period. A reasonably large niche at the moment, but still a niche.

But you're making a classic mistake. When I studied new technology economics in my PhD program, I was taught to look at different metrics than unit volume in order to predict what was going to happen. One of those metrics is household penetration, the other important one is use patterns.

The reason why SLR-type cameras eventually hit a ceiling tends to be linked to those two metrics. A household generally doesn't need or use two DSLRs. It might have two because it upgraded an old one, which is why you have to look at both penetration and use simultaneously.

Disposable cameras have a different penetration and use pattern: a household or individual acquires them over and over, because they're disposable. I suspect that this is what the Economist saw in making their prediction. The problem with that, however, is that disposable cameras required an external step (take it to the 1-hour lab). Convenience can break such cycles, and I think cellphones have done exactly that. And note that cellphones have a different penetration level than DSLRs: each person in a household tends to end up with a cellphone and uses it, while typically only one DSLR is in use at a household at a time.

As another person pointed out, digital has also been blessed with "newer is better" in terms of some tangible things, like image quality, much like personal computers were at one time blessed with "newer is faster." But I think we've now hit one of those plateaus where the camera companies can continue to make more pixels and better ones but the buying public won't actually see much, if any, of that betterment in actual use.

No doubt we'll have more cameras in the future than we do today. But the traditional camera makers are in a box: the largest potential growth isn't in what they currently make.

Also, where cell phones are concerned, don't forget the "Pepper Paradigm."

In the '80s and '90s, pepper suppliers were very happy because pepper consumption was going up and up. There were studies and articles about how people were acquiring a taste for pepper and historic patterns were being broken. The truth is just that restaurants were switching over from using pepper shakers on tables and switching to those little corrugated packets of pepper that you break open. When a customer asked for pepper, they were given several packets; they broke open one, and used a little of it. The rest was thrown away. So the consumption of pepper wasn't actually going up; it was just that the distribution system was accommodating a large amount of waste.

I think cell phone cameras might be a little bit the same way. If you sell someone a cell phone with a camera in it, you can say that he owns a cell phone camera, but you can't prove that the person uses the camera. For instance, my computer has a built in camera in it, but I very seldom use it. (Basically I've had one Skype conversation and have used the camera to try it out. That's it.) I'm not saying people don't use the cameras in their cell phones, and of course many people do, but just the fact that more cell phone cameras are in distribution doesn't necessarily mean that people are using them in any serious or systematic way as cameras. To determine that you would need a separate study.


I suppose it's time for me to bin my crappy, 1964 Rolleiflex T. What a piece of junk ...

I hope you're kidding!


If you sell someone a cell phone with a camera in it, you can say that he owns a cell phone camera, but you can't prove that the person uses the camera.

Exactly, Mike. Exactly like that.

Take my case, for instance. I had a very basic cell phone that satisfied all my phoning and texting needs, but the battery started dying. I decided to buy a higher-class phone and simply couldn't find one that didn't have a camera. So now I have a camera phone that I never ever use. I have no idea how you operate it... But I have a camera phone.

future is always unpredictable.
even short term.
i remember back at 1993 i bought the economist's predictions issue 'the world in 1993'.
among the unpredicted events of that year was the collapse of the greek government and the general elections that returned the socialist Papandreou to office. something that the conservative economist propably didnt wished to happen.
since then i regard economic predictions (and political and everything else in general) as a mixture of wishfull thinking with linear regression, neither one more accurate than the ancient 'science' of astrology at the given task.
PS.i am from greece if that is not yet clear.

I've a theory about branching universes that fits on your story like a glove; somewhere, somehow, that's exactly what's happened and people are buying their disposable cameras at Wal-Mart everyday with a sigh, wondering "What if we had managed to free our cameras of the need for film and invented a digital storage medium? Would we be buying something sturdier and more sophisticated?" Processing labs have grown to giant empires and "2-Minutes Photo Shop", based in Seattle, has a web of franchise stores rivaling McDonald's. So many bad 4x6 prints are thrown away daily that the recycling industry has had to adapt and a red bin is now provided next to the blue and green, for photo products specifically (they have been nicknamed the RGB bins.) It turns out negatives and prints can be recycled very efficiently and turned into high-calorie astronaut food. They're thinking of making it available to the public next year.

But at the same time, the people in that universe are all driving completely sustainable cars, zero pollution, electric or solar or alternate fuel source. Those cars cost next to nothing and each family can afford to have a few. They park on a dime and reduce traffic because of their integrated GPS technology, allowing for city-wide real-time planning of global transit movements and corrective traffic light control. ;-)

Ok, sorry about the digression. My point was just this: yes, we are incredibly lucky about the way things turned out, camera-wise, it could have been quite worse. But how many incredible opportunities or new markets, or breakthrough new technologies are we losing everyday because they are shoved under the carpet by uncaring governments, or plain and simply sabotaged by market-controlling rival industries?

Dear NDW,

I can also sympathize. The dot.bomb clobbered me similarly. It was trickle down; I was fine for the first two years and then my business simply collapsed in a matter of a few months. Gross revenues fell to 1/2 - 1/3 of what they had been before. They stayed that way for the better part of four years. I had to draw massively on lines of credit, and we got within six months of having to put the house up for sale (IOW, I was within a year of completely exhausting said lines of credit). Then, finally, things started to turn around and I had a good year, then a very good year, and last year was a fabulous year. And this year is also shaping up well.

I'm still keeping my fingers crossed that there isn't going to be another "trickle down" for me, but so far my business seems to be strong against this economic collapse. I might even be out of debt in another 4-5 years.

So what is the difference? For me, the dot.bomb was like a tornado and the current economic collapse like a hurricane. Large view, the latter is much, much more serious. The problem is that I was directly in the path of the tornado; the dot.bomb was concentrated precisely where my business was. Most of the people buying my art were techies. Most of my clients were not... but a high percentage of their clients were techies! So the whole revenue stream collapsed.

If you're going to survive, you have to figure out why your business is collapsing just now. Then you'll at least know where NOT to look for new business.

You also need to use the right metric. Because my business is dependent on individuals and small companies, the measures that Wall Street uses to decide if an industry is in recovery were irrelevant to me. Economists claimed the high tech sector was in recovery two years before what mattered to me was: how many people were employed and how much were they being paid. Wall Street was concerned with whether or not a company was profitable and productivity was up. Well, lots of companies returned to profitability by laying off even more employees, and in the high tech sector productivity has little to do with how many people you're employing.

No magic fixes for you, I'm afraid, or even specific advice. Just hoping these words of experience give you some idea how to approach the problem and avoid falling into nonfunctioning despair (and ever-present risk). Good luck!

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Thanks for an enjoyable read, Eamon. The Economist is generally so darn self-confident, so smarmy, and so wrong. (I spent a very long time in the investment industry but was wise enough not to renew my subscription after a year.)

I always enjoy rolling out this 1944 Popular Photography article on "The Coming World of Photography". Some interesting prognostications here, too. Take particular note of Bernice Abbott's remarks.

Mike, "the pepper paradigm" - I like that. Never heard that particular case but it fits.

That said, the reason I looked into camera and phonecam sales to begin with is that I'd been seeing the trend on the street as it were and wondered if it was just me or not.

Where I live and travel the small camera is a relative rarity. Wherever you go where there's a crowd - a parade, a tourist spot, a temple, a great view - the vast majority really are using their cellphones. Not a digital P&S and certainly not a DSLR but their phone.

So to that (small) extent, the sales figures do seem to correlate with actual use of those cameras too. I agree the sales figures overstate the use of course. Anybody going to the trouble of actually buying a camera today fully intends to bring it and use it when they can. But I do think the discrepancy is merely a matter of degree - how much the phone is eating the camera's lunch, not whether it does.

I can't help but do a little prognosticating myself, here. The cell phone camera thing has a killer app: Facebook. Anyone with an iPhone (or several other smartphones) can easily take a picture and send it immediately to their friends. As this catches on -- and becomes the norm for the next generation -- all of those cell phone cameras _will_ get used.

For some reason this system filtered-out my HTML link to that 1944 Pop Photo article. You can find it here:


Here's my prediction: within the next year, you will be able to buy a phone with the Canon or Nikon logo emblazoned upon it.

We already knew (in the 1980s) that the mass market for camera gear cared somewhat about quality -- that's why the auto-focus power-wind 35mm compacts replaced 126, 110, and disc cameras. (Interesting that the earlier rangefinder-focus manual-wind models like the famous Canonet and the Olympus 35RC didn't really take off; I'm guessing this is early evidence of the importance of auto-focus in the mass market.)

Given that, the idea of disposables really taking over seems unlikely.

Well, other than the disposables most of us are using now (short-life digitals), as various people have pointed out. What I told myself when I sold my Fuji S2 for 1/4 what I paid for it was that I'd used it for several years for less than the cost of the film and processing to have taken those photos on film. It made me feel a little better.

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