The rise of smartphones has left many professional photographers wondering if their services have a future. However, it’s now having an impact on the industry in ways that many might not have anticipated.
The digital era has brought a twofold transformation: more people are able to create acceptable images with technology that’s in their pocket, and fewer images are required at print-ready quality. This double-edged sword has meant that while there are more images than ever, the future for photographers seeking to make a decent living from image-making is feeling increasingly uncertain. What few have realized is that this also has serious implications for the big camera manufacturers; the market is changing, sales of interchangeable lens cameras is all but falling off a cliff, and this will have an impact on how companies develop new products and bring them to market.
The smartphone doesn’t just threaten the future for professional photographers; it also threatens the technology that camera manufacturers are making for professional photographers to use.
This is already being demonstrated by Canon’s recent announcements for the first quarter. The Japanese giant just revealed that sales of their DSLR and MILC cameras have fallen by almost 20% in the first quarter of 2019, prompting them to reduce their sales forecasts for the year by over 14%. The company's new report also explains that Canon expects the camera market to continue to contract for the next couple of years, a trend that they attribute to the ever-increasing performance of smartphones. Trade friction between China and the U.S., the depreciation of the Euro, and economic slow-downs in China and Europe are also factors.
Among these worrying figures and revised forecasts is something that should make professional photographers sit up and take note: how Canon allocates its resources is starting to change. “There is a portion of the market that will remain,” the report states, “serving the needs of professionals and advanced amateurs.” However, it continues: “At the same time, we are taking measures to shift our business focus toward B2B, expanding our business sphere to automotive and industry use.”
While this sounds like a subtle shift, for a company as conservative as Canon, this may prove to have profound implications. Canon is a huge company producing a massive range of products, a portion of which are the consumer and professional-level equipment used in the camera industry. If the consumer camera market is contracting, Canon would be wise to invest its resources elsewhere, and this will have a knock-on effect on its capacity to innovate and the speed at which it brings new products to market.
As professionals, the changes won’t be felt immediately; what seems likely is that the incredible evolution that has been seen in the last ten or fifteen years will slow down. As noted by this insightful TechCrunch article, we’ve reached a plateau in terms of sensor technology and the next major steps in terms of progression will come largely through software, not hardware. We’re already seeing this happen through features such as autofocus performance, and camera companies will be seeking to optimize their return on software development in order to remain competitive.
Canon's downturn in sales and the industry's response to market trends mean that the mirrorless leap might be the last significant evolution of hardware that we see for some time. Innovations will continue to happen but they may no longer arrive as rapidly and at a time when smartphones will continue to offer ever-improving performance. The shift does not prompt the likes of Canon and Nikon to spend more money on developing new products; by contrast, they will become increasingly conservative, a change that may have more serious implications for Nikon given its smaller range of market specializations when compared to Sony and Canon.
As professionals, we may have to get used to a rate of change that is significantly slower than what we've experienced in recent years. While this poses problems for the broader industry, there may be some unforeseen consequences. For example, this may be of benefit to many photographers who will suddenly feel less pressure to upgrade given that improvements in features seem incremental rather than revolutionary. A slowdown in technology might be kinder to our wallets, even if it comes at the expense of technological progress.
Whatever lies ahead, it feels that 2018 was a significant year for many reasons and the future seems increasingly uncertain. If you have thoughts on what the coming years hold for the camera industry, I'd be grateful to read your comments below.
Lead image is a composite using a photograph by Max Baskakov.
Well I get that, but it's like the mobile phone industry, how long are you gonna keep buying a new phone each year? Sales of smartphones are down as well. At some point, you'd think people wake up (like me) and realize that you don't need to buy a new gadget every year.
Of course. Its the "growth market" versus sustainable market.
After the saturation has been reached, only those who need or want the next generation product, will upgrade to the newer gadget. Thom Hogan called it already several years ago "the last camera syndrome". The pixels, low light ability and so on, appear to the user "good enough." No incentive to jump to a different device. Phones and and cameras alike. I am getting new phone only when the core memory gets too small.
In addition, the camera industry corrects for the "digital bubble." In the beginning millions wanted to have a digi cam, now the phones fulfill the role as the ever ready camera with a direct distribution system (online posting.) Consequently demand for the dedicated cameras declines to the numbers needed by demanding photographers. Maybe even to a number lower than the film cameras. No surprise here, Canon predicted even further contraction by 50% till the bottom will be hit.
On the other had if you can afford a new smartphone every year, then why not?
Why not? The environmental costs alone should deter you.
In the last month or so there have sure been a lot of these ominous articles about the state of affairs of camera tech and the photography industry. I have posted about the insecurities I have faced about my fledgling professional photography business. My outlook and strategy has changed, and my ego is deflated. God bless you guys who still have promising photography businesses and see many years ahead of a solid niche and revenue.
These articles are getting tons of activity because all of us avid photographers, whether pro or not, see the writing on the wall. The low end camera market is toast. Smart phone/ AI tech is exploding. "Great" photos are still rare, but "good" photos are abundant.
I have said it before, and I will say it again: Shame on camera companies for being so conservative. Why not give us the connectivity, computational power, and editing possibilities of a smartphone combined with superb optics. Kind of like the phantom Zeiss ZX1 (even this falls short because it doesn't have cell connectivity).
My wife and I are going on a bucket-list vacation next month to San Francisco and then Yosemite. I am seriously considering bringing only my new iPhone XS Max. and my little Freefly Movi gimbal, and seeing what kind of storytelling I can do with just those two tools.
IL cameras have historically been a niche product for pros and enthusiasts. Back in the day, there were more point and shoot Instamatic type cameras floating around than SLR or other IL cameras. Always.
What we're seeing now is the market morphing back to what it has always largely been, a niche market. Smart phones are the new point and shoot cameras.
I'm not concerned.
You are a smart man! You would have written a better article.
The whole industry is dissolving. Preproduction, production, and post production are in upheavals. It's not just cellphones killing it, automation is part of the problem and operations looking to cheapen production by hiring non-professionals. You laugh at AI today, tomorrow interns will be doing all your work with push button AI tools that make all the decisions. About the only winners you'll see are the likes of Adobe and robotics manufacturers. Sounds crazy, right? You'll see.
No. It doesn't seem crazy. If you mean that the traditional photography industry is dissolving, I suppose I agree. At the very least it is a radical shift. What businesses desperately need is storytelling social content, and that is an opportunity for me. I'm far from a master at visual storytelling, but I'm learning and it is really fun. The bottom line is that really good image-producing tools are in the hands of infinitely more people. Software is making things like laborious retouching a thing of the past. As you say, "push button AI tools" are rocking certain highly-skilled niches.
I for one am 100% certain and totally confident that I have no earthly idea where all of this is heading!
It's still a competitive marketplace. Canon might decide that it doesn't need to be a tech leader, but I don't think they'll be willing to fall too far behind and eventually give up the entire camera market to Sony. Add up potential lost revenue over the next several decades and I'm sure it makes sense for them to stay in the game. They need to innovate only enough to maintain their lead, and it's generally much cheaper to be a tech follower than a tech leader.
Howdy Tony. Do you guys do commercial work/content creation for clients? I'm sure your social channels keep you slammed, but I was just curious if you are also doing content work for others.
He and his wife talk on their social media outlets about doing commercial work. Tony also does drone work.
Hmmm - does the argument about being a follower rather than a leader still hold when everyone but you are using sensors from another supplier?
I mean, Canon still has some of the finest glass available for the general population, but their sensors have been lagging for years now. Also, I suspect that their processors are not exactly top notch either - if they are, why the need to crop so heavily when doing 4K video?
I'm not saying that Canon is dead or about to die, but they really need to step up their game and start showing some real development. Right now existing users and their glass is keeping them in the game, but give Sony another three years and things could be very different.
Ah, the infamous smartphone enemy... last summer there was that lunar eclipse which I photographed from one of the bridges in Frankfurt with my little Olympus OM-D EM-10 II. Weather was great, and there were droves of people around. Smartphones may be great, but an awful lot of smartphone owners noted that my pictures looked great wheres theirs were crap. Several asked how much it cost, some even photographed my screen with their phone because they couldn't get anything decent with their phones! I have seen numerous such situations. Maybe manufacturers should send some photographers out there where there are crowds looking at fireworks, give out free night or kids portraits at funfairs or God knows what other popular thing that's a bit tough to get a good picture of with a smartphone and have prospective customers see for themselves what the difference is. I am pretty sure that would have a bunch of people figure out a basic APS or MFT kit you can have for substantially less than some smartphones would be a clever investment.
and the lunar eclipse picture I mentioned above, made with a Laowa 7,5mm f/2 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/133903476@N07/41900627140/in/dateposted-public/):
" Several asked how much it cost, some even photographed my screen with their phone because they couldn't get anything decent with their phones!"
Little did they know that they could buy a long zoom fixed lens camera that would come pretty close for less money for a phone or a DSLR. Eclipse night was overcast here (as always!) but I've done some frame filling moon shots with a Nikon B700, basically a phone style sensor with lots of glass in front. This is what the public should be made aware of. $500-1000 is a lot different from 4-5K (or more if you want a really long lense)
(BTW, some phones have a dedicated fireworks mode which actually works quite well)
At current tech levels, realistically only professionals with very high performance requirements will actually need full frame, but quite a few would like more lens capability than a phone.
[Actually I have a 4/3 in the attic.But the B700 has so much more range, without swapping lenes, that' it's my go-to]
"Canon expects the camera market to continue to contract for the next couple of years, a trend that they attribute to the ever-increasing performance of smartphones."
As a Canon user, I attribute it to the fact that the last Canon Oh-Wow introduction was the 5D2 in October, 2008. As long as Canon makes incremental improvements while their competitors leapfrog over them, this trend will continue.
I’m still shooting the 5D2. Canon’s given me no compelling reason to upgrade, and I’m getting desperate for one.
Ditto. My 5D2 is my stills camera and my A73 is for video.
When I was shooting weddings in the pre digital days using medium format there was no real competition from point and shoot cameras.
Actually this is a good thing for professional photographers.
Trained professionals will get more business while others will go onto other hobbies trying to masquerade as professionals.
No reason to buy a new camera if it's not much of an upgrade from the last model. Maybe innovate and stop inching by for profit.
Well since nobody else is saying it... the decrease is sales is greatly because Canon released cameras that don’t compete with the current ones already on the market. They gutted their “ground breaking” mirrorless entries instead of doing what they promised.
Which is exactly why I said that if you buy the new camera bodies from Canon with recycled sensors and gutted firmware, you’re part of the problem with the company.
Sorry...until the other camera makers build something that does better than my Canon to fit my needs, I'll stay with Canon. My guess is that other Canon users say the same thing. There isn't enough improvement when one considers the whole package to sell stuff just to get a little bit better performance.
And, since there isn't a mirrorless camera made that would make me happy, I'll be sticking with my current camera. Sony is a miserable thing to hold, Nikon and Canon have much better in hand feel but only one card slot, and even though the new Panasonic FF offering looks like it would be a comfortable camera to hold, its overall package compared to Canon is a long way from becoming attractive.
I do no video, so that has no influence. So, considering Canon's reliability, excellent lenses and accessories, and the best service in the industry, I'll continue to be one of Canon's 'problems'.
I have nothing against my Canon DSLRs, they’re great cameras and I haven’t sold mine. Their mirrorless options are stuck in 2015 IMHO.
Unless you invested in their “new” technology, you’re not a part of their problem because they’ve already begun the breakup process with you and your beloved Canon DSLR.
I am quite sure that Canon will continue to service my 'beloved' camera for a long, long time, although, it will probably never need to be sent back to Canon as they make very robust camera bodies.
Now, I didn't say that I would never go to a mirrorless camera. I may have jumped to the R had it been equipped with two card slots. When Canon produces their 5DIV like mirrorless, I will seriously consider it because Canon has such a great lens collection and Canon saw to it that their current EF collection works seamlessly with the new body.
From my readings, it seems that the EF lenses actually focus better on the new R body. Or, if my photo piggy bank supports it, the new RF lenses are very, very good. Canon will be just fine.
Your second paragraph states exactly what my point is. They did give you a Mk4 but they gutted the firmware.
You agree with me in both of your responses but you’re still defending them for whatever reason.
I like Canon. I've gotten nothing but terrific results and the excellent reliability that I want. I also like the D850, but there isn't a good reason to sell my equipment and buy new, especially from the financial standpoint. From where I sit, there isn't enough difference in performance to warrant the expenditure.
You say the firmware is gutted, but I'm not sure where unless it's video and as mentioned, I don't do video. The video option could be removed and I wouldn't lose one second of sleep.
Pretty much my sentiments too David. My Canon gear does what I need it to do and is reliable. I do agree that they need to up their game in some areas but there isn't enough difference for it to be worth it to me to sell off and change systems just because another company makes a little better body.
I'm mainly an "enthusiast" / hobbyist that makes a little money from it now and then and my needs don't require the latest greatest nor does my budget support it. Especially to "teach Canon a lesson" by switching brands. And I'm sure that there are a lot of others out there like me. Some people, like Eric, just can't seem to accept this. It's not a "fanboy" thing. It's simple needs and wants versus economics and using common sense.
Patrick, it is unacceptable that you are using gear that fits your needs. Listen to Eric. He will TELL you what you need! Switch now.
I know. Shame on me. Now if Eric wants to buy me a new system I'd be game for that!! LOL!!
It’s not about anyone saying what you “need” or even what is best for you. This argument is about being completely subjective with what each company is doing to progress the profession/hobby and delivering what they are promising publicly.
Canon and Nikon have not done that.
What did Nikon “Reinvent”? Definitely didn’t reinvent mirrorless as the ad claims.
Exhibit B ...
They mean the revolution started 6 years ago or does that mean bandwagon because they couldn’t deny mirrorless is the way the market is heading?
Just two examples of factual evidence provided by the two companies dragging their feet and lighting wallets on fire.
One thing the TechCrunch article skips over is information. A zoom (or IL) actually changes the available information to the sensor. Expanding the information as the focal length increases doesn't just fake it like computational engines, but adds detail that could not be captured by the sensor with a shorter lens (obviously the short lens adds information on the periphery, but that's another story).
Sometimes when doing statistical analysis, researchers have to simulate data that's missing. Carefully done, and in small quantities can often be tolerable, but it must not be relied on for a conclusion. Quite a few scientific studies had to be retracted because of artificial information. The same situation applies to computational photography, and it's here that the author over plays his hand. You can only fake it so far.
My personal feeling is that the ideal sensor size will ultimately be smaller than FF (which was really based on the limitations of film years ago) and phone size sensors. FF is too large, and has long signal times which slow down reading speed, also silicon that large is enormous and difficult by microelectronic standards. But on the other hand the size constraints of phones limit the capacity of their lenses to produce high volumes of information.
Phones will be popular because they are so incredibly convenient and not half bad. But the typical working camera of the future will be larger, but not THAT much larger.
New technology is already here to make the next massive jump with regard to megapixel technology. The guy who invented the CMOS sensor has recently created a new version that is amazing. Once it becomes ubiquitous we will all look back at what we have now and be amazed at how limited we were. Quanta Image Sensors will disrupt everything and it will be a sea change at its finest!
In order to entice photographers to upgrade to newer cameras with minimal feature bumps, you can expect to see the focus on creative marketing increase. Those with a level head can see through all the hype of unnecessary features. Most others will buy thinking it will make their photos exponentially greater and soon realize that they've wasted their precious money only to throw it back at the next snazzy marketing campaign for a newer model.
The sky isn't falling until Nikon and Sony start reporting double-digit slumps. You can take any Nikon slump with a grain of salt too - They're just as guilty as Canon of incremental updates for too many years.
That really is the primary cause of Canon's troubles. How many times have you seen people decry the quality of Canon sensors (DR or high ISO performance)? How tiny is the improvement in image quality with each new body?
Sony, Panasonic and Fuji came and ate their lunch. Canon (and Nikon) fumbled the wheel as they tried to steer away from the looming iceberg of mirrorless. Their first products look nice and handle nicely, but are less capable than their competitors - Why?
Both Canon and Nikon have what it takes (financially and technologically) to release cameras that should make people look at the alternatives and laugh, yet they are still trying to protect their DSLR range. It's as if they half expect mirrorless to be just another fad.
I know that mentioning Sony will get some hate and probably comments about weather sealing or user experience - I don't want to hear it. I don't like Sony, but obviously millions of photographers (from amateurs to very well off professionals) do. If the tool works for you, great. Same goes for CaNikon. For me though, I was amazed at how much happier I was after ditching Canon - Even though I did lose thousands.
They may in fact think mirrorless is a fad. Kodak didn’t really figure out digital wasn’t a fad until their stock price was 17 cents a share.
Considering the rate at which they are developing lenses for their new mirrorless mount, it’s safe to assume that they are taking mirrorless seriously. As for why the first mirrorless Canon bodies are so limited, perhaps they don’t want to put all the bells and whistles in until they’ve been thoroughly tested. Canon is known for rock solid reliability.
I'd be more inclined to agree if they hadn't essentially re-released the 5d mkiv in an inferior body, removed the mirror, and called it the EOS R. If you want a replacement for the quality level of the 5d series, there simply isn't one out there. Body and weather sealing issues can't be ascribed to testing. They've had this stuff for decades.
That's pretty much my position on Canon. Lackluster innovation leads to lackluster sales.
Nikon already reported a double digit slump. They've been taking it much harder than Canon has recently, and have restructured to try to stop the bleeding.
Changes in the photography camera industry are long overdue. Interoperability and standardization have totally evaded the industry. Just imagine what open mount standard, operating system platform with open SDK could do for photographers? Sooner or later the change will come in the form of software defined camera built around the open platform together with app marketplace just as Android ecosystem and probably built on Android OS.
New camera sales are down. DSLR sales are losing to mirrorless. Used camera sales? I think that is down to. So I suppose used camera gear will drop in price to. In Norway a used Sony FF 28-70 kit lens sold for 350 a year ago, now it sells for 200 straight from the box. Good or bad? I don't know but surly for those who stick to DSLR there must be a lot of good trades coming up. I suppose a flood of second hand gear will not help new sales either.
The tools may change, but it still takes skill and dedication to create great images. Composition, story telling, light,... Taking pictures was never easier, editing today as far easier as in the dark room days. compact film cameras didn’t kill photography when they replaced large format ones, digicams didn’t kill it and neither will AI assisted smartphones.
Art and business will adapt. People who fail to and rely on old skills will be left behind as carriage drivers when the automobile was invented though.
I so agree with this.
Digital photograph itself just made photography even more 'easy' than the last technical shift, this is just the end play of that technically advancement, ever since photography was invented people have complained about how it will ruin the market, painters said it was the death of their art form, we still have painters albeit less and more specialised, when it moved form glass to film and people complained then it was now too easy and that everybody was ruining 'photography'.
With digital it's the same argument, with smartphones it's the same argument, each technical improvement makes photography more accessible and shifts the market, but eventually the market will balance out, those that can find their place in the market will continue to make great images.
I fully agree with Daniel Medley. The current market of ongoing upgrades like the mobile market has become unsustainable both from a production and user point of view. Today's cameras has done very little in the past 5 yrs to improve IQ. Yes the capturing experience might have seen a lot of technology changes, but are they any better? have they improves images, to pay a massive premium every time a new camera is launched for 1 fps increase in speed, more focus points, new ML body etc is unsustainable. Sony used product market is a disaster as their used bodies are worth nothing, Nikon and Canon is in a major discount phase with their new ML bodies, Why?? because the traditional N and C users have tested the ML technology and found it wanting. dumping a perfectly good DSLR to buy a ML body that offer nothing more than smaller size, slower auto focus, jittery EVF an poor battery life, sorry it does not make sense. So me like many others will just continue to use what we have until they offer something that is worth the extra money. And sorry to say but Sony is not the saviour of the industry. In film days we bought a Camera body and shot it for yrs. They were tools, not instruments of status with bragging rights. Lenses were our pride and joy and they key of our investment. Now people buy 46 and 50 mp bodies and the cheapest lens they can afford. No wonder a person with great photography skills using a mobile phone produce better images then the "i have a D850 with a crappy lens".
Maybe C and N needs to be smaller, reduce the range of camera's, Produce specialist equipment and become lean again. Look at Fujifilm.
Ascribing the first quarter drop in sales to smartphones sounds a bit like executives engaging in some CYA to me. I'd be more inclined to believe that this was due to something extra muros if Nikon and Sony had reported similar drops (Nikon dropped, but not by 20%, I can't be bothered to untangle Sony's stats fromt he rest of the biz). Even if it is some ambiental thing that's outside of Canon executives control, why smartphones? The smartphone's replacement of the lightweight point and shoot happened years ago, at this point the economic effects on Nikon, Canon, and the usual suspects are, I would imagine, largely played out.
The drop seems curiously focused on Canon. I wonder if it is because people like me, who would normally be upgrading right about now, are thoroughly confused/annoyed/mystified by the products Canon has rolled out.
Even if you are exactly the kind of consumer that's in Canon's bailiwick, that is to say, a stills shooter that already owns a lineup of Canon gear, there isn't much out there that's attractive. I'm shooting an 11 year old Canon (5d mk ii) that is still competitive in most ways (for travel/landscape at least) with their "flagship escort" 5d Mark iv. The ISO isn't as good, but that's about it (I dunno, maybe the 5d mk iv has a higher burst rate, but I think I've shot bursts maybe a dozen times in the last decade, so I haven't been paying attention to the fps rate). The ISO isn't 3500 euros better. The 5Ds has better resolution, but If I'm going to drop thousands of euros to upgrade, I'm not going to do so to go to a camera that has an ISO range that was obsolete 3 years before it was released. I've been waiting for the 5ds mk ii. And waiting, and waiting and waiting.
Specifically I was anticipating that the EOS R would be a mirrorless version of the 5ds, but with better ISO. Instead it's a 5d mk iv in a crappier body- apparently with deliberately crippled video capabalities- again, that's not my thing, so I haven't been paying attention to that, but it wouldn't surprise me. They know how to make a decent weather sealed magnesium alloy body for a non-pro price point. They did it with the original 5D. That was 14 years ago.
Sooooo, I'm still waiting. If their next release before the end of the year is the mirrorless 5ds with the very sames sensor they had 4 YEARS AGO, then I'd actually buy it. I am going to go ahead and guess that there are a lot of folks who would have bought the EOS R, if it wasn't such a turd. I suspect that much of that 23% drop is people who are still waiting, and that should they release a non-turd in the near future, they could make that gap up.
I doubt they'll do this. The latest DSLR release from Canon, whose name I can't be bolloxed to remember (Rebel Ti something/Canon Irgendwas 50D in Europe, the Eos Crapjitsu in Asia?, I have no idea) is now selling for 199 euros in Germany. I guess the world wasn't thinking to itself "I'd love to buy a DSLR, but there just isn't one that's shite enough on the market" after all.
I really hope I'm wrong. But I'm probably not.
I lived through the end days of Kodak. My grandfather worked for them. My father worked for their chemical division for thirty years. I did my summer jobs during college at the Eastman. So I had a ringside seat to that super slo-mo trainwreck.
Canon's camera division has got that Kodak smell.
It is the amateur enthusiasts that are running the show, in culture in art science media politics philosophy education commerce industry just about everything. The professionals my look at this and say, “There dumbing down everything!” There may be some truth in that, but everything is becoming accessible to most everyone, and that is increasing substantially every year.
Raise your hand if you remember what is was like before the internet. Those individuals that remember that are dwindling and will be extinct in short order.
There are many examples of the ‘Amateur’ taking a stand joining with others (online) and changing policy changing minds changing the rules of who gets to speak up. Some of the most striking events was the ‘National School Walkout’ where Thousands of teenagers protested against gun violence across the U.S. effecting companies like Walmart and other retailers to change their gun policy. After the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the ‘professionals’ were unable to put out reports as to how much radiation was released and where it was going. A group of amateurs came together on the internet and where accurately and expediently able to report this vital information. That group, still amateurs, still monitors every nuclear plant around the globe. These are just two of the many amateurs working together to affect change.
What does this have to do with photography? The vast majority of photographs out on the internet are taken by amateurs, and more and more are set at ‘creative commons’, available to everyone. The need for professional photographers is rapidly dwindling. That can be seen on YouTube with all the Pro Photographers making that a part of their revenue stream, teaching the amateur and enthusiast how to take a better picture and how to improve skills.
I am an enthusiast. I have more than a few cameras and lenses. I support professional photographers, those I like and respect, through their books and tutorials as best I can within my budget. I am happy to go out and shoot the events of my friends but I also remind them to hire a professional.