Anyone who’s been in the neighborhood since the turn of the century has some perspective on the major disruptions that have rocked the photo industry in the last 20 years. However, we have not seen anything like this third wave.
The first wave was the onset of digital and the collapse of analog. Kodak, Polaroid and Agfa—all giants of our industry, all corporate empires with all the trappings—fell by the wayside. Camera companies became bicameral, often splitting resources between the two mediums with consequent internal battles.
Moreover, independent lens manufacturers, for the most part, had to deal with new demands on resolution and changing mounts; they entered cautiously into each format and coupling change.
What’s more, the photofinishing industry, the cash cow for many years, slowly but surely went away, with a concomitant shrinkage of independent camera stores and the whole minilab and photofinishing segment of the industry. PMA vanished into CES. It took time to adapt; along the way new imaging companies came and went, victims of being too early or taking sides too late.
The second great wave was the smartphone camera and its enabler, social media. We all know the consequences—the near elimination of the small, personal point-and-shoot category; the steady sales erosion of amateur and medium market interchangeable-lens cameras (ILC); and the struggle of camera makers to compete with phone/camera portability and connectivity.
Through it all, however, some companies held a reasonable line. While the leader board changed up now and then, we could always count on new gear and advancing technology to keep the energy and excitement alive. Success depended on the degree to which each company adapted and utilized their technological and marketing resources.
The Third Wave
Then the third wave hit, and the loss of life and worldwide suffering during this pandemic is horrendous. Every aspect of our lives has been altered. Socially we have become cautious; our movements circumspect and considered; our pocketbooks clasped and our businesses increasingly fragile.
The photo industry suffered a major body blow; it saw broken supply chains, product glut and closures of traditional sales outlets. As damaging were the stringent restrictions on travel; on social and family gatherings; on the closure of parks and entertainment complexes; and on the cancellation of sports and concert events—all major contributors to the billions of pictures made each year.
Photography as an activity lost much of its societal context. Many types of photographic activity are reduced or eliminated, especially for the “social” (wedding, portrait and event) pros. While photography has not been, nor ever will be, erased from human activity, the industry itself suffered from the same effects that decimated all segments of our social, travel and event business activities.
The Dearth of Demand
It’s not that folks have lost interest in cameras, lenses and the like. A telling indicator was a comment on a website from a pro reacting to a published lens test. To paraphrase, “I am looking at some very attractive products and deals, but there’s no reason to grab anything now since I can’t do anything with it.”
While the industry itself is having problems with supply chains, glut and the like, the consumer is also feeling the squeeze. The wedding and portrait pro ranks are hurting as much as the people who work in the venues that host those events. That’s a lot of photos never made, no albums assembled and no large wall prints to commemorate the day. With cancelled bookings that, for many photographers, stretch late into this year, pros are wondering when things will get better.
Travel and photo workshops are cancelling left and right, with many established centers giving online workshops a try. Galleries have remained shuttered, replaced by so-called “virtual” displays. Industry gatherings and product showcases and introductions are now replaced by YouTube promos. Zoom weddings and graduations don’t allow for anything but fuzzy screen grabs; and no soccer means no camera-toting soccer moms and dads. In short, the industry is in the doldrums, an eerie calm during the storm that has left sails and sales slack.
Glimmers of Hope
I suppose I could go on and on about the many examples of hard times. However, I trust I’ve brought the room down enough already. So, all I can say is that we will get through all this, albeit with some battering and lessons learned. It isn’t all dark of night; there are glimmers of activity out there, even if some are only coming attractions.
A good example of swimming with the tide is how more and more companies have started to offer product adaptations to handle vlogging. They are bringing real live camera quality to the personal and professional Internet space. Online is also where meetings are held and product announcements are made.
As I write this, Canon is giving a virtual press event open to press, pros and enthusiasts about their major summer launch. It sure looked like every big production press conference I ever attended, albeit on my iPad. What’s more, you could pause the show to go and refill your coffee.
Fujifilm announced a kind of apprenticeship program to discover emerging talent for their X-Photographer program. It’s a clubby approach to brand loyalty with a good deal of qualifying rounds and photo sharing.
Individuals and small groups of photographers also continue to post themed images on Instagram and Facebook. One example is Rick Sammon’s Photo Therapy group, which grows week by week.
Nikon’s website has a calendar of virtual talks by accomplished photographers to inspire the enthusiast and pro; Sony continues to sponsor their World Photography Awards. Lens makers, lighting as well as accessory manufacturers feature tutorials and pro guided how-tos on their sites. Numerous long-standing photo festivals have not gone away; they’ve just gone virtual.
Keeping the Spirit of Photography Alive
In short, while conditions mandate a hold on gatherings, companies and individuals alike are doing what they can to keep the spirit of photo sharing and inspiration alive. Yes, I miss going to trade shows; I miss teaching workshops and giving in-person talks; I miss the camaraderie of fellow photographers and industry friends. But it is what it is, and we all have to make the best of it. Truth be told, we might have to get used to this for a while—and maybe for good, or at least until industry coffers become healthier.
That might take a while. In preparation for this column, I read through financial statements from Japanese companies issued in late March 2020, their fiscal year’s close. It was not a happy chore. Reports from companies that diversified over the years, and whose (shrinking) camera business is shored up by other segments, were discouraging. However, they were not as dire as that from Olympus.
Panasonic, a major player in consumer electronics, stated it will “…prioritize its resources in areas where market growth is expected, such as aviation and automotive.” Pentax/Ricoh notes a “plummet of demand,” although their Theta line is doing OK.
Fujifilm notes a decline of Instax and mirrorless camera sales, yet good demand for their XF100 “medium format” model and lenses. Canon and Nikon both noted “supply chain stagnation,” “significant sales decreases” and “acceleration of market decline.”
Sony also bemoans the “supply chain glut” and losses in some segments. Their report states their imaging sensor business was not hit as hard; it was a strong contributor to their bottom line over the past year and will be the same (they trust) going forward.
All the companies mentioned here shared a statement that, to me, was the most chilling aspect of all the year-end statements: they all offered “no guidance” and characterized prospects as “undetermined.”
As I watched the news the other night, a national health official stated quite succinctly there would be no return to economic health without a return to public health. We just might have to accept the fact that our industry, like so many others, may not make a real comeback until society at large and individuals and their families can start interacting again without fear of threatening their own health and that of others.
Having seen a bit throughout the years, there is one thing I know to be true. Photography is an essential and ingrained human activity based on real live social interaction and the exploration of new worlds. There are glimmers of activity and creative thinking going on now, and the photo industry has shown its resilience in the past. But let’s face it, it ain’t going to be a good second or third quarter.
We’ve got to collectively batten down the hatches, trim the sails, prepare for the rough seas ahead and think about what we are going to do once we reach safe harbor. This third wave is a doozy, but we are veteran sailors who have made it through troubled waters before