While the press is filled with nothing but bad news these days there seems to be some silver lining in the dark clouds, at least as it applies to the photo industry. According to a recent PMA/NPD “Printing and Camera Trends” report for the third quarter (we await with some trepidation the fourth quarter results, however), the number of prints made from digital still cameras continues to rise, not surprising given the near-universal adoption of this form of making images.
While so-called analog cameras have taken a massive nosedive, no one really expected anything other than the continuing abandonment of these cameras, including OTUCs. Indeed, any other result would call into serious question the veracity of the report. But the good news, and we’ll take any we can get, is that higher megapixel count digital cameras are still on a sales upswing, although lower MP count cameras, which are hard-pressed to find on shelves nowadays, are dropping off the charts.
On the printing front the report details prints by “method” (how they are made) and by “channel”, or where folks are doing the work or having it done. According to the report, the retail digital printing infrastructure, well in place by now, accounts for nearly half of the total volume. This channel is described as those made or picked up in the retail environment, be it kiosks, minilab or online orders. One interesting stat is that the percentage of this channel has not gained market share (but then again it didn’t lose any either) over last year, to date. Rivals for the over-the-counter business include online only operations that print and deliver by mail and the do-it-yourself market.
In fact, online orders went up a few ticks while the home market dropped down a few as well. But home printers still account for a goodly number, coming in at about 33% share. While that’s good news for paper and ink sales (a substantial commodities market) it might just speak to the fact that given the time and knowledge, folks are really enjoying making their own images their way. The digital darkroom allows photographers to be their own custom printers and to make prints when they want and how they want.
Given these stats it would seem that the new crop of printers, and the ease with which people can make their own prints, is driving the hobby end of the business to heights not even experienced in the days when some folks had their own darkroom. Most enjoy printing as a pastime and a challenge and not just as a way of churning out snapshots. Their scrapbooking and greeting card, and even their home gallery printing endeavors are truly driving this market.
One area I would like to see covered in these figures is the book market. More and more folks are choosing to gather and show off their images in this exciting fashion, and it strikes me that this should be regarded as part of the print survey. I know many avid amateurs who currently eschew individual prints and are in favor of the compilation of shot images into themes, be they vacations, parties or family portraits in a certain year, all placed neatly and attractively into photo books. While these are not “finished” at home they do account for more and more of the printing market.
And now for a brief interlude of bad, though hardly unexpected, news—new film camera sales are toast. Overall, film camera sales have plunged over 60% from a similar period last year, and even OTUCs have dropped almost 40%. Oddly, Instant cameras are still reported in the mix despite the fact that Polaroid ceased film and camera sales. True, Fujifilm is now bringing an instant type camera into the States to pick up whatever ID and visa business might still be done with film, but the Instant stat does nothing but drag down film camera sales even further. My vote is to drop it from consideration.
There remains, however, life in the film business, but more in film itself rather than new cameras. Kodak recently introduced a new Ektar 100 color negative film, and many younger folks are in fact rediscovering film as a recording medium. This is evident on college campuses and in workshops, where course assistants are proudly carrying around old medium format and veteran film cameras like Leica M3s, Nikon FM2s and YashicaMat TLRs.
They see film as a sort of an alternative process medium that holds a part rebellious, part nostalgic appeal. And they like the way it looks and feels. There is a brisk business in user-collectible film cameras on auction sites with prices that even a student budget can afford. There is no question that this is a niche movement, but one that is intriguing nonetheless.
The stats on digital camera sales are quite telling when it comes to seeing how the megapixel horse race has affected sales. While digital cameras at or below 7.9 megapixels have shown a precipitous sales drop (holding about a 28% total market share, off an average of around minus 70%), those at 8 megapixels and above are still growing in sales by unit and sales by market share. In fact, 8-9 megapixel cameras, which accounted for over 40% of market share by unit, show a 270% growth year to date and those in the 10+ megapixel class, with 30% share, show an almost 200% growth change over a year ago. The biggest jump is in the 9-10 megapixel class which, although it only shows as 4% share, had a 1000% + increase in unit sales.
These numbers bear some crunching. It’s easy to see why the 9-10MP class has grown so substantially—there simply weren’t that many units in this class in late 2007. However, when you combine the 8MP and up class together you see what’s driving the market—megapixel counts, a mixed blessing that I have covered in this column in the past. But when you look at the bottom line on digital camera sales overall and note a 5% decline, keep in mind that the lower count cameras, which have all but disappeared in anything but blister packed toy cameras, are responsible for the lower numbers. Take them out of the mix and you see another, more positive picture emerging.
Of course, this report does not delve into other digital image delivery devices, including multimedia and especially cell phone/cameras. As more and more images are made with cell phones, and as that infrastructure develops and grows, we might begin to see print figures that are out of synch with “pure” camera sales. In short, the photofinishing market, once tethered to camera and film sales and now generally fueled by digital camera sales, might take off exponentially, driven by other methods of capturing an image.
In all, the report paints a less bleak picture than one might have imagined. This is not to say that the photo industry is immune to the recession, and fourth quarter results, probably available in the middle of the first quarter of 2009, will be more telling. But growth in any aspect of the business should be encouraging to retailers, photofinishers and those of us sick and tired of hearing nothing but bad news day in and day out.