Deep Into Digital

Deep Into Digital


I recently received a bulletin from PMAI on NPD’s Camera Sales Survey for the month of May. As expected, so-called “analog” camera sales continue to plummet while digital camera sales show a modest increase, year to date and year to year. But dig deeper into those numbers and something quite astonishing comes to the fore—every digital camera category (as broken out by megapixel count) except one has shown a decline. And some of those declines are almost shocking—4-4.9 megapixel cameras dropped 95% over last year, and are down 92% year to date. Even the quite good range of 6-6.9 megapixel cameras show a substantial drop, going down by 1/3rd from last year and 51% year to date. The only shining star is in the 7+ megapixel category (a broad one given how many cameras of all types, including the new crop of 10 and 12 megapixel point-and-shoots to full-fledged DSLRs) which went up by 362%. Indeed, that category is the only one that boosts digital camera sales into positive territory, a modest 5% growth overall since last year and 13% year to date.

What’s going on here? Are lower megapixel count cameras disappearing from shelves? Yes, if you look at the recent announcements from Panasonic, Olympus, Canon, Nikon etc. you’ll see the lower counts cameras few and far between. Ah, how soon those cameras have become obsolete, bowled over by the onrush of tiny sensors with more pixel packing. Anyone who has shot with a good 6 megapixel digicam knows you can get very good 8×10 prints from them, probably the largest size most customers will print. Somehow, the megapixel myth has become firmly entrenched in the consumer’s mind.

But is the buyer getting more bang for the buck? If you look at the latest crop of digicams and even DSLRs you’d have to give a resounding yes to that query, at least when measured quantitatively on a dollar to megapixel basis. Qualitatively, the jury is still out on just how many megapixels it takes to make a quality image for most camera users. Indeed, there comes a point of diminishing returns when you just have to wonder about the megapixel race. Is increasing the pixel count the only way for consumers to get better quality images? That seems to be the perception.

Innovation Driving Sales

There’s no question that more megapixels sell more cameras. In short, buyers are of the mind that they are getting more camera than ever for less money. And selling by megapixel count is easy—it’s a lazy way to sell, but it’s an easy way to compare one brand or model to another and make the consumer feel that they are getting a better deal. Frankly, in some cases that’s true, and in some cases it isn’t.

But that story is for another day. The point here is that these latest stats give credence to the various pundits who predicted that overall digital camera sales would not be having the kind of dramatic increases experienced in years past, and that second-time buyers would make up the bulk of increases in digital camera sales this year. In fact, some buyers are way beyond that second digital camera, and are looking at their third or fourth, and even bringing other members of their family into the digital fold by getting them one of their own.

When faced with stats I think it’s best to focus in on the buyers themselves, which we did recently using a Reader Poll at Shutterbug. (For all the responses go to and click on Previous Votes on the home page.) We asked readers: “If you are buying your second or third digital camera, please comment on why you are considering that purchase.” A majority (62%) told us they are second (or more) time buyers, and why. Here’s a sampling of their responses:

Clearly the “step-up” market drives many sales, as evidenced by these responses: “My first digital was a point-and-shoot Nikon Coolpix 4300. After getting the photography bug, I knew it was time for something a lot better. I purchased a Nikon D80 and haven’t been able to put it down!” Another said: “This (the next camera) will be my fifth digital camera. I’m looking for more zoom and picture quality.” And another: “I actually just bought a Canon Powershot SD1000 (my 4th digital) and I love it. I was outgrowing my older camera, which tends to happen every couple of years. This camera is small enough to take everywhere and advanced enough to keep me happy. Since I won’t be able to afford the DSLR I crave for a while, that’s a good thing!”

As I’ve said more than a few times in this column, innovation is what drives sales. Customers perceive a growing sophistication in digital cameras, probably aided by the fact that the digital print infrastructure is firmly in place. Indeed, the same bulletin from PMAI included a printing report, which stated that overall print volume from digital increased by 34% this year, with online ordering growing a whopping 80%. Ease of use, which once drove OTU “camera” sales (which by the way dropped by over a third, year to date) has come to the digital market.

Latest/Greatest Still a Draw

One comment from above really intrigued me, the one that stated that the customer has outgrown their “old” camera. How does a customer perceive that he or she has “outgrown” their digital camera? It strikes me as ironic, given that we are but a few short years into this brave new world. Is it new technology, such as Face Detection; longer zoom ranges; incorporated image stabilization; higher ISO settings; larger LCDs; or simply more megapixels? Or is it all of the above? Said one respondent: “They keep getting better with more features, longer zooms, and faster lenses. I’m climbing the quality ladder (emphasis added). Fifth digicam, includes one DSLR.” Clearly manufacturers have succeeded in convincing consumers that there is something new under the sun, and to catch up or keep current they have to step up and get the latest, greatest thing.

There’s no question that the perceived “fair price” for digital SLRs has a lot to do with the 360% sales growth in the 7+ megapixel category. Said one reader: “The availability of a ‘reasonably’ priced semi-pro DSLR (Nikon D200) finally convinced me to make the switch.” And stepping up means the realization that going from a point-and-shoot to an SLR means more control and creative picture-taking has sunk in. Said one aspiring photojournalist: “Shutter lag is driving me up the wall. Since I am shooting for the local paper I think I owe it to them to get a newer camera.”

Yes, that old specter still haunts point-and-shoot digital cameras and will always send first-time buyers of shutter-lagging cameras back to the photo counter seeking a DSLR. Note this quote: “Quick start up, more frames per sec. I shoot children, and am tired of trying to anticipate their next movement. The DSLR gets me back to shooting like I did with my 35mm SLRs.” When consumers get educated, and want to get “seriously” involved with their photography they think SLR. Said one: “I wanted more than what a point-and-shoot could offer, as well as the ability to greatly control many of the features of the camera.”

And finally, a note from a consumer that every dealer would love: “It is really my 9th digital camera in the last 5 years. I have purchased several SLRs and point-and-shoot as they have improved…I do not miss film at all.”

That, in a nutshell, is why “analog” camera sales have tanked and why consumers keep going back for more digital cameras. The challenge for manufacturers and dealers alike will be to keep the perception, and of course the reality of continued innovation and improvement in digital cameras of all sorts, be they DSLRs or perhaps even the fanciful 14-megapixel digicams. Because when the point-and-shoot sensor runs out of room and pixel counts become more window dressing than an actual enhancement, some makers and sellers will have to come up with something more than pixel packing to convince customers that they should plunk down their hard-earned dollars for the next best thing. yy