The Digital Ecosystem: Is It Possible to Sell More Cameras?

The Digital Ecosystem: Is It Possible to Sell More Cameras?

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We’ve all seen the numbers, and they’re not good: camera sales are down yet again. Japan’s Camera & Imaging Products Association reported total camera shipments in 2014 were down 30.9% from 2013, to 43.4 million units. That’s projected to fall another 20% to 34.7 million units in 2015. What are the reasons for this decline?

Capture versus Photography
The common lament is that cameras have lost out to phones. The industry has responded with two primary tactics: improving image capture or emulating phones in some way.

A distinct disadvantage for the stand-alone camera is just that—it stands alone in an otherwise interconnected world. Sure it captures great pictures, much better ones than those from a phone, but it’s difficult to get those shots out of the camera to do anything with them.

Photography, of course, is more than capture: it’s viewing, sending, sharing, enhancing, printing and visually communicating. That’s why for years I’ve pointed out that the smartphone is actually the first true photography device, while the camera has remained a single-function capture tool.

Adding Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity to a camera can be seen as putting lipstick on a pig. In every way a camera emulates a phone it points out its communication deficiencies. For many consumers, this likely heightens the contrasts and spotlights the fact they already have a camera that does more than the “real camera” you’re trying to sell them. (It has been pointed out that the smartphone also shows everyone how a really complicated device—a phone is a pocketable computer, image editor, music player and video transmitter—can be simple to operate. Meanwhile, a “better” camera is infinitely more complex to use just for taking better pictures. For phone users, that doesn’t add up.)

So, what could you sell? What can camera makers provide?

Better Images Aren’t Enough
The industry can rightly rail against the term “good enough.” It should push the point that you always want more, that important moments in life deserve near-perfect images.

But the fact is pictures from today’s phones are good enough for just about every snapshooter. My iPhone delivers images that are better than those from my first 35mm compact camera, far better than those of my first digital camera. They are comparable to even my first DSLR from more than a decade ago. There’s a reason Apple can all but put on its own photo exhibit of iPhone shots—they are that good.

Of course the phone’s shots are not as good as those from even a mid-range current DSLR, but no one except a working professional truly needs full-frame SLR image quality. (Which certainly isn’t to say no one wants ever-better image quality. That’s a large part of being a photography enthusiast.)

The industry should give up the fear tactics of telling happy phone photographers that the most important moments of their lives absolutely must be captured on expensive cameras—that they are all but betraying their family’s legacy by using a phone. Hyping the negatives will no more bear fruit than the ill-intentioned idea of selling prints by stressing hard drive failures. (That’s for another column.)

Another argument I’ve often made is that rather than something to be feared, derided or dismissed, phone photography should be appreciated. Why? Because it has made happy snapshooters out of millions of people who, just a decade ago, would only rarely have used a camera—let alone owned multiple devices.

In film camera days, most people did not own or use a camera at all. Realistically, if everyone has a smartphone today, then some significant percentage will turn into imaging enthusiasts—potential customers for better photography products. A sizable percentage of “everybody” is a much larger pool of potential customers than the industry has ever had. But it needs the right products to sell to these enthusiasts. And a camera that looks and behaves like a model from two decades ago (if not a century) is not that product.

Camera Redesigns Are Overdue
It’s a riddle: what has changed in amazing ways while also staying the same? You can say that of cars, for example: today’s vehicles are faster, safer, more durable, more efficient and more comfortable than those a few decades back, but they’re still just four wheels driven by an engine and directed by a steering wheel.

Cameras are much better today than 15 years ago: better pictures, bigger displays, faster image capture. But they’re still essentially the same core design as when the optics fed light to a piece of film.

Cars may soon radically shift: prototypes now drive themselves and don’t even need steering wheels. Cameras are overdue for such an overhaul—unless it’s already happened and the new model is in your pocket. And we call it a phone.

What Do Happy Phone Photographers Want?
If millions are happily shooting good-enough pictures with their phones, what can the photo industry sell them? The answer is unlikely to be “good cameras that are also phones.” This is primarily because it cannot appeal to the largest demographic of upscale phone photographers—iPhone owners. They don’t want a phone replacement.

The answer I’ve long promoted is a device that works with the phone rather than tries to replace it. There have been attempts at this, most notably Sony’s Q lens-style cameras. I’d argue these fail because while they do provide better sensors and lenses than a phone, they are more obtrusive than Sony’s similar pocket cameras. Those cameras do everything the Q devices do in terms of image quality, telephoto capability, connectivity and interoperability with a phone—for the same cost, in a less bulky package. The Qs are quirky appliances appealing to quirky enthusiasts, but in no way are they successful mass-market devices.

There are also many add-on lenses for smartphones. While they may provide a wider or longer angle than the phone’s built-in non-zooming lens, they also inarguably degrade image quality because they still use the phone’s limited sensor and direct the light they capture through the phone’s built-in optics.

What I’ve long advocated is a simpler version of Sony’s Q idea—one even more integrated into the phone. I envision a slide-on case that integrates its own sensor and lens into the phone’s display, storage and processor. Given that the device would only have two of the five basic camera components, it could be made for less than the cost of the Q lens-cameras or another stand-alone compact.

The lens barrel could even run across the top of the phone, or pivot out, to provide a long zoom without adding a lot of thickness to the overall space the phone takes in a pocket. This slide-on camera case could be tailored to work with different phone designs, including iPhones. And it could be offered in differing configurations with various sensor sizes, resolutions and lenses.

Hey, I’d buy one. So there’s at least on sale, right?

The Future for Camera Sales
The mainstream camera will never again near the mass-market success it enjoyed in the previous decade. The camera business grew from the film days—where only a few people bought one camera let alone more than one—to the digital camera boom in which millions not only bought their first camera but newer and better ones in succeeding years.

There’s no way that boom could have continued indefinitely. It’s time we all stop acting surprised that sales have fallen from those lofty heights. The camera business must accept that: 1) there is very little reason for the average snapshooter to use a “better” camera than that in their phone; and 2) professionals and imaging enthusiasts will always need or at least want better image capture performance and picture quality than a phone can provide.

Someone can always point to some group of enthusiasts as disproving a point about the majority (“These 20-somethings used an SLR, so you can’t say all millennials are satisfied with phones!”) when they are actually the exception that proves the rule. It’s an exception of dozens, maybe hundreds or sometimes thousands, of SLR users versus millions of satisfied phone owners. It’s not even a contest.

That said, of course selling to the thousands of pros and enthusiasts can be a profitable business. But we can’t keep talking as if the boom in mass-market camera sales in the previous decade established a new norm. Those high sales were the aberration, not the “drop” in more recent years.

When it comes to selling cameras to professionals, there are more important issues than image quality. Analyst Thom Hogan polled pro shooters on what camera issues must be addressed. He found that not one issue the shooters cited most often has been addressed by camera makers (apart from increased sensitivity in low-light settings). What is most needed? Better workflow—getting the shots where they need them, how they need and when they need to do it. Possibly while still out shooting in the field.

As for selling cameras to enthusiasts, there are generally two types of enthusiasts. There are those who not so secretly want to be professionals someday and those who simply enjoy photography as an activity, an art form, a means of expression. One friend in the high-end print business referred to them as “dentists with dollars”—successful professionals who like an expensive hobby.

Selling to the latter two groups means delivering the next big thing, year after year: more resolution even when they don’t print the pixel count they have; bigger sensors even when no one knows why they need them; bigger displays that tilt, pivot and dance a jig; touch screens and mobile OSs; faster shot-to-shot times; bigger lenses; Wi-Fi and Bluetooth; and . . . It’s a speedy merry-go-round, one that’s hard to leave safely once you’re on it.

These customers always want the latest and greatest, whether they honestly believe it will ensure they get the best picture or simply because they (even unconsciously) want to show off the great gear they can purchase, flaunting their disposable income.

For everyone else, we need to better complement the device everyone has rather than argue they should toss it, and we must provide a complete photography experience.

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