If you haven’t noticed, camera sales are down. I mean, they’re way down. Unsurprisingly, everyone’s scrambling to find a reason why. There’s a video floating around from Mayflower Concepts that, at the very least, explains what is not the cause for the camera sales drop. If you don’t have 50 minutes to watch it for yourself, here’s the “TL;DR” version: It’s not due to the rise of phones with cameras – at least, not in the way you think. It’s not because the economy is in the tank, as most camera manufacturers claim on their financial reports. There’s simply no strong correlation between any of the global financial crises, or the simple existence of cameras on phones, to have any reason to believe either is the cause for a huge drop in sales.
Mayflower points out a number of bone-headed moves camera manufacturers are guilty of, but one thing mentioned that I think is the biggest hurdle for most new or existing customers is this:
As well as this:
Modern cameras, in essence, are way too complicated. In an age of simplified and accessible technology, cameras are going in the opposite direction.
Before we go further, I must make the following clear: I am not a professional photographer. I don’t sell my middling skills for money, and my interest in photography is purely for my own enjoyment and, occasionally, for other people’s benefit. I am, however, someone who has spent the last 15 years professionally analyzing and explaining technology trends in some fashion or another.
I also have a mother, a sister, a brother-in-law, a girlfriend, and numerous other friends and colleagues, who all love photography. Almost none of them would ever be bothered to pick up any of the cameras above. Ever. I know this because I’ve shown them pictures of the above cameras, and just about every one of them balked. Direct quotes: “What’s with all the dials/buttons?” “Who really needs all of that?” “Who buys these cameras?” (Well, I know of one person who bought the Nikon Df, but that person openly admitted it was more for appearances than functionality).
As further anecdotal evidence: My girlfriend thinks my full-frame DSLR is ‘intimidating’ to use, and she vastly prefers her simple mirrorless camera with its touch screen. My mother, who’s had film cameras available to her for most of her life, turned her nose up at a basic DSLR I offered for her use when she decided to learn digital photography – “Too many buttons, too complicated,” she said. Eventually, she begrudgingly accepted that camera for the purposes of learning, but I know she never used it again after her 10-week class was over. (I also got weekly phone calls where she told me how overly complicated the thing was. Mind you, this woman has worked in the IT sector since the 1960’s. She has machine programming and COBOL as a means of comparison.) I’m sure my sister and brother-in-law could be convinced one day to buy into something a little more capable than the cameras on their phones and the Fujifilm Instax they own, but I’m not pushing my luck.
This all drives home my point: Camera sales are probably down because of their needless complexity.
Apple recently deployed a website dedicated to the surprisingly incredible photos taken with iPhones, and they’re hardly the first to boast how great photos can be taken with a mere phone. While it’s reasonably certain that the advent of phones with cameras may not have been directly responsible for a drop in dedicated camera sales, I would imagine the rapidly improving user experience of smartphones might have. Even with a bog standard camera app for your smartphone, along with the intelligence available via the silicon inside that phone, it’s rather easy to make fantastic images. Mind you, what most people have available to them on their phone are a few UI controls on a touchscreen for adjustments and a way of activating the shutter. That’s it.
No dials. No buttons. No complex menus. No fuss.
…And no modern dedicated camera can match that simplicity.
Sure, not all smartphone photos are great, but the same could be said about photos from dedicated cameras. It’s a moot point. Consumers have an intuitive, simple way to take photos that yield reasonable results. Nobody ever had to go to a class or spend hours scouring the internet to learn how to make their camera phone work. Modern dedicated cameras are the exact opposite of this experience.
Professional photographers and advanced enthusiasts tend to go out of their way to learn how their cameras function. They learn how to control exposure to get the exact image they want. The vast majority of consumers – much like my family and friends – couldn’t be bothered to learn all of the subtleties that go into photography. They want to capture moments as best as they can with as little fuss possible. They’re not professionals, they’re not enthusiasts, and they have no intention on becoming either.
Also worth pointing out is the fact that professional photographers and advanced enthusiasts are not the majority of the market. They are a small but vocal minority who spend lots of money. Camera companies are spending too much time, R&D, and marketing effort, to ensure these users remain in the fold, while they simultaneously forego the rest of their potential customer base. Manufacturers may not be consciously doing it, but that’s what’s happening. The industry’s sales deficit is rooted in the fact that the mass market is where they previously made most of their profits.
What I’m suggesting is that every mid- to high-end camera that is cranked out today by a major manufacturer is, essentially, a complicated evolution of the film camera, with a mess of controls to match. You’ve got modes and dials and buttons, settings for ISO and apertures to worry about. Pros and advanced amateurs might groan and say, “Well, all anyone needs to do is learn how their camera works, and they’ll get the photos they want.” Yes, but, again, the people who do go out of their way to learn how to shoot in manual mode are a small subset of the potential market, just as people who learn to build and fix cars or computers are the minority of drivers and computer users. Shooting in manual mode is not an enjoyable experience for most people. It’s about as much fun as carrying around a load of camera gear.
There are a number of advanced compacts and mirrorless cameras which are almost the size of a basic compact camera and not far off from the size of a smartphone. A lot of these cameras have very nice sensors inside, and they’re more than capable for the majority of photographers out there. I’ve shown a number of these devices to friends and family, and they have indicated that such cameras are far more approachable. In my opinion, these cameras should be the new, cheap, easy-to-use compact cameras of our time… but they aren’t.
First, most of the cameras I’m referring to are just flat-out expensive. There are few people who could be convinced that a Panasonic GM5 and LX100 are worth $900 each, unless those people are advanced enthusiasts who are already predisposed to liking such cameras. The Fujifilm X30 and Sony RX100 Mark II are a bit better at $600, but, again, not exactly in ‘impulse buy’ territory.
These cameras should be sold for $300-400. Tops. I’m not suggesting a race to the bottom, similar to what is already happening now in the entry-level DSLR category or with compact cameras before that. I’m also not suggesting that it doesn’t cost a bit of money to manufacture larger sensors and the accompanying lenses for each device. I’m saying small, decent quality cameras should not be premium products.
More importantly, the aforementioned cameras are still far more complex and unintuitive than they need be, putting a steep learning curve in the way between customers and their goal of capturing moments. People want the ‘point-and-shoot’ mentality of their phone with better results. Again, I don’t think you could convince the average consumer that they need to know everything about focal lengths, apertures, ISO values, and shutter speeds. I do think you can teach them, “Portrait mode maximizes the focus on your subject while blurring out the background,” as the camera intelligently opens up the aperture, drops down the ISO as low as it can go, chooses an appropriate shutter speed for the focal length, all while the metering system finds the face of the subject. “Action mode freezes motion and ensures your subject is completely in focus,” as the camera bumps up the ISO and shutter speed. Heck, an interchangeable lens camera should be able to suggest, “Use [x] lens(es) for best results.” No camera available today does this, even those with the currently available ‘scene’ modes built in (I’ve tried a number of them, and they all suck).
I mean, really, why does any camera manufactured in 2015 not do this with aplomb? If the majority of people want somewhat pleasing photos without going through all the work, manufacturers should learn to at least get them most of the way there. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before smartphones get to the point where they’re programmed well enough to achieve complex ‘scene’ modes that take most of the guess-work out of photography, so there’s no reason not to do this for dedicated cameras. If customers want to learn how the decisions of automated modes are made, they will seek out that information – and they will have better photos because they did. If they don’t, they should at least be left with reasonably satisfying results.
If manufacturers want to sell cameras, they should realize customers will see value in a product if it delivers significantly better image quality than their phone and comes in an intelligent, easily managed package and is reasonably priced. However, based on the public rumination of your typical camera CEO, I don’t think this will happen until it’s far too late. Fuji is chasing a niche market. Sony is throwing every feature they can at the wall to see what sticks, but usability improvements still sit on the table. Canon and Nikon seem to think the DSLR will last forever in its current state, so long as they keep adding small improvements. Samsung made a few steps towards introducing an intelligent camera, but most of the features they push are of the ‘gee-wiz’ variety rather than useful additions for the uninitiated. Panasonic and Olympus get the portability bit right, but their cameras suffer from the same ‘gee-wiz’ gimmicks as Samsung instead of making of honest-to-goodness usability improvements.
As I see it, the photo industry is at the precipice of permanent contraction, and I don’t know if anyone has the guts to turn it around in a meaningful way. I don’t think making an intelligent, quality camera that does 90% of the work is going to dissuade people from learning to handle cameras in the traditional way, driving them towards more expensive and capable equipment. I do think that not making an intelligent, quality camera will lead to further declining sales as fewer people come up with reasons to buy a camera that isn’t already included with another device they already own.
This guest post was contributed by Michael Heath, a senior IT staff member and an IT product analyst for the University of Pennsylvania since 2001.