Future of Cameras

There has been a lot of concern about the future of cameras over the past number of years. As photographers monitor CIPA statistics and the financial performance of various brands, it can be difficult to remain optimistic about the future of cameras. This article looks at various categories of photography and where cameras are best positioned for the future.

One place to start is to look at some common market segments and assess how cameras are positioned in these areas.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

The above graphic does some rudimentary segmentation of various categories of photography. The basic quadrants are defined by Indoor versus Outdoor, and Moving Subjects versus Static Subjects. This graphic does not pretend to cover all genres of photography… only some of the most common ones.

The first thing that we can contemplate is where smartphones are being used to meet the photographic needs of the majority of consumers. Categories like Travel and Family immediately come to mind. Given the convenience of smartphones and some of the computational photography technology that is being deployed, it is difficult for dedicated cameras to compete in large portions of these two subject areas.

Let’s investigate some of the other subject categories.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 60 mm, efov 162 mm, f/8, 1/80, ISO-1600

Product & Fashion

This is a small, specialized field served by professional photographers who possess unique expertise. Their camera equipment tends to be skewed towards full frame and larger sensor camera formats to provide clients with highly detailed images. There are occasions where specialized features such as Live Composite may come into play based on the personal style and artistic leanings of a photographer.

This type of photography is often done indoors in studios. Depending on the product or fashion, some outdoor photography is done, most often under controlled conditions. There is little risk of smartphone intrusion in this category.

Castle Point, New Zealand,Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 12.1 mm, efov 32.7 mm, f/8, 1/400, ISO-160

Travel

As noted earlier, smartphones are favoured by the vast majority of consumers when they travel. On our recent trips to Ireland and Italy we seldom saw anyone capturing images with a dedicated camera.

Many airlines are putting size and weight restrictions in place for carry-on luggage. These limitations make it increasingly difficult for people to travel with dedicated cameras. Especially larger, heavier equipment. One of the reasons that my wife and I decided to keep our discontinued Nikon 1 kit was its small size/weight and its photographic flexibility provided for travel photography.

Cameras that will be able to compete in the travel category will likely be smaller, lighter gear that also has additional functionality such as weatherproofing, GPS image labelling, as well as lens selection. When more extreme travel is involved build quality will be a more significant camera purchase criteria. Having said that, for most consumers their cell phones are all that they want or need. I don’t see the future of cameras being positively impacted by travel photography.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + N.Zuiko PRO 12-40 mm f/2.8 @ 12 mm, efov 24 mm, f/5.6, 1/2 second, ISO-200

Landscape

Photographers who are planning to make good sized enlargements of their images will favour dedicated cameras. Whether they choose full frame, or even larger sensor cameras, will depend on their image quality requirements.

Depending on the shooting style of a photographer some features such as IBIS performance, weatherproofing, and high resolution options may come into play with cameras built around smaller sensors.

In general, I think landscape photography is an area where cameras have a good position.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/3.2, 1/125, ISO-5000, subject distance 630 mm

Portrait / Family / Wedding

This is an overall ‘people oriented’ subject category. The need to capture casual images of people will most commonly be met by smartphones. Higher quality imagery is still skewed towards dedicated cameras. This is especially true when larger sized prints are produced or when shooting under lower light conditions.

On a personal basis I am skeptical that advancements in eye and face recogition will increase the purchase of dedicated cameras. This type of technology is already incorporated in many smartphones. Improving this capability with dedicated cameras strikes me more as a defensive move in terms of product development.

Further advancements with computational photography features in smartphones such as synthetic depth-of-field technology, will likely put more downward pressure on camera sales. For most consumers, their need for photographs of people are best met with smartphones. I don’t see the general category of ‘people photography’ as being one that will help camera sales in the years ahead.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO-320, handheld focus stacking used, subject distance 580 mm, out-of-camera jpeg

Macro

When out with my gear doing macro photography I observe many people with their smartphones capturing images of butterflies, blossoms and other subject matter. So, there is a significant amount of interest in this subject matter.

The challenge for camera companies to to make equipment that is sufficiently small, light and easy-to-use to move people away from their smartphones. In this regard, I think the current emphasis on full frame gear is counterproductive for this particular market segment in terms of a growth strategy. If camera makers want to bring new users into dedicated cameras they need small, light, easy-to-use equipment.

Bridge cameras with macro capability are one potential solution. Bringing improved IBIS performance and features like in-camera focus stacking and handheld high resolution photography could also help bring new users to dedicated cameras.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/320, ISO-6400, Handheld Hi Res Mode, subject distance 295 mm

Flower & Garden / Flower

When I’ve been out in public garden venues I do see a few more people with dedicated cameras. They tend to be folks who have a passion for flowers and want better quality images. If allowed, many will use tripods for their photography.

While there is a lot of photography of flowers and gardens being done with smartphones, dedicated cameras are decently positioned in this category. Especially interchangeable lens cameras that provide more creative control, and those with articulating rear screens.

There are numerous indoor floral venues, many of which have somewhat difficult lighting conditions…. which tends to favour decidated cameras.

Many people are quite passionate about flowers and gardens. This passion may help maintain dedicated camera use in this category.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18.1 mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO-400

Architecture

Exterior and interior architectural photography is another subject area where I tend to see a bit more use of dedicated cameras. There are people who capture architectural images while on vacation. I tend to lump those photographers into the ‘travel’ category.

In my experience people who pursue architectural photography tend to be more exacting and detail oriented than many other photographers. Many are willing to invest in quality lenses and higher end camera bodies. My impression is that architectural photography is a fairly small niche, but one that is best served with dedicated cameras. This subject category is one that will likely be stable in terms of camera use.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with MC-20 teleconverter @300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-200, subject distance 2.6 metres

Birds / Nature (Static)

Outdoor photography of static birds and nature is heavily skewed to dedicated cameras. Since photographers cannot control the movements of their subjects, camera provide the flexibility required for this subject category.

Generally speaking, I think there is a growing interest in nature, green technologies, and environmental sustainability around the globe. This is a subject category that could be supportive in terms of increasing the use of dedicated cameras.

Camera manufacturers will need to develop cost affordable products with sufficient reach to bring new users into the dedicated camera market.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 12-100 mm f/4 IS PRO @100 mm, efov 200 mm, f/5.6, 1/50, ISO-2000, Hand-held Hi Res Mode

Zoo / Captive Environment

Compared to unrestricted natural settings, there is a significantly higher use of smartphones at zoos and in other captive environments. There also is a good number of dedicated camera users in these facilities. As such I think this subject category represents a potential growth opportunity for dedicated cameras.

The manufacturers would need to actively market to this niche by educating consumers on the advantages provided by dedicated cameras including image quality, reach and lower light performance.

A turning point with this subject category would be helping consumers transition from a passing or modest interest in nature photography into something more serious.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-1250, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 6.9 metres

Birds-in-flight / Nature (Moving)

This is one subject category that has very little threat from smartphones. It represents one of the best growth opportunities for camera manufacturers for both cameras and lens.

Bringing more cost affordable, as well as higher end telephoto lenses, to this market segment should help fuel sales growth. The increasing interest in nature, green technologies, and environmental sustainability mentioned earlier, all contribute to the growth potential of this subject category.

It is also an area where the camera companies can bring innovative technologies such as Pro Capture, enhanced subject tracking, and subject recognition to their products. These technologies would make it easier for consumers to successfully photography wild, moving subjects.

More baby boomers reach retirement age every year. This brings potentially new prospects to the camera market as these newly minted retirees have the time, and potentially some hobby dollars to invest in camera gear. As photographers age, the need for smaller, lighter camera gear will also increase.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-640

Interpersonal Sports

On a personal basis I have virtually no interest in following interpersonal sports such as hockey, baseball, soccer, football, tennis, cricket and other similar activities. Many other people are huge fans and dedicate a good amount of their time to watching sports in both outdoor and indoor venues.

This subject category is well suited to dedicated camera use. Unfortunately many venues do not allow, or restrict, the use of cameras. Potential growth in this segment, at least at the consumer level, is held back because of the policies of various venues. Developing small, lighweight cameras with good reach and continous auto-focus capabilities may be one way to build some inroads into the segment.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/16, 1/2, ISO-160

Concerts & Performances

This is another subject category that could represent good potential for dedicated camera use. Unfortunately many concert venues have very restrictive polices about camera use. Performers also have their own concerns in terms of the potential theft of their intellectual property. Other than making small camera bodies with good reach and low light performance that would pass current camera size restrictions, there isn’t a readily available solution.

Motorsports & Aircraft

Like bird/nature photography, this is another subject area that draws a high density of dedicated camera users. Bringing new technologies like Intelligent Subject Tracking, improved auto-focusing performance, and cost affordable telephoto lenses to the market can help grow the use of dedicated cameras. This is also an area where smartphones are at a disadvantage.

Summary

The camera industry are in for more years of challenge, especially as various economies struggle to regain their momentum. Luxury goods like cameras will likely lag other product segments in terms of making a sales come-back.

There are some growth opportunities for camera manufacturers, mainly with moving subjects in outdoor settings where smartphones are at a disadvantage. The future of cameras may have nothing to do with sensor size but rather focusing on attitudinal shifts in society towards green technologies, environmental sustainability, and ultimately an increased interest in nature. Developing products for existing users at the professional and enthusiast levels may help near term sales and profitability, but it may not be sufficient to bring new users into the camera market. Without new users, the camera market will continue to erode over time.

Technical Note:

Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Most images were produced from RAW files using my standard process. Some of the photographs displayed are jpegs produced in camera.

Olympus OMD-E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/50, ISO-500, subject distance 300 mm, handheld focus stacking used, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post

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14 thoughts on “Future of Cameras”

  1. Hi Tom
    Chapeau! To my knowledge, you are the first, who starts his analysis with a graphic like yours! I think, all those gurus with their calling for more and more features (after they just got more of them in a new camera that is) are put to shame. Work of genius!
    As an oldish landscaper (you might remember), I am content: As long as I can carry my gear, I do. Most probably, succesivelly I have to downgrade from the current MF to … We shall see.
    My second passion is analog B&W – no new cameras there 😉 Maybe the lockdown led the folks to look through their homes and put old stuff in the net. So I was able to broaden my analog gear very cheaply (Leica at last!) 🙂
    Btw the state of the industry is not that bad – for me it is the question of the time window. I do not have the numbers, but would not be surprised, if they would show that numbers of -say – sold Nikon F2s at the height then were not much lower than Nikon D850 or D6 today. Change from analog to digital as a slight disturbance in the eternal run of the world so to speak 😉
    Stay healthy, have a nice time and ideas like the one above!
    Regards,
    Robert

    1. Hi Robert,

      I happen to have some older statistics published by CIPA. Back in the 1970’s the number of cameras shipped was increasing and ranged from 5.48 million in 1970 to 13.391 million in 1979. The final year when only film cameras were reported in 1998 when 36 million film cameras were reported. The transition to digital cameras started being reported by CIPA in 1999 when 5.088 million digital cameras were shipped compared to 33.879 film cameras. By 2008 CIPA stopped reporting on film cameras, so the switchover to digital didn’t take that many years.

      It is interesting to note that in 2019 a total of 15.22 million digital cameras were shipped… so volumes of digital cameras are already at less than half of what film cameras were back in 1998.

      Thanks for sharing your perspectives… I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

      Tom

      1. Hi Tom
        Thank you for the figures. I must admit, I am surprised. Probably because cheap cameras never interested me and – I take it – those are the ones replaced by smartphones. Top models from Nikon, Canon, Minolta were renewed only every 6-7 years or so, therefore I think it was a pretty stable market. The world keeps changing for sure and we do not know much about it 🙂

        1. Hi Robert,

          I took a look at 2010 specifically. This is the year that fixed lens digital cameras peaked at 108.6 million units. Interchangeable lens cameras that year were at 12.9 million units. By 2019 the fixed lens camera market had collapsed to 6.7 million units. The interchangeable lens camera market declined to a far less degree coming in at 8.5 million units.

          These statistics really show the impact of smartphones on the fixed lens camera business over a 10 year period. The camera companies will really need to focus their R&D and marketing efforts to survive.

          Tom

          1. Hi Tom
            Thank you for the information. It was not quite as I feeled, but roughly… Of course, there are other factors which should be taken into account, e.g. growth of population, disposable income, changes in the technology etc. You are right, camera companies have to find their markets to survive.
            Sometimes I ask myself, where is it all heading. Technologically things will come, which can and probably will change fundamentally everything. Occasionally such things occur. E.g. Kodak made their mistakes, but they just could not change from say a film company to smartphone company. And should they be able to do so, we – photographers – would criticize them during the process of such change for leaving us abandoned. Why, because we do not know where the road goes.
            For my time horizon only Hasselblad and Nikon should stay with us for a couple of years 😉 That’s all I want, even that I do not really need, my gear cabinet is full 🙂
            I am leaving now my camper in the mountains and heading home. Culling and postprocessing! Have to learn so much…
            Have a nice time and stay healthy!
            Regards, Robert

  2. As a senior citizen, smaller cameras are my key to photographic survival (physically that is). Cell phones made point and shoots paper weights. Camera manufacturers have to produce cheap, small, and advantageous cameras that cell phones can’t equal. Or else, the camera business will shrink to those who can afford it or those that can make money from it.
    Thanks for another interesting article Mr. Stirr.

    1. Thanks for adding to the discussion Lewsh! I agree that as seniors age, and as more baby boomers reach their senior years, having smaller and lighter camera gear will be the preference for many of them.

      Tom

  3. Tom,

    I am writing this with the Covid 19 pandemic in mind — the area of sports (especially indoor, enclosed courts) and live events/concerts/performances are not feasible now and in the near future. Events photographers here in our part of the world are groaning because of loss of income and the rather dim prospects. Pre-pandemic, they were already impacted by the already low (and decreasing further) fees they were getting.

    It would be interesting where camera makers will go next (is the low end of the market still worth pursuing? or will it be niche-ing like what Olympus is doing?), and where the profession is headed (survival of the fittest/most financially well-off).

    Oggie
    http://www.lagalog.com

    1. Hi Oggie,

      It will be interesting to see the mid to longer term impacts of COVID-19 on a wide range of businesses. For example, international travel may never come back to its pre-COVID-19 volumes, especially if travel insurance companies exclude COVID-19 and other future viral outbreaks from their coverages. I understand that some have already excluded COVID-19 from coverage. A permanent reduction in international travel would impact many national economies significantly.

      My personal view is that the low end of the camera market will not be worth pursuing for most camera companies as the market continues to shrink and cell phones further improve their photographic capabilities. Action cameras of various types would survive as they have some unique characteristics. In Nikon’s rather bleak year end 2020 financial report, the company indicated a need to take more of its product mix upscale.

      To a large extent the future of the commercial photography market will be impacted by shifts in consumer buying patterns in terms of distribution channels. For example, if more consumers opt for online shopping this will significantly erode the need for higher end product photography done in studios. After all, how much image quality is really needed for an online catalogue? It would also reduce the need for larger format images currently used for point-of-purchase displays in retail stores.

      I do see some potential market growth in the production of videos for use with online shopping portals. Many consumers will want additional product insights beyond a few photographs. This is likely an area that professional photographers should investigate and develop skill sets with which they can address this opportunity.

      There is already a shift underway in Canada to ‘virtual conventions’. The impact on large public ‘for rent’ facilities, hotels, restaurants etc. will be huge. For example, over 70% of the convention business in Canada is centred in the Toronto area.

      I think it is prudent for professional photographers to start to think about how they can transition more of their business into virtual services and products… and consider doing more of their own online marketing for their work. The fees earned from stock photo services remain low with little prospects of rate improvements.

      Interesting times for sure!

      Tom

  4. When traveling, I tend to wear my camera gear. I have a vest into which I stuff batteries, wipes, chargers and even a small lens or two. So far I have never had a problem at an airport (except for the pain in the rear of going through the TSA, and having to remove all my gear for scanning). I leave the longer lenses on the cameras while going through check-in.

    1. Hi William,

      Rules for carry-on items must vary by airline and country. I’m not sure that we have that option in Canada. What would you do if you were travelling with two cameras fitted with lenses if you were told when going through security that you could only bring one carry-on item?

      Tom

      1. So far I have not had that problem. It is not a “carry-on” item, it is a “worn” item (like my camera vest, or a woman’s purse). However there is no guarantee that the policy won’t get changed on me.

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