Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Pictures and Cameras

I try to avoid industry commentary, but this particular tempest in a teapot struck some chords, and also inspired a little thinking about larger topics. I hope you don't mind.

Some people, most people, just want pictures. Some people want to possess a camera. Some people like to make pictures with a camera, that is, they want to possess pictures (like the first group) but they also want to have made those pictures. Obviously no single person falls cleanly into one camp or another, each of us partakes a little of each. Still, as elements of markets perhaps, people are primarily driven by one or the other. Let us assume, to simplify things for this little essay, that there are people who want to possess a camera for one reason or another, and there are people who want mainly to possess pictures.

In the 19th century, if you wanted a picture, you went to an artist or a photographer, you paid a fee, and a picture was made for you. If you wanted a camera, well, you could buy one of those as well, starting a few decades into the century. Many fewer people bought cameras than bought pictures. Lots and lots and lots of people bought tintypes. Lots. Many people bought cameras, so they could sell tintypes. A few people bought cameras to possess a camera, or to make art, or something.

When George Eastman brought out his Kodak in 1888, all this changed. People who wanted pictures but didn't much care about cameras could, suddenly, just go take some pictures. 10 cents apiece (3-4 dollars in today's US currency, ouch), and you controlled what the picture was of. You could take a picture of.. THAT THING RIGTHT THERE! It was wonderful. The people who just wanted pictures were suddenly empowered.

Right now there are pundits rushing around yowling about the impending death of the photography industry, or large portions of it. In this way the current times differ in no interesting ways whatsoever from any time in the last 150 years. Still, we can take a peek under the covers, a bit.

I regret that I can't find any sales figures for Eastman's camera. However, in the early 1970s we find that Polaroid was selling in the area of 5,000,000 cameras per year, while Japan is selling in the area of 2,500,000 SLR cameras per year. If we consider the average Polaroid customer to be someone who wants to buy pictures, and the average SLR customer someone who wants a camera, this suggests, very very roughly, that in the 1970s the camera-buying public was actually about 2/3 picture buyers.

More modern numbers from say 2005-2010 comparing compact digital cameras to DSLRs, with a similar assumption, suggest that 85 to 95 percent of the camera buying public is actually buying pictures, not cameras.

All this is complicated by the changing prices of things, opening and closing markets. As devices get cheaper (down to "free" with a cell phone) more and more picture buyers will get into the game, skewing the percentages toward that group. Probably. Maybe.

What does this all mean?

Right now, DSLR sales seem to have turned the corner and begun to decline. This has lead to outcries of the end of the world. The DSLR will be dead shortly!

I disagree. I think that the people who want pictures will all be using their phones in 5 years. Virtually all of them are using their phones now, the DSLR they bought 2 years ago just sits on the shelf. People who just want pictures, even good pictures, won't be buying any DSLRs ever again. So it goes. The heyday of that market has passed. The market will shrink, perhaps to as little as 10% of what it was at its peak. Given that the DSLR market is weighted toward camera people, and away from picture people already, I think the 10% number is quite conservative. Sales will drop, substantially, and then will flatten out as the market is reduced to the "enthusiasts," the people who want, mainly, to own a camera. Then the long tail begins with sales declining year to year more or less to infinity.

Same as it ever was. There's almost always a long tail. The only photographic technology I can think of that it legitimately and completely gone is dry plate, and I'm not sure about that. Everything else remains with us, and shows no sign of ever going away any time soon.


  1. It's possible, even likely, that actual *cameras* will get more expensive, as the "picture buyers" get out of the camera marketplace.

    1. Agreed. I think that, in real dollars, we've been in a kind of weird place with low-end DSLRs. There was an interval when soccer moms bought a low end DSLR since that was the place to go for certain hard to get pictures (action, low light, etc). They didn't want a DSLR, they wanted pictures of the kids indoors, they wanted pictures of the kids playing soccer. Hence, the $600 DSLR+kit lens. Heck, I own one. They're a great deal!