Canon's Dramatic Drop in Sales is a Sign of Something Much More Ominous for Photographers

Canon's Dramatic Drop in Sales is a Sign of Something Much More Ominous for Photographers

The rise of smartphones has left many professional photographers wondering if their services have a future. However, it’s now having an impact on the industry in ways that many might not have anticipated.

The digital era has brought a twofold transformation: more people are able to create acceptable images with technology that’s in their pocket, and fewer images are required at print-ready quality. This double-edged sword has meant that while there are more images than ever, the future for photographers seeking to make a decent living from image-making is feeling increasingly uncertain. What few have realized is that this also has serious implications for the big camera manufacturers; the market is changing, sales of interchangeable lens cameras is all but falling off a cliff, and this will have an impact on how companies develop new products and bring them to market.

The smartphone doesn’t just threaten the future for professional photographers; it also threatens the technology that camera manufacturers are making for professional photographers to use.

This is already being demonstrated by Canon’s recent announcements for the first quarter. The Japanese giant just revealed that sales of their DSLR and MILC cameras have fallen by almost 20% in the first quarter of 2019, prompting them to reduce their sales forecasts for the year by over 14%. The company's new report also explains that Canon expects the camera market to continue to contract for the next couple of years, a trend that they attribute to the ever-increasing performance of smartphones. Trade friction between China and the U.S., the depreciation of the Euro, and economic slow-downs in China and Europe are also factors.

Among these worrying figures and revised forecasts is something that should make professional photographers sit up and take note: how Canon allocates its resources is starting to change. “There is a portion of the market that will remain,” the report states, “serving the needs of professionals and advanced amateurs.” However, it continues: “At the same time, we are taking measures to shift our business focus toward B2B, expanding our business sphere to automotive and industry use.”

While this sounds like a subtle shift, for a company as conservative as Canon, this may prove to have profound implications. Canon is a huge company producing a massive range of products, a portion of which are the consumer and professional-level equipment used in the camera industry. If the consumer camera market is contracting, Canon would be wise to invest its resources elsewhere, and this will have a knock-on effect on its capacity to innovate and the speed at which it brings new products to market.

As professionals, the changes won’t be felt immediately; what seems likely is that the incredible evolution that has been seen in the last ten or fifteen years will slow down. As noted by this insightful TechCrunch article, we’ve reached a plateau in terms of sensor technology and the next major steps in terms of progression will come largely through software, not hardware. We’re already seeing this happen through features such as autofocus performance, and camera companies will be seeking to optimize their return on software development in order to remain competitive.

Canon's downturn in sales and the industry's response to market trends mean that the mirrorless leap might be the last significant evolution of hardware that we see for some time. Innovations will continue to happen but they may no longer arrive as rapidly and at a time when smartphones will continue to offer ever-improving performance. The shift does not prompt the likes of Canon and Nikon to spend more money on developing new products; by contrast, they will become increasingly conservative, a change that may have more serious implications for Nikon given its smaller range of market specializations when compared to Sony and Canon.

The Sony a9. Its first iteration was something of a game-changer. The Mark II will almost certainly pack much less of a punch.

The Sony a9. Its first iteration was something of a game-changer. The Mark II will almost certainly pack much less of a punch.

As professionals, we may have to get used to a rate of change that is significantly slower than what we've experienced in recent years. While this poses problems for the broader industry, there may be some unforeseen consequences. For example, this may be of benefit to many photographers who will suddenly feel less pressure to upgrade given that improvements in features seem incremental rather than revolutionary. A slowdown in technology might be kinder to our wallets, even if it comes at the expense of technological progress.

Whatever lies ahead, it feels that 2018 was a significant year for many reasons and the future seems increasingly uncertain. If you have thoughts on what the coming years hold for the camera industry, I'd be grateful to read your comments below.

Lead image is a composite using a photograph by Max Baskakov.

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Eric Salas's picture

Exhibit B ...

They mean the revolution started 6 years ago or does that mean bandwagon because they couldn’t deny mirrorless is the way the market is heading?

Just two examples of factual evidence provided by the two companies dragging their feet and lighting wallets on fire.

One thing the TechCrunch article skips over is information. A zoom (or IL) actually changes the available information to the sensor. Expanding the information as the focal length increases doesn't just fake it like computational engines, but adds detail that could not be captured by the sensor with a shorter lens (obviously the short lens adds information on the periphery, but that's another story).

Sometimes when doing statistical analysis, researchers have to simulate data that's missing. Carefully done, and in small quantities can often be tolerable, but it must not be relied on for a conclusion. Quite a few scientific studies had to be retracted because of artificial information. The same situation applies to computational photography, and it's here that the author over plays his hand. You can only fake it so far.

My personal feeling is that the ideal sensor size will ultimately be smaller than FF (which was really based on the limitations of film years ago) and phone size sensors. FF is too large, and has long signal times which slow down reading speed, also silicon that large is enormous and difficult by microelectronic standards. But on the other hand the size constraints of phones limit the capacity of their lenses to produce high volumes of information.

Phones will be popular because they are so incredibly convenient and not half bad. But the typical working camera of the future will be larger, but not THAT much larger.

New technology is already here to make the next massive jump with regard to megapixel technology. The guy who invented the CMOS sensor has recently created a new version that is amazing. Once it becomes ubiquitous we will all look back at what we have now and be amazed at how limited we were. Quanta Image Sensors will disrupt everything and it will be a sea change at its finest!

In order to entice photographers to upgrade to newer cameras with minimal feature bumps, you can expect to see the focus on creative marketing increase. Those with a level head can see through all the hype of unnecessary features. Most others will buy thinking it will make their photos exponentially greater and soon realize that they've wasted their precious money only to throw it back at the next snazzy marketing campaign for a newer model.

Jon Kellett's picture

The sky isn't falling until Nikon and Sony start reporting double-digit slumps. You can take any Nikon slump with a grain of salt too - They're just as guilty as Canon of incremental updates for too many years.

That really is the primary cause of Canon's troubles. How many times have you seen people decry the quality of Canon sensors (DR or high ISO performance)? How tiny is the improvement in image quality with each new body?

Sony, Panasonic and Fuji came and ate their lunch. Canon (and Nikon) fumbled the wheel as they tried to steer away from the looming iceberg of mirrorless. Their first products look nice and handle nicely, but are less capable than their competitors - Why?

Both Canon and Nikon have what it takes (financially and technologically) to release cameras that should make people look at the alternatives and laugh, yet they are still trying to protect their DSLR range. It's as if they half expect mirrorless to be just another fad.

I know that mentioning Sony will get some hate and probably comments about weather sealing or user experience - I don't want to hear it. I don't like Sony, but obviously millions of photographers (from amateurs to very well off professionals) do. If the tool works for you, great. Same goes for CaNikon. For me though, I was amazed at how much happier I was after ditching Canon - Even though I did lose thousands.


Ryan Davis's picture

They may in fact think mirrorless is a fad. Kodak didn’t really figure out digital wasn’t a fad until their stock price was 17 cents a share.

Brandon Ericksen's picture

Considering the rate at which they are developing lenses for their new mirrorless mount, it’s safe to assume that they are taking mirrorless seriously. As for why the first mirrorless Canon bodies are so limited, perhaps they don’t want to put all the bells and whistles in until they’ve been thoroughly tested. Canon is known for rock solid reliability.

Ryan Davis's picture

I'd be more inclined to agree if they hadn't essentially re-released the 5d mkiv in an inferior body, removed the mirror, and called it the EOS R. If you want a replacement for the quality level of the 5d series, there simply isn't one out there. Body and weather sealing issues can't be ascribed to testing. They've had this stuff for decades.

John Johnson's picture

That's pretty much my position on Canon. Lackluster innovation leads to lackluster sales.

Nikon already reported a double digit slump. They've been taking it much harder than Canon has recently, and have restructured to try to stop the bleeding.

Terry Poe's picture

Changes in the photography camera industry are long overdue. Interoperability and standardization have totally evaded the industry. Just imagine what open mount standard, operating system platform with open SDK could do for photographers? Sooner or later the change will come in the form of software defined camera built around the open platform together with app marketplace just as Android ecosystem and probably built on Android OS.

New camera sales are down. DSLR sales are losing to mirrorless. Used camera sales? I think that is down to. So I suppose used camera gear will drop in price to. In Norway a used Sony FF 28-70 kit lens sold for 350 a year ago, now it sells for 200 straight from the box. Good or bad? I don't know but surly for those who stick to DSLR there must be a lot of good trades coming up. I suppose a flood of second hand gear will not help new sales either.

Florian Brand's picture

The tools may change, but it still takes skill and dedication to create great images. Composition, story telling, light,... Taking pictures was never easier, editing today as far easier as in the dark room days. compact film cameras didn’t kill photography when they replaced large format ones, digicams didn’t kill it and neither will AI assisted smartphones.

Art and business will adapt. People who fail to and rely on old skills will be left behind as carriage drivers when the automobile was invented though.

I so agree with this.

James Morris's picture

Digital photograph itself just made photography even more 'easy' than the last technical shift, this is just the end play of that technically advancement, ever since photography was invented people have complained about how it will ruin the market, painters said it was the death of their art form, we still have painters albeit less and more specialised, when it moved form glass to film and people complained then it was now too easy and that everybody was ruining 'photography'.

With digital it's the same argument, with smartphones it's the same argument, each technical improvement makes photography more accessible and shifts the market, but eventually the market will balance out, those that can find their place in the market will continue to make great images.

James dewet's picture

I fully agree with Daniel Medley. The current market of ongoing upgrades like the mobile market has become unsustainable both from a production and user point of view. Today's cameras has done very little in the past 5 yrs to improve IQ. Yes the capturing experience might have seen a lot of technology changes, but are they any better? have they improves images, to pay a massive premium every time a new camera is launched for 1 fps increase in speed, more focus points, new ML body etc is unsustainable. Sony used product market is a disaster as their used bodies are worth nothing, Nikon and Canon is in a major discount phase with their new ML bodies, Why?? because the traditional N and C users have tested the ML technology and found it wanting. dumping a perfectly good DSLR to buy a ML body that offer nothing more than smaller size, slower auto focus, jittery EVF an poor battery life, sorry it does not make sense. So me like many others will just continue to use what we have until they offer something that is worth the extra money. And sorry to say but Sony is not the saviour of the industry. In film days we bought a Camera body and shot it for yrs. They were tools, not instruments of status with bragging rights. Lenses were our pride and joy and they key of our investment. Now people buy 46 and 50 mp bodies and the cheapest lens they can afford. No wonder a person with great photography skills using a mobile phone produce better images then the "i have a D850 with a crappy lens".

Maybe C and N needs to be smaller, reduce the range of camera's, Produce specialist equipment and become lean again. Look at Fujifilm.

Jan Kruize's picture

When you can make a shitty image with a dslr you can make one with a smartphone too. When youre a good photographer the difference will be visible...... very visible.

Ryan Davis's picture

Ascribing the first quarter drop in sales to smartphones sounds a bit like executives engaging in some CYA to me. I'd be more inclined to believe that this was due to something extra muros if Nikon and Sony had reported similar drops (Nikon dropped, but not by 20%, I can't be bothered to untangle Sony's stats fromt he rest of the biz). Even if it is some ambiental thing that's outside of Canon executives control, why smartphones? The smartphone's replacement of the lightweight point and shoot happened years ago, at this point the economic effects on Nikon, Canon, and the usual suspects are, I would imagine, largely played out.

The drop seems curiously focused on Canon. I wonder if it is because people like me, who would normally be upgrading right about now, are thoroughly confused/annoyed/mystified by the products Canon has rolled out.

Even if you are exactly the kind of consumer that's in Canon's bailiwick, that is to say, a stills shooter that already owns a lineup of Canon gear, there isn't much out there that's attractive. I'm shooting an 11 year old Canon (5d mk ii) that is still competitive in most ways (for travel/landscape at least) with their "flagship escort" 5d Mark iv. The ISO isn't as good, but that's about it (I dunno, maybe the 5d mk iv has a higher burst rate, but I think I've shot bursts maybe a dozen times in the last decade, so I haven't been paying attention to the fps rate). The ISO isn't 3500 euros better. The 5Ds has better resolution, but If I'm going to drop thousands of euros to upgrade, I'm not going to do so to go to a camera that has an ISO range that was obsolete 3 years before it was released. I've been waiting for the 5ds mk ii. And waiting, and waiting and waiting.

Specifically I was anticipating that the EOS R would be a mirrorless version of the 5ds, but with better ISO. Instead it's a 5d mk iv in a crappier body- apparently with deliberately crippled video capabalities- again, that's not my thing, so I haven't been paying attention to that, but it wouldn't surprise me. They know how to make a decent weather sealed magnesium alloy body for a non-pro price point. They did it with the original 5D. That was 14 years ago.

Sooooo, I'm still waiting. If their next release before the end of the year is the mirrorless 5ds with the very sames sensor they had 4 YEARS AGO, then I'd actually buy it. I am going to go ahead and guess that there are a lot of folks who would have bought the EOS R, if it wasn't such a turd. I suspect that much of that 23% drop is people who are still waiting, and that should they release a non-turd in the near future, they could make that gap up.

I doubt they'll do this. The latest DSLR release from Canon, whose name I can't be bolloxed to remember (Rebel Ti something/Canon Irgendwas 50D in Europe, the Eos Crapjitsu in Asia?, I have no idea) is now selling for 199 euros in Germany. I guess the world wasn't thinking to itself "I'd love to buy a DSLR, but there just isn't one that's shite enough on the market" after all.

I really hope I'm wrong. But I'm probably not.

I lived through the end days of Kodak. My grandfather worked for them. My father worked for their chemical division for thirty years. I did my summer jobs during college at the Eastman. So I had a ringside seat to that super slo-mo trainwreck.

Canon's camera division has got that Kodak smell.

It is the amateur enthusiasts that are running the show, in culture in art science media politics philosophy education commerce industry just about everything. The professionals my look at this and say, “There dumbing down everything!” There may be some truth in that, but everything is becoming accessible to most everyone, and that is increasing substantially every year.
Raise your hand if you remember what is was like before the internet. Those individuals that remember that are dwindling and will be extinct in short order.
There are many examples of the ‘Amateur’ taking a stand joining with others (online) and changing policy changing minds changing the rules of who gets to speak up. Some of the most striking events was the ‘National School Walkout’ where Thousands of teenagers protested against gun violence across the U.S. effecting companies like Walmart and other retailers to change their gun policy. After the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the ‘professionals’ were unable to put out reports as to how much radiation was released and where it was going. A group of amateurs came together on the internet and where accurately and expediently able to report this vital information. That group, still amateurs, still monitors every nuclear plant around the globe. These are just two of the many amateurs working together to affect change.
What does this have to do with photography? The vast majority of photographs out on the internet are taken by amateurs, and more and more are set at ‘creative commons’, available to everyone. The need for professional photographers is rapidly dwindling. That can be seen on YouTube with all the Pro Photographers making that a part of their revenue stream, teaching the amateur and enthusiast how to take a better picture and how to improve skills.
I am an enthusiast. I have more than a few cameras and lenses. I support professional photographers, those I like and respect, through their books and tutorials as best I can within my budget. I am happy to go out and shoot the events of my friends but I also remind them to hire a professional.

Josh G's picture

I used to worry when i would see these -the sky is falling- articles. My business hasn't really been hit by the advent of cell phones or mirrorless (i shoot DSLR). Business has actually increased because of otherwise "out of the know" business owners who want the types of pictures they see on SM for marketing purposes... and i don't live in a city.

The great thing is that you can still tell the difference between a professional photo taken by someone who knows light, composition, and settings and someone who is in full auto on their cell phone or entry level shooter.

insert age old saying >>at the end of the day, it's not the gear (to a certain point) it's the photographer.

Alex Yakimov's picture

Whatever may happen, will happen. It's just the way life is. I love photography. I believe that our ultimate goal is to reach other people. People require a sense of connection which could probably be simulated by advanced AI. Still, knowing that the work, however imperfect, is done by living and breathing human being is priceless. So, there is ​hope for all of us after all.

Ed Sanford's picture

How many new things does one really need? Maybe if innovation is slowing down, we can take the fine tools that we have and continue to make the best possible pictures that we can produce...

Soolim Go's picture

BCN+R reported that Canon EOS RP sales nose dived from 35% to 15% from March to April . Canon needs to realized that it is better to canibalized their own product (such as DSLR) with a competitive mirrorless ILC than to have Canon customer defect to Sony.

There are very few of us whose ability to take superb photos is limited by our equipment, so a slow down in innovation is unlikely to do anything to harm image quality. Indeed, we may even see an improvement as we might concentrate on fully exploiting the capabilities of what we have and will not have to keep learning to use new equipment!

John Johnson's picture

I have a feeling Canon's drop in sales is due to Canon's long-stagnance in the marketplace. I shoot a 5D MKII still and am not excited by much that has come out since. I shoot underwater and I have to ask myself, "Can I justify paying $3,000 for a camera body and then another $3500 for an underwater housing? Can the difference in cameras make up $6500 in value?" The answer is repeatedly "No". I have the latest, greatest iPhone and Portrait mode is a nice gimmick, but it's not the reason people are ditching Canon. Canon's offerings are the reason people are ditching Canon.

35 mm film cameras went for 50+ years with mainly incremental changes. The slowing down of the rate of change might not matter all that much by itself. What will be interesting is to see if some future technology supersedes what we think of as "photography" today.

Campbell Sinclair's picture

I dunno , I am a a semi pro who shoots equine events a lot in Australia , I still sell photos. Mobile phones have so many limitations and trying to capture action shots with them is disastrous. The photos are awful. They buy of me.

The camera market is far too conservative and doesn't think out of the box.
I can use my dji osmo pro or dji osmo mobile to shoot a video, make simple edits on my smartphone and upload it blazingly fast. I can take raw pictures on my phone, edit them and post them all very quickly.

Try doing the same on our cameras. The functionality and ease of use for most young people isn't there.

I see what's coming as correction. And yes it would be uncomfortable but in the end it would be all ok.

Owning a SLR during film days wasn't as common as it is today. Even during the start of digital era, professional cameras were only in the hands of professionals. But then things changed. And as more and more people owned interchangeable lens cameras, many of them started getting seriously interested in photography.

But things are now shifting.

Because for the general public, in the end convenience wins and quality becomes secondary. Smartphones are convenient.

And many of them are guilty of not using their fancy DSLRs much.

So what I see is photography industry will be the way it was initially.

A serious photographer with a certain degree of skill, even if a hobbyist would not switch to a smartphone. And we all know the reasons for that.

Good photos that tell good stories will always have value. And also good photographers. And they would make a living too.

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