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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Previous comments

Andy, why single out Canon when Nikon is also down approx the same amount and Sony is still to report sales? The entire SLR industry is in decline. Mirrorless is the future and innovation hopefully will mitigate the slide in sales. Canon is latest to the mirrorless party but not the reason the entire industry is in decline. I appreciate the tech coming from Sony, Fuji and others pushing the big two to adapt

Andy Day's picture

I singled out Canon because they produced a press release announcing the change. I said it had "implications for big manufacturers," something that was "demonstrated by Canon". You may be right about mirrorless competitors pushing innovation but if Canon is specifically saying that it will focus on other sectors, it will have implications.

Kevin Brown's picture

I'm guessing older folks will continue to stick with DSLRs like they stick with DVD players but for the future smartphones (should we call them phones anymore?) will rule because of their high cost, multi-functionality and processing power. The better approach for the future of Canon and others would be to create a way to attach the smartphone to DSLR quality glass. Either the camera companies move closer to smartphones or the smartphone companies will move closer to them and possibly deal them a death blow because if I have $1K-$2K to spend on a new device it's not gonna be on a new camera that does just 1 job. Why spend so much money on 2 devices with so much computing/feature overlap??? Time will tell us all.

Mark Bohrer's picture

Reports of photography's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Yes, cell phone cameras have killed the low end point-and-shoot market. But I still have clients hiring me for real estate interiors where a TS-E 17/4L (and TS-E 24/3.5L) render like nothing else, and I can keep all the lines parallel in the camera. Plus the way I light and the ease of working with me please them. So I'm not too worried about the mid- to high-end photography market going away. Granted, I'm not working it super-seriously, since I don't have to depend on it for my income at this point.

As long as there are still lens aberrations to be reduced or eliminated and demand for the best gear, I think manufacturers will stay in the game. Leica was supposed to die several times in their history, but they're learning more every year about how to thrive selling a premium product.

Canon and Nikon could learn something there.