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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65 Comments

Reginald Walton's picture

Well I get that, but it's like the mobile phone industry, how long are you gonna keep buying a new phone each year? Sales of smartphones are down as well. At some point, you'd think people wake up (like me) and realize that you don't need to buy a new gadget every year.

Thomas H's picture

Of course. Its the "growth market" versus sustainable market.

After the saturation has been reached, only those who need or want the next generation product, will upgrade to the newer gadget. Thom Hogan called it already several years ago "the last camera syndrome". The pixels, low light ability and so on, appear to the user "good enough." No incentive to jump to a different device. Phones and and cameras alike. I am getting new phone only when the core memory gets too small.

In addition, the camera industry corrects for the "digital bubble." In the beginning millions wanted to have a digi cam, now the phones fulfill the role as the ever ready camera with a direct distribution system (online posting.) Consequently demand for the dedicated cameras declines to the numbers needed by demanding photographers. Maybe even to a number lower than the film cameras. No surprise here, Canon predicted even further contraction by 50% till the bottom will be hit.

On the other had if you can afford a new smartphone every year, then why not?

Why not? The environmental costs alone should deter you.

Joe Van Wyk's picture

In the last month or so there have sure been a lot of these ominous articles about the state of affairs of camera tech and the photography industry. I have posted about the insecurities I have faced about my fledgling professional photography business. My outlook and strategy has changed, and my ego is deflated. God bless you guys who still have promising photography businesses and see many years ahead of a solid niche and revenue.

These articles are getting tons of activity because all of us avid photographers, whether pro or not, see the writing on the wall. The low end camera market is toast. Smart phone/ AI tech is exploding. "Great" photos are still rare, but "good" photos are abundant.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: Shame on camera companies for being so conservative. Why not give us the connectivity, computational power, and editing possibilities of a smartphone combined with superb optics. Kind of like the phantom Zeiss ZX1 (even this falls short because it doesn't have cell connectivity).

My wife and I are going on a bucket-list vacation next month to San Francisco and then Yosemite. I am seriously considering bringing only my new iPhone XS Max. and my little Freefly Movi gimbal, and seeing what kind of storytelling I can do with just those two tools.

Daniel Medley's picture

IL cameras have historically been a niche product for pros and enthusiasts. Back in the day, there were more point and shoot Instamatic type cameras floating around than SLR or other IL cameras. Always.

What we're seeing now is the market morphing back to what it has always largely been, a niche market. Smart phones are the new point and shoot cameras.

I'm not concerned.

Jay Galvan's picture

You are a smart man! You would have written a better article.

Spy Black's picture

The whole industry is dissolving. Preproduction, production, and post production are in upheavals. It's not just cellphones killing it, automation is part of the problem and operations looking to cheapen production by hiring non-professionals. You laugh at AI today, tomorrow interns will be doing all your work with push button AI tools that make all the decisions. About the only winners you'll see are the likes of Adobe and robotics manufacturers. Sounds crazy, right? You'll see.

Joe Van Wyk's picture

No. It doesn't seem crazy. If you mean that the traditional photography industry is dissolving, I suppose I agree. At the very least it is a radical shift. What businesses desperately need is storytelling social content, and that is an opportunity for me. I'm far from a master at visual storytelling, but I'm learning and it is really fun. The bottom line is that really good image-producing tools are in the hands of infinitely more people. Software is making things like laborious retouching a thing of the past. As you say, "push button AI tools" are rocking certain highly-skilled niches.

I for one am 100% certain and totally confident that I have no earthly idea where all of this is heading!
:-))

Tony Northrup's picture

It's still a competitive marketplace. Canon might decide that it doesn't need to be a tech leader, but I don't think they'll be willing to fall too far behind and eventually give up the entire camera market to Sony. Add up potential lost revenue over the next several decades and I'm sure it makes sense for them to stay in the game. They need to innovate only enough to maintain their lead, and it's generally much cheaper to be a tech follower than a tech leader.

Joe Van Wyk's picture

Howdy Tony. Do you guys do commercial work/content creation for clients? I'm sure your social channels keep you slammed, but I was just curious if you are also doing content work for others.

He and his wife talk on their social media outlets about doing commercial work. Tony also does drone work.

Anders Madsen's picture

Hmmm - does the argument about being a follower rather than a leader still hold when everyone but you are using sensors from another supplier?

I mean, Canon still has some of the finest glass available for the general population, but their sensors have been lagging for years now. Also, I suspect that their processors are not exactly top notch either - if they are, why the need to crop so heavily when doing 4K video?

I'm not saying that Canon is dead or about to die, but they really need to step up their game and start showing some real development. Right now existing users and their glass is keeping them in the game, but give Sony another three years and things could be very different.

Ah, the infamous smartphone enemy... last summer there was that lunar eclipse which I photographed from one of the bridges in Frankfurt with my little Olympus OM-D EM-10 II. Weather was great, and there were droves of people around. Smartphones may be great, but an awful lot of smartphone owners noted that my pictures looked great wheres theirs were crap. Several asked how much it cost, some even photographed my screen with their phone because they couldn't get anything decent with their phones! I have seen numerous such situations. Maybe manufacturers should send some photographers out there where there are crowds looking at fireworks, give out free night or kids portraits at funfairs or God knows what other popular thing that's a bit tough to get a good picture of with a smartphone and have prospective customers see for themselves what the difference is. I am pretty sure that would have a bunch of people figure out a basic APS or MFT kit you can have for substantially less than some smartphones would be a clever investment.

and the lunar eclipse picture I mentioned above, made with a Laowa 7,5mm f/2 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/133903476@N07/41900627140/in/dateposted-public/):

" Several asked how much it cost, some even photographed my screen with their phone because they couldn't get anything decent with their phones!"

Little did they know that they could buy a long zoom fixed lens camera that would come pretty close for less money for a phone or a DSLR. Eclipse night was overcast here (as always!) but I've done some frame filling moon shots with a Nikon B700, basically a phone style sensor with lots of glass in front. This is what the public should be made aware of. $500-1000 is a lot different from 4-5K (or more if you want a really long lense)

(BTW, some phones have a dedicated fireworks mode which actually works quite well)

At current tech levels, realistically only professionals with very high performance requirements will actually need full frame, but quite a few would like more lens capability than a phone.

[Actually I have a 4/3 in the attic.But the B700 has so much more range, without swapping lenes, that' it's my go-to]

"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."

As a Canon user, I attribute it to the fact that the last Canon Oh-Wow introduction was the 5D2 in October, 2008. As long as Canon makes incremental improvements while their competitors leapfrog over them, this trend will continue.

Ryan Davis's picture

I’m still shooting the 5D2. Canon’s given me no compelling reason to upgrade, and I’m getting desperate for one.

Wes Jones's picture

Ditto. My 5D2 is my stills camera and my A73 is for video.

When I was shooting weddings in the pre digital days using medium format there was no real competition from point and shoot cameras.
Actually this is a good thing for professional photographers.
Trained professionals will get more business while others will go onto other hobbies trying to masquerade as professionals.

David Love's picture

No reason to buy a new camera if it's not much of an upgrade from the last model. Maybe innovate and stop inching by for profit.

Eric Salas's picture

Well since nobody else is saying it... the decrease is sales is greatly because Canon released cameras that don’t compete with the current ones already on the market. They gutted their “ground breaking” mirrorless entries instead of doing what they promised.

Which is exactly why I said that if you buy the new camera bodies from Canon with recycled sensors and gutted firmware, you’re part of the problem with the company.

David Pavlich's picture

Sorry...until the other camera makers build something that does better than my Canon to fit my needs, I'll stay with Canon. My guess is that other Canon users say the same thing. There isn't enough improvement when one considers the whole package to sell stuff just to get a little bit better performance.

And, since there isn't a mirrorless camera made that would make me happy, I'll be sticking with my current camera. Sony is a miserable thing to hold, Nikon and Canon have much better in hand feel but only one card slot, and even though the new Panasonic FF offering looks like it would be a comfortable camera to hold, its overall package compared to Canon is a long way from becoming attractive.

I do no video, so that has no influence. So, considering Canon's reliability, excellent lenses and accessories, and the best service in the industry, I'll continue to be one of Canon's 'problems'.

Eric Salas's picture

I have nothing against my Canon DSLRs, they’re great cameras and I haven’t sold mine. Their mirrorless options are stuck in 2015 IMHO.

Unless you invested in their “new” technology, you’re not a part of their problem because they’ve already begun the breakup process with you and your beloved Canon DSLR.

David Pavlich's picture

I am quite sure that Canon will continue to service my 'beloved' camera for a long, long time, although, it will probably never need to be sent back to Canon as they make very robust camera bodies.

Now, I didn't say that I would never go to a mirrorless camera. I may have jumped to the R had it been equipped with two card slots. When Canon produces their 5DIV like mirrorless, I will seriously consider it because Canon has such a great lens collection and Canon saw to it that their current EF collection works seamlessly with the new body.

From my readings, it seems that the EF lenses actually focus better on the new R body. Or, if my photo piggy bank supports it, the new RF lenses are very, very good. Canon will be just fine.

Eric Salas's picture

Your second paragraph states exactly what my point is. They did give you a Mk4 but they gutted the firmware.
You agree with me in both of your responses but you’re still defending them for whatever reason.

David Pavlich's picture

I like Canon. I've gotten nothing but terrific results and the excellent reliability that I want. I also like the D850, but there isn't a good reason to sell my equipment and buy new, especially from the financial standpoint. From where I sit, there isn't enough difference in performance to warrant the expenditure.

You say the firmware is gutted, but I'm not sure where unless it's video and as mentioned, I don't do video. The video option could be removed and I wouldn't lose one second of sleep.

Patrick Rosenbalm's picture

Pretty much my sentiments too David. My Canon gear does what I need it to do and is reliable. I do agree that they need to up their game in some areas but there isn't enough difference for it to be worth it to me to sell off and change systems just because another company makes a little better body.

I'm mainly an "enthusiast" / hobbyist that makes a little money from it now and then and my needs don't require the latest greatest nor does my budget support it. Especially to "teach Canon a lesson" by switching brands. And I'm sure that there are a lot of others out there like me. Some people, like Eric, just can't seem to accept this. It's not a "fanboy" thing. It's simple needs and wants versus economics and using common sense.

Patrick, it is unacceptable that you are using gear that fits your needs. Listen to Eric. He will TELL you what you need! Switch now.

Patrick Rosenbalm's picture

I know. Shame on me. Now if Eric wants to buy me a new system I'd be game for that!! LOL!!

Eric Salas's picture

It’s not about anyone saying what you “need” or even what is best for you. This argument is about being completely subjective with what each company is doing to progress the profession/hobby and delivering what they are promising publicly.

Canon and Nikon have not done that.

What did Nikon “Reinvent”? Definitely didn’t reinvent mirrorless as the ad claims.

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