12 Weeks of Christmas: 9 Facts that Show the Demise of the Digital Camera

12 Weeks of Christmas: 9 Facts that Show the Demise of the Digital Camera

The emergence of digital cameras has had a truly democratizing effect on photography, so why then are they on the verge of disappearing? Here are nine facts and figures (largely working from CIPA sales data) that might explain why.

Film photography is a wonderful thing — the chemical wizardry that goes in to producing film and then, after exposure, developing it and printing it are truly magical. There is something utterly wondrous about watching your image slowly appearing in a developer tray. However the technical requirements and skill needed to produce good quality imagery were high and put those with the skills in demand. Kodak managed to bring photography to the general public, although it was still an expensive activity and for that reason participation rates around the world remained relatively low.

In one fell swoop digital photography entirely removed these technical barriers to image production, instead shifting expertise to the computer manipulation of imagery. At one end of the spectrum there is full blown Photoshop processing, whilst at the other there are simple download, rotate, crop, sharpen, and brightness adjustments, with printing the final outcome. Digital cameras first sold in significant numbers in 1999, outstripping film camera sales by 2003 which all but disappeared from sales in 2005.

Fact 1

Digital camera production peaked in 2010 at 120M digital stills cameras

Fact 2

Digital camera production in 2018 totaled 20M, a reduction in sales of 83% from 2010

That is an astonishing collapse in sales however it's pertinent to see where those sales came from.

Fact 3

In 2010 only 13M units were DSLRs, compared to 11M today

This highlights digital camera manufacturers' foray in to the "pile it high, sell it cheap" mentality — 89% of those sales were digital compact cameras and, as rapidly as they expanded, they imploded. Those companies that bet on the point-and-shoot consumer camera market lost — for example Kodak, Minolta, Vivitar, and Yashica all had significant investments in this area.

Fact 4

The last time camera sales dipped below 20M units was 1984

This highlights another key pivot point in the history of the camera market with two important developments. Firstly, manufacturers began producing digital cameras, with Fuji releasing the first fully digital model in 1988 in the form of the Fujix DS-1P. Secondly, the point-and-shoot market began to dramatically expand with consumers willing to spend more on photography and the cost of cameras and processing greatly diminished.

Fact 5

Sales of film cameras peaked at nearly 40M in 1998

By any margin, this is a successful market that managed to double the number of units sold. Camera manufacturers went from high ticket price peripheral items to everyday consumables that people desired. In the same way that the digital camera was the precursor to the death of film, is the smartphone the death knell for digital cameras? Sharp introduced the J-SH04, the first mobile camera phone, in 2000 and, remarkably, by 2005 there were sufficient numbers of camera phone sales (as recorded by Gartner) for inclusion in world camera statistics. As noted in Fact 1, the production of digital stills cameras (excluding smartphones) peaked in 2010 and has been in free fall ever since.

Fact 6

Smartphone sales peaked in 2018, totaling 1.5B units

As Petapixel reported, graphing CIPA sales data show the growth in photography since 1947, the dramatic increase in digital stills cameras, and the collapse from 2010. Incorporating smartphone sales in to the chart shows how this latter sector exploded from nothing in to the huge global market that now exists. Yet this should not be surprising — we call these devices smartphones, yet whilst the form factor may have originally started life as a phone, they are really computers. For that reason they have been able to take on the capabilities of a plethora of dedicated devices such as cameras, PDAs, music players, gaming platforms, and GPS trackers to name a few. These figures show the success of the general computing platform.

Fact 7

Canon predicted a contraction in DSLRs from 11M to 5M units within 2 years

This bleak outlook was delivered in January this year and was clearly a pre-cursor to increasingly difficult trading conditions for the market leader because in April they announced a 23% drop in camera sales from 2018, including an 81% drop in operating profit. Of course, it's difficult to read in to Canon's specific position but what Canon does is important for the whole sector.

Fact 8

Over 1.2T photos were taken in 2018 and this is still growing

Dedicated cameras — as we have understood the market for over 100 years — have irrevocably changed. However this hasn't altered our innate attachment as humans to photographs — more than ever, we want to take, share, and consume images. That trend just keeps growing inline with the number of people and their access to smartphones.

Fact 9

Fuji sells four times as many film cameras as digital

Remarkable as it may seem, Fuji's analog business is booming — more specifically it's instant print Instax business. Yes, instant film is back because it's instant and... well, because it's not digital! The ability to print, keep, and share images is popular with consumers. Not only does it sell four times as many Instax cameras (about 6.5M units in 2016) but it's print business had a turnover twice as big as digital cameras. It's no surprise, given it's printing expertise, that Canon is getting in on the act.

Where do these facts and figures leave the camera market? The obvious question, looking at the CIPA sales data, is what is the natural sales level of dedicated digital cameras?

With the low-cost, low margin, compact camera market all but finished sales are increasingly focused upon mirrorless and high margin items. For example, Sony can point to the full-frame a7 and super-compact RX100 lines as clear indicators of this strategy. With Fuji, they are pushing X-Series APS-C and medium format to distinguish themselves. Of course, if you are in the silicon market manufacturing sensors (as Sony is), then business is booming with manufacturing for all those smartphones. And the likes of Leica have transferred some of their engineering excellence in to very small form factors. For these companies, diversifying their expertise in to new camera sectors is critical. But what happens to the "traditional" market? How much lower will sales dip before they level off? Is it 5M units per year as Canon suggests or possibly lower? Will this mean fewer manufacturers, less choice, and higher prices? Is the future the death of the digital camera as we now know it?

Lead image a composite courtesy of Xavier Romero-Frias via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons. Body image courtesy of FranckinJapan.

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13 Comments

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I think the price of ink and home printing is very repulsive and incapable of evolving. That aspect alone is probably not helping selling cameras so the next best thing is storage in a phone to display images or social media.

Timothy Gasper's picture

My God. We haven't even truly finished with the demise of film cameras and already someone's talking about the demise of digital. What's next....just blink our eyes at a subject and it automatically sends binary logarithms, or what-have-you, to our computer for PP if we so choose? HEY........

computer generated images like landscapes but even AI produced models. they can do it in movies and now on your desktop.

Sophie Charlotte's picture

Where can I buy the eye blink thing? :D thats the ultimate in surreptitious photography.

part is due to smartphones getting very capable. a different reason is saturation of the market and manufacturers not bringing something revolutionary. but if camera's out there are getting fewer and fewer, where are all the second hand lenses. ? i could do with a 300mm, 400mm or 600mm. i already have enough megapixel and i have something that takes video in slowmo, i wont be needing a new camera for the next three years. what revolutionary are they going to try to sell me this christmas. ?

Leica‘s business is booming don’t tell them the market is falling out. Fuji’s CEO said he doesn’t know why all the manufacturers are panicking as Canon and Nikon make more money now than in the 90’s and 2000’s. Lens’ sale is incredibly profitable and at an all time high in revenue production.

Fact 10. You don't know what demise means or can't think very deeply.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Just like every new technology you get the boom and the drop. It's the same with phones, they've reach the plateau and have been in decline. The only way to sell more phones is to scratch the idea that they are luxury items. I don't see this happen but with billions of phones sold, manufacturers have to deal with their own greed, a problem they sure created themselves.
Honestly, Im for a more realistic camera market because we don't need more of this: https://fstoppers.com/news/videographer-admits-hes-over-his-head-brides-...

It's much easier to lose or break a mobile phone or its screen than a camera, especially a sturdy one. Also, ordinary users never cram the memory cards of their cameras with the rubbish -- videos, photos, thumbnails, files, browser history and apps, both removable and preinstalled, etc. -- that reduces the ability of phones to work properly. So two years, and the phone is hopeless, and it's time to get a new one. Not the case with cameras.

Sophie Charlotte's picture

Of course digital low end cameras are dropping sales as the people in the socio-economic class who used to buy them are happy with what they can get on their phone. Phone sales are hardly likely to drop, more like plateau as everyone who wants/ needs one will have one, and then buy a new one every few years or whatever.
'Real' cameras won't be practically superfluous until phones have their capabilities. And they will never be completely eradicated, just like film photography and listening to music on physical records. When they're practically superfluous they have their own vintage charm.

When everyone has a crazy capable point and shoot camera in their pockets, capable of digital photo editing, posting, sharing, and printing (with a wireless printer), I feel that most cameras are kinda superfluous. Growing up in the 90s, nearly everyone had a point and shoot camera with a zoom lens. It was rare you saw an amateur with an SLR, and I had no idea what a rangefinder was until I was older. Seems as though things haven't changed much.

Film is finished. But everybody already owns a digital camera. It’s called a smartphone. That’s the only reasons DSLR s are tanking. The future of the Japanese manufacturers is at professional and pricey prosumer categories.

Film is dead. Long live film! But on the digital side, maybe these numbers explain why Leica is doing so well in digital. If a phone is a good enough digital camera for most, those wanting something more might want something extra special, not just some mass-market camera. And whether you think Leicas are, in fact, special or not, they're branded them as such, and that branding works (or is right now)--and all companies have to move product through branding.