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