Photography isn’t about photos anymore

The current state of the camera industry — very large black boxes that younger generations are shying away from.

The state of the photography industry is equal parts grim and wonderful. On its face, the statement doesn’t make sense. But that’s what’s actually happening — Photography is experiencing a Renaissance of sorts through the smart phone. Many people that would never consider themselves photographers are now embracing the label, the hobby and the profession.

So where does that leave the titans of the industry that built up digital photography in the first place? Currently, in limbo.

The number of photographs out there is growing, but according to the Camera and Imaging Products Association, the sales of cameras that are used to take those photos aren't:

Source: CIPA

Thom Hogan, a photography industry pundit breaks down these numbers in a more explainable way on his news/views site: Total interchangeable lens camera sales worldwide fell to 9,300,160 in 2016, down from 16,798,834 in 2012. Digital Single Lens reflex cameras, or DSLRs (the big black boxes with interchangeable lenses that are based on older film camera designs), fell to 6,880,641 in 2016 from 13,755,522 in 2012.

Canon and Nikon, arguably the two biggest names in digital photography, were the Henry Fords of their industry, bringing the craft to the masses. Canon made the first affordable (sub-$1000) DSLR, the Rebel, in 2003. Since then, however, the industry has not innovated. Cameras are faster. They have more resolution. They do a little bit better in low light. But they are not fundamentally different from the cameras 15 years ago, or the film cameras before them. In that the car still has four wheels and a steering column, digital cameras have not strayed much from the original formula.

Companies forecast for different optimistic and pessimistic scenarios when planning for future products — but there’s little time for forecasting left when the disaster scenario is here — DSLRs, the bread and butter for Canon and Nikon have lost half their sales in four years. Some different thinking is needed.

The Light L16 (Courtesy: Light http://light.co/) — A smart-phone shaped camera with 16 imaging pipelines and something called “folded optics.” A step in the right direction, but doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of a separate device.

A few outliers, like Lytro and Light, tried to capturing images in new ways. Lytro used cutting-edge technology to capture images that could be refocused after-the-fact, and Light uses multiple lenses and sensors to build an image. But both of these efforts missed the point.

Smart phones have a gobbled up camera sales not because they are better cameras than DSLRs, but because they are more convenient. According to a 2015 Imaging Market Recap report from The NPD Group, there were 4.4 billion active camera phones in use, and that photo and video apps were the fastest growing category in app stores.

Young people don’t want to be bothered with taking their photos off the camera, putting them onto a computer, editing them, and then uploading to the web. According to a 2015 Mobile Imaging End User Study by InfoTrends, 93% of 1297 respondents in a survey said they share their photos through their phone. They want to take a photo and have it online instantly or instantly enough right on the thing they took the picture with. That’s where the manufacturers are failing. They haven’t even hit the “instantly enough” bar.

Let’s look at the current state of connectivity for cameras from major manufacturers. Canon has eight separate apps on Apple’s app store just to do individual functions such as take a photo, shoot a video, or transfer a photo to your phone. Nikon has the same number, and had the added issue of not having iPhone apps ready at the launch of some popular cameras. Their old iPhone app would not interface with their new cameras. Panasonic has three imaging apps — one for point and shoot cameras, one for newer mirrorless style cameras, and one for older cameras (would it be too much to ask to merge these seemingly similar apps?). Fuji’s app, did not work properly with iOS 10 until less than a week ago. Confusing much?

Worse, many of these apps can’t interface with RAW format photos, meaning professionals who shoot this higher-quality format are out of luck getting their photos online quickly until they get to their home computer to make an edit. Why not include the functionality to work with RAW photos right in the app? Another case of camera manufacturers making it difficult for end-users, and thus causing their sales to further slide.

So, the situation on the software front is grim. But even if it was not, it would miss the point. All of these solutions from the camera manufacturers are difficult to set up and still require the intermediary of a smart phone to get your photos online. To reach that bar of instantly enough, camera manufacturers have to build connectivity straight into their cameras — there should be nothing keeping a person from uploading a photo to Facebook near seconds after it was shot with a camera that costs much more than a smart phone.

The camera manufacturers are not blind to this fact. They commissioned high-powered research firms (such as NPD or InfoTrends) to tell them what people are doing with their photos in their phones and their cameras, but the wheels of corporate culture turn very slowly. None of these problems have been rectified yet in a meaningful way.

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My son will likely never warm up to these big, black, picture-taking boxes.

Where is it all going? In an age where today’s youth have never even heard how much better a CD sounds compared to the MP3s they have now, the same can be said of cameras. Convenience wins. I’ve taught at recent high school camps where the only cameras that these students have known have been the ones built into their phones. Some have vague memories of their parents using an actual camera, But they don’t see the benefit at the cost of convenience. The best camera is the one that’s with you — and for these young folks, that means a smart phone.

Smart phones have already decimated the sales of point-and-shoot cameras. In the 2015 NPD Imaging Market Recap, the study found that “We haven’t hit the bottom yet” for the point-and-shoot market and that there are “no convincing signs of turnaround,” in an industry that went from $375 million in 2013 to $175 million in 2015. DSLRs are next. In addition to smartphones, there are now photographic wearables such as the Snap Spectacles that make photography easier than ever, even if the quality is more MP3 than CD. The future is headed in one direction — good enough.

Point-and-shoot camera sales are going down each year as people use smart phones instead

Photography originally started out as a science — the first photographers were fascinated by getting chemicals to react to light on paper. As the barriers to entry lowered, artists staked their claim on the practice. Now, the barriers are even lower, and so the craft has moved from art and journalistic documentation, to communication.

These thoughts were summed up perfectly by Snap’s CEO, Evan Spiegel in a recent Wired article. “People wonder why their daughter is taking 10,000 photos a day,” he said. “What they don’t realize is that she isn’t preserving images. She’s talking.”

Young people don’t take photos as art or documentation — taking photos is akin to typing out a text, or talking to someone. It’s become that ubiquitous. Not recognizing this is a fatal flaw for any company making a dedicated imaging device.

Writing was once a difficult task — you had to get one of those feathers and a bottle of ink. You had to really want to do it. Now, writing with a pen is as simple as breathing air. The act of photography is going the same way — except that DSLRs are still quill pens while everyone is reaching for the Bic (smart phone) in their pocket.

In economics, there’s a theory called the “Kondratiev Wave” — think of something that look like a gently rolling series of up and down curves that look like hills and valleys — that explains periods of recession and periods of expansion that can last about 50 years or so. In its own way, photography undergoes the same process — A huge wave of film photography, that then dies (or is still dying) a slow death. A huge rise for digital photography, that in its original roots of film photography, is dying. Next up is smart phone photography — you won’t need it when you’re wearing a camera in your necklace, or have one woven into your shirt. Photography itself never dies, but the way in which it is accomplished does, only to see a rise in a new way of doing things.

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For camera manufacturers to merely jump into adding frictionless connectivity to their products is shortsighted. Frictionless connectivity is already here in the smartphones people carry and the Spectacles they wear. No, to merely add connectivity would simply bring the Canon and Nikon — the major players in this industry — up to 2016. If they want to make it to the next century, they’ll need to look a lot further.

The advertising and news industries are learning the hard way that they have to play where their customers are — whether that’s native ads in Instagram or sponsored content on Facebook. Similarly, the camera manufacturers can no longer force their rather large devices (or even the small ones) on a public unwilling to carry them.

Even in 1994, reporters in “Star Trek: Generations” were using wearable cameras, no big black boxes and lenses.

Let’s take a look at where the world is heading — demographically, the world has reached more than 6 billion people, according to Edward Cornish’s book, “Futuring: The Exploration of the Future” — and it’s only going up. Smart phone use has gone up accordingly, especially in the developing world.

Canon once had the opportunity to develop the camera for the original iPhone — but it passed on the opportunity because Apple wouldn’t let it control the entire imaging pipeline. Pride cost the company a chance to get a major piece of the financial pie that is the iPhone. Instead, Sony’s enjoying that, according to the same NPD Imaging Market Recap report from 2015.

But the iPhone’s not the only player. Many manufacturers run Google’s Android platform, or Microsoft’s Windows platform. Almost ten years since the iPhone and Canon still won’t stamp their name on a phone and provide lenses or sensors to these devices that have clearly won the wallets of buyers because of worries about image quality and a dilution of their brand name.

News flash: More people will know the name, and they won’t care about the image quality — which will be better than what’s being used now anyway. The time to do this is while a name like Canon or Nikon mean something to people. Kodak’s already missed the boat on this — the youth of today have no idea what a Kodak moment is.

That’s a stopgap solution. Canon and Nikon are in a unique position to harness their imaging prowess and apply it to a number of industries. Both are making inroads into medical imaging, and Canon has been tinkering with virtual reality while Nikon adds 360-degree video to its stable. These are all good moves, but to stay ahead of the game, both companies need to look at where there will be a need for sensors and lenses in the future. That means anywhere that anyone will need these things — not just DSLRs and dedicated cameras, because in due time, no one will need them anymore. People don’t want new devices. They don’t want to carry around an extra thing. Truly frictionless means the cameras are just there — in devices that are used unconsciously.

Take a look at some upcoming legislation — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has announced that all new cars must have a backup camera as a standard feature by May 2018 — the key word in there is backup camera. Those cameras will need lenses and sensors — and who better to provide them than companies that know what they are doing? If you look at the difference between the backup cameras on a Mazda vs. a BMW, you’ll see the value of a good camera in this tech.

But again, that’s short term — what else is coming in the pipe? Self-driving cars are poised to make a big splash — another opportunity to integrate these cameras into technologies that will help these vehicles identify and navigate around or through obstacles. More need for lens and sensor technologies that play to the strengths of these companies.

And wearables — you can’t get much more frictionless than something that you wear all the time. How did Canon and Nikon miss out on being part of the buzz of the two biggest names in this category so far — Snap Spectacles and Google Glass? Both of these things had cameras in them, after all, and it’s not a leap to think Canon or Nikon could have muscled their way into talks to build imaging pipelines for these. That should be on the top of the priority list — figure out who’s making what kind of wearable, and get a Canon or Nikon imaging system built into it.

The point is — these companies need to stop thinking of themselves as camera companies and start thinking of themselves as a we’ll-lend-our-technology-to-anything-that-makes-a-picture-or-video companies. Sony does this to great success already, farming sensors to other camera companies (in some cases, to Nikon and Canon even) while also making their own cameras. Canon and Nikon need to think outside the camera box and license their tech — while they still have the cash flow to invest in tech — to things that they aren’t fully in control of, but need imaging technology. They need to harness the technology already within their stables and apply it to new and emerging fields, not just follow what other companies did and hope it sustains them (sorry guys, Olympus beat you both to the medical imaging market years ago).

Cameras will be ubiquitous — from helping people play video games, to targeting people that walk by with advertisements, to logging life from a shirt collar, to being a set of digital “eyes” for someone who can’t see — this is where society is heading. While the need for dedicated cameras will decrease, the need for imaging will be on a constant upswing, as all corners of the tech world will call for it.

Canon and Nikon have been producing great cameras that have allowed countless photojournalists, artists and hobbyists to capture their memories and images. But it’s not enough for the companies to keep playing their greatest hits over and over. It’s time to loosen the reigns of control, and allow themselves to be woven into the fabric (literally and figuratively) of other companies and industries — so that at least the technology will be used indirectly in some way to keep the profits up. And perhaps those increased profits will allow them to keep producing some more hits in “real” cameras — only as a sideshow instead of the main attraction.