Have you seen how the sales of cameras is shrinking? A 24% drop in shipped cameras worldwide in 2018, which just follows the trend of the last years. The shipped cameras last year were about 20% of those sold in 2010 (meaning there has been a reduction of 80%). And while the market for cameras and lenses is shrinking, the price is going up (as you might expect). Don’t criticise Fuji for raising the price of their film when the whole of photography is becoming a niche market.
It’s mobile phones wot done it, of course. Plus that most people want a picture, not a camera. It’s like electric drills: what you want is a hole, not a drill. But you can’t buy a bag of holes (and if you did, the bag would be empty when you got back from the shop). So a drill is the necessary evil to achieve holeness.
In years past my parents had a camera. It came out for occasions and holidays and when the prints came back from Boots they would typically have a Christmas at each end and a summer holiday in the middle. My parents didn’t care about photography: they just wanted pictures. My mum still brings up the school trip I went on when I took the family camera and came back with pictures of bins. I thought it was art: my parents thought it was a waste of money.
I think my parents were typical of most people. What they want is a convenient result without the faff. If someone has a smartphone with them there is no need to go looking for the camera, find a battery or charge it, and that whole fumbling foreplay that makes you wish you had just stuck with a good book and kept your socks on.
And smartphones are becoming increasingly capable. Why would you spend the effort and money in trying to find a good camera when, for the times you need one, you have one in your pocket?
So high-quality cameras that can take different lenses always were a niche item, and now they are becoming a niche within a niche. And if a manufacturer has to spread the cost of research and development across fewer sold items, those units are going to increase in price.
A few weeks back we were staying with some friends. Their younger boy was making slo-mo videos of the dogs jumping for thrown footballs, or lying on the ground to take pictures of one of the dogs running towards him. He didn’t need a better camera than his phone. He was experimenting, then immediately reviewing the results, learning and adapting his methods. The results were fantastic, and a direct result of throwing away everything he started with. This kid stands to be a great future film-maker and a traditional camera would only have slowed him down or made his parents nervous of what he was doing.
So what is happening with the cameras themselves? Feature-bloat. We are very clever monkeys, and we constantly learn how to make things better, faster and cheaper. What started as exotic rapidly becomes commonplace. In other technology areas such as computing we have Moore’s law to express how we keep innovating. [As an aside, this is why one could get annoyed at things like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones: we are supposed to accept a society that has remained pre-industrial for hundreds or even thousands of years? I highly recommend The last Ring-bearer by Kirill Eskov as an antidote.] Where was I? Feature-bloat. When your camera/ TV/ car becomes too complex to use to its full potential, you are paying a premium for what the marketing people think will sell.
It works though – we do like shiny. It brings bragging rights if your car can do twice or more times the national speed limit, your watch has more hands, your camera can make toast. There used to be a great advert for the Citroen 2CV that played on this. They said it was faster than a Ferrari (because at its top speed of 72mph it would easily overtake a Ferrari doing 60). It had central locking, but only because the driver could reach all of the doors. There is something to be said for the Russian approach to cameras (and tanks) that what it doesn’t have can’t break.
On the other hand, there are some people who will use the extra capabilities. I can’t see myself needing 30 frames a second, or even 14, but there will be people who do. So I can only hope that there is a more basic model in the line-up so I’m not paying for what I don’t need.
So where is my whinge taking me? Technology marches on, both because we can and because it encourages us to buy the new thing. But the camera market is shrinking, so the costs of development have to be recouped from fewer sales and prices must rise. The camera market is shrinking because people want pictures and not cameras and there are more convenient alternatives. I’m told you can even use a smartphone to make phone calls.
What’s the alternative? By all means buy cameras, lenses and film. This is the only way that the manufacturers will continue to make stuff. I can’t afford to chase upgrades and shiny, so I fully expect that the end is nigh for the types of camera I might buy. I could wish that one of the big makers would bring out a simple model with basic features that they would sell and support for multiple years into the future, but where is the margin for them in that? Within a month a competitor will have brought out a similar model with one extra feature, or the manufacturer themselves will have brought out a MkII model and made the first one worthless. Incidentally, I wish more of them were like Pentax who announced an upgrade path for the K1.
So this effectively leaves me using the cameras I have until they break or buying second-hand kit as the owners move on. At least I can take some comfort that my buying of secondhand kit allows other people to buy new. And there is nothing wrong with an old camera – what was great five years ago is still great and older mechanical stuff can still (while the skills still exist) be repaired, so I can ignore the braggers. Remember: comparison is the thief of joy.
I’d better get used to being a recursive niche though, and learn to use my smartphone camera better.