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So, why are -you- taking photos these days?

evaluating a new camera at a trade showThe challenges, technical and inspirational

Several years ago, there was a major shake-up in both the business and hobby of photography, as digital displaced film. Camera sales figures for the start of 2013 are now showing a precipitous drop. What's the future for your photography? :-)

Keith looks at this and other changes in technology and wonders what it means for the average photographer, professional or amateur.

This article also includes a comments section at the end (powered by Disqus) that's new for the site.
The views expressed here are Keith's personal ones...

Some numbers

I'll not go into the detailed sales information numbers [CIPA report Aug. 1 PDF], since their interpretation and deeper meaning is an art in itself, but some simple observations can be drawn.

CIPA Global numbers Production Production (vs. 2012) Shipments Shipments (vs. 2012)
Total cameras 29.6 million - 45% 29.7 million - 43%
Built-in Lens 22.4 million - 49% 22.2 million - 48%
Interchangeable Lens 7.2 million - 24% 7.6 million - 18%
• DSLR 6 million - 23% 6.3 million - 18%
• Mirrorless 1.2 million - 29% 1.3 million - 18%

It's been widely discussed that compact camera sales have been massively hit by the ubiquitous phone camera.

decline in camera salesI'll put aside my reactionary attitude of rarely having a mobile phone with me and note that the quality of photos has long since passed the 'good enough' point of most people who casually take photos of the usual selection of relatives, drunk friends, and their cats.

The real point that I noticed, was the hefty drop in DSLR shipments. These are, almost by definition, used by more 'serious' photographers.

The change is well shown in this graph (from an excellent look at the numbers, by Thom Hogan)

The decline in compact cameras has been going on for a few years, and whilst there is some element of the world financial downturn in this period, the downward movement in interchangeable lens cameras (mostly DSLRs, with some mirrorless) is I suspect, not a temporary blip.

Long before I took up photography for a living, I used to do research and consultancy connected with new technologies and how people use them. The changes in sales for the compact cameras look very typical of those associated with one technology overtaking another.

This has happened to different technologies over hundreds of years, but with appreciably shortening timescales. Look for example at the lifetime (volume sales) of the LP record, compared to the Compact Disc.

The classic model of technology adoption (after Rogers) covers the uptake of novel ideas, rather than their decline when superseded. It's worth noting that when a new technology reaches a certain level, the decline of its predecessor can be quite abrupt, with positive feedback coming from manufacturers quickly trying to leave the sinking ship.

I recall writing in 2003 that there would still be film widely available for 'many years to come'.

Sure, it's still available but finding somewhere to get it processed or printed has become problematical, a lot quicker than I thought it would. That said, I'm still expecting to see regular 'resurgence of film' articles and news items for some time yet ;-)

See also

Ever decreasing technology gains

How much better is your latest camera, and what would need to be improved to make you replace it?

A simple enough question, but it assumes that everyone makes rational purchase decisions and is immune to the 'if only I got a better camera, my photos would be better' effect.

crowds at a camera show

  • The Focus trade show in 2008 - In 2013 it was announced that it would not run any more. Several of the large camera dealers, such as Jacobs [yellow text] are also no longer trading. The photo, below right, shows one of the many stalls selling gadgets and gizmos - in this case a continuous ink system for desktop printers [Focus 2010].

On this site I write a lot of reviews of new equipment and software. Like most reviews I'll cover the technology and what it does, but it's also important to try and cover 'why' you would want to use something. It's not just about something new, but what you can create with it.

Whilst I was writing a recent review of Canon's iPF6400/6450 printer, I was asked about what was so different about the new model? From the point of view of someone with the previous model, probably not a lot. For there to be something noticeably better, there would have had to be something poor or missing with the earlier iPF6300 model - which there wasn't.

That doesn't mean that if given a choice I wouldn't go for the new version, just that I might not want to upgrade from one to the next.

stall, selling photography related items at a trade show When it comes to cameras, I'm still using the Canon 1Ds Mk3 (from 2007 - see why below) .

Could it be that DSLR owners are deciding something similar and putting of new camera purchases? Maybe they are just buying new lenses.

But who are these DSLR owners? Why does someone buy such a camera in the first place?

In an interesting article (see below), Kirk Tuck looks at the decline and argues that a large 'techy photographer' contingent has run out of technical challenges and that we are in for another period of change in photography, in many ways larger than the film to digital changes.

Does the lack of technical challenge in making good photos (with DSLRs) really remove the reason that so many people take photos in the first place?

How much does the technology, and mastering it, provide the underlying reason for much of your own photography?

I'm reminded of someone at a camera club talk I was giving (about aspects of digital black and white photography), who wanted to know if I'd recommend a particular continuous ink system for a printer?

Avoiding my generic response of 'No', I asked what they printed and (my real question) what they did with all the prints?

It seemed that colour management, profiling and experimenting with different papers used up a fair bit of paper, but actual prints of photos? Nothing in particular, just a few photo albums and a few prints on the walls...

My personal 'excuse' is that mastering the technology makes it easier (and more profitable for the business) for me to produce photos that will impress our clients at Northlight Images. I've long believed that mastering the technology is the key to being able to ignore it for most of my work.

So, I'm doing it as part of my job (OK, I enjoy it too), but what if it's 'just' a hobby? What challenges are there? Why do you go out and take photos?

See also

Share and share and share...

Photography has always been an instant medium - you start mentally processing a visual image much quicker than reading some text (something I regularly explain to people wanting images for company web sites and brochures) but recently, the sheer amount of visual imagery has seen both a rise in quantity (more people carry cameras with them, in the form of phones) and the rapidity with which images can be shown to others.

Gone are the days when you'd invite friends round after a holiday, to see the slide show. OK, it might take the offer of free food and drink to sweeten the deal, but it was still an event. As an aside I'd note that I still have many rotary magazines full of slides and a working projector.

Today's images are shared on-line, or just passed around, on the phone or iPad, to look at.

The 'more serious' photographer may use Flickr or some other photo sharing service and pass photos all round the world for comment.

Others may use Instagram or other services to add personal 'enhancements' or 'processing' to their shots. More photos to pass around and maybe receive comment?

I use Google+ for displaying some of my own personal images, it's a great place for me to experiment with new techniques and find what people are interested in, but in a way all this 'Social Stuff' just isn't real.

An image may get critical acclaim, but from whom? What is the real value in lots of remote strangers saying how good something is? Is it really about sharing photographs, or is it more about sharing your life?

What are the photos for? Has the ease of capture and then the ease of adding a 'filter' of some sort, changed the way we look at photos?

Have you ever wondered why some of the big 'internet photography stars' are so highly acclaimed? ...You are not alone, so have I ;-)

One of the minor difficulties about being a pro photographer is that people show you pictures and ask you 'what you think'.

Now there are a number of possibilities here... They could be wanting a genuine technical and creative critique of the image and its presentation.

However that's exceedingly rare. I know this since I sometimes ask if that's what they want ;-)

More likely I'll ask something about the photo and move the conversation along. If they persist in asking for a critique, and confirm that's really what they want, I'll try and give my views in a helpful way.

I note that whatever the outcome, vastly more social capital is invested in the process than ticking a 'like' box.

Coming back to what set me off on this track, what does a potential decline in the 'serious camera' market mean?

If it presages a significant change in the camera market (and do note that's not certain), then it's going to change a lot of aspects of the hobby and professional sides of photography.

Working photographers

As a working (aka 'Professional') photographer I see a flood of photography all over the place, resulting in a change to how images are valued. It's up to me to sell my creative abilities, to produce images that can really work for a client's business.

There is no shortage of would-be professional photographers, any of whom can spend a bit of cash and produce technically competent photos.

One of the upshots of this has been the increasing number of people thinking they could work as a pro photographer. I note that in Kirk Tuck's article, he's confident that as more people get back to real jobs, the numbers looking for such a career change will diminish - I'm not so sure.

My own belief is that even if your photo business works in relatively specialised technical areas, it's going to come down to your levels of business acumen and adaptability, that keeps you trading. There are plenty of people out there with the creative skills to take good photos, and with cheap kit and powerful software, why shouldn't they?

If that causes problems for working photographers, then tough, it's a sign that we need to change. Simply wishing things away or looking down our noses at some of the efforts that are praised to the skies by the clueless masses, won't actually work ;-)

One of my reasons for all the testing and experimental work that I do is to try and keep ahead of the curve in many technical areas of photography, it's one of the things that helps power my creative abilities.

  • On an industrial product photography job - most times you don't get to work in a studio, with full control of lighting and backdrop. Professional photography is usually about getting the results the client wants, not what inspires you.

I've enough experience of the business to have witnessed the serious shake out of professional photographers who didn't adapt to the digital way of doing things.

I suspect many just didn't anticipate the rate of change - it could be even quicker this time...

See also

Photography as a hobby

As I've asked several times, why do you take photos? It's often not such an easy question to answer.

My own photography started as a hobby at school (in the 1970's), where I learned all the basics of focus, exposure, and depth of field, along with the basics of (B&W) film developing and printing. I've had several different careers, but that interest in photography, along with my business and management experience was what led me to set up Northlight Images.

  • 1975, the midwinter sunset at Stonehenge. Ektachrome slide film, Russian Zenith SLR.

Many hobbies are about a personal mastery of skills, in some, those skills are used for an additional activity, in others it is the skills themselves that count. In the past I've known several people who've built their own cars. Once finished, they took them out a few times and then sold them to make space for the next project.

Where does your photography fit in this? I know from my occasional talks at camera clubs, that there are a lot of people in the technical mastery category (I still do it myself in some ways - it now helps earn me a living).

The traditional view of 'photography as a hobby' largely points to people who take photos for the sake of taking photos. Cameras tend to be mostly interchangeable lens versions (largely DSLRs) and the advancement of skills is seen as a laudable aim.

  • I note that photgraphy seems a very male oriented hobby - did you see any female presence in any of the photos at Focus, in this article? I'll leave analysis of that one as an exercise for others...

How is the hobby affected by the steady advances in technology we've seen? Well, it's never been easier to produce great looking prints at a reasonable cost. No longer does spending several thousand pound obviously look better than a few hundred.

I've also seen a growth in the number of people making a point of 'going back' to film, citing all kinds of reasons, but as much as anything looking for something new to master in a technical manner (sometimes 'fluffed up' with some talk about 'creative vision' and the like ;-).

Personally, I've no great desire to use film again. Many of its 'qualities' are just what I'm so glad to have lost with the move to digital ;-)

Much as it's easy to deride some of the current flood of imagery as derivative and unimaginative, I'm acutely aware that such photos were produced in very large numbers in the past, but were kept in photography albums, or cardboard boxes and rarely shown.

Just because people now use phones and share everything hasn't actually led to a universal blooming of photographic talent. I'm inclined to believe that there are probably about as many 'reasonable' photographers around now as there ever was. Like many new technologies, the evangelists are a tad prone to seeing 'breaking paradigms' all over the place.

Big lenses always attract the crowds... [Focus, 2008]

So, returning to that drop in DSLR sales...

Have photographers really decided that phone cameras now do all you want, and the hobby side of photography is now too easy and not technically challenging enough? I just don't buy this.

One obvious answer is that new camera 'improvements' are less and less able to persuade people to buy replacements. There will be 'the next big thing' coming along at regular intervals, but it's going to need to be a big improvement to get people to fork out the money.

Almost any decent camera you buy today should be able to serve you well for several years - are we seeing the 'upgrade' money going towards lens purchases - I've not seen lens shipment info, but I know that several manufacturers have been trumpeting their lens production, and the third party lens manufacturers seem to be getting their act together.

The camera companies will search for new markets or try and create them. Expect more low cost 'full frame' cameras to appear, whether DSLRs or 'mirrorless'. Video will be pushed as the feature that photographers want, and just as in still photography, expect to see an awful lot 'shared'. Bad video is almost easier to make than bad photos IMHO, and has the additional disadvantage that you actually have to spend time looking at it, rather than immediately glancing elsewhere.

There will be a hefty shakeout in camera companies, or I should say, the divisions of companies that happen to include cameras in their portfolio.

The 'ever onwards' technology march will continue in different ways. I've seen suggestions that the next 'must have' area of photography will be digital medium format. With good quality 35mm 'full frame/FX' sensors becoming more common, where is the well heeled photographer going to plant their $8-10k?

Next year's figures should be interesting...

©2013 Keith Cooper - all rights reserved

Some more Information - if you wanted to run a photography business

From some of Keith's 'Business of photography' articles

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