Are Camera Sales Really Falling Off a Cliff?

Analyst Om Malik recently published an article saying Camera sales are falling sharply (or, as his first sentence says, “falling off a cliff”). He has charts to prove it. For example:

Chart1

This chart shows the sales of cameras with built-in lenses versus those with interchangeable lenses. The former category is being eaten up by smartphones, which, when you think about it, is normal. If you have a smartphone with a good enough camera, then a fixed-lens camera won’t do much more for you (unless you want a good zoom lens). This said, there are very good fixed lens cameras, such as the Fujifilm X100F, a number of Ricoh cameras, and full-sized bridge cameras; I’m not sure in which category they are included.

Even interchangeable camera sales are seeing a drop, from a peak in 2012 at 20 million units to only 11 million last year. However, in another chart in the article, which takes a longer view, it doesn’t look quite so bad.

Chart2

Interchangeable camera sales plummeted in the early 1990s, but took off in the mid-2000s, when digital cameras started having good enough resolution at affordable prices. If you look at the rise from 2003 to 2012, this is a phenomenal level of growth, one that would be hard to sustain. Yet interchangeable camera sales are still much higher than they were at their previous peak in 1981. It actually looks a lot like a chart of music sales showing the introduction of CDs, to replace vinyl records, then the falloff as people had replaced their music libraries. (I know, it’s not exactly the same, but looking at a short-lived peak thinking it is normal is always a mistake.)

But also look at lens sales in the above chart. They rose steadily in the mid-2000s, and haven’t dropped much since 2012. This suggests that there is still a core group of camera buyers who continue to buy additional lenses, as camera companies improve the quality of their optics.

There are two ways to look at this landscape, and I think it’s pretty similar to the music business. Let’s say that 80% of people just listen to music as wallpaper; and that 20% of people provide the real music sales revenue. With cameras, it’s 80% of people (perhaps even 90%) that just take photos now and then, shooting selfies, photographing meals, and posting to Instagram. They are well served by smartphones. But the other 10 or 20%, either pros or enthusiasts, continue to buy cameras, and especially lenses, and will continue to do so.

There are a few points to consider, however. The first is the fact that camera technology is plateauing as it confronts the laws of physics. You can’t easily but a larger sensor in a camera without needing different lenses. And even then, new features in cameras are incremental, with improvements in, perhaps, auto-focus, video capture, etc., but many of these features are not enough to get people to replace their existing cameras.

When people do replace cameras, the second-hand market is thriving, so it’s relatively easy to buy a used unit of last year’s model at a deep discount. There are many companies that specialize in buying and selling used camera gear, and you can generally trust that what you buy is in good condition.

Of course, the well known malady known as gear-acquisition syndrome (GAS) is prevalent in the photo world, and this is keeping camera companies afloat. If enthusiast photographers all decided to not buy any new gear for a year, the industry would probably fail, so it’s important for these companies to continue to cater to a market where a lot of their income is derived from people buying gear they don’t use very much. That’s probably why lens sales remain so high.

It’s obvious that no smartphone will ever replace a good DSLR or mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses. But they’re not intended to. I think the market is going to shake itself out soon, with perhaps some of the smaller companies giving up on camera sales. But you also need to remember that hardly any of these companies only make cameras. The big four – Sony, Fuji, Canon, and Nikon – all make many other products, notably high-end optical gear, among others. Canon has about $32 billion in sales, Fujifilm has dozens of subsidiaries making everything from cameras to medical imaging equipment. And Sony is, well, Sony; they sell pretty much everything that uses electricity. So none of these companies are necessarily dependent on selling these cameras.

If anything, it’s Leica, the company that makes the camera that Om Malik loves so much, that is teetering on the brink. While Leica’s are excellent cameras – and I still lust after the Leica M Monochrom – they are status symbols. The company caters to collectors, issuing limited editions of their camera regularly. With revenue of only about $400 million, they are a luxury brand, not a real camera brand. But Leica is making a lot of money through their partnerships with other companies, supplying lenses to Huawei, Panasonic, and others. And the company’s biggest growth market is China, which makes their future somewhat risky, given the fickleness of the Chinese toward foreign brands, especially after the company released this ad.

So, as often, it’s not easy to say that a specific market is “falling off a cliff,” but it is interesting to look deeper into statistics. There is a downward trend from an artificial peak, but it may be leveling off.

1 thought on “Are Camera Sales Really Falling Off a Cliff?

  1. A really helpful perspective and a useful corrective to the usual sensationalist doom-mongering, Thanks Kirk. I guess its possible some manufacturers who joined in to exploit the boom may depart now that the plateau has been reached. And that might leave their user community a bit short.

    Re Leica, they often seem to teeter on the brink but have been the comeback masters up until now. Nearly at 100 years of camera manufacture and another half century before that in optics. Survived the nazis, the SLR wave and now staying afloat in the digital area. Still, as you say, not a big enough company to survive a major buffeting.

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