In the first two parts (Part 1 & Part 2) of this series, a recurring cycle of market saturation and obsolescence as the drivers of the Japanese camera industry for the past five decades was clearly seen. The manufacturers relied upon a series of technological advances and clever marketing to combat these repetitive downturns. And as long as they remained the providers of such advances, their position as the standard-bearers of photographic capability remained secure. But in this 21st century, a major disruption has taken place, one that the Japanese camera companies collectively and individually failed to anticipate. Before we look at the magnitude of this disruption and its eventual outcome, let's briefly look at how things have gotten to this point.
The Explosion of the Consumer Market in the 20th Century
For the first four decades or so of its existence, photography was essentially the preserve of the wealthy and truly dedicated enthusiast or professional. Wet plates and a (somewhat ;-)) portable chemical laboratory, to say nothing of the tripod, camera, lens(es), and other accoutrements were a formidable barrier of entry to the unwashed masses ;-). The photographer was responsible for all aspects of preparation, capture, and processing of an image.
With the rapid growth of the middle class in the last quarter of the 19th century, however, and the introduction of "dry" (the photographer was no longer required to manually apply a coat of "wet" chemical emulsion to a substrate) roll film with the Kodak camera by George Eastman in 1888-89, photography began to inch its way towards the mainstream. (Eastman did not invent roll film, but he cannily realized its potential and after licensing it for a few years, bought the patents outright in 1889). The famous slogan "You Press the Button, We Do the Rest" was born. We see here a confluence of technological advancement and savvy marketing that would become a hallmark of the ascension of photography to ubiquity in the 20th century. Preparation & processing, the most odious (to the non-enthusiast, anyways) parts of the photographic process at the time, was now cared for out of sight and out of mind. But photography still was not ready for primetime just yet, particularly when it came to widespread usage by the average person. While convenience had taken a massive step forward, cost was still a barrier. The original Kodak cost $25 USD (with 100 exposures included) in 1889 ($695 inflation corrected to 2019), still keeping photography in a relatively small niche. Reloading was $2 USD ($55 for 100 exposures or $0.55/frame, inflation corrected).
Eastman's goal of bringing photography to the average person next brought the Brownie in 1900 for the cost of $1 USD and $0.15 for a roll of film ($30 for the camera and $4.50 for the film - including processing - in 2019), a remarkable reduction in the cost of basic photography in just over a decade! Cleverly, Kodak reduced the initial cost of the film by reducing the frames per roll to six, making it much more accessible to consumers while still keeping the cost for processing (by far the biggest source of profit for Kodak) a bit more than half of what it was in 1889 (about $0.30 per frame, inflation-adjusted). Together with the continuing emergence of the middle class, a massive expansion of the photographic market took place and photography was "in". Kodak more than made up for the reduction in processing per frame by means of sheer volume of film sales and processing to this vast new market. They would dominate the consumer market for the next eight decades, with advances in convenience being most apparent as their profit margins on these consumables steadily rose through advances in production efficiency and quality control, peaking at around 70% by the mid-1970s. The cameras were a loss leader as Kodak creamed those crazy profits off of film and processing sales. This paradigm held true through the Instamatic era (1963-1988) and only failed as a result of Kodak's technological lethargy (compared to the upstart Japanese), particularly in the 35mm arena, and their failure to keep innovating as far as convenience for the consumer was concerned. With the doomed Disc format and cameras, even Kodak's vaunted marketing could not compensate for abysmal image quality (compared to 35mm) and a poor user interface with the cameras themselves. A failure of execution and marketing. It would not be the last...
Photography for the Enthusiast & Professional in the 20th Century
Now, the photography boom of the 20th century was not confined to the pioneering of the consumer market by Eastman Kodak. Even as the professionals and serious amateurs of the 19th century were decrying the death of photography (stop me if you have heard this one before ;-)), because all of their hard-won knowledge and skill were being handed on a platter to these consumer hacks who couldn't tell their collodion from their cyanide, serious photography was just beginning to spread its wings and reach heights unimaginable to their fume-addled minds. (I find it highly amusing how every generation gets its curmudgeon on when photography becomes more convenient and accessible, and its demise is thus ever-the-more imminent because true art requires, nay, DEMANDS slogging...suffering...slipped discs (from hauling around an adolescent pachyderm's worth of weight in equipment)...and the sacred knowledge passed down from swami to swami...yadda...yadda...yadda.)
Here are a just a few things that were going to be the end of photography:
For the next nine decades real men also didn't use:
until......they did. :-)
For the first half of the 20th century, still photography was the lingua franca of the media. Newspapers were transformed when photography became a necessity rather than a novelty. Whereas the celebrated professionals of the 19th century were predominantly portraitists and landscape photographers, the 20th century was the century of the photojournalist. The men (or women, progress was slow but sure) who brought back pictures from the battlefront, disaster area, or just of everyday life became celebrated as the storytellers of the time. The photo essay became the means by which many people formed their worldview (rightly or wrongly, manipulation of the public by the media is not a 21st century-only phenomenon ;-)). Among serious photographers, photojournalists were held up as the paragons of the art, the role models to aspire to becoming, and the arbiters of what constituted "real" photography.
It was predominantly the photojournalist and the sports or wildlife photographer that fired the imagination of the enthusiast through the last half of the 1900s and through the first decade of the 2000s. And the Japanese camera manufacturers made the most of it, while also seeking to invade Kodak's consumer empire. It seemed that every time Market Saturation & Obsolescence threatened, they had an answer:
The End of the Traditional Camera Industry As We Know It
From the time that Kodak introduced the Brownie in 1900 to 2012, the camera and film manufacturers controlled the photographic market in both the consumer and enthusiast/professional realms. They were able to do so through technological innovation and clever marketing. As long as cameras remained standalone devices, that situation was unlikely to change. But here is why this current contraction of the camera industry will be not only its largest (falling from their greatest heights would tend to have that effect ;-)) but also its last: cameras are no longer dedicated, single-function pieces of technology.
A lot of virtual ink has been spilled in describing the smartphone revolution and its impact on photography. But think for a moment what the smartphone represents for the consumer today. Take some of the most significant advances in communication and media of the 19th & 20th centuries:
Now, combine all of those into a single, compact device that you take everywhere with you and that you can use to instantly interact with a single individual or a massive group anywhere in the world. Although all of this was based on existing technology, the way it has been integrated has made the smartphone more than the sum of its parts.
So if you are a consumer, you now have all of that capability in a single device where you used to have to purchase up to five separate items. The convenience and cost savings are unparalleled. When inflation is taken into account, the $695 USD that the original Kodak of 1889 cost will now get you a smartphone that offers several magnitudes more capability photographically, and that is not even top-of-the-line. And you do not have to wait for weeks to get your images back to share them with your friends and family. So what incentive is there for people that are most concerned about cost and convenience to look at a dedicated camera (whether compact or interchangeable lens is irrelevant) that costs as much or more as the phone they already have, and is slower, heavier, more cumbersome, requires a 400 - 500 page instruction manual (that you often have to download separately) to understand how to use, and still cannot move your pictures where you want them to go with a few swipes of a finger in a matter of seconds? Zero...zip...nada. And there is your explanation for a 90% decline in fixed lens digital sales within ten years from their peak, and a 40% drop in interchangeable lenses and cameras within seven years from their peak. The consumer market belongs to smartphones now, and it is never going back to the camera manufacturers. Why can we say that?
Think of those other four devices that have been included in smartphones. Have the traditional camera manufacturers ever been leaders in those areas of technology? Are they leaders today? Are cameras on the cutting edge of connectivity (Wi-fi, Bluetooth, USB, etc)? Looking at the specs, they are always generations behind in their versions of these basic building blocks of modern communication. There are cameras being currently sold that still use USB 2.0 (nearly 20 years-old and five generations behind state-of-the-art), still use UHS-1 SD cards (four generations behind state-of-the-art), still use a mish-mash of mini and micro-USB connections, while USB-C has become near-universal on most modern electronic devices. What was that word again that always was waiting to pounce on the unwary? OBSOLESCENCE. Only this time, the camera companies don't have the new tech waiting in the wings, they have been recycling old tech from other sources. It's a joke, but its not funny. The whole future of consumer photography is pointing to more computational capability; smartphones are already using AI (artificial intelligence) to add bokeh and other effects, and otherwise manipulate and improve images in-camera (sorry, in-phone ;-)). If you have ever had to deal with the software that the camera companies bundle with their products, that's even less funny than the poor connectivity. For decades, the camera manufacturers used technology and marketing to maintain their business. They have clearly lost the plot when it comes to the tech side, and their marketing is probably actually worse than ever. Consumers have slowly been coming to realize that the emperor has no clothes...that buying a dedicated camera isn't going to make them magically become a better photographer...so why bother, when their phone is good enough for what they need?
Okay, so the consumers are gone (fickle bunch ;-)). The camera companies have always had the enthusiast to rely on, regardless of the fluctuations of the consumer market. And no matter what, there will always be those people who are passionate enough about photography that they will want more performance than "good enough". So where are they going to be left, with the camera companies having to seriously suck in their belts now that the consumer cash cow is dry? One thing the manufacturers are doing is trying to push enthusiasts up the scale to higher-margin products. It's no coincidence that the Big 3 (Canon, Nikon, and Sony) are all trying to move anyone they can into "full-frame". Oh, the irony...the lowly 35mm format, looked down on as pitifully small by large and medium format film shooters of the past century, is now the bare minimum for digital shooters as APS-C and m4/3 are not even worth looking at ;-). I especially get a kick out of Nikon, who proclaimed (early in the Digital Era) that DX (their designation for APS-C) was all professionals needed. This was before they could actually build a full-frame (FX) sensor and so they offered two generations of professional (D1, D1x, D2H, D2X, D2Xs) DX bodies and built lenses to match, but as soon as they had full-frame capability they basically abandoned all of those DX-shooting pros and tried to move them up to FX (D3). Why? Because they made more money off the larger-sensor bodies and lenses. Now they are trying to do the same thing with the remaining enthusiasts (Canon and Sony are right there with them). The latest lens offerings from all three manufacturers are pushing new performance boundaries, but also at higher price points. This is not to say that they are not worth the cost, but is a sad truth that many enthusiasts simply cannot afford them. When you inflation-adjust these new lenses in reverse, the price/performance ratio has never been better, but wages and inflation never match up to prices and inflation ;-).
So where are we headed? Eventually, back to the niche market of the 19th century. With the shrinking of the middle class with sufficient disposable income to pour into having the latest and greatest equipment, the manufacturers are faced with being satisfied with getting smaller (anathema to a capitalist ;-)), or simply packing it in. Just as the SLR slumps of the early 1970s and '80s wiped out a bunch of the smaller manufacturers, it seems unlikely for all of the current manufacturers to stick it out. When Ricoh comes out and says that they think that DSLRs are going to make a comeback, that doesn't instill much confidence in their perception (something about the emperor and no clothes keeps popping up in my mind, again :-)). Being a camera manufacturer is not going to be easy in the future. But there is a future in a small market, if they provide capability that is actually useful and beyond what smartphones will cover. They will have to market those advantages effectively, though, to make a go of it.
Meanwhile, if you are not a well-heeled enthusiast who is into digital, the used market has never been better. The results that you can get out of even a 10-12 year-old DSLR will take many by surprise. You can make enlargements as big (and bigger) as any with 35mm film and people looking at a good image will never know the difference. Obsolete means that there is something new and improved...it doesn't mean that what was good or great before has become worse :-). So even with the demise of the dominance of the traditional camera, the quality we have today will stand us in good stead for a very long time. We are still impressed by so many photos taken with slow, grainy B&W blown up from 35mm negatives into coffee table books from decades ago. Why? Because the image itself is what matters and strikes a chord, not the resolution or the dpi, or whether the highlights are within tenth of a stop of the dynamic range limit, or whatever sensor rating was given by some self-appointed arbiter of photographic goodness. Film enthusiasts have been living in a used market for decades and we aren't any the worse for it (twitch, twitch ;-)).
As we have touched on before, the enthusiast/pro market has been pretty much static over the past four decades, and it is now starting to shrink based on the costs of ownership and the decline of demand for professional photojournalists with more fish in that smaller pond. Due to the high capability of equipment nowadays, it is possible for less-experienced photographers to get technically-perfect shots, something that pros in the 19th (and most of the 20th :-)) century never had to worry about. Not that it ever stopped them from making doom-and-gloom proclamations about the end of photography ;-). So it is definitely more difficult for pros to stand out from the crowd nowadays. But here is the thing, the best pros have never been the best because of their equipment; it was what they did with their equipment. The manufacturers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars over the past 100+ years trying to convince people that it is the equipment that makes the photograph. Which to a point is true, and good equipment makes it easier to make a good photograph. But it's the nut behind the camera that is the vital ingredient. A true pro or enthusiast can make a great image with a piece of junk (it may not be as good as they could have done with a better camera), but a lousy photographer will still make a lousy image with the best camera ever made. Why? Because the best photographs are often not technically perfect, but they convey a thought, evoke a mood, and/or tell a story, and that is what ultimately makes them successful. And that comes from behind the camera, not from inside it.
Regular visitors to this site are what I call enthusiasts. We are not in this for snapshots or for acclaim as the world's greatest photographer. We are in it simply for the love of photography. Otherwise, why would we goof around with old, technically-obsolete equipment? It's not more convenient, but it sure is fun. Some of us just love playing with well-crafted tools, some of us prefer the analog process and results, some of us like the challenge of having limitations placed on us by our equipment. The key to being an enthusiast is passion for the medium, whether it's a hobby or a profession. That's what moved the guys (and a few gals :-)) in the 1800s to pack all their stuff out into the field, it's what has kept film alive and kicking two decades into the digital era, and it's what will have somebody looking online for some obscure CF card and a dongle to plug into whatever is going to pass for a personal device in five or ten years to get a dusty D300 out of a closet and try it out. And they will be amazed at what images they can produce with it. The more things change...
Suffers from a quarter-century and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots, and (gack!) '90s SLRs. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.