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Anyone who has ever taken an image with a smart phone won't be too surprised to hear that, two-thirds of the way through 2013, the sale of digital fixed lens cameras have dropped by 54 percent from the same time last year. But even more surprising is that, after a decade of growth, DSLR sales have dropped by about twenty percent, according to the Camera and Imaging Products Association (CIPA).
DSLRs, the cameras that no one thought would be threatened by cell phones because of their superior image quality and control.
Some doomsdayers have already given photography a death sentence.
But, before you start stashing your gear in a bomb shelter, stop. Is photography really dead? Is the sale of cameras really the sole determiner of the success of photography as a whole? And, perhaps most importantly, what exactly do these figures mean for the professional photographer?
Since CIPA has been tracking the sales of digital cameras, the industry has seen growth in ten out of 13 years. In the 46 years between when CIPA began tracking film camera sales and in the introduction of digital, the number of units sold declined in nine of those years. So, during film's long history, sales were not so hot nearly 20 percent of the time. In digital's shorter rep sheet, sales have declined about 23 percent of the time.
From January to August 2013, interchangeable lens cameras are selling at 76 percent of the rate that they were for the same time period last year. SLRs have declined by 23 percent while mirrorless sales, which haven't gained the ground that most had hoped, fell by 30 percent.
CIPA monitors the sales of all their members, which includes a majority of the camera manufacturers, including Nikon and Canon. CIPA, however, doesn't include manufacturers like Samsung, a company that seems to have responded well to the phone competition with their smart cameras.
So, what does this mean for professional photographers? Photographers certainly want the creator of their beloved camera to succeed and to continue to put out excellent products. But, are fewer professional level cameras a bad thing for a photographer's bottom line? Basic supply and demand insists that the fewer photographers there are, the more demand there is for professional images. Websites still need photos, families still want good pictures on their walls. Start worrying when couples hire an iphoneographer to cover their wedding.
Looking at just the numbers isn't enough to get the whole picture. While manufacturers continue to make small improvements, many photographers are keeping their cameras for several years because the price just isn't worth the difference. While the number of cameras shipped in 2012 fell by 15 percent, the value of the cameras shipped increased by one percent over the previous year. As manufacturers adjust to the changing industry, cameras become packed with more features, but they also become more expensive.
The camera is simply the tool. Painters don't monitor the sales of paint brushes and carpenters don't monitor the sales of power tools to gage where their field is going. Film, once thought to be a dead medium, is now seeing a resurgence. Fujifilm is releasing a new instant film camera next year, to share photos in the actual physical sense rather than the electronic one. Photography is becoming not just “look what I can create” but “look what I can create with what I have.” Advances in technology have made it simpler for hobbyists to create excellent images, but the more challenging the medium, the more interesting the art.
Photography is certainly changing, but change doesn't mean the industry is dying. Like many careers, more photographers in the future will likely be freelancers. And like other creative careers, competition will probably remain fierce. The gear options may change as camera manufacturers adjust to the changing market, but, photographers that are professionals, that hold office hours, take phone calls and customize their images based on their customer's needs—they'll stick around. Photographers that look at the changes as a challenge and adapt with them will likely continue to be successful.