Where Have All the Digital Cameras Gone?

Amy Rigby

A 40% decline in the export of digital cameras has many wondering what this means for the future of photography.

According to statistics released by CIPA, digital camera exports from Japan, a major hub of manufacturing for Nikon and Canon, have decreased by a whopping 40% since 2013; the export of interchangeable lenses has dropped by 20%.

This is coming from an industry that in the past few years has been rapidly growing and in 2012 was predicted by the International Data Corporation, IDC, to more than double its mirrorless camera shipments by 2014; obviously, reality has fallen short of that prediction.

So what’s going on?

The Increasing Usage of Mobile Phone Cameras

Just as digital cameras replaced film cameras, it could be that we’re seeing another cycle happening. As the photography space evolves, so too does its equipment. One professional photographer in Oregon even ditched her DSLR to use only her iPhone to capture images.

While mobile phones aren’t necessarily going to replace DSLRs, for many people, a cellphone camera works perfectly fine for their everyday needs. As the use of smartphones increases, the need for digital cameras decreases.

“Everyone’s a Photographer”

Photography has gone mainstream thanks to the countless smartphone camera accessories and apps that are making photography more accessible to the masses, but all of this could be diluting the art and meaning behind it. Photographers need not feel threatened though. While it’s great that anyone and everyone can get their hands on a device to take pictures, you still need the eye and experience to shoot good photos. Just ask Bert Hanashiro, the West Coast staff photographer for USA Today. As the founder of Sports Shooter Academy, he hosts workshops that help newbies and pros alike improve their skills.

“I have seen some wonderful images made by professional photographers and some amateurs,” said Hanashiro. “There is some serious photography being done on camera phones, obviously. But for the most part, camera phone photos are of the snapshots variety or of the food they order at restaurants.”

Equipment Still Matters - The Limitations of Mobile and Mirrorless

You can add lens extensions, tripods and all the photography apps you want, but your smartphone will never have the same capabilities as a DSLR. It’s impossible to get the same flash, lights and gear onto mobile phones; they lack the proper connections and size. DSLRs, on the other hand, do have the option of becoming more like smartphone cameras. While DSLRs aren’t nearly as lightweight and portable, we are seeing updates to DSLRs such as added Wi-Fi capabilities and social connect features that give photographers the best of both worlds.

On top of that, imagine what a client would think if you showed up to a shoot with a beefed-up iPhone--the professionalism element just wouldn’t be there. Many users of mirrorless cameras experience this prejudice against them simply because their camera is smaller than a DSLR. While the camera alone is not what makes the photograph good, to clients, size and brand often still matter. And partly because of that, DSLRs still matter.

Where Will Photography Go From Here?

So what does this decline in digital camera sales and increase in smartphone camera usage mean for photography?

One concern is that access to good digital camera gear will become limited as major retailers such as Ritz Camera and Calumet Photographic close their doors and online stores such as Photojojo shift their focus to mobile. While closures may be happening on a local brick-and-mortar level, there still exist many online options, such as B&H Photo, Amazon and eBay.

Though the drop in DSLR sales may be hurting camera retailers, most photographers aren’t feeling any effects right now. Professional photographer and journalist Jakob Schiller isn’t too concerned. He thinks the pros will continue buying DSLRs because of the better image quality, lens selection and usability.

“Bottom line is pro-DSLRs aren't going anywhere,” Schiller said. “But yeah, maybe their sales have dipped a little because hobbyists aren't using them.”

On the bright side, this shift could be a very good thing. As the photography market begins to be flooded with non-professionals taking photos as a hobby, the separation between the amateurs and the professionals will grow. Instead of diluting the artform, it may actually strengthen it.

digital cameras mirrorless photography

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