The business of cameras or ‘The camera industry isnt dying its just has a little cold’

When ever I read any photo gear forums it seems that the state of the camera manufacturing industry crops up, with discussion around camera phones and their impact on camera manufacturers.  There has definitely been a decrease in the number of cameras being sold in the last few years and a large portion of that is attributable to the lack of sales of basic point and shoot cameras as they have overlap with smart phones in their image making capabilities.  However I think that in the last decade with camera technology constantly improving all these companies needed to do was keep churning out new models and there would be a market there to buy them.  And people did in the tens of millions. More per year than was the case ever with film cameras.  In fact at its peak film camera production was around 36.5 million units in 1997 while digital cameras peaked in 2010 at 121 million units both of these pale when compared to the 968 million smart phones sold in 2013 but even those will have to level off at some point.


If you look at this graph where I brought together the data from several sources you can see that new film camera sales all but disappeared within 3 years of the point that digital camera sales reached the same level.  The same is not true with digital camera’s and smart phones they really are co-existing. Yes camera sales are declining but not at the same rate that smart phones are proliferating.  Some of the slow down can also be attributed to the fact that many people are satisfied with their current imaging technology, the ‘good enough’ factor.  If what they are currently using meets all their needs there is no reason to go looking for something new.  This is perhaps hard for ‘gear heads’ to come to terms with but they really don’t drive the larger market even if they have a greater individual influence through their dedicated forum posting and social media presence.  So yes Digital camera sales have been declining back to 2005 levels at the same time that photography is burgeoning and cell phones are the primary reason but good riddance to bad cameras. I say bring on the awesome and the lenses more lenses.

I believe the point at which digital image quality reached that ‘good enough’ status for the average consumer (If they truly exist) was around the 6-7mpixel mark about the year 2004.  Most of what has occurred since then has been improvements in sensors and camera operation but the leap in quality that we saw in the first few years of consumer digital cameras has not and likely will not be repeated.

There is a lot and I mean a lot of discussion around image sensor size and its impact on image quality but I wanted to illustrate a different point independent of the sensor size.  The image that follows shows the relationship of different megapixel images if they were to be printed at 300DPI (the typical resolution of a minilab print)  The 24Mpixel Pentax K-3 image would print natively at 20 in x 13.3 in. while the 7Mpixel DSC-V3 would be a 10 in x 7.68 in. print at 300DPI, then there is the 1.3Mpixel Olympus D370 that would yield a tiny 4in x 3 in print at 300 DPI and still look terrible.

Comparison copy

What this means for me is that for prints up to around 8×10″ I have had the necessary photographic tools at my disposal for the last 10 years.  Yes my latest greatest cameras provide much better low light performance and quicker operation but if I hadn’t bought them it isn’t like I couldn’t have continued to make images.  And that’s the thing if that is true of a camera from a decade ago then it’s doubly true of a camera purchased in the last several years.  What will camera manufactures do to continue to be profitable or will they need to adapt and scale their operations.  I think what we are seeing with high-end compact cameras is evidence of the shift camera companies are undergoing.  They are creating high quality niche products because customers can justify them when compared to smart phones. Which is not true for basic point and shoot models.

So while smart phone sales have decimated the inexpensive point and shoot market companies continue to produce terrific image making tools and at ever lower prices, we the consumers have benefited from this.  More people than ever before in the history of the world are taking pictures today, it’s just that for most of them the camera in their phone is good enough for what they want.  It’s not shown in the image above but I also captured the same scene with a Samsung Gallaxy S4 phone and when you look at the pixel level you can see that a dedicated camera of similar pixel count still produces a higher quality image, I’m just sayin’.

I think its interesting to consider that practical digital photography has only been around for less than 20 years while photography as a whole has been around for over 175 years,  What purpose and form will cameras have in 2172?



Rather than a rigid image comparison tool that you will see elsewhere on the internet here is a little game you can play while comparing image quality of a few cameras.





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