Camerapocalypse: How photography’s titans will survive smartphones

camera companies risk going bust camerapocalypse how photography titans will survive smartphones

Recently we attended a gathering of photo reporters and analysts to test some new high-end cameras. While the products were certainly cool, some of the things we discovered about the overall digital imaging business would frighten veteran Navy Seals, making one wonder whether the industry as we currently know it will be recognizable in five years. Folks, we’re talking about companies that have been around for 100 years and survived World War II, suddenly facing extinction. One analyst we know and respect speculated Nikon – yes, Nikon – might be gone in five years, although the company reacted with outrage and denials when this occurred. You can tick off really bad news for nearly every brand from Canon to Ricoh, sprinkled with collapsing demand and falling revenues. Clearly these are dangerous times for the camera industry – and what’s so ironic is the fact the gear has never been better, with some fantastic cameras hitting the scene such as the new Sony Alpha A7/A7R, Nikon Df, Canon 70D, and so on.

camera-manufacturers
It’s difficult to imagine now, but some of these companies could disappear in the near future if they can’t turn their camera business around.

It’s absolutely no secret what is pushing the traditional camera business off the cliff – the smartphone. While sales of photo/video capturing smartphones continue to soar, the appeal of classic point-and-shoot digicams is evaporating. Another analyst told us sales of aim-and-forget cameras are on a downhill ski-slope with no end in sight. How bad is it? At the peak just a few years ago, over 35 million cameras were sold. We were told the number for 2013 might be 14 million – or less. At the recent PhotoPlus Expo in New York City, a panel of experts from the camera companies finally acknowledged that the smartphone effect on their business is very real, and they must face this new formidable challenge quickly. But the smartphone is just one of the many headaches facing camera companies.

Think of it this way. Almost all of the majors, such as Canon, Nikon, Olympus, and Sony, built factories to meet the digital camera demand of the last decade. So not only did they spend billions building facilities in Thailand, China, and other countries, they have thousands of employees to maintain. Unless you’re a smart company like Apple that contracts out all its manufacturing, this is an unmitigated disaster. With the drop in sales they simply don’t have money to keep their current infrastructures. Given this dire situation, coupled with fluctuating currencies and natural disasters, the respective managements should be shutting factories and laying-off thousands, right-sizing to meet the challenge of this decade and beyond. Yes, we know this sounds harsh but what’s the alternative – bankruptcy? (You don’t have to look further than Kodak.)

Besides consumers' preference for smartphone photography, camera companies have had to deal with issues like natural disasters. (Image via Steve's Digicams)
Besides consumers’ shifting preference toward smartphone photography, camera companies have had to deal with issues like natural disasters. (Image via Steve’s Digicams)

Alas, knowing the corporate cultures of many of these firms the way we do, asking them to make such radical moves is like asking a chimp to formulate the Theory of Relativity – it ain’t happening. Nikon’s president recently stated that the company is going to stick with making cameras, and have no immediate plans to enter new businesses. Many are living in hopes the good old days will return. Dream on, boys, dream on.

Yet, even though the wolf is banging on the door and most managements dither – shades of Blackberry – companies are trying almost anything to gain some traction to stop the downhill sales trajectory of the business. That’s why we’re seeing Sony create some truly out-of-the box ideas like the QX10/QX100, which is basically a camera/lens combo that gets attached to your smartphone. We recently used this device and while we applaud the concept, the operation is not nearly as seamless as snapping a shot on your iPhone and sharing with friends. When we stepped back we realized this was a unique way to use the components generated by those point-and-shoot factories and marrying them to the smartphone. Sure it will improve the quality of your smartphone images, but we’re not sure hundreds of thousands of shutterbugs will buy this $250/$499 add-on. Still, a big A-plus on effort for Sony.

Sony QX100
Despite the challenges, the camera companies are trying to think outside the box, like Sony with its Cyber-shot QX100.

To give camera makers their due, adding Wi-Fi/NFC (near-field communication) capability to most newer, more expensive cameras is a real plus. We’ve used many of them and found the combination of Wi-Fi and apps to be quite good and useful. Unfortunately, this was something that needed to be done at least three years ago to stop the coming bloodbath.

In meantime, you as a camera buyer are in a good spot. The quality of Compact System Cameras, DSLRs, and sophisticated compacts will continue to improve while prices edge down – but don’t expect full-frame models to break below a grand for a long time. Companies will continue to try new concepts in hopes one or more will stick to the wall, grabbing consumers’ fancy. But really now, can any camera compete with a smartphone for all-around convenience? An iPhone 5S is only $299 with a contract, as is a Samsung Galaxy S4 – even less for a 41-megapixel Lumia 1020. Yes, we’re well aware of the photographic limitations of any smartphone but the images are certainly good enough for 90 percent of consumers, and it’s only going to get better as the technology advances.

Nikon DF Front
Ironically camera companies are making some of the best and most intriguing products.

We can’t predict whether Nikon or any other camera firm will be forced to say adios in five years. But we certainly know if the companies do not make radical changes, the future looks bleak indeed. Even though Japan Inc. is notoriously slow in making changes, just look at Panasonic. For all its protestations, the company is moving away from the consumer side of the consumer electronics business to concentrate on supplying components and services to other manufacturers. After sinking billions into plasma HDTVs, the company recently pulled the plug on consumer displays. Rather than reacting with dismay, Panasonic shareholders have backed the company’s strategic moves. And, if Panasonic can make such a bold (but necessary) execution, we’re sure it won’t hold back on axing its consumer digital imaging if sales get worse. Olympus and Fujifilm have already signaled they’re moving away from budget cams and exploiting other areas with better returns. This shows there’s hope for truly forward-thinking firms that realize the past is the past and the glory days of hardware-only success will never, ever return. The way most of the major camera makers have acted over the past few years, it’s hard to put them in that category.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

Product Review

Canon democratizes full-frame with the EOS RP, but keep your expectations low

At just $1,300, the RP is Canon's least expensive full-frame camera yet, but it was born into a world of high-end, high-cost lenses where it doesn't yet feel at home.
Photography

From DSLRs to mirrorless, these are the best cameras you can buy right now

From entry-level models to full-frame flagships, many cameras take great photos and video. The best digital cameras, however, push the industry forward with innovative sensors and improved usability, among other things. Here are our…
Photography

Nikon will bring eye-detection autofocus to the Z6 and Z7 in May

An upcoming firmware update will bring Eye AF to the Nikon Z6 and Z7 -- along with improved autofocus performance in low light. The update will also give the cameras support for the CFexpress format.
Photography

Nikon brings a classic workhorse lens to the Z series with new 24-70mm f/2.8 S

The Nikon Z series finally has a bright zoom available without an adapter. The Nikkor Z 24-70mm F/2.8 S offers new coatings and more customizable controls in a smaller, lighter body than the comparable F-mount lens.
Photography

Using A.I., Lightroom can now boost the resolution of RAW photos

Need to eek a bit more resolution out of a RAW file? Adobe Lightroom and Camera Raw can help with a new feature called Detail Enhance. The tool uses A.I. in the demosaicing process to enhance details and reduce artifacts.
Photography

Tight on space? Here’s how to transfer photos from an iPhone to a computer

Never lose any of your cherished selfies or family vacation photos from your iPhone again by learning how to transfer photos from your iPhone to a computer, whether you want to use a cable or wireless transfer.
Photography

Corel VideoStudio adds tools for customizing color in simple video edits

VideoStudio is Corel's more consumer-oriented video editor but the software recently gained advanced color correction tools. The update adds custom transitions, along with speeding up performance, and adding new shortcuts.
Computing

500px reveals almost 15 million users are caught up in security breach

Almost 15 million members of portfolio website 500px have been caught up in a security breach. The hack occurred in 2018 but was only discovered last week. Users are being told to change their 500px password as soon as possible.
Photography

Olympus packs an enormous zoom ability in its latest interchangeable lens

The Olympus Digital ED M.Zuiko 12-200mm F/3.5-6.3 has the widest zoom range of any interchangeable lens with a 16.6x zoom. The lens, which covers a 24-400mm equivalent, is also weather sealed.
Photography

Fujifilm’s X-T30 is a semi-pro, feature-rich camera that’s affordable to boot

Fujifilm's newest mirrorless camera delivers the premium features of the X-T3 without the premium price, giving aspiring enthusiasts a lower-cost option that can still match the image quality of Fuji's flagship.
Photography

Fujifilm XP140 squeezes more durability, low-light ability into a waterproof cam

Fujifilm's waterproof compact can now head even further underwater. The Fujifilm XP140 features several upgrades, including a more durable body, a wider ISO range for low light, and expanded auto modes.
Photography

From f/1.2 primes to the mysterious DS, here are Canon’s upcoming RF lenses

Canon's EOS R mirrorless series will gain six new lenses this year. Canon just shared a list of six lenses under development, including four zooms and two prime lenses. One has a mysterious new feature called Defocus Smoothing.
Mobile

OnePlus 6T vs. Honor View 20: We compare the cameras in these ‘flagship killers’

For less than $600, you can buy either the OnePlus 6T or the Honor View 20, two extremely capable smartphones with plenty of exciting features. But which one has the best camera? We found out on a recent trip to France.
Photography

Photography news: Wacom’s slimmer pen, Leica’s cinema special edition

In this week's photography news, Wacom launches a new slimmer pen for pro users. Leica's upcoming M10-P is designed for cinema, inside and out, with built-in cinema modes in the updated software.