The last ten years saw tremendous innovations in imaging technology, from the rise of mirrorless cameras to the democratization of 4K video production. It also saw the maturation of the smartphone, a device that all but killed the point-and-shoot camera and led to a dramatic decline in dedicated camera sales from which the industry is yet to recover — and likely won’t.
Photography, however, has only grown more popular as it has become a dominant form of communication on social media. We display and consume more images than ever before. There are a host of problems that have arisen alongside this, but a photograph’s power to entertain and inform is still very much intact. Photography is no longer just something that we do, it’s a part of who we are.
An industry in free fall
It was in 2010 that I landed a sales job at a camera store. The DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera was in its heyday and mirrorless was just taking off. The innovation curve had been skyrocketing upward for the past couple of years. Nikon, having shipped its first full-frame camera in 2007, had recently released its fourth. In 2008, Canon took the DSLR beyond still photography and into the realm of cinema with the legendary EOS 5D Mark II, the first DSLR to shoot Full HD video. Then Sony announced its first mirrorless camera, the NEX-3, in early 2010, spurring a new wave of competition. As the United States pulled out of the Great Recession, the demand for digital cameras seemed insatiable. Units flew off the shelves and I raked in the commissions.
True to my perceptions, 2010 was a peak year for camera sales. CIPA, the organization that tracks worldwide camera shipments (which serve as an approximation for sales), posted the highest numbers ever seen: over 121 million digital cameras shipped.
But the bulk of those shipments were made up of low-cost point-and-shoots, and 2010 would mark a turning point in their popularity. Apple announced the iPhone 4 in June (Digital Trends called its 5-megapixel camera “exceptional“). Instagram launched in October. The rest is history. Camera shipments would never again return to 2010 levels, and 2011 would be the last year they crossed the 100-million mark.
“It seems all but impossible that the camera market will return to the glory days of 2010. But photography is very much alive.”
By 2018, the most recent full year for which data is available, shipments had slumped to their lowest point of the decade, about 19.4 million units. And it wasn’t just the point-and-shoots. Although mirrorless models held steady, overall interchangeable-lens camera shipments dropped to just over 10 million units, after hitting a high of 20 million in 2012. Ouch.
Smartphones may be only partially to blame. Digital cameras, even at the professional level, have all but plateaued. There is little difference in image quality between this generation and last. The numbers on the spec sheet don’t always align to what our eyes actually see, and cameras remain “good enough” for longer periods of time.
Looking to the next decade, it seems all but impossible that the camera market will return to the glory days of 2010. But photography is very much alive.
Worth a thousand likes
While we collectively buy far fewer dedicated cameras than we used to, we buy a heck of a lot of smartphones. The quality of a phone’s camera (or cameras, plural, as is often the case) can be the main reason to upgrade. Our love for photography has not diminished, we’ve simply chosen different tools — and we really like taking pictures with them.
We curate galleries of our lives in which we are both artist and subject.
As smartphones have matured and spread around the globe, humans now produce over a trillion photos every year. The value we put on creating, sharing, and consuming imagery, both photos and videos, is evident in the social media platforms we use. In 2019, the four most-downloaded apps on the App Store were YouTube, Instagram, SnapChat, and TikTok, all services that put imagery at the forefront of the user experience.
From format shifts like vertical video to trends like the microwave challenge, these platforms have inspired a new type of content from a new type of creative. And there is no shortage of opinions about it. For those of us who have been around a while, our definitions are being forced to evolve, and it’s not always easy to accept the new ones. Is a YouTube star really a filmmaker? Is a fashion blogger really a photographer? The decline of “real” camera sales and the rise of the social media influencer may not be causally linked, but for longtime photographers, it’s easy to look at one and bemoan the other.
On the flip side, some would argue that cameraphones and social media have lowered the bar for entry, reducing costs and making it easier for aspiring artists to find an audience. Others would say it has merely cheapened the process and put quantity over quality.
There is also a darker side to all of this, and still others would warn of the links between social media and mental health, and the role imagery plays in shaping our perceptions of how we value ourselves. Earlier this year, Instagram banned all content related to suicide or self-harm, including fictional depictions, comics, and memes, in an attempt to prevent the behavioral contagion effect. Instagram is also experimenting with hiding the number of likes a post receives to make its platform feel like less of a popularity contest.
The real transformation that happened to photography over the past decade is not that new tools changed how we take pictures, but why we take them. Where we used to make family albums that lived on a bookshelf, or shoot home videos that only our parents would watch, now we produce content for public consumption. We curate galleries of our lives in which we are both artist and subject. Our perception of what is “good” isn’t about what an image means to us, but rather how many other people liked it enough to pause, even for a moment, before scrolling on.
Photography is a medium led by technology. It takes people time to catch up to each new invention. The last decade saw technology move exponentially faster than the decade before. It wasn’t just the camera industry that was caught off guard; we all were. But this is not the first major transition to affect the photo and video world. I am reminded of Edward R. Murrow’s 1958 speech on the power of television:
“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.”
The human side of modern photography is catching up. For all the noise that social media promotes, it also allows for authentic and honest communication, often on topics that people find difficult to discuss in person, like depression or anxiety. Images have become the centerpieces of these conversations.
So even as we scoff at memes of Gen Z-ers staring blankly into their phones at the dinner table; as we make fun of each new latte picture that gets posted to Instagram; I’d say there’s plenty of reason to be hopeful for the future of photography.
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