The Times, Are They a-Changin'?
With apologies to Bob Dylan, but the title for this article about the future of photography needs to be in the form of a question. At this point, there are observations and questions, but few clear answers.
When the song and album "The Times They Are a-Changin'" were released in 1964, Bob Dylan had the intent of creating a rallying cry to promote change. Not content to wait for change, he longed to make it happen. But my intent here is more to offer some observations on recent developments of interest to photographers and speculate as to what they might mean. I'm not trying to stir up change – things are already happening. But while we may not yet know how all this will turn out, there's no harm in thinking about things.
As we all know, sales of traditional analog (film) cameras have plummeted since the mainstream introduction of affordable digital cameras around the turn of the century. While digital did usher in a host of new complications to deal with, it did put an end to several of the old problems. And it was new, and it was cool. Almost everyone succumbed to the temptation at some point. Those who didn't were gradually weaned off film as film and perhaps more significantly, film processing, began to disappear from the marketplace. The future belonged to digital.
But that was more the beginning of change than the end of it. Initially, compact digital cameras were much more prevalent than digital SLR cameras. Predominantly, this stemmed from a consideration of manufacturing costs. Smaller sensors were cheaper to produce. Even after digital SLR cameras became more affordable, compact digital cameras still tended to prevail. They too had been getting more affordable. And while early compact digital cameras were a poor choice if your main concern was quality, this too improved with each new generation of cameras, both compact and DSLR. The race to win the camera derby was off and running.
Coming up fast on the outside though was the smart phone. Over the same period that sensor technology was improving and costs were decreasing, everything else "digital" was caught up in the same wave of changes. Cell phones became smart phones. And smart phones got ever smarter. And they sprouted cameras. And since most everyone has a smart phone, most of us already have cameras, without the need to ever explicitly purchase a camera. When you buy a phone out of necessity, it comes with a camera.
"Serious" photographers will always appreciate "serious" cameras. As such, the sales of digital SLR cameras haven't suffered to any significant degree from the encroachment of smartphone cameras, but compact digital camera sales have taken a nosedive. In less than two decades, the compact digital has come and now nearly vanished completely. The resolution of images taken by today's smartphones is truly astounding, and there's simply little reason to invest in, and carry around, a compact digital as well. The most compact camera, after all, is no additional camera.
Some may be wondering where mirrorless cameras fit into this jigsaw puzzle. So far as I can tell from industry data, they fit just about where they have since they hit the market a few years back. They don't seem to be taking off in any significant way, and as such, they don't seem to be stealing market share from any other type of camera. My sense is that they represent an idea that could never see its day. At this point at least, the promise of mirrorless remains unfulfilled. Personally, I'd be leery of investing in mirrorless. I remember buying an APS camera many years ago for travel. I still own it because I doubt anyone would be interested in buying it. But I'm not looking to repeat that mistake any time soon.
All this upheaval in the camera market has had an effect on the big camera makers too. Minolta merged with Konica in2003. Three years later, the resulting company announced they were leaving the camera and photo market completely. Now it seems that Nikon is hurting. They had made a huge investment in their CoolPix line of compact digital cameras. My very first foray into digital was via a CoolPix. But these are compact digital cameras, and we all know what's been happening with them lately. Nikon recently announced that imaging net sales so far this year are down 29 percent when compared to the same period last year. The Nikon press release described this as an "extraordinary loss." That's not good. Canon is a more diversified company than is Nikon, so any dip in their compact camera sales would have a smaller impact on overall corporate profits. They can better hide any losses they have had, so they at least appear financially better off than Nikon right now. Nikon may need to do some serious restructuring and re-strategizing to adapt.
Adobe has been re-strategizing to adapt. Those with a Creative Cloud subscription already know about Lightroom Mobile. As Android and iOS devices get increasingly more powerful with each new release cycle, they become increasingly capable of all sorts of tasks, including digital photography. It used to be said that the average smart phone had more compute capability than the NASA had in the Apollo lunar lander. We're so far beyond that now as to make the comparison superfluous. To take advantage of this power, Adobe has been progressively adding capability to Lightroom Mobile for some time now. Just this month, they added the ability to capture HDR images in RAW mode. Luckily, I have a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, one of the models that support this. I would expect Adobe to continue to make themselves indispensable on the mobile platform.
The old Creative Suite applications (CS6) have now been officially retired. Photoshop is only available now as part of the Creative Cloud licensing program. So far, Lightroom 6 is still available in the boxed version, but remains unclear if there will be a Lightroom 7 apart from the Cloud.
Web browser market share for mobile surpassed that of desktop browsers a couple of years back now. This trend will only continue and perhaps even accelerate into the future. Microsoft Windows market share has continued its slow decline, but it is being supplanted by Android, not Apple's OSX or iOS offerings. Right now, Windows and Android are neck and neck, with iOS a distant third and showing little chance of catching up.
So what does all this mean? Got me. A lot of observations and questions right now with no definite answers yet. But clearly things are happening. The idea that the big shift from film to digital is over and that we can all relax now is shortsighted. It would seem that the times, they are a-changin'. Just something to think about, perhaps, but certainly not something to be ignored.