SmartPhones Morph – Replacing Point & Shoot Camera for Consumers

Is the consumer’s love affair with dedicated digital cameras coming to an end? Will consumers reacquaint themselves with professional photographers as they jettison their bulky DSLRs and unconnected point-and-shoot cameras? Has the consumer realized that little ‘P’ on the Mode dial doesn’t think for them?

Will the pinhole camera in their cell phone become the new standard for consumer imagery?

Over the past several years consumers have enjoyed their new digital point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras, and professional photography revenue has been reduced by these do-it-yourselfers. The situation is very similar to what professional photographers experienced in the late-1960s into the early 1970s as consumers jumped all over new 35mm roll film cameras. The Nikkormat 35mm camera was a big player in this along with a variety of Kodak cameras. This new camera technology was inexpensive (well, relatively so) and hundreds of thousands were sold in the US. All of a sudden a good quality lens on a good quality camera gave consumers the power to create sharper, better exposed images. Photographers were hammered as amateurs saw themselves as good enough. Wedding and portrait studios closed in large numbers because, “Who needed a professional when you could do it yourself?”

According to Arthur Rainville, VP of Photographic Development at Lifetouch and long time mentor to many portrait photographers, this new technology along with a recession in the early 1970s (does this all sound familiar?), put a lot of photographers out of business. “Right now, both of those things have happened again.” We’ve had a major shift in technology along with a painful recession. This has changed society, “People enjoy doing it themselves and don’t want somebody doing it for them, even if it is not good enough.”

“Possessing the tools of a professional doesn’t give us the skills nor artistic vision to create consequential portraits any more than computer word processors allow us to write better prose than Ernest Hemingway, JRR Tolkien or Tom Wolfe.”

In the 1970s, the pendulum of consumer behavior swung back when amateurs found that even equipped with new powerful cameras, they couldn’t perform like a professional photographer with creative capability. Within a couple of years consumers came back and started spending money again with professional photographers. They learned that a quality tool (a nice camera) does not make artful imagery. Instead, it is the individual photographer who creates artful imagery, especially when they have professional tools.

The same thing is happening again today, consumers are about to move away from more expensive dedicated cameras to pocket cameras – specifically camera phones – that compact pinhole camera you have in your purse or on your hip.

Consumers are tiring of their dedicated cameras as they migrate to easy to use SmartPhones (again this happened in the with the advent of Instamatic cameras.) As the SmartPhone’s camera technology reached 8 megapixels last year camera store managers are expecting to see declining sales of digital point and shoot cameras. According to three camera store managers interviewed, their point and shoot sales numbers are flat, their dollar value is down, and their biggest threat to consumer camera sales is mass migration to a SmartPhone as their prime camera. Each manager expects this change to occur. A camera manufacturer representative says, “Camera phones keep getting better and better. The new iPhone even has HDR technology. Unless regular cameras make it easy to  upload directly to Facebook and other social media they will become less and less the camera of choice, giving way to phone cameras. People not only want to document their memories – they want to share them.”

So this begs the question, why would consumers want two cameras (a point & shoot camera and a SmartPhone camera) when they can condense the function of both into one item? Again, why spend the money on two pieces of hardware?

There are 72.5 million SmartPhones in the United States as of the end of March 2011. Monthly sales are up 15% over the previous year-to-year figures. However, camera phones are really just high end pinhole cameras with no control over focal length, exposure and aperture. Can technology condense these traits into a phone that is a part-time camera? Or will technology make a camera with upload connectivity?

The Photo Marketing Association (PMA) reported three interesting points in June 2010:
*There were more camera phones in use as households are more likely to own more camera phones than digital phones.
*Digital cameras overtook film cameras sales in 2004 when the majority of cameras sold had 4 million pixels or higher.
*Camera phones are not expected to catch up with the highest resolution cameras anytime soon: but we should see their use increase once resolution of most mainstream units surpasses 4-5 million pixels.

Little did PMA know, the wave of change was already swamping the industry. The fact was in June 2010 there was a phone making a splash with 8 megapixels – double the resolution of PMA’s predicted tipping point – the HTC Evo was on the market. This change was occurring then, and continues today. The iPhone comes out with an eight megapixel camera this fall.

The corollary to this change in consumer behavior is seen in the sales of GPS units by TomTom and Garmin, manufacturers of high and low end navigation systems for automobiles, boats and airplanes. TomTom reported on June 27 that their sales in the US and would drop 30% in 2011. Garmin didn’t release figures but said via the Wall Street Journal, “Nothing that TomTom has released today contradicts those expectations.”

Why would this occur? Well again, we go back to the SmartPhones, both Apple’s Iphone and Google’s Android products sweeping the nation.

The navigation system inside a SmartPhone is in your pocket, constantly updated and reasonably accurate. So why would we want to have another GPS system by Garmin or TomTom in our car dedicated to only one role in life. Why spend the money on two pieces of hardware?

So this begs the question, why would consumers want two cameras (a point & shoot camera and a SmartPhone camera) when they can condense the function of both into one item? Again, why spend the money on two pieces of hardware?

Why do we need dedicated cameras for snapshots?

We now have our address books, pagers, texting, answering machines, social networking, desktop calculators and cameras all rolled up in our SmartPhones. More and more technologies are being compressed into a single tool. For an amateur photographer, a basic camera in their SmartPhone is all they need to share themselves with the world. Speak with most people today and ask them how many of their pictures they print? They rarely make prints. Images they shoot solely for online social activities are rarely printed. We think this is a travesty (see our blog entry on archiving imagery, ‘Hard Prints are your Archiive – Digital Files are your Backup’ and ‘Hard Prints vs. Digital Files On Memory – Why Print Pictures’, from February 2011.)

All this leads me to think the momentum will begin to swing back to professional photographers working in targeted niches, functioning at a high level. Along with this movement to simple SmartPhone cameras, consumers will be more optimistic as we recover from the shock of 2007-2008 and begin to pay for professional services (in all fields – not just ours) as they feel more comfortable.

Inexpensive camera phones will become the consumer norm (just as they did in the 1970s with Istamatic & 110 cameras.) In the future, pro photographers (along with some of the prosumers – some will become pro also) will get back to work with their creativity as consumers demand better imagery and are willing to pay for images of consequence.

But, it will still not be easy to sell your photography skills in an age of deleveraging in the post recession world.

Dr. Henry Oles, long time veteran of the photo wars, author of ‘The Perfect Storm’ about the challenges facing pro photographers and his Virtual Background system says, “As the amateurs have upgraded in every respect, professionals have become more amateur like.  They give up their studios.  They give up their quality lighting.  They resort to the ‘natural look’.  They work on location.  Basically pros have become amateur like while amateurs have actually become more professional in look.  The amateurs have all of our tools except one…Virtual Backgrounds.  Every other tool, every other secret is now shared.  The only way for the pro to grow out of this will be to be totally different…doing things the amateurs cannot do. The professionals have to go back to producing quality professional level images and stop screwing around taking snapshots and calling themselves professional.”

He adds, “Another problem is that there are now hundreds of thousands of people who think of themselves as professional.  Skip Cohen (former president of Wedding Portrait Photographers International – WPPI) estimates that there are as many as 700,000.  That’s a lot of competition and worse when combined with all amateurs who now can take good pictures.”

Rainville’s take on professional photography is similar. “The new reality is the part-timer is the New Face. They are doing weddings, high school seniors kids, creating still and video at the same time. They’re not technically proficient and they’re ‘spray and pray’ shooting. The customer thinks that is okay. This is what people know as a pro photographer.”

So, in the end, it’s up to professional photography artists to await this change of consumer behavior, or to come up with a way to change that consumer behavior, awaiting consumers to move to their SmartPhones as a primary camera. Then it’s up to us to be better image creators, more creative and be more innovative than the consumer if we want to continue as professional photographers making a good living while satiating our creative right brain.