Don’t Blame the Smartphone

I just read an amusing piece by a tech blogger and self-proclaimed photography expert who worried about an impending demise of the interchangeable lens digital SLR camera. I say “amusing” because the basis for his concern was a recent Wall Street Journal report indicating that DSLR shipments could fall 9% by the end of this year as compared to a year ago. From this, the prognosticator made the cognitive leap that “smartphones are likely the culprit when it comes to the declining fortunes of the DSLR market.”

Ignoring a likelihood that the recent economic downturn had something to do with slumping DSLR sales, he sung the praises of the modern smartphone, claiming “they’re increasingly making it easy to take great pictures with a minimum of user input . . .they make you feel like a pro even if you’re a rank amateur.”

Really? Isn’t a desire for “user input”—and the creative control it provides—what distinguishes the serious photographer from the general consumer who uses a smartphone as a lifestyle appliance (as opposed to a hobbyist or professional tool)? Of course there’s also the small consideration of interchangeable lenses.

That said, camera manufacturers are likely playing close attention to another trend as they develop new models for the future; namely, the burgeoning popularity of interchangeable-lens mirrorless cameras using technology that allows for significant size and weight reductions while maintaining much of the versatility of the full-size SLR. Consider the implications of the recently introduced Sony A7 full-frame mirrorless model, or Olympus’ new OM-D E-M1. The later is not only the company’s new flagship mirrorless model, but seems to be the successor to their top-of-the-line E-5 DSLR as well.

Add in the versatility offered by adapters permitting the use of lenses designed for use with SLRs on smaller, lighter mirrorless models and you can envision one path where this evolutionary trend could be heading. But for now, most serious shooters aren’t quite willing to give up their DSLRs. For some it’s a desire for an optical viewfinder, while for others it’s a concern with the ergonomics of smaller cameras. And clearly, professional shooters are unlikely to consider dumping their full-size cameras until mirrorless models can boast a comparable array of lenses, electronic flash options and other important system accessories.

stocml's picture

Dear Mr. Leach,

I too read the blogger to whom you refer. In your editorial comment, I feel that you downplay many of his observations.

1) It is my understanding (from his posts) that only Nikon and
Canon's camera divisions are profitable. While there is a proliferation of wonderful products from sources such as Panasonic, Fuji, Olympus and others, they aren't making any money.

2) Micro 4/3 equipment is clearly delightful and evolving rapidly, but the blogger points out that it is fairly listless in our marketplace and isn't making anyone money. (I bit for a similar Nikon V1 purchased at fire-sale prices that didn't help anybody because I didn't want to haul around a bunch of stuff and it is surprisingly "good enough.")

2) Economic downturn is less and less of a justification for slumping sales. If you haven't noticed, the stock markets are at record highs. Many of us who can rationalize the purchase of quite expensive equipment have enjoyed a "dividend" from that change over the last couple years. My daughter, a successful fine artist, has gone from a real slump to the best year of her career--her mildly affluent clientele is loosening up their purse strings. I recognize that that is anecdotal, but I believe that those who can and will purchase or upgrade DSLRs have few and diminishing incentives to do so.

As far as user input is concerned, over the years we have moved on to auto-focus and auto-exposure. Less user input has worked fine--ask a sports photographer if he would like to go back to manual focus. For my part I do some very satisfying work with MF digital using the exposure algorithms built in by the engineers.

My rationale for slowing DSLR sales is this: For nearly everyone they are already "good enough." The product is quite mature and now only promises incremental improvements. Few such changes warrant upgrading except for professionals. The money would be better spent taking some composition classes at an art college.

The bottom of the market is indeed being cannibalized by smart phones. Give them another generation or two and they will become astonishingly good for most users.

The fallback position can't be that interchangeable lenses are a defining distinction. Integral zoom lenses get better by the day. Who needs to carry around a lot of kit unless they are going on safari?

My point may be this: your amusement might be distracting you from identifying personal complacency. The blogger whom you challenge doesn't seem to be a gladfly. Rather, he frequently points out the challenges to legacy manufacturers of a rapidly changing marketplace, goading Nikon in particular to get its act together on customer relations. The greatest concern is to whether or not there are enough serious photographers to support quality product lines. Medium-format film camera manufacturers were surely eaten by the marketplace. Much as we like the legacy producers, they will be strained to evolve if they are to survive.


Michael Stockhill
Polson, MT

stocml's picture

Mr. Leach,

I've earned a bit of embarrassment from my earlier post, where I defend the observations of another tech blogger, who exhibits expertise in photography, self-proclaimed or otherwise. I copied him with my comments, and he observed that he had no recollection of posting the specific direct quotations you cited. He referred me to another link. My bad. I should have Googled the statements you cited. Your bad is that when you take your shots, it may be better to specifically identify your target.

So, the anonymous blogger was not the pretty-well regarded gentleman who suffered my defense of his thoughts. The reality, though, is that the gentleman I thought you were identifying has made many similar observations recently about the state of the marketplace.

As such, my comments regarding your post still stand.