The Camera Market, Generally

Yesterday I wrote about the fate of crop sensor cameras. Today let’s look at the broader picture. 

CIPA has released their forecast of the camera market for 2022. Interchangeable lens cameras will be down 1.1% in shipments from 2021. Wanna bet about the dollars?

Thing is, the Japanese are very deft at changing what they’re doing, yet still stay in business. One of the things you’ll probably see quoted from the CIPA forecast is that, compared to the peak in 2011, shipments are down to 1/15th the level they were. Another way of putting that is that camera shipments in 2021 were 7.3% what they were in 2011. 

But the yen taken by those companies in only fell to 41% in those ten years. That’s right, unit volume was 1/15th, but dollars taken in was 2/5th. 

If you study the numbers carefully, you see the actual trend of how the Japanese dealt with the collapsing market: they went upscale. For instance, in 2021, about the same number of mirrorless cameras were shipped as in 2020 (3.106m versus 3.113m). But the value of those units went up 31.4%. Short answer: they sold more expensive cameras, and ended up making more money on about the same volume. 

You can see it in the lens numbers, two. For full frame lenses in 2021 the units went up 26.6% but the dollars taken in went up 49.3%. Meanwhile, for crop sensor lenses, the volume went down 8.1% while the dollars went up 1.4%.

The rush to sell full frame is on in Japan, and the US appears to be the biggest market for it (which partially explains why NikonUSA led the rollout of the Z9). I’m pretty sure that at least Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, and Sony see cameras as a growth market right now, though Canon has the problem of being the company still providing the most lower-cost units. That growth, however, is going to be in more full-featured, higher-priced product, not in finding more customers.

I suspect that will produce lower and lower returns for the camera companies. When you’re not looking for new customers aggressively, you’re relying on your current customers to upgrade. There’s a finite number of times that you can get them to do that before they stop participating in the update parade, particularly when you’re reaching higher and higher in pricing. At some point you reach equilibrium and growth goes away, and may even turn into decline again. At which point the Japanese will pivot again and try something else. 

We’ve had highly competent cameras for well over a decade now. If all the pros were still photographing with 1D’s and D3’s, for instance, you probably wouldn’t notice a difference in photojournalism, advertising, or other image quality from them. 

If the camera companies really want to ratchet up the higher end sales, they need to do two things: (1) solve user problems, and (2) add excitement and delight to the products. To a large degree, that’s why Nikon’s Z9 campaign has been so successful: it solves the focus problem for most, and the extended attributes, such as blackout-free viewing and 120 fps photography, add excitement and delight.

The problem, of course, is that every model needs that kind of kick. The Z7 to Z7 II update wasn’t all that exciting and delightful, and I’m not sure it solved any new user problem. The Z7 III update is going to have to do better. 

So, as we see new camera models later this year, you have to ask yourself those two questions: did this new model solve a problem you had, and does it add enough to make you excited about photographing with it? If it doesn’t, don’t buy. If it does, sure, max out your credit card again. 

The bar is getting really high for the camera companies to keep pushing the upscale trend. We’ll see if they get over the bar on their first attempts in 2022...


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