Just over five years ago, I made the argument that the iPhone (and its smartphone cousins) were killing the camera business. I occasionally update the data that shows the widening gap. With 2020 in the rearview mirror and Apple having just reported its quarterly earnings (over $111 billion in iPhone sales alone), I thought it might be time to update the data and share an updated chart to show the iPhone’s impact.
The picture (or chart, in this case) speaks for itself. What started as seemingly no real threat has become a full-blown massacre for the camera phone industry.
Since my original argument specifically focused on comparing camera sales to those of the iPhone, so does this graphic. But that doesn’t mean that companies like Samsung, Xiaomi, Huawei, One Plus, and others have not played their part. Most smartphone makers know that cameras and their performance are a competitive feature and a part of consumer’s decision-making matrix.
Demand for the small, everyday cameras that most families owned in the past has shrunk to microscopic levels, impacting digital camera sales across the planet. Bleak as it might be for the camera industry, the camera itself is going through a mega-boom. During the last quarter of 2020, Apple sold 90 million iPhones, a whopping 90 million cameras. Flurry, a company that tracks mobile app usage, recently pointed out that “nearly two-thirds of Apple’s iPhone activations in December 2020 came from their higher-end iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max models.” Both those models are packed with higher-end camera capabilities.
Apple sold 206 million iPhones in 2020, and each one has a camera. That’s more than all the cameras sold over the past six years. While it might not be apples to apples comparison when it comes to revenues and quality, it is a gentle reminder of the iPhone’s outsized influence on the photography landscape.
I get some flak for using Apple’s iPhone as a lead example, but let’s face it, without the iPhone and its camera, the smartphone race wouldn’t be what it is. As I explained in my essay, “Why iPhone is today’s Kodak Brownie camera,” it was the device that helped jumpstart the extreme democratization of photography. The iPhone and its cameras’ success created a competitive environment that led to even the most basic Android phone packing a decent quality camera. That is starting to help us develop a more comprehensive record of ourselves, including in the remotest regions.
Slowly, camera industry executives are starting to admit that theirs is an industry in the middle of an extreme contraction. Recently, a Canon executive acknowledged that the industry has to confront the reality that there will be roughly 10 million standalone cameras sold every year. Incidentally, 10 million is the number of cameras that used to be sold every year before the launch of digital cameras.
The big four camera makers — Canon, Nikon, Fuji, and Sony — will be left fighting over scraps. Of the lot, Sony seems to be the best prepared to navigate the choppy waters. And it won’t be because of its camera sales — it is because of its photography focussed component business. Sony makes sensors for everyone, including the standalone camera’s biggest nemesis: the smartphone (and specifically, the iPhone).
The camera industry is going to become an industry of niches. The likes of Leica, Hasselblad, and PhaseOne will have a lucrative, albeit the smaller, higher end of the market made up of brand loyalists and those in need of specialized devices. Others will depend on working professionals — wedding, sports, and event photographers — to keep the home fires burning. And that isn’t that big a market. It will be a bruising battle for the enthusiasts who like landscape, urban, and wildlife photography.
There has been a spike in the number of new cameras released by camera companies in the recent past. While it might seem like a sign of strength, it is the exact opposite. It smacks of desperation. The game of outdoing each other with features and megapixels is a way to attract the elusive consumer dollars. In 2020, Olympus was a brand that fell on hard times and is soon a footnote in camera history. I won’t be surprised if there are more who go the way of Olympus.
As for the future, I have never been more excited about photography itself. And that is because of the smartphone. The giant smartphone companies are packing their cameras with increasingly capable processors, graphic processors, and machine learning chips to capture images captured by smartphone sensors and lenses and do magic with them. Sadly, the camera companies won’t have the money or the accumulated data intelligence to become viable competitors to these smartphone-behemoths. As I wrote earlier, “You don’t have to look too far to imagine the future of cameras with an interchangeable lens — it will also include more interchangeable algorithms.”
Even though I own an iPhone Mini, I tested the iPhone 12 Pro Max and its camera capabilities. Whenever I get home, sit down, and start editing the RAW files, my jaw drops. Thirteen years ago, when I used the iPhone for the first time, all I saw was noisy images from a 2-megapixel camera. The progress thus far only makes me more excited for the future.
Previously in this series.
- Standalone Camera Shot dead by the iPhone. March 2015
- Standalone camera losing its fight with the smartphone. September 2016
- Camera sales are falling rapidly. September 2019