The Social Landscape & the Photo Industry

The Social Landscape & the Photo Industry

Selective Focus

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It’s been obvious for a good while that smartphones have cut deeply into overall camera sales—compacts and bridge cameras in particular—change the landscape of the photo industry.

Every month we see sales numbers go down, perhaps most disturbingly in year-to-year comparatives. This erosion has been less in enthusiast and pro sales, but a certain defeatist mentality is afoot.

I recently saw an article in a venerable photo magazine that dubbed some photographers “DSLR snobs.”  The article touted iPhones as serious tools for pros. It is a puzzling editorial decision akin to finding a story in an airline magazine praising the convenience of traveling by rail.

Camera companies have made great technological strides and added feature after feature to their products. Yet, the iPhone and its ilk continue to appeal to more and more picture makers. And this is with nary a scene mode, cross-type focusing sensor or integral 30x optical zoom lens in sight.

Image Quality

We all know there’s no contest when comparing results from even a “beginner” SLR or good compact camera to an iPhone. If buying decisions were made by rational beings based on image quality alone, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. That quality, however, is considerably less important these days. And that’s because 95% of all images are viewed on backlit monitors on phones, tablets and laptops.
selective-focus-callout-5-17Quite simply, the eye cannot get close enough to the frame size on a phone or tablet to discriminate between sharp and unsharp or to see nuanced color differentiation in similar values. It’s like putting a small print 10 feet from the viewer and asking them to judge sharpness. Yes, you can make a decent 8×10 from a top smartphone. But it will pale in comparison to what you get from a camera.

The “Share” Factor

There’s a double whammy at work here. It’s not just how folks view their images and the lesser quality they accept. It’s also how they share them with others. Given there is still some personal interaction left in our society, most folks access and share their family shots right from their phones. The practice disparagingly called “chimping” (viewing images on the camera monitor soon after they are made) is a private affair. I have rarely seen people use a camera to show off their shots on the train. Aside from person to person, the main venues for sharing, by far, are the various and sundry social websites and apps.

Sites and Rights

Image-sharing social sites are curious things, being mere shells into which users pour content. The formula is basic: develop a clever, convenient app, let the user fill it up for free or for a nominal fee with whatever, then monetize it with ads and data mining and let ’er rip.

The odd part, especially when it comes to photographers, is that many of these sites not only push ads based on advanced analysis of images and words users provide. They also, as spelled out in their terms of use, get to license the content provided by the user in “any medium, now and in the future, on devices and mediums now in use or yet to be invented.”

The Facebooks and Instagrams of the world get around copyright laws by stating that the user maintains copyright but grants royalty-free license of any content they post to the site to the company running it. This is like granting a farmer’s cowherd free access to graze in the company field and telling the farmer that while they still own the cow the company gets all the milk.

The volume of images moving around the web is astounding. “Visitor” stats show that billions of photos and videos are uploaded to or viewed on social sites monthly. There are more sharing sites than you can shake a stick at. And app developers are burning the midnight oil to create more with broad or niche appeal. The big boys, of course, are Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. But there’s also Snapchat, Pinterest, Google+, Tumblr and Flickr. And there are tons of hosting and compiling sites like Imgur, Photobucket and TinyPic.

Yes, camera companies have hosting sites that can be public or private. They also offer photo novelties and apps and the like. Their views and numbers, however, pale in comparison to the media- and ad-savvy big kahunas. (I should add a note of caution here that there has been a fairly consistent history of storage and sharing sites biting the dust, with some closing shop with little notice. The ephemeral nature of these sites belies the notion that photos are memories that live forever.)

All this poses vital questions for the photo industry. Just how many of these images are made with cameras and, if so, how did the user get the images to the web? If, as I suspect, it’s a fairly small percentage of images made and/or uploaded direct from a camera, one has to ask why this is so and how this affects camera sales now and especially in the future.

A Tech Line in the Sand

There is a line in the sand here: the cellular versus the Wi-Fi/Bluetooth solution. If I am traveling with my digital camera and want to immediately share a moment, I have two options. 1) I can feed it from the camera to the cell phone via Bluetooth or NFC and then hook the images to a site via cellphone. 2) I can wait until I find a Wi-Fi hotspot and send it directly from the camera.

The latter has proven tricky, with Wi-Fi enabled cameras having a reputation of delivering the goods in spotty fashion. And setting up Wi-Fi in the camera itself can be challenging. This is especially true for those befuddled by the jargon and menu gymnastics many cameras require. And let’s not mention the log ins that can make the procedure awkward at best.

On the other hand, if I take a snap with my smartphone, all I need do is go to the camera roll, select an image and then choose the basket in which I am placing it and, voila, I’m done. Or I can simply have every image I make go right to a cloud. I can Message it, too, with a quick “wish you were here” to family or friends. Quick, easy and efficient—plus there’s no need to enter a letter at a time through some awkward camera keyboard.

Putting a cell setup in a camera might seem to be a solution. But it is impractical for many reasons, including data rates, etc. It is also a leap that, to date, is beyond the ken and budget of camera companies. Why, the typical user might well ask, should I carry around two mobile devices when one does all I need? No camera can help you navigate the alleys of an unfamiliar city to find that cute little café. Nor can it download a ticket to board an aircraft, pay your bills or let you listen to your playlist while doing so.

The photo industry has given it a shot. We have cameras with built-in Wi-Fi, apps like SnapBridge that rely on Bluetooth, Wi-Fi memory cards, NFC and devices like Tether Tools’ new Case Air—a fairly universal connector that mounts onto a camera’s hot shoe.

I recently tested SnapBridge in Nikon’s D3400 DSLR in conjunction with an iPhone. I can attest to its efficiency and effectiveness. All well and good. But every one of these methodologies takes the camera the iPhone route. This means most social photographers, and especially millennials, will take a quick look and simply opt to cut out the middleman.

Choices to Make for the Photo Industry

So, do we throw in the towel? Do we continue to cede the market to cameraphones? We have to face facts. The ground has shifted beneath our feet and with it a generation of potential customers has been lost. True, there may always be dedicated photographers who revel in the quality and excitement of making great images with a camera. Wedding photographers probably won’t be showing up at the church with cameraphones; sports photographers will always rely on crisp tele lenses.

However, like you, I trust, I want the industry to remain viable. I want it to understand the challenge and to create products for more than the select enthusiast and pro markets. To create specifically for those who recognize the social landscape—and photography is a deeply ingrained and primarily social practice—has changed. We have to get our heads out of our hands and stop bemoaning our fate. I encountered this attitude way too often while talking to industry folks at the PPE show in New York.

The photo industry has always been the vanguard of imaging technology, and there’s no reason to raise the white flag. We have the talent and the experience to marshal resources and put our energy into developing technology that will capture the imagination of photographers and those who communicate with images in every possible way. We don’t want to be making excellent buggy whips while everyone is getting around in driverless cars.

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