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The changing landscape of photography

by Olly Robinson , 20.03.2014

The end of the 20th century saw a significant increase in our ability to capture images, with photography becoming a true mass medium. Largely driven by the proliferation of smartphones and our ability to edit, store and share images, what's the picture look like for the future of this category?

“Photography has the capacity to provide images of man and his environment that are both works of art and moments in history.” Cornell Capa’s portrayal of photography outlines two objectives: documenting the present, and producing an artistic interpretation of it.

Ultimately, it may prove to be an imperfect solution for the former. Video is arguably better suited to recreating the present, and the advent of 3D could raise the bar even higher (the increasing preference for integrating multimedia elements within digital publications is perhaps an early indicator here). So, what of the latter? Will the creative and artistic elements of photography prove more resistant to changes in our technological landscape?

Smart photography

Smartphones have changed the nature of photography; not just in expanding camera ownership, but in ensuring that our cameras are in our hands (or at least, in our pockets) throughout the day. Empowered by this perpetual accessibility, we’re producing more photographs than ever. The sheer quantity of images collected is changing how we document life (both simplifying, and complicating, the task facing historians of the future), but what does it mean for manufacturers in the present?

Crucially, as the quality of smartphone cameras has increased they’ve become ‘good enough’ for many of us; the need for an ‘even better’ standalone camera is decreasing. Our global GfK sales data illustrates the consequent decline in the compact camera category, with total value down 14% in the first half of 2012.

This disruption follows a pattern evident in the portable gaming market (and the portable music player market before it). When the equivalent experience on a smartphone improves at a faster rate than the standalone device, we’re less inclined to carry one (much less purchase one). Eventually the standalone device is either rendered obsolete, or evolves into a niche market for needs unmet by its smartphone competition.

Logically, this should be bad news for camera manufacturers. However, a closer look at the data shows considerable growth at the high-end of the category. Driven by digital SLRs (total value up 11% in the same period) and a new breed of ‘compact system’ cameras (up 56%), the average price paid by consumers for a standalone camera in 2012 actually increased: by €20, to €260. Encouragingly, this high-end growth is almost (though admittedly not quite) enough to offset the value lost at the low-end. So, what’s driving it?

How we all became photographers

While growth in smartphone adoption may have reduced the barriers to entry for photography (and, we can therefore assume, encouraged wider participation), this alone seems insufficient to explain the extent of this high-end growth. We also need to look beyond the camera itself. Two of the key differences between smartphone cameras and their predecessors are integration and connectivity; integration with the other functionality on the device, and connectivity with the rest of the ecosystem they inhabit. As an example, consider these two methods of sharing a photograph:

1. taking it with a digital camera, sideloading it to a computer, uploading it to a website, and sending the link to a friend
2. taking it with a smartphone, and uploading it to Facebook

Working together, the product and service have streamlined the user experience and socialised the activity. The 300 million photos uploaded to Facebook daily are testament to their success. Alongside socialisation, apps like Instagram have empowered users to edit and manipulate their photographs. Putting aside arguments about the relative creativity involved in this process, their ease of use is another example of a simplified solution driving wider engagement with the category (Instagram alone recently passed 80 million users ).

The connectivity of devices (not just smartphones, but tablets and televisions as well) has provided a further catalyst to engagement with photography. The synchronisation of these platforms, and take-up of cloud services that function across them, is improving the accessibility of our photo collections; we’re increasingly able to view our photos at any time, in any place.

The cumulative impact of these changes is perhaps best evident in the ongoing debate about whether amateur photography is disrupting its professional counterpart. While Instagram doesn’t (nor intends to) replace the skillset required for professional photography , it’s undoubtedly expanding the field of interested amateurs. It’s these enthusiasts that are likely to be driving the high-end camera growth outlined above, equipping them to (at times) compete with the professionals. So, what does all of this mean for the future of photography?

Photo opportunities

For a long time, success in the category was defined by the ratio between picture quality and price. Smartphones have competed with this asymmetrically, driving accessibility, sociability, and most of all engagement with photography across a broader audience.

Though image quality may have become a hygiene factor (at least, relative to past importance), significant opportunities remain at the high end where a growing segment of enthusiastic amateurs are seeking increasingly professional-grade solutions. Devices like Samsung’s new Galaxy camera, which offer a transitional step between the integrated, socialised world of smartphone cameras and the serious, financial investment of SLRs and Compact Systems, also seem well positioned.

However, while product innovations will continue to move the category forwards, the most significant innovations are likely to come through services; harnessing our growing engagement with the category to integrate it further into our digital lives. Enabled by technology, we’re getting closer to another of Cornell Capa’s ideas: the camera really is becoming an extension of ourselves.