Whose Camera Will I Buy in 2018?

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I'm not really sure why, but if you want to watch the Fanboys go completely insane, the simplest thing to do it is throw out "your brand is probably going to be out of business in a few years." But the simple reality is that's what happens to most companies eventually, especially technology companies. Photography companies, since, oh, about 1850, have basically been technology companies.

The Non-Profit Industry

Reality is reality, no matter how much people want to deny it. Anyone who thinks the camera industry as a whole is thriving needs to up their medication.

There are lots of reasons that explain why the camera industry is weak. Camera phones are taking over from point-and-shoot cameras. Reportage photography is dying, replaced by cell phone pictures and stills clipped from video footage. And on and on. But knowing why only matters if understanding why allows you to adjust. Otherwise, why is just an excuse for the shareholder's meeting.

Only two camera manufacturers (or camera divisions of big companies) made a profit in 2012: Canon and Nikon. A few, like Sony and Fuji, seemed to be about breaking even. Some, like Olympus, took a beating. Every camera company, including Canon and Nikon, had expanding inventories, which is generally a sign of either weaker than expected sales, or poor management, or both.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not running around like some people deciding which brands will be gone in 2014. I don't think that at all. There are other companies in the imaging industry that appear to be doing just fine, so it can be done. RED, Black Magic, Sigma, Tamron, and Zeiss all seem to be growing and expanding markets, and those that release financial information are making a nice profit.

Photography isn't dying, it's simply changing. When that happens some companies (often the smaller ones) change and survive. Others (often the larger, historically more successful ones) milk their cash cows as long as they can, then close their doors. Brand new companies see opportunities where others see only disaster, come in with fresh ideas, and make a splash. I don't know which companies are going to do what, but I know that things are going to look different in a few years.

It's almost impossible to predict how a given company is going to do in a transition period. Take a look at the audio industry. For 50 years (from roughly 1930 to 1980) if you wanted to listen to music you played a record on a turntable or listened to the radio. New technology, like cassette and 8-track tapes, shook things up a bit in the early 1970s and soon after that CDs and digital audio became the next big thing. During that transition, many of the same companies that had been making radios and record players were still in the game, but the industry was being shaken up.

A lot of people figured out that RCA might struggle to change with the times. (I love this analogy, because it was RCA, way back in 1966, that first stated that the future of audio was in binary digital sound. Sort of like Kodak developed the first digital camera.) Certainly a few people thought that mighty and innovative Sony, with their Walkman tape and CD players, might come to dominate the audio market. If not them, then Philips, JVC, or one of the other Compact Disc wizardry companies would certainly become dominant.

The cutting-edge Sony Walkman of 1981, complete with belt-pack battery. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

But even the most insane dreamer would never have considered that Apple computer, who in the 1970s was selling this at small trade shows, would be dominating the audio market in 25 years.

Apple I computer in wooden case. Courtesy WIkepedia Commons


Or if you don't like my audio analogy, take a look at television manufacturers. I like that analogy, too, because I can clearly remember Sony Trinitron fanboys who knew, absolutely knew, that Sony would always dominate the high-end television market with their Trinitron cathode-ray tube sets. No videophile would ever consider an LCD or plasma set. That was a decade ago, folks, not back in the dark ages. A decade ago nobody would have thought of buying a Vizio television because they didn't exist.

Going back to the camera industry, I don't know much, but I do know two things: 1) the companies in the camera industry haven't really changed much (other than juggling for position) for a really long time, and 2) change is inevitable in every industry.

Who Is Too Big to Fail?

I hear this argument all the time from Fanboys, "my company is too big to fail!!!" Nobody is too big to fail. Ask Kodak or Polaroid.

The Corporations

But I do find it interesting to look at how large the various companies are. First, let's list the corporations involved in imaging by revenue (numbers are in billions of U. S. dollars). These numbers are from corporate reports, mostly 2012, but I converted yen and won to U. S. dollars using exchange rates from today -- some months after the reports were issued. I'm not trying to do an accounting article here, just painting with a broad brush.

Revenue (Billions)
Ricoh (Pentax)$24.00

The companies in bold, all-caps in the table above were all quite profitable in 2012. The one in italics (Pansonic) lost significant money. The others either were either near break-even, too confusing to say (Olympus), or private companies that don't release income (Sigma). Leica recently became a private company, but did release financial results a year ago.

The Imaging Divisions

Since we're interested in imaging, we really should look at the imaging division revenues for these companies. (For Samsung and Panasonic, I had trouble finding exactly what their imaging revenues are; it's such a small fraction I couldn't find it listed separately in the annual reports.) For several of the other companies, Canon, Panasonic, and Sony, imaging includes photo and video equipment, probably plus some other things.

Imaging Revenue (Billions) % of all rev.
Nikon$6.00 61%
Ricoh (Pentax)$1.305%
Samsung$ ??1%
All companies $37.69

This looks more like what we usually think of. Canon is the biggest player, with Sony next, followed by Nikon. For those who are used to thinking only of still cameras and lenses, Nikon appears smaller on this list than you'd expect because they're probably the only pure photography company. Canon, Sony, and Panasonic all include video equipment sales in their imaging divisions. (Be as proud as you like, Nikon fanboys, but video is a growth industry right now and photo isn't.)

I thought it worthwhile to also list the rough percentage of corporate revenue generated by the company's imaging divisions. This shows who is "all in", or at least mostly in, for riding out the ups and downs in the imaging world: Leica, Sigma, Tamron, Nikon, and Canon as corporations will largely go as their imaging divisions go. That doesn't mean they'll all remain successful, but it certainly means they'll at least go down swinging.

Even the companies for whom imaging is largely an afterthought still generate a big chunk of revenue from imaging. Plus those companies get a lot of brand-name exposure through their cameras and lenses. Let's face it, how many of you know whether they used a Zeiss or Leica Operating Microscope when you had surgery? (I know what you're thinking, and no, Rokinon has not yet released a line of discount surgical microscopes.) My only point is I don't think these companies would close up their imaging divisions if they had any hope of returning to profitability in the near future.

The bottom line is I don't think any of the existing companies are going to walk away from the photography business without a fight. Maybe we'll see a merger or sale, but I don't expect an outright closure in the next year or two. In five years, though, who knows?

Random Thoughts

One thing I found interesting was the total revenue of the imaging industry. Obviously there are companies I don't have listed like RED, JVC, Phase One, etc), but I think the $38 billion total from the table above probably represents 80% or more of all the revenue generated in imaging devices. Just to be generous, let's say the worldwide imaging market is $50 billion. That helps me understand why Samsung ($247 billion in revenue) or Apple ($156 billion in revenue) don't seem to think photography is the key to corporate riches and world domination.

Think about it. Samsung's net income in 2012 was 18 billion dollars. That's probably more than the total profit of all the imaging businesses in the world. If Samsung thought imaging was such a great place to be, they'd just buy up a few of the other companies on the list. Then again, Samsung probably doesn't even realize they're in the imaging business at all. (If you go their camera website, you won't have any trouble believing Samsung doesn't know they have an imaging division.)

The Existing Camera Companies

Obviously the micro 4/3 manufacturers are having financial problems, but their products are excellent. If the industry as a whole was stronger I'd think they might be acquired. But I think Panasonic's overall problems would limit their interest in picking up Olympus' cameras and Sony has made it pretty clear they're investing in Olympus' medical equipment division, not consumer imaging. I wonder if this is the reason Zeiss, which is a member of the 4/3 consortium, decided to develop lenses for Fuji and NEX cameras, but not micro 4/3. They know a lot more about the camera business than I do.

Still, I don't expect micro 4/3 to vanish in the next couple of years, but I think it might by 2018. Five years is a long time in the camera industry, two to three generations of technology. I should be clear that my misgivings don't mean I'd have any hesitation to buy a micro 4/3 system today. Chances are absolutely zero that I'll be shooting the same camera in five years no matter what brand I choose, so if I'm buying today I'll buy whatever system best meets my needs today.

Fuji and Sony seem to be aggressively innovating and pursuing the imaging market so I don't expect they're going anywhere. Both also have extensive patent portfolios in sensors so they're almost doubly invested in succeeding. Ricoh just recently bought Pentax so it certainly seems their intention is to make a go of things. Will they all be making photography cameras in 2018? I don't know, but I'd give them a 'probably' rating.

Nikon and Canon certainly will be around in 5 years. Canon appears to be very aggressively pursuing growth in the video segment and maintaining their photography business. It seems Nikon is concentrating on trying to take market share in the photography arena. I don't see any reason either company will change their direction much in the near future.

Inside Outsiders?

Have you noticed the bigger changes in the imaging arena are not originating from the big companies? Like dominant companies in other industries, the first thought at dominant camera manufacturers seems to be "don't do anything to hurt the cash cows."

But smaller companies are shaking things up a bit. Sigma and Tamron are both releasing very high-quality lenses and competing at the upper end of the market place, not just in consumer and crop-sensor zooms where they've lived for years. Samyang (a company smaller than any on my list above) is releasing cost-effective lenses with good image quality almost every other month. Zeiss has started releasing autofocus lenses (contrast detection AF, to be sure, but still a big step). SLR Magic has a line of quirky, but very wide aperture, low-cost lenses.

Sigma is releasing interesting cameras and while they have flaws, the flaws are largely in camera electronics and  signal processing, the kind of thing an outside company could easily rectify for them. Having high optical quality lenses in their lineup could have a nice positive feedback loop with camera sales.

At least some of the larger companies have gone to, shall we say, 'cost effective' customer support and repair policies in the last few  years. Smaller companies seem to be heading the other way. Tamron is guaranteeing a 3-day turnaround on repairs or they'll offer a refurbished lens as a replacement. Sigma has revamped quality control and their repair service, and has just released a dock to allow you to adjust autofocus on some of their lenses far more completely than camera microfocus adjustment can.

I don't think I'll be buying a Tamron camera in 5 years, but you never know. In another two or three generations Sigma cameras might be quite attractive. Or maybe Zeiss will be offering a camera. Probably not, I agree, but I do think the odds of me putting a third-party lens on whatever camera I do buy are going to be pretty significant.

Outsiders Coming In?

So, back to the original question -- who's camera will I buy in 2018? I think what will happen over the next few years is very similar to what happened to the video camera market over the last 7 or 8 years. In 2004, Sony, JVC, Canon and Panasonic dominated the 'pro' and 'prosumer' video markets. Cameras with three separate 1/2" CCD sensors were dominant in the digital realm. A lot of videographers still recorded to tape and then digitized in editing.

Shooting full-frame video on an SLR wasn't even a consideration and camcorders with large, single CMOS sensors were unheard of. RED camera was only a rich man's idea and hadn't even made it to the garage stage. Black Magic was a little company that made capture cards. The camcorder industry is amazingly different now. Companies that didn't exist then are kicking some serious butt today. Some of the older companies are doing very well, although with very different technologies. Others are fading fast, although they're still in the business.

So I really think there's an excellent chance that the camera brand I buy in 2018 may be a brand that doesn't make cameras today. I know that making an SLR is more complex than making a video camera. Things must be placed in a much smaller package and phase detection autofocus alone is an extremely complex technology.

But those difficulties aren't insurmountable. A lot of companies have those technologies, and those in trouble may be very willing to sell them. Sony, Fuji, and lots of other companies sell excellent imaging sensors. Companies like Imaging Solutions Group happily design camera electronics and arrange manufacturing. Companies like Ishikawa Koki design and assemble lenses. Of course, there are dozens of companies that will assemble cameras and lenses for anyone who has the capital.

Why would someone want to get into what appears to be a stagnant business? Because they'll believe they can do things differently, making cameras that are more cost effective, or more attractive, than what's available now.

Perhaps it will be a specialty camera, like a medium format, 80 megapixel, live-view focus only, landscape body with ultra-high resolution for the cost of an SLR. They might offer an optional bellows attachement, or interchangeable lens mounts. A niche market, for sure, but I know some people who would love one. Especially if they could shoot their Nikon 14-24 f/2.8, then swap around to a Canon 300 f/2.8, and finally clip on a bellows and classic Hasselblad medium format lens.

Maybe it will be a modular camera that allows you to pick your sensor, viewfinder, storage media, flash attachments, LCD, etc. You buy only the modules you need and change them out as conditions warrant. As I mentioned earlier, I'd love to an interchangeable lens mount. Sigma and Tamron make autofocus lenses for 6 different autofocus systems. I bet somebody could make a camera with translation chips that can autofocus 6 different lenses.

History would predict, though, that the new camera features of 2018 won't be anything I will think of, but rather something I haven't considered at all. But given the overall state of the camera market today, and the number of 'anonymous' corporate-survey-companies that have asked me to participate in think-tanks lately, I do believe  in a few years I'll at least be considering a brand that doesn't even exist today.

These are certainly interesting times for the camera industry. "May you live in interesting times", is supposedly (but probably not) a Mandarin curse. Large corporations (and their strident fanboys) probably do consider it a curse. Consumers like me think interesting times are blessing.


Roger Cicala


June, 2013



42 Responses to “Whose Camera Will I Buy in 2018?”

Marco said:

Great read! I am really hoping Nikon can weather the storm even thought they have the most to lose in a falling market. However, my next purchase will most likely be a Fujifilm x20 followed by a Lumix GH3, Nikon is not hitting video hard enough.

john said:

SLR will be still around especially with better video capability and low light performance. Webcam industry will be replaced by SLR with 4K resolutions and faster sdcard/compact flash controllers. Compact camera will be gone as Cellphone replacing them in casual use.
There will be no more consumer level GPS since almost every gadget have it.

P. Booth said:

Just when I got over the stress of equipment for this year. I am now stress for 2018.

Dino said:

Just a note on fanboys, in all the years I've spent managing construction projects, I've never heard two carpenters argue over who had the better hammer.
It's a tool, use it to make something great.

kevin conlon said:

(1) one sided market
camera industry is special in that brands are often more valuable than real quality or cost performance, largely because most buyers have little understanding of camera, lens, or photography, including some so called professionals.

(2) image quality
on the other hand, competiting with mobile devices relies heavily in image quality, that it's difficult to mount large lenses on smart phones, and there is no way to have high quality of image without large lenses.

smart phones hurt mostly the low end point-n-shoots and is one of the driving factor behind recent "large" aperture cameras like LX7, S90, RX100, etc. the whole map doesn't change that much yet.

(3) German -> Japanese -> Korean -> Chinese ???
mirrorless cameras opened a whole new world for Koreans and maybe in the future Chinese that it lowered the doorstep for new competitors. the first casualty could be the one who invented it, Panasonic.

Marijn said:

A personal observation, my two cents. To me it appears that Canon is showing signs of something that many giants (in their respective fields) have suffered from: an all too rigid belief in trusted technology (think of Sony's TV division). Here's why I think so: the EOS M system seems half-hearted at best, with just a single body choice and very limited choice in lenses. At the same time, Canon release the 100D, the world's smallest DSLR. These two things combined make me feel like they are highly reluctant to go in head first in the mirrorless market, even though it's a market that's been growing and has reached levels rivaling and sometimes surpassing SLRs.

For decades, photographers had roughly three choices (excluding medium and large format): SLR, Compact or Rangefinder. At some point, bridge cameras came into fashion but the RF form factor never made it to digital - at least not convincingly. Mirrorless cameras fill that void and it seems they're answering to a demand!

Jason said:

@Romano - even the lens might not have moving parts (Lytro).

@Mel Snyder - I think the content landscape is changing a lot. Who would have thought even 5 years ago people would be making a million dollars a year comentating what are effectively video lolcatz on you tube?

I think the blackmagic pocket camera thingo may well be very popular amongst those sorts of people. I think vlogging wil only get bigger, like blogging has.
Of course I remember when I installed my first copy of Moving Type back in the very early outghties. I certanly didn;t thing blogs would replace newspapers nad print magazines, and they havern;t completely, but in some cases tehy are getting close (huffington post). In other words I think there are a lot of people out there who will want video better than their phone can produce, but won't want to pay full whack for pro vedo camera.
As for DSLR video, it's just as expensive as pro video and harder to use. It's got one thing going for it, nice lenses. The blackmagic thingo gives you nice lenses and a real video camera for $1000.

@ Fred "It could have been a shot in the arm for aging systems, but instead became a scattering of effort. If they’re bombing, it’s not to do with the technology, but with greed and woolly thinking." - it's just wooly thinking. The big camera makers would have had as much revenue and probably higher profits if they had of embraced mirrorless. I reckon mirror less are probably cheaper to make and have less returns. If the buig companies made decent mirrorless then their customers would have bought their mirrorless.
Instead they lose their customers who want to buy mirrorless, many of whom seem to decide that they can live without their DSLR. And in the longer run, they are behind a technology that will ultimately dominate (what is left of) the non phone stills camera market.

c.d.embrey said:

@Tord, you seem to know little about Pro Digital Cinema lenses. Check-out these high priced Fujinon lenses at AbelCine that sell for as much as $99,800.00. http://www.abelcine.com/store/Zoom-Lenses/ Fuji has also been making lenses for Television Brodcast and Video News (Electronic Field Production) cameras for a long, long time.

Mel Snyder said:


"Black Magic will be coming out in July with a super-16, m4/3 lens-mount pocket video camera for $995.00. If it proves to be of reasonable quality and the software is still included in the price, it could be a hit."

$995 a "hit" - with whom? And how many "whoms"?

The pocket video market is loaded today with smartphones made by companies with billions to invest, and a form factor people love. The video camera they own is, in a sense, free. With it, they send their videos over wi-fi and cellular networks in almost real time. Upload them to CNN iReport and Facebook and YouTube, with a few taps.

But suppose they could develop such a device and pay for tooling and manufacturing inventory with a $15 million investment. And since they don't have Apple stores or any distribution channels, they'll probably have to sell online.

Now, with a selling price of $1000, and without a Foxconn-meriting volume, they'll be lucky to clear 20%. margins once they get up and running. That means they will have to sell 75,000 cameras before they pay back their $15 million investment and start making money. They'd have to sell more than 200 cameras a day for a year to do that. Of course, they'd have to pay workers and rent and facilities costs and benefits during that year, so they'd really have to come closer to selling 400 cameras a day to be able to operate. That's 146,000 cameras a year. And unlike Apple, they won't also be making money off the cloud, media sales etc.

Camera history is full of examples of pocket devices people thought they could make better although expensive, and the quality of the product would justify the cost. The Tessina is a perfect example. The Pentax 110 SLR.

$995 buys an APS-C sensor camera with sufficient mass to be stable in making videos, and a wide range of lens options. No dinky MFT sensor. And yet, few people who own those cameras make many videos with them. There's no magic - black or otherwise - that some small company is likely to produce that will encourage 146,000 people per year to spend $1000 each for a pocket video camera.

Know why? Because editing videos, even with iMovie, is very time consuming. And without editing, "home videos" are unwatchable. Even in the super-8 movie camera heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, people's expectations for video had been raised by TV. Making movies "sounded" like a better idea than it was. After my parents' deaths, I found many 8mm reels we'd never seen (and 35mm slides, also). My own VHS-C videos of my kids as babies in the early 1990s didn't really get seen until a few months back when I began digitizing them, and putting them on Vimeo. And none of us has watched them more than once or twice since then.

iPhone video has finally made video available for what most people want. I'd be surprised if a Black Magic pocket video camera sells 500 units before they come to their senses. Snap one up as an investment - Tessinas today go for about $1500 in good condition.

NancyP said:

Leica does have a microscopy and histopathology division. There are some non-optics products in that division, notably microtomes, slide stainers, and antibodies. I have used AO (American Optical, a defunct company), Zeiss, Nikon, Olympus (my current scope), and Leica microscopes in my research and pathology career. I have seen Pentax and Olympus endoscopy equipment. Optics companies are not going to go away if they have diversified product types. The companies may shrink.
In the age of YouTube and internet TV, I expect that there will be a market for high-end video/stills cameras and low-end high resolution dedicated video cameras such as the Black Magic production camera and the less expensive Canon and Red offerings. Black Magic will be coming out in July with a super-16, m4/3 lens-mount pocket video camera for $995.00. If it proves to be of reasonable quality and the software is still included in the price, it could be a hit.

Mel Snyder said:

A very interesting article. I realize you don't want to offend the micro four thirds fanboys; who needs their attacks, reminiscent of the flames from the Atari crowd in the 1980s when IBM and Apple were launching the PC and Mac.

Truth is, Olympus is a zombie company, the dead - and as you correctly implied, while Sony covets its endoscopy division, there's no one in the industry who would pay anything for a tiny sensor system. The industry's made its choice - APS-C or full frame. Small optics companies like Schneider will make lenses for them, because it's less problematic to compete in that narrow fanboy market. But 2018 is very optimistic for Olympus and MFT. 2015 is more likely. Olympus was a pioneer, and like most pioneers, will end up with arrows in its back while the settlers get the land.

The forces at work on the industry today are ominous:

1. In a world where everyone's a snap shooter, and everyone has a camera getting better and better in their iPhone, what do the camera manufacturers need to do to win purchases from women and elderly prospects?

2. In a world where cameras are sold from huge stacks in Costco, BJ's and Sam's Club - and sold via heavy advertising online - not camera stores - just how many features can and should they build into cameras sold via those channels, for those women and elderly customers?

3. APS-C sensors are so good today (and getting better) - and the web is so dominant as a medium - that the need for full frame cameras may be disappearing. How many commercial assignments ****CANNOT*** be done with, say, a D7100 when the Chicago Sun Times is firing its photographers and equipping its reporters with iPhones?

The challenge I see in the industry is to determine where between iPhones and DSLRs there's a mass market - or even, ***IF*** there's a mass market. The simple fact is, unless you make photography a hobby, the smartphone meets what most people want in a camera. Please take aboard the recent Apple ad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NoVW62mwSQQ.

I think that's what's behind the Sony NEX line - Sony has decided to compete for the woman's handbag. NEX cameras look nothing like a OM-D mini-DSLR or a X-Pro Leica wanna-be. Without a lens, it even feels like a smartphone. With a 16-50 zoom, it weighs 9.5 ounces.

Then, reviewers like DPREVIEW decide to review NEX like they're serious DSLR substitutes, and a band of fanboys takes the concept to heart. Hard to believe that people would spend $300 for an adapter to fit big $700 Sony Alpha lenses on a glorified $500 P&S camera. Yet they do - and then, slam Sony because the focus isn't fast enough, or the stabilization isn't good enough to take sharp images with that Frankenstein held at arm's length. So they then add a tripod to the kit. And are angry because the result doesn't begin to challenge the images easily obtained with a $550 D3200 with kit lens.

(Shades of my youth when kids would drop a Cadillac V8 into a 55 Chevy and then discover they needed new shocks, brakes, mounts, transmission, steering etc. And, surprise, that the result didn't drive very well.)

Then, there's the P&S for the testosterone crowd. Male fascination with the DSLR shape leads P&S camera manufacturers to make small cameras with erotic 30-60x zooms and bumps where a pentaprism would be - except that they have no viewfinder of any kind. Even when they have viewfinders, you see most people holding them like iPhones. In a totally ludicrous thread on the Sony NEX Talk forum recently, a neophyte tried to convince himself that he could take a wedding photography contract and show up with his glorified P&S NEX-5 - and be taken seriously, because he had taken good photos of his kids and girlfriend and flowers, I think.

But there's a third market: boomers.

Many of you have seen a growing number of people - specifically seniors - using iPads and iPad Minis as cameras. They just can't see a tiny iPhone or camera LCD held at arm's length. A Japanese friend of mine recently bought an iPad Mini for her parents, in their mid 80s. They love it, because they can see it.

That's another consideration: what will seniors buy? The fanboys may not have noticed, but the Western societies and China are getting older and older - and they have the time and the money to travel - and buy cameras. Go anywhere in the world today, and you will see hoards of older travelers, few of whom want to carry 5-10 lbs of camera gear.

Bottom line: In a world where everyone's a snap shooter, and everyone has a camera getting better and better in their iPhone, what do the camera manufacturers need to do to win purchases from women and elderly prospects shopping in big box stores?

Wayne H. said:

I was at a meeting back in the late 80's with the Nikon sales manager for the East Coast. He was talking about where the industry would go over the next ten years. According to him, we would soon be using 8000 ISO film in our point and shoot cameras, no auto-focus, since we would be able to shoot everything at f/22 with an enormous depth of field. Little did he know that there was a small group at Kodak working on a technology that would render all his predictions obsolete. No one else in the meeting had a clue either, so I can't blame him for his optimism. I wonder what's coming down the pike that no one else sees.

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