The View Looking Forward

Robin Wong, a photographer and writer I respect, recently published his views on how the COVID-19 virus is going to affect the photography industry. For the most part, I agree with everything he wrote. But there is some nuance missing that I'd like to fill in.

Let's start with the part about professional photographers. Indeed, they are probably the hardest hit by the virus. Pretty much everything is shut down in the wedding, portrait, event, and sports categories. No one in editorial is buying much at the moment, as publications are also hit severely by the economic downturn caused by the virus. 

No one knows when that will change, though it most certainly will. Maybe some sports come back this fall in a way that gets that group back on the sidelines with paying gigs. Maybe some portrait and small event work comes back in late summer and fall. But it's tough to predict exactly when and how much any of the pro paying opportunities will return. It's completely possible that jobs won't return in the volume that supported however many pros were working previously. 

If you are a pro photographer relying upon what you shoot for income, you've been hit hard, and you don't know when the pain will end.

Old-timers realize that we've gone through (more limited) versions of this before, though. The changeover from film to digital and the rise of the Internet Disruption Engine basically killed stock photo income sometime around the turn of the century. I know photographers who had incomes well into the six figures from stock in the 90's who saw it drop to the low five figures in a very short time around or soon after the turn of the century, and that income never returned back to a higher level. 

Some of those affected by the collapse of stock left the active scene and are near invisible now. Others pivoted. The primary pivot was towards teaching workshops and doing seminars, which, ironically, increased the amateur contribution towards stock photography and locked in the change.

Video is pressing another aspect of pro work, too. You see this particularly in the advertising and large client world: requests for bids are no longer just for stills; almost every RFQ I've seen requires both still and video components to be created. Those photographers who stuck to the notion they were still photographers found that work declined rapidly after the turn of the century, and that trend accelerated this past decade. To survive, you needed to pivot. 

All of us would love for the world to stay the same and predictable. But that's not the way it works. Every day brings new challenges. New challenges bring new opportunities. 

To the pros out there reading this, I have three suggestions: (1) downtime like this is when you spend time and effort to improve your portfolio, your presentations, your facilities and offerings, plus work on personal projects that extend your work into new areas; (2) take some risk by identifying and getting ready to take on new opportunities (e.g. pivots); (3) make sure you're in constant communication with past clients and that they know you're ready to help them again when the economy opens back up; and (4) use the extra time to identify potential new clients and make sure they know you exist. 

I also hesitate to sound too much like Suze Orman, but if you didn't build a savings account big enough to get you through a few months of hard times, make sure you start doing that as business returns. That's because COVID-19 won't be the last challenge facing your pro photography business.  

Next, let's discuss what happens to the "related business" industry. That includes trade shows, large group events, festivals, and things like Sony Kando. 

This one is easy: most people will try to associate the decline of these things with things like the rise of the Internet and the ban on large groups due to the virus. Not really. "Shows and Gatherings" are on the decline because the popularity of the category is in steep decline. The camera business is becoming more incestuous, with most of the sales volume going to people who already have cameras. As that group declines and buys less frequently, the urge to gather large groups to create flash points for new sales goes away. There are better ways to reach the already converted.

To that end, Sony Kando is more the future than is Photokina. Why Canon and Nikon haven't already jumped on the Kando approach, I have no idea. Likewise, while not the massively twice-a-year huge conventions they used to be, things like Photoshop World will likely return to health, too. 

The thing to look for here is this: is this mostly a gathering of "already converted" folk that love to reinforce their self-worth together, or is this the old lame gathering of a bunch of sales folk trying to sell to whoever shows up? The former will survive, the latter likely will not. 

Humans are highly social animals that prefer to aggregate into and meet as groups. So while some "gathering" type interactions may go online temporarily due to the virus, I'm certain the right ones will return to physical gatherings when they can do so safely.

Next, let's talk about the camera makers. Because the market was already shrinking, the camera makers have been dealing with decreasing demand for some time (peak was 2011/2012). The virus just accelerated an ongoing contraction. I wrote previously I thought we'd get down to only 4m ILC units a year, and I now would double down on that and suggest it might happen faster than I thought. 

At 4m units a year, there's really only room for two or three makers to be in the business for real profit with some reasonable level of volume. At the moment, that would be Canon, Sony, and Nikon, in that order. The rest of the camera makers would be more like hobby businesses. Of course, in the case of Olympus and Pentax, they're already clearly there. Even Fujifilm and Panasonic sort of fall under that categorization, as the size of their camera groups are minuscule compared to the overall company and likely pulling down overall corporate ROI somewhat.  

Hobby businesses don't tend to go away as long as the overall fundamentals of the parent company are okay. A hobby business may get very lean, though, making fewer products and not making large marketing splashes.

Pentax is a good example of the future of hobby business in cameras: no full line, concentrate on your best captive user base(s), slower development and release cycles. But not going away

But here's another prediction: the camera makers will try to force sales to return to previous levels towards the end of 2020 if the virus situation lets us return to anything close to normal. There are so many real and implied commitments in their manufacturing chains that they're going to want to push iron just as soon as they think they can. I suspect they'll give up product margin to do so, because the demand just isn't there for a sales push. 

What I hear out of Japan is this: the camera makers are hoping to unload much of their slowly building inventory sometime this summer, and believe they can have a reasonable and successful holiday season. That's optimistic, for sure, but when you want something to happen, you have a better chance of making it happen. Still, I expect camera sales in the second half of the year to be somewhat under what the original CIPA forecast was for the year. 

No, it's not the camera makers that will go away with lower sales. It will be some (many?) camera dealers that disappear. I'm aware of about a half dozen camera stores here in the US that "closed temporarily due to not being an essential business" who are not planning to re-open. There are probably more, particularly in the smaller markets. 

That's a problem for the camera sales push that the manufacturers will want to do in summer and the holidays, though. First, the camera makers won't have as many outlets to shove inventory into. Indeed, the camera markers are going to find inventory coming back their way, I think. Which speaks to lots of refurbished units becoming available, too. Second, the camera makers may have to be more lenient in load terms to get dealers attention. Third, and most importantly, the camera makers are going to need to get bodies in the dealers door, a type of marketing that they've mostly abandoned (other than simple instant rebate price changes).   

We've seen this dealer contraction play out in every recession this century. This time, it will be worse. 

However, here's the thing: as I've indicated before, nothing's really changed that should lower your love of photography. You're reading articles on this site because you're one of the committed. You're hoping the photography industry survives (it will). You want new gear (it will appear, soon enough). You want to gather together again, whether it be for a lecture, workshop, a club, or a big show (you will be able to). 

So don't despair. We're just a smaller group than we were before.

Bonus: One place where I somewhat disagree some with Robin is "Any product launches that were planned for any time now or near future will most likely be postponed until further notice."  Canon and Nikon, in particular, are in the middle of a transition (DSLR to mirrorless). Postponing a lot of product now would be a big mistake on their part. There's still buying going on, though not on the level of before, and the most critical of that buying is happening in full frame mirrorless, right where Canon and Nikon need to transition their serious user base. Sony has the advantage of being first mover, with a full product line, lower-priced last generation product still available, and a healthy lens set. Canon and Nikon have to act faster than the rest of the industry, I'd argue, and even if that means announcing into the virus slowdown.

My guess, however, is that Canon and Nikon will try to micromanage their R and Z releases. In other words, they want to try to time the "new stuff" for right when buying returns. Good luck with that. I'd argue that it's better to just get that product out and make sure it's available the moment you and others return to buying gear again. That day may be a little sooner for some of you, a little later for others. Trying to micromanage that is an exercise in futility, in my opinion. 

Further, I'd note that quite a few very successful products launched in recessions. The original Apple iPod, for example launched right in the middle of the Internet 2.0 recession, the iPhone launched at the front edge of the Great Recession. There's an advantage to being bold and launching good, new product in down times: your competitors are quieter and less bold. It's easier to grab the headlines, and headlines are remembered. 


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