Why Don't They Get It?
A Critique of the Current State of the Photographic Industry
This essay is about the photographic industry, not photography per-se. But since a long page without illustrations can be boring I've included some of my recent photographs as visual compliment. These photographs bear no relation to the text, but if the essay bores you hopefully the images will have made turning to this page worthwhile.
The Fun of Being a Critic
It's fun being a critic. You get to sit on the sidelines watching the foibles, antics, errors and sheer blunders made by others. While those involved in whatever is under the microscope are losing their heads (and sometimes their jobs), the critic can sit back and see the big picture, opining from the safety of the sidelines.
I'm a keen observer of the photographic scene. Since in addition to being a photographer, writer and teacher I have a moderately successful track record as a business entrepreneur, I don't fell ill-qualified to comment on the passing scene. (See here for a summary of my professional CV.)
with a Hasselblad XPan and 30mm f/5.6 lens on Fuji Provia 100F
The World — Upside-down
Sometime the world changes almost overnight. The last couple of decades have seen this happen in a number of industries, including telecommunications, computers, music publishing, and photography.
In photography the past 5 years have seen tremendous change — possibly more than at any other time since its invention in the mid-19th century. That change is, of course, a consequence of the digital imaging revolution and the Internet. Like all revolutions this one is causing some giants to crumble and other new ones to be born. Some people and companies "get it", others don't. So, let's look at various segments of the photographic industry and see what they're doing (or not doing) about it.
Oh, the poor photographic retailer. He's really in a bind. His raison d'etre is being attack on several fronts simultaneously. First of all the Internet has changed the equation dramatically. There are now online retailers who source their products from all over the world and who are able to sell some products for less than local retailers can buy them for from greedy national distributors. The Internet makes these inexpensive sources instantly accessible to buyers from around the world.
One example of a distributor that's living in the past is Mamiya's in the U.S., where prices are such that someone buying a camera body and a few lens can save enough to buy a roundtrip plane ticket to pick up the same products in another country with the money to be saved. Of course this isn't necessary since Fed Ex or UPS can deliver them within 48 hours for less than $100, and the rest of the difference can be pocketed by the happy consumer.
Warranties? No, you won't get a warranty by the national distributor in your country, but then the online reseller will guarantee the product and the savings can pay for an awful lot of postage.
Of course mail-order has always been around and is still flourishing, with companies such as B&H supporting most of the major photography magazines with their multi-page ads. For certain items, like film and small accessories, these are the places to shop. Their prices are unbeatable, but often they are not as good as those of the new Internet-only vendors.
And what the Internet has done is made the price difference between countries transparent. Up until a few years ago manufacturers and distributors counted on the fact that a buyer in Chicago had no idea what the price was in Hong Kong, or that a shopper in Rome didn't know the price in New York. Sorry folks, those days are over. Shoppers today can scout the world for the lowest price with just a few mouse clicks, and since the vast majority of shoppers for this type of product are now online, the jig is up.
Yet many manufacturers and distributors continue to act as if nothing had changed. Local retailers, who of course buy their products from the national distributor, are being blindsided by this. The distributors are being either stupid or mercenary — going for the long slide, as it were — knowing that their days of arbitrary pricing are numbered, but milking it for all it's worth until the party is finally over. Or, they simply just don't get it!
Another problem is specialty products. If you're looking to buy a 600mm f/4 lens, a 6X17 panoramic camera, an 8X10" view camera or other similar exotic and/or expensive gear, unless you live in New York, London or Tokyo, your ability to see and handle these products is essentially zip. So, you're going to do your research online and elsewhere and then buy from the lowest priced source. Why buy from a local retailer who adds no value to the transaction?
The Demise of The Grizzled Expert
Which brings us to the camera store salesperson. It used to be that the retail store was where one went for photographic advise. Typically there was a grizzled salesman who knew how to mix a custom soft-working developer, or how to calculate bounce flash ratios. No more. Today's camera salesman is usually some kid who thinks a Contax is a small plastic lens you put in your eye, or that a Topcon is a first-rate crook.
What has replaced the knowledgeable camera store salesman is, once again, the Internet. There are a huge number of sites, among which this one is counted, where one can turn for tutorials on almost any photographic subject. Many feature Discussion Forums where one can ask a question, and within hours have answers from photographers around the world, some of them even knowledgeable.
Photographed with a Ricoh GR1s 28mm f/2.8 lens on Fuji Sensia 400
Digital Does It to Some
Then there's digital. A couple of years ago I was chatting with the manager of a major photographic retailer, one of the three largest in a city of almost 3 million people. He was bemoaning how his business was in decline. I told him that this might be because he was still focused on the traditional darkroom market, used equipment and medium and large format, and he wasn't carrying any digital gear, either cameras or image processing. I said that darkrooms were being closed in droves and that the industry trend was clearly digital. He replied that he didn't understand digital, didn't like it, and was afraid of the rapid product turnover.
Just a year later he was out of business. His two major competitors in the meanwhile had embraced digital, opened new large and well stocked digital imaging and camera departments, and appeared to be thriving. (And in fact were, and are.)
Big Box and Electronic Super Stores
Digital cameras, inkjet printers, scanners and supplies are not just the purview of camera stores. Big box retailers like Wal-Mart carry them, as do the electronic super-stores such as Best-Buy, Frys, Computer Warehouse, etc. Because digital photography has in large measure been co-opted by the consumer electronics industry the retail outlets that sell TVS, DVD players, camcorders and computers now also sells digital cameras (including DSLRs), printers, scanners and the like.
The local photographic retailer simply doesn't have the buying power to compete with a 60-store chain. It's sad, but it's the current reality. A comparable example is the book trade. Local book stores have a hard time competing with the likes of Barnes and Noble, and Barnes and Noble has a hard time competing with Amazon. It's a tough world out there.
E-bay — The World's Used-Department and Swap-Meet Killer
It used to be (up to about 3 years ago) that the used camera department was the most interesting (and highest margin) area of any camera store. In large cities one could find almost anything, from a special lens cap for a 20 year old camera to slightly used but still excellent lens, and camera bargains. No more. Today E-bay is the world's used camera store and both margins and camera selection at retailers are quickly becoming a thing of the past. The good news for consumers is that among the dross and scams there are great bargains to be had. Not long ago I was able to buy an absolutely mint $6,000 lens for less than $3,000. Other great bargains are available.
This has not been lost of some smart retailers, and they are now selling their new and used products on E-bay to a world-wide audience. As always though — caveat emptor, especially online.
Swap meets and camera shows used to be great places to browse for that special something that you didn't know you needed or wanted, but when you saw it couldn't live without. No more. These are rapidly fading away as E-bay takes their place. A shame really as one no longer gets to see some of the truly weird people that used to haunt used-camera shows.
Not wanting to bite the hand that sometimes feeds — but really — these folks are in trouble. The problem is — as is the case more and more often these days — the Internet. Several factors are at work. Magazines have lead times of between 2 and 4 months on feature articles and reviews. But products in the digital arena typically have a half-life of 6 months. This means that by the time a product review is in print the camera or other product has only a few months left to live, and the rumours of its successor are already flying about the Net.
Worse, sites such as this one provide comprehensive product reviews almost as soon as products become available, sometimes even before they are shipping in many markets. These are not just previews but comprehensive tests and field reports. By the time traditional print magazines are on the newsstands and in mailboxes the reviews that they contain are old-news.
Then, as has always been the case, there's the advertising issue. When was the last time you saw a photography magazine seriously criticize a product? Not often. Unfortunately web sites that accept advertising suffer from the same dilemma. It's really only non-commercial sites like this one that are unafraid to tell the truth. But then, we have out own biases.
How-To articles in magazines face a problem. As this is being written (July, 2002) this month's magazines are filled with articles on Photoshop 7 and some of its new features and how to use them. Humm. I've been using Photoshop 7 for about 4 months and have now read at least a dozen online tutorials and reviews. Do I really want to pay $6.95 or more to read the same thing when I've already received it for free?
Many people buy magazines for the advertisements, especially those of the major mail-order houses like B&H. But again, these are now available online, and up-to-the-moment pricing is available as well as current inventory confirmation. Read the ad, click and the product shows up in your mailbox a couple of days later. No unfriendly salesman and no waiting on hold. Tough for a retail magazine ad to compete. In reality all that these magazine ads are now doing is keeping the retailer's name in front of public. This too is going to pass.
Digital has also sideswiped some of the magazines. They simply don't know where to place themselves. Some are fighting a rear-guard action against the inevitable, either through loyalty to their ever diminishing constituency or simply a lack of perception, bad advice, or all three. Others are trying to be all things to all people, and in the process providing little value to anyone. Yet others have jumped on the digital bandwagon but publish trivial articles and reprint product press releases, offering little of value. Their fate is inevitable.
The magazine industry will survive, but it will undergo significant transformation, and those that don't get it will either disappear quickly or at best will simply fade away. The ones that do get it will find that they need to embrace the Net, not see it as an enemy.
Printing and Photofinishing
It was only a few short years ago that if one wanted to have a photographic print one either went to a lab or did it oneself. Doing it oneself meant investing in the space to build a darkroom as well as the time and effort to master the traditional art of film processing and print making. Going to a lab meant anything from the corner drugstore for snapshots or a pro lab for expensive high quality (sometimes) prints.
Today anyone with a computer (and that means 70%+ of affluent consumers in many countries) can purchase a photo quality inkjet printer, and with a bit of a learning curve make very high quality prints — either snapshots of the kids on vacation, or fine art prints up to 13X19" on their desktop. Print making has been democratized. That's one of the reasons why some photographers and print makers bemoan the advent of desktop digital image processing. Just as the Internet allows almost anyone to be a publisher, computers and inkjets allows more and more people to master the art of print making. Today the skills lie in knowing how to use Layers in Photoshop rather than how to mix alternate developer formulas. To someone that has invested years in the arcane skills of the darkroom it is a real piss-off that any Tom, Dick or Harry can now make great looking prints.
I've had a darkroom in my home since I was 12 years old. I've taught Cibachrome printing and used that process for about 15 years. But in 1998 I closed my darkroom and sold my gear. Why? Simply because I was starting to be able to make better prints more easily on my desktop, and certainly with today's inks, papers and archival printers that's now even more the case. I'm also very pleased to be out of the dark, odorous and toxic confines of the darkroom. Good riddance!
I was at a large retail store the other day and overheard a customer ask a salesman what he could get for his dichroic head 4X5" enlarger with built-in colour analyzer, that he'd bought at that store less than 4 years before for about $3,000. The salesman said that they had no interest in handling it. Not even on consignment, because of lack of space and lack of customer interest. Essentially he said that the product's value was now close to zero. "Try E-bay". A bit hyperbolic to be sure, but indicative of the state of the traditional darkroom industry.
Manufacturers. Don't get me started! Well, maybe a little.
The saying goes that "The Internet changes everything", and to some extent it's true. But try telling that to some of the large Japanese manufacturers. Epson is a good example. They release products in Europe ahead of North America and then when reviews appear online and questions start to be asked their U.S. office plays dumb. New printer. What new printer?
They then ship essentially the same product but with quite different accessories, and a different product number. Most memorable is the fiasco of not including the Gray Balancer that ships with the European Photo Stylus 2100 with the North American 2200 model. Back before the Internet (say, prior to 1995) no one would be the wiser. An American might buy a UK photo magazine months later, read about the difference, shrug and think that these were two different products. Not anymore, and Epson just doesn't get it.
Not to pick only on that estimable printer manufacturer. We all owe them a debt of gratitude for their advances in photographic inkjet printing technology. There are other examples. Mamiya is one already mentioned, for assuming that consumers still can't figure out the huge price differential being charged for the same product in different countries. Click. Ahh, so that's what the price is in the U.K.
Pentax is another, but for different reasons. They make two excellent medium format cameras, the 645 Nii and the 67ii. There is a huge installed base of lenses, especially for the 67, which has been around for some 30 years. But almost alone among medium format makers they are being sidelined by digital. Most medium format makers have models with interchangeable backs. This means that digital backs can be used, and they increasingly are by professionals. The economics of professional photography demand this, if nothing else.
But the Pentax 67 can't take any backs, and the ones on the Pentax 645 are inserts, not full backs. Unless Pentax addresses this situation soon they will be marginalized in the medium format arena as photographers increasingly move to digital. There may be nothing they can do with the 67 format, but certainly they can bring out a body that accepts digital backs and that uses the array of autofocus and prior lenses for their 645 system. If they don't, and soon, legions of photographers with investments in Pentax MF systems will start to abandon them.
Then there's Leica. Dear old Leica, maker of arguably some of the finest (and needless to say, most expensive) 35mm photographic lenses ever made. There's no way that they have the financial wherewithal to develop a digital camera that can utilize them themselves. But, they've recently partnered with Matsushita (Panasonic), and Leica branded lenses are showing up on Panasonic digicams, and Leica is OEMing these under their own brand.
Matsushita also makes advanced imaging chips. In fact the chip in one of the major high-end DSLRs from another major camera manufacturer is from them. So, how about taking Panasonic's chip technology and manufacturing capabilities and marrying these with a some high-end Leica glass? That would put Leica back on the map and would give them something worthwhile to do other than produce green lizard-skin covered M6's for the Japanese collector market.
A special thanks to photography pundit,
author and editor Mike Johnston for exploring some of these thoughts with me
during a lengthy telephone discussion. Mike is the author of this site's Sunday Morning column.