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Camera Sales Continue To Fall Because Your Emotions Matter More Than Specs

By Lauchlan Toal on November 20th 2015

Do you remember the last camera you bought? What made you buy it? I’m guessing you probably spent some time checking reviews, comparing specs, reading up on DxOMark scores. A DSLR is a big investment, and you need to ensure that you’re purchasing the right piece of equipment.

One might compare a camera to a car; Both are generally expensive machines, and people spend hours dissecting reports and reviews about competing models to ensure they get the best value possible. But no matter what brand or model you buy, you’re guaranteed a certain level of functionality. A car will let you drive around, and a camera will let you take photos.

The car drove to the beach, and my camera took this photo. These are standard results that you expect.

The car drove to the beach, and my camera took this photo. These are standard results that you expect.

Since the car market is significantly larger than the camera market, there’s been a lot of research on car sales and relatively little on camera sales. Hence, bear with me as I discuss cars as a proxy for cameras.

As mentioned, people spend a lot of time comparing car models. After buying a vehicle, people will be all too happy to discuss why they chose that particular car. “Great mileage,” “best in class safety ratings,” and “easy maintenance” are excellent reasons to buy a car, but what about the other car that had the same specs but cost less? Or that had better specs? Rarely will you hear someone discuss the compromises they made.

Why is this? Wouldn’t it make sense to share one’s entire logical process, when justifying a logical choice?

The truth is, very few people actually bought a car for the reasons they state after the fact. It turns out that most people are emotional buyers. They pick the car that smells nicest, the car that feels the most familiar, the car with the coolest key. Yet we see ourselves as rational entities, making objective comparisons. To admit that we picked the car that smelled nice is anathema to our personal belief system, so we justify our decision after the fact by cherry picking the specs that make our decision seem logical.

The same can be said for cameras. Most people are not buying the camera that provides the best overall value. However, when thinking about their choice or discussing it with others, they won’t hesitate to share how their camera has a faster fps shutter, better low-light performance, or great tonality. And this may well be true, but it’s probably not the deciding factor.

One caveat might be for professional photographers who need to stay competitive. A sports photographer needs top of the line AF and fps, a commercial photographer needs a camera with plenty of megapixels, and a videographer probably needs 4k video capabilities. Such photographers may well buy a new camera that offers such an improvement as a completely logical decision.

Judging by the data though, not too many people care about the latest cameras.

Judging by the data, though, not too many people care about the latest cameras. Image Credit 

However, consider that in the United States there are around 150,000-170,000 professional photographers. So let’s assume there are around 200,000 photographers in North America. Looking at CIPAs data for 2014, 2.7 million DSLRs were shipped to the Americas from January to December. So even if every professional photographer bought a new camera in 2015, 92.5% of DSLRs were sold to non-professionals. This doesn’t even consider the additional half-million mirrorless cameras that shipped alongside DSLRs.

So even if we say that every professional photographer buys a new camera each year, and their decision is completely objective, the vast majority of camera sales are still based on emotional choices.

I recall buying my first DSLR, the Nikon D5200. I loved to talk about how it had 24 megapixels, more than any of Canon’s cameras! It had great dynamic range, a stereo microphone, a tilting screen, all sorts of great features. In reality, 18 or 20 megapixels would be equally good – 24 megapixels is not really decisive. And other cameras have the exact same features. So why did I really buy the Nikon? At the camera store, it felt heavier and more solid than the Canon T3i, and even more so than the bridge P&S I’d used before. It felt like it was something special, something reliable. Then when I turned the camera on, I was really sold – the LCD displayed a nifty graphic showing my shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. I’d spent the last couple months learning about all this stuff online, and this display instantly validated my work. I knew that it would allow me to apply what I’d learned and that it wasn’t a waste of time. Other cameras give you manual control of all this too, but this camera seemed built for it.

The D5200's rear LCD screen.

The D5200’s rear LCD screen.

It seems silly to say that you bought a camera because it felt heavy and had a cool screen graphic, so most people (myself included) resort to picking specs that justify their choice. You’ll rarely hear people gushing over rumors of a camera that has a better user interface – it’s all about the latest tech. But most buyers aren’t being rational and making decisions based on specs. Instead, it’s about how the camera makes you feel.

Despite this, camera companies continue to push out cameras with new features. Flicker reduction! Silent shutter! 18 stops of dynamic range! While this may attract a few professionals, and help people avoid cognitive dissonance, it does nothing to attract new buyers. Instead, people try a camera and are put off by its complexity, size, or even color and smell.

[Rewind: Canon Profits Free Fall]

There’s a reason why camera sales continue to drop every year, and it’s not because we don’t have enough megapixels. Perhaps camera companies need to start thinking about how they can create cameras that people care about, and forget about all the big numbers that we like to talk about. Having an extra stop of DR won’t make a difference in your photography. Having a camera that you love? You tell me.

Be sure to share your own opinions in the comments below – do you compare cameras objectively, or has your emotional response influenced your purchases? Bonus points if you’ve applied similar marketing strategies in your own business.

This site contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links, however, this does not impact accuracy or integrity of our content.

Lauchlan Toal is a food photographer in Halifax, Nova Scotia. When not playing with his dinner, he can be found chasing bugs, shooting sports, or otherwise having fun with photography. You can follow his work online, or hunt him down on the blogs and forums that he frequents.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Roberto Pavan

    I think camera sales have dropped off because it’s a mature market; most people who want a DSLR or mirrorless camera have one, and the ones they have are good enough, assuming they’ve been purchased in the last 5 years. The incremental gains in image quality, dynamic range, frames per second, etc. are not nearly compelling enough to entice people to replace a tool that already does everything they need it to do.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      I think this is a great point. Those of us entrenched in the photo world are often misguided in thinking that we are the camera market, when in fact we are not the majority, and the majority, as you say, has gear that’s ‘good enough’ for now.

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  2. Stephen Jennings

    In my opinion, technology has advanced to the point that upgrading won’t result in game changing performance benefits.

    I shoot with a d800 .. to me, honestly, it’s the peak of performance. Is the d810 better? sure.. but is it worth it to upgrade? Hell no, my photos with the d800 even after 3 going on 4 years produces beautiful photos that clients love.

    But before 2012 .. the d800 was revolutionary. The d4 was revolutionary. The d5100 was revolutionary even. I remember buying that camera when it was released and being blown away lol.

    But now .. how much better can a camera really get? Resolve more lines of detail? ultra ultra HD images? This camera will last me till it dies. Then I’ll pay to have it fixed. And it will last till it dies again. When a major upgrade is offered, it will be my backup.. I just think that DSLRs, especially pro-sumer and pro models are so robust and so good .. the sales fall off because everyone rushed to buy them and now it’s going to be a long time before they need a new one.

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    • Lauchlan Toal

      I agree – the ROI just isn’t there for most people. Even if the camera companies came out with 200 megapixel cameras with 25 stops of dynamic range and 60 fps, it wouldn’t make a difference to most people. That’s why I’m suggesting that they need to stop focusing on specs and really invest some effort into the user experience.

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    • Dave Haynie

      Exactly the point I was making earlier. Digital is a big jump, largely because everyone replaced their chemical photography gear with digital, and all in about 15 years. Only, it wasn’t simply replacing your SLR with a DSLR… maybe you bought a digital P&S when DSLRs were still too expensive, then you bought a DSLR, then you bought another because that first didn’t perform well, maybe then a mirrorless or two. So the world didn’t simply replace all their film cameras, they replaced them several times.

      And now we’re done. Not done buying cameras ever, but done with the mad rush into digital…we’re back to “normal camera reasons” for buying a new camera, mostly. Some of that’s emotional, some utilitarian. I found this recently, it’s discussing this exactly the way I see it… with graphs:

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  3. Sedric Beasley

    When people see the good photos that have the blurred background and good lighting that is what should lead the conversation. Average consumer might ask, how I can get good photos like that. You then tell them you can’t do that with your camera phone and that might get them to buy into purchasing a camera.

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  4. Trey Mortensen

    I find it kind of funny that you bought the other camera while I bought the T3i. My reason? It was simply because I HATED the Nikon menu system and button layout. That and I had some professional friends who used Canon, so I was able to borrow lenses from them as I was learning. It wasn’t any super amazing feature, but it was actually the most important thing to me. When I have friends who ask me why Canon, I tell them that. They are always expecting something like, “Oh it has this amazing feature” or, “It has this many megapixels.” I think I catch them off-guard because I don’t try to justify my purchase.

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    • Lauchlan Toal

      To each their own, eh? That may be why the companies focus on specs and avoid working on the interfaces and ergonomics as much. It’s easy to improve measurable specs, but hard to account for everyone’s personal preferences.

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  5. Natoyi Lively

    Why are sales dropping? Probably because DSLR’s used to be REALLY expensive, then a few years back, they became attainable to many more non-professionals. Now, you have people who wanted to get a Dslr have gotten their first, and had to invest a large chunk of money to do it. Many people can’t afford to buy cameras every year or so, which means the market for cameras now isn’t what it was a few years ago.

    SO, your offering me newer cameras, with more, better features. Ok, i would love to have one. BUT how many of us can afford to drop another few hundred to few thousand dollars to get a camera that performs somewhat better, and is easier to work with? I cant afford it at this time.

    I bought my first DSLR back in 2010, spent 1200 on a 60D, now i know more, i wish i had gotten the 7D. At the time i didn’t have the experience to understand the differences that justified paying the extra money for it. Now i have my 60D, it does most things well enough that i cant justify spending money to buy a new body. If canon were to reimburse me the 1200 for my 60D if i were to buy a 7D Mk 2, hell yeah, i would love to. But they won’t, so they will need to wait awhile until i can afford to buy it outright.

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    • Dave Haynie

      I think a big part of the dropping of DSLR sales is that they’ve been artificially high for many years. You’re looking at the 60D and saying, hey, I should have bought a 7D… but that’s a “traditional camera” reason to buy an upgrade. They have the same sensor. You learned you wanted a more professional body for reasons that have nothing to do with image quality. But over the history of DSLRs, the primary reason to upgrade fast was the fact that a new DSLR would deliver much better images.

      I went from 1/3 Mpixel (Canon 350) to 2.6Mpixel (Canon Pro90IS) to 8-Mpixel (EOS Rebel Xt) to 18Mpixel (EOS 60D) to 20Mpixel (EOS 6D) to 16Mpixel (Olympus OM-D)… and a couple of 12Mpixel P&S models in there as well. Still have the 6D and the Olympus. They got to a point where the basic technology of digital, for me, wasn’t a weakness anymore. Which had been the primary reason for upgrades. Same reason I used to upgrade my PC every 2-3 years…. I’m a power user, and that’s not even much of a thing anymore.

      It’s easy to cast a technological deficiency as a “need”, much harder to rationalize spending that money based on “I just want it”, at least for me.

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  6. graham hedrick

    I understand this all too well. I am close to buying a new camera. I was a Nikon customer for 30 years. I moved to Canon for the “stuff” the Canon 1D mmii offered. Now, that camera is 10 years old. Time for a new one. My emotions tell me to get a Canon 1D x. My spreadsheet tells me the Canon 5D mmiii. Me sentimental attachment to why I moved from Nikon to Canon is trying to get the best of me. Ugggggh

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  7. Barry Chapman

    So in your opinion it’s only professional photographers who make objective decisions based on their requirements? I think you’re greatly underestimating the many accomplished amateur photographers out there.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Barry, what he’s saying is that even including those progressive and accomplished amateurs, the rest of the market is he lion’s share of it, made up of people who aren’t looking into hardcore performance.

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  8. Timothy Going

    I would agree with a lot of the points you said. The fact is that you could take any of the top 10 cameras on the market right now, and there would be no significant difference in your pictures than with the other nine I find it interesting that Canon is moving more to the emotional connection side in their advertising for printers. The “Never Again” commercial and the one I saw here about eye movement when viewing photos both rely less on dazzling with specs and more with establishing a connection with your prints.

    The problem is how do you advertise a PERSONAL connection with a camera to the masses? I’ve used the comparison it’s like buying running shoes. There’s a huge market, all with manufacturers advertising that theirs are the best because of this feature, or this unique design. But when it comes down to it, the pair you’ll buy is the one that fits YOU the best.

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    • Dave Haynie

      There’s a funny relationship between people and technology. And when you’re spending lots of money, it’s inherently emotional. With many people, I suggest it’s somewhere between a marriage, a religion, and a team… but I guess that may be the case with some people and their running shoes, too.

      But this part of it, the emotional component, you see this all over the place. Look at the fans of Apple, iPhone and Mac people, and how they’ll defend their technology-buying decisions to the death.. and back in day, we Amiga people were worse than the Macheads. There’s a big Ford vs. Chevy thing in pickup trucks. Gamers will got to mat over X-Box vs. Playstation. With guitars, you have both Fender vs. Gibson for electrics and Martin vs. Taylor. There’s Coke vs. Pepsi, even. It’s not just that these corporations are rivals, but that customers start to self-identify with their expensive buying decisions. You certainly get this with the whole Canon vs. Nikon thing in photography — not every Canon or Nikon user, but you’ve probably seen it.

      That’s usually a good thing for each company involved — they’ve managed to establish that emotional, member-of-the-team relationship with the customer that, logically, just shouldn’t exist. Does Apple really know how that happened? Can they maintain it? Can Canon or Nikon? That might be how you maintain your share of the market, or even grow it… I don’t think that’s what prevents the whole market from contracting, particularly given that I think the current size of the market is the product of unsustainable technological growth.

      Every tech market hits a sort of “golden age”, once the technology is good enough to become mainstream and be an acceptable replacement for What Came Before, but not good enough to slow down that next upgrade. We’ve seen this with television (as I mentioned in another posting), we’ve see it with personal computing. That’s a big one: the PC market has been contracting. Some of that’s more people relying on mobile technology (the same mobile technology that destroyed the low-end P&S camera market, too), but it’s also the fact that, for the average user, a 5-10 year old PC still does the job. During the PC’s golden age, a five year old PC was a dinosaur — of course you wanted to replace it. You probably wanted to replace your 3-6 Mpixel camera as soon as a 10-12 Mpixel camera came out… but these days, most of us don’t need to replace our cameras.

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  9. Dave Haynie

    Lauchlan — not quite sure what you’re trying to say here. Sure, we buy new cameras at least in part based on emotions. I know I got into my Olympus system initially in part out of nostalgia — there was always something missing that I had back in the OM-System days. And it’s absolutely true that for me, the OM-D series brought that back, even if my Canon system can handle low light better.

    Thing is, letting emotions influence my decisions, rather than pure logic, I wind up spending more money. That’s easy to see in other consumer habits, too. The reason any salesperson is ever able to “up-sell” is because salespeople know how to push all the emotion buttons.

    So while I agree on The Emotional Buying Practice thing, I don’t see how that results in camera sales dropping. Are you suggesting that camera manufacturers aren’t pressing enough emotional buttons? Looking at the last year’s B&H bill, I’d have to disagree with that, strongly. And in fact, I think all of the mirrorless companies have become better at doing this than the traditional DSLR companies. I don’t think Nikon or Canon are bad at it, or worse than they were traditionally — we certainly upgrade in the digital era far more often than in the film days. Just that the mirrorless folks are hungrier, and so they’re upped the ante in various ways.

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    • Matthew Saville

      I see what you’re saying, Dave. On the one hand, I too buy equipment for emotional reasons. For me it’s nostalgia, plus I actually enjoy being the under dog. That’s probably why, out of all the whiz-bang systems coming out these days, the system that excites me the most right now is Pentax. Their cameras and lenses still seem to have a soul. (However I still carefully review and consider my options, and I would not choose a Pentax if I thought it was in inferior to other options in a way that might truly hinder my photography.)

      On the other hand, I’m also with you: any rise and fall of camera sales we’re seeing has a lot to do with the basic forces of market saturation, and supply + demand.

      Tons of people already bought their “dream” DSLR quite a while ago, and today most photographers who are dissatisfied with their current camera have either dumped “advanced” photography gear altogether in favor of a mere cell phone, or in favor of a small compact P&S or mirrorless ILC camera system. Or they soon will. And mirrorless, emotionally speaking, does seem to have a bit more to offer in the way of either bells and whistles, or ergonomics, or just that “warm fuzzy feeling” that influences us all in a small way.

      But as a whole, camera sale are in decline simply because they’re becoming dwarfed by cell phone sales, which are in the hundreds of millions IIRC. Because, emotionally speaking, society’s attention span is more inclined to the likes of Instagram, not art galleries. :-(

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    • Dave Haynie

      I’m not sure I’d hold cellphones responsible for declining DSLR sales, anymore than I’d hold 35mm P&S cameras responsible for SLR sales in the 90s, or Instamatics for affecting SLR sales in the 70s. Sure, I have a smartphone, and my current even has a not-so-terrible camera, but the best you’ll get in any smartphone is “entry level P&S” quality. Period. Guaranteed by design.

      I really think that the DSLR market has been artificially inflated by the big jump to digital — just like the television market. Look at the transition to HDTV. I had a first generation HDTV, 65″ with projection tubes…. didn’t last. Second generation was a 71″ DLP, replaced by a 70″ LCD/LED. The technology was changing very fast, and the early models were quickly obsoleted.

      Similar with digital.. I had an early, just to mess around with digital P&S from Canon, 640×480 images. That was replaced by the Powershot Pro90IS, the first time I had image stabilization… tiny sensor, 10:1 zoom, 2.6megapixels, and I used it way more than was good for me. The DSLRs got cheap enough, I added a Rebel Xt to go with EOS Rt, and barely touched the Rt again. Then an EOS 60D, a 6D, and then some Olympus gear — sold the 60D, keeping the 6D. And at the moment, I’m pretty good with the camera gear… definitely need more glass, but the cameras I have do the job.

      Any ILC you buy today will do most jobs. And that’s the same problem that got the TV folks to try to sell us all on 3D, and now on 4K. 3D became a more or less standard feature, but nothing forcing many to upgrade. I’m not sure 4K is any more of an upgrade magnet.

      It’s also the used market now: just as with film in the film era, you can find used HDTVs, used DSLRs, etc. that’ll do the job for many people. As much as the film camera market contracted in the jump from mechanical to electronic bodies, the move to digital got a bunch of new players into the game: Samsung, Panasonic, Sony (of course built on the bones of Konica and Minolta), Epson, Casio, BenQ, Sigma, etc. But it’s also killed off a few who tried: HP, Konica/Minolta, Sanyo, Contax, and especially, Kodak. The jump to electronic cameras was a once in a generation shift, affecting traditional cameras makers, consumer electronics companies, and film makers. And the dust still hasn’t completely settled. But every market has its own laws of physics, and the dust has to eventually settle.

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  10. Matt Owen

    I actually encourage this behavior when people ask me which camera they should buy. I tell them to try a few and get the one that feels best in their hand, and has a menu system that makes sense to them. Personally, I do feel an emotional pull towards the full frame mirrorless but I can’t get past the expense of switching ecosystems.

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  11. Bob McCormac

    Way too many new models every year. It’s gotten to the point that the digital camera industry mirrors the computer sector and not in a good way. Too many minor upgrades at inflated prices. The major manufacturers need to retrench and focus on fewer new models with upgrades that really make a difference over previous versions. Hey Canon, Nikon, Sony, et al – you want the hearts and wallets of consumers, then deliver real value, fewer minor upgrades, and less hype!

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    • Ralph Hightower

      I totally agree with you about the upgrade cycle. When I was researching the DSLR model to buy, I ran into what I call “Analysis Paralysis”. It involves, “Well, if I wait a bit longer, the new model on Canon Rumors will be available with the features I want.”

      It’s like an “Arms Race” between Canon and Nikon as to who can out-megapixel and out-feature the other.

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    • Ralph Hightower

      When I was researching my first DSLR purchase, which lasted for over a year, I had a list of features and prejudices or biases, that I wanted in my camera; Canon Rumors didn’t help with my decision by “If I wait a little longer, this model will come on the market”.

      Prejudice or Bias: I’ve used a “full-frame” camera since 1980 and continue to use that 35 year old Canon A-1 with the original definition of “full frame”: 35mm film. Now, I like the ability to “cheat” with getting a longer reach from a telephoto lens with an APS sized sensor; but I feel “cheated” on the wide angle side when a 28mm lens becomes a 45mm lens on an APS sized sensor.

      Features: With my two film cameras, Canon A-1, and F-1N, with their respective motor drives, the FPS is 6 frames per second. I didn’t want less than that. I don’t remember if the 1Dx came out in 2013 or not, but did I want it? Heck yea! Could I afford it? Heck no! Nor would I need to use that blazing fast FPS all the time.

      With the professional film cameras of years ago, the life cycle of the cameras was 10 years before a new model was introduced. With DSLRs, while some advancements depend on mechanical advances, most advances are done with chips and software.

      In July 2013, I mentioned to my wife that KEH had a used F-1N for sale and adding a few accessories was $400. She asked “That’s their flagship model?” I answered “Yes, for the 1980’s” and she said “Buy it.” December 2013, she was surfing the internet and found a 5D Mk III package with the 24-105 f4L on Amazon for $4000 and asked “What do you think about this?” “Seriously! You’re going to buy a 5D for me? Go for it!”. I said “But let me check B&H.” I found a similar package for $500 less. In 2011, I talked her out of buying me a DSLR when I found her budget was a T3i; I thought that would be my first and last DSLR, like my A-1. As a consolation, she bought me a used FD 28mm f2.8.

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    • Matthew Saville

      It’s hard to blame the chicken for the egg, or vice versa.

      In other words, we have only ourselves to blame for the acceleration of the gears of consumerism. We can say that we’d rather have digital cameras come out on a 4-year cycle, or even a 10-year cycle, but the reality, that would be both agonizing, and counter-productive to actual progress in technology.

      In fact, Nikon and Canon both *tried* very hard to avoid a faster product cycle for some of their lineups, and the result was an uproar/revolt from serious photographers everywhere, as the Canon 5-series for example experienced a long product cycle. So it was not just a corporate pressure to compete and meet sales projections that drove product cycles to shorten, it was in fact our own cries and buying habits that created the situation we have today.

      This is why Sony has been able to continue with their rapid-fire release cycles, even on high-end cameras. They simply can’t afford NOT to; waiting years and years and taking the “get it right the first time” approach would not afford them the profits they’ve amassed thus far, and would actually garner them less favor among consumers.

      Just my opinion, of course.

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