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.