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The Coronavirus Has Already Changed the Photo Industry Forever

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Amid countless updates about major industry events being cancelled (or not cancelled), gear being delayed, and factories being temporarily shut down—to say nothing of the day-to-day realities of dealing with a pandemic that have nothing to do with photography—it’s easy to overlook the long-term impact that this virus will have on our industry… has already had on our industry.

In many ways—many more ways that we’ll be able to predict and enumerate today, but which will seem obvious with the benefit of hindsight—the 2019 coronavirus will catalyze and accelerate a litany of changes in the photo industry. It’s not just that business as usual will need to be suspended for the short term; the status quo has forever been shattered as the coronavirus points out the inefficiencies and crippling weaknesses inherent to “business as usual.”

Finding the Floor

The short-term impact will already be economically dire for a market that is, undeniably, in decline. Some corners of the tech world have enough capital squirreled away—enough buffer—to survive a prolonged disruption in supply chains and the corresponding slump in sales. If CIPA numbers are anything to go by, most camera manufacturers almost certainly do not.

Source: CIPA January 2020 Report

The past few years have been one prolonged search for the new “floor” of the camera market. When will the market stabilize, and how many units can the industry expect to ship in a given year? In a given product cycle? Once brands know this, they can begin to target a price-per-unit, set production targets, and create budgets that are realistic rather than aspirational.

Thus far, camera companies have been inching towards those answers in timid half-steps, trimming budgets and restructuring and buying back stock and hoping that they can survive long enough to find that floor. The coronavirus will act as an unceremonial shove towards the answer to that question, forcing companies to cut more aggressively and face economic realities that they’ve been trying to put off as long as possible.

When all is said and done, assuming all of the major camera makers survive, they’ll likely realize that they’ve been overestimating their ability to reverse the trend, releasing too many products too often, and treating high-end cameras too much like smartphones and other tech products that are used by the vast majority of the population.

With less R&D money to go around, companies will need to cut operating expenses more aggressively than they have in years, focus on the products that turn a profit, and shrink to fit the market that they’re actually playing in… or diversify… or get off the field entirely. Most, if not all, camera companies already knew they would need to do this; few, if any, realized that the reckoning would come quite so swiftly.

Are Trade Shows Worth It?

The cancellation of trade shows like CP+ and NAB, the postponement of The Photography Show, and the potential cancellation of Photokina, are all helping to underscore a question that companies, photography journalists, and photographers themselves have been wrestling with for some time: are trade shows are on their way out?

Photokina 2016 | Photo by Stefan Brending, CC-BY-SA 3.0

For attendees, they can be incredibly expensive to attend, exhausting to experience, and almost never worth it for the few minutes you get to sample some new gear you could find at your local Best Buy or rent from LensRentals and actually get to use, instead of being tethered to a table on the show floor.

For companies, the cost of setting up a booth may or may not be worth the leads and media attention that are generated, but up until now, it took a certain amount of risk to figure this out.

Companies like Nikon and Fuji were finally willing to take that risk this year—both pulled out of Photokina long before the 2019 coronavirus hit the scene—but the closures caused by the virus are forcing the rest to figure it out.

Trade shows aren’t bad, and we’ll lose something if they go away. The photo industry is a community, and that community needs events like PhotoPlus and WPPI and Photokina if it’s going to thrive. The real benefit of going to PhotoPlus—for journalists, company employees, and regular attendees alike—is the people you meet and the connections you make. But it’s hard to assign an ROI to “networking,” and if major camera, lens, and accessory makers find that their sales are unaffected by the recent cancellations, the Trade Show Budget will be one of the first cuts in 2020.

The Supply Chain Struggle

The final change we can reasonably predict, and which will take place across every industry that creates complex tech products, is the diversification of supply chains. Far too many of the components in every one of our digital cameras are provided by a few—sometimes only one—companies.

Screenshot from “Masterpiece in the Making” by Leica

Most modern companies operate on the Toyota Production System principle of just-in-time manufacturing, where they keep as few components as possible in stock in order to increase efficiency and minimize the cost of warehousing. The obvious downside is that almost every modern tech company is incredibly sensitive to disruptions in the supply chain.

In a recent article on Rangefinder, PetaPixel columnist Jaron Schneider cited a personal source who explained that almost all camera shutters are produced by just one or two companies. If these companies were forced to shut down for a prolonged period of time, most camera makers would run through their stock of shutters in a couple of months at the very most. Once that stock is gone, it’s gone. Production grinds to a screeching halt.

Diversifying supply chains and increasing held inventory in order to avoid this potential pitfall will have downsides for consumers. Cameras and lenses might cost a little more as companies choose a variety of suppliers instead of giving their business to the lowest bidder. But it might mean the difference between a company surviving an unexpected slump (mostly) unscathed, and huge production delays that could lead to massive budget cuts.

Conclusion

The most important and tragic impact that the novel coronavirus has and will have across the world is the loss of life and livelihood that will result from both the economic and literal, physical impacts of COVID-19. None of the above is meant to minimize that, or pretend, for a second, that the end of trade shows or a few product delays are on the same level.

But the photo industry makes up the livelihood of millions around the world, and the changes that the 2019 coronavirus is already catalyzing will have a lasting impact on those people’s day-to-day existence.

The shrinking camera market translates into real jobs. When a company “restructures” that usually involves laying people off, and as “real cameras” are held in lower and lower regard, photographers have a harder time charging livable rates.

Trade shows bring in tons of money for PR agencies and event planning companies, help photographers meet clients, and they can be a godsend for small companies who need to introduce themselves to the entire industry all at once. They also help prop up the economy of the cities in which they take place—no doubt one reason Photokina is so hesitant to go ahead and cancel.

And if diversifying supply chains and decreasing output means more expensive cameras and lenses, photography might someday soon be seen as a “niche” pursuit for a moneyed and eclectic few instead of an artistic outlet for the many. The whole industry—the whole art of photography—would suffer as a result.

But the point is that none of the above matters to a virus. Nostalgia for “how things used to be” hasn’t helped the photo industry for the past decade, and it won’t help us in the aftermath of this pandemic. Better to be prepared for the changes we can predict, and flexible to the ones we can’t, than to pretend that everything will go back to “business as usual” once this pandemic has run its deadly course.

There’s no longer any such thing as “business as usual.”


Image credits: Header image courtesy of the CDC, CC0

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