(The impact of the iPhone on Photography)
Apple most likely has recently sold its billionth iPhone. That’s quite a business accomplishment. The iPhone is easily one of the bestselling tech products of all time. To put it in perspective, Apple also makes the bestselling tablet and music player and the Mac is among the top selling computers. Yet Apple has sold more iPhones than Macs, iPads and iPods combined, dating all the way back to 1993.
I was the original iPhone fanboy. I used to produce a podcast called the Apple Phone Show and another related show called the iLifeZone. I appeared on my pal Leo Laporte’s podcasts talking about (and even debating about) the iPhone prior to its launch. (Shows like MacBreak Weekly and TWIT.) When I first heard of the iPhone it captivated my attention. 10 years earlier when I was a columnist for the now defunct “NetGuide Magazine” produced by CMP Media, I wrote a piece about a time in the future when we would have “Internet in the air and computers in our pockets.” I was widely ridiculed for those predictions (what else is new?) but even I didn’t think it would only be 10 short years until my predictions came true.
It was June, 2007. Wi-fi had just become mainstream and the computer in your pocket part was next. It seems like a long time ago. There I was in San Francisco on the TWIT stage with Leo Laporte and tech columnist John C. Dvorak during the recording of a live TWIT episode on the eve of the iPhone launch. John was explaining why (as he famously does) “that will never work” in reference to the iPhone. I was explaining why I thought it would work. Turns out on this one I was right. At least from a business perspective.
Let’s Talk Photography
Let’s turn the discussion now to the part that really interests me. What has the iPhone meant for photography? Was it a good idea? Did it end up making things better or worse for photographers? It depends on how you look at it. The net result of this post will be for me to conclude that I don’t know the answer. But I do think it is the basis for a good conversation about the impact of smart phones on photography.
Photography has always been a medium of expression that is more accessible than say painting or sculpting. Some “artists” still think photography isn’t “art” because it isn’t hard. (I utterly reject that notion by the way.)
And even though photography has always been relatively accessible, there’s no doubt that the iPhone has made it even more so. Most pundits say the iPhone is the most popular “camera” in the world. It has put a camera in hundreds of millions of pockets. Apps that help photographers learn locations, find sunrise and sunset tables, plan for tides and weather, etc have made it easier to get great chances at making cool photos. The iPhone camera can go places that a traditional DSLR cannot. In other words, the iPhone has made it possible for more people than ever to get a photo or a video of something that appeals to them.
On the perceived downside – The iPhone has also helped to destroy the compact camera market. Compact camera sales are off significantly since the advent of the iPhone and in the last two years off by such a high margin that the camera makers have simply slowed production to a crawl. DSLR sales are even off. Up until 2010 (when iPhone sales really started to ramp up) the DSLR market (and SLR market before that) had seen nothing but positive growth. In 2010 DSLR sales did something that shocked many of us…they started declining and they’ve been declining ever since. Check out the latest CIPA numbers out of Japan showing a record falloff. Some of this is reduction due to earth quakes and other natural disasters but there’s no doubting that the iPhone’s success is a big part of the reason this happened. The result in lower camera sales in general is an overall contraction of the photography industry.
There are many negative impacts associated with these declines. There are fewer jobs in the industry, innovation has been slowed (more on that in a minute) and much of the connected money, business and opportunity that was attached to a booming camera market is going away.
Some products that camera manufacturers had planned to build have been canceled or postponed. Staffs and R&D budgets have been cut. Marketing and education budgets have been cut. While there is continued innovation in the camera industry, nobody knows what could have been. It’s only logical to assume that the cuts in R&D led to canceled innovations that we may yet see someday but we don’t see yet today.
The democratization of photography has many good sides. More people can keep and protect and share memories. More people can see the world through your eyes. Disintermediation (what some of you call “disruption”) kills some business opportunities but creates others. But this process has also devalued photography from a business sense. The job of “professional photographer” will never be the same. Right or wrong, the price point of a “good camera” was a curator of sorts that kept photography in the hands of professionals who could justify plunking down lots of money for gear that could produce reliably good results with the right operator in tow.
Now everyone has a camera and it seems like everyone has a photography blog. All that’s needed to become a “professional” photographer is a “good” camera. Consumers have been taught that all photographs are created equal so all photographers must be the same. Remember when failed Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said “There’s no such thing as Flickr Pro today because [with so many people taking photographs] there’s really no such thing as professional photographers anymore?”
Professional photographers are partly to blame for allowing this to happen. The rush to the bottom of the market to compete only on price has commoditized photography. But the advent of cheap, good, camera phones has contributed.
Maybe in the end it’s a good thing. When the “good camera” is no longer the lynch pin to good photography, the real artists will be allowed to shine. Since we all have a camera it’s necessary to really make compelling imagery if we want to stand out.
The camera in the iPhone allows almost anyone with a vision and the time, patience and desire to make good photographs. Like any tool, it’s the person using it that matters not the tool. The day I knew the iPhone would really have an impact on photography was when Photofocus stopped getting press releases about the “first portrait session on an iPhone” or “first feature movie shot on an iPhone.” If you lead with the tool you used to make the image and not the story behind it – well that’s almost a sure sign that the image fails to stand on its own two feet. And more and more people are indeed making great images with the iPhone.
So what’s your take? Is it a good thing? Has the iPhone or a similar device had a big impact on your camera buying habits or your photography? Let us know.