By Tim Hornyak
In 1988, Fujifilm unveiled what it called the world’s first fully digital consumer camera with the FUJIX DS-1P. It had a revolutionary feature, storing up to 10 images on a credit card-sized SRAM memory card. A lot has changed, especially since Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, a device on which users today store thousands of images.
There were 100 million digital cameras shipped in the iPhone’s first year. By 2018, the digital camera market had declined by roughly 80%, to 19 million. Of Japan’s eight digital camera makers, the only one to log sales and profit growth in the most recent annual period through March 31 was Sony, and it was not due to gangbuster camera sales, but rather, the steps Sony took to wedge its technology inside the smartphone market.
“The history of photography began with silver collidium daguerreotypes and it was a rich man’s game,” said Damian Thong, an analyst at Macquarie Group. “What we’ve seen with smartphones is the democratization of picture-taking. Today there are literally 5 billion smartphones in adult hands and we can take photos anywhere. In the future, the camera won’t go away but it will become a niche market again.”
When Fujifilm announced its latest instant camera last month, it was a sign that old-school photography can still find ways to remain popular with young people. The instax mini LiPlay is a hybrid camera that lets you save images as digital files as well as print them as small Polaroid-style snapshots. In a modern twist, you can add QR codes to the prints that trigger sound files when scanned with a smartphone. Known as cheki in Japan, these retro snapshots have been popular for decades and are an example of how Japan’s camera companies have tried to innovate amid big technological and marketplace changes.
Aside from the nostalgia of factor, part of the appeal of instant cameras is the tactile nature and immediate gratification of film itself. It’s no wonder these throwback devices are a hit with kids and teenagers. It doesn’t hurt to have Taylor Swift leading the trend with a branded instax SQUARE SQ6 Taylor Swift Edition from Fujifilm. The company sold 10 million instax units in the year to March 31, 2019. That’s more than half of the 19 million units in total digital camera shipments for 2018 logged by the Camera & Imaging Products Association (CIPA).
Nostalgia may be what Fujifilm was thinking when in June it said it would start to sell black-and-white film again, an about-face from its 2018 termination of the business after more than 80 years of sales. In launching Neopan Acros 100II, Fujifilm was responding to calls from photography fans young and old to bring monochrome back despite weak demand overall. It also was a nod to the company’s history. Founded in 1934 under a government plan to foster a Japanese film industry, Fujifilm began making motion picture and photographic film, followed by cameras in the 1940s.
But waxing nostalgic for a niche of enthusiasts won’t be nearly enough.
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