News review of 2020 – what have been the biggest stories affecting the photo industry?

December 31, 2020

As 2020 comes to a close – good riddance, many will say – we look back on the main stories of this challenging year.

A tough 12 months, but signs of hope
This time last year we reported how Canon, Nikon and other big makers were facing tough times owing to the DSLR market contraction, the US/China trade spat and the economic slowdown in Europe and China. In comparison to the pandemic, these challenges seem relatively manageable. We’ll be looking in more detail how Covid-19 has affected specific camera and lens makers on page 10, but here are some sobering figures from the Camera and Imaging Products Association (CIPA) in Japan. From January to September 2020, 1.56 million DSLR units were shipped, down 54% year on year. As for mirrorless, 1.81 million units have been shipped so far this year, which is down 34% (unit sales of compacts dropped 51%). Meanwhile, unit sales of lenses wider than 35mm fell 45%, and 34% for lenses at or longer than 35mm.

The Canon EOS R6: an ‘incredibly accomplished performer’, we wrote

At the end of November it was revealed that the Photokina trade fair was being permanently suspended after 70 years. The announcement symbolised the difficulties faced by the industry this year. It’s not all gloom and doom, however. Latest CIPA data showed sales picked up in September, particularly for mirrorless, which grew by almost 140,000 unit sales compared to August. The positive sales trend continued in October, with more expensive mirrorless models pushing back up the monetary value of broadly declining digital camera shipments (see CIPA’s latest report at Lots of great cameras have come out this year too, such as the Canon EOS R6.

Makers adapt to lockdown and tiers
Despite really challenging trading conditions, it’s been gratifying to see both camera makers and retailers proactively reaching out to customers during the lockdowns and tier restrictions with a wide range of online activities – particularly live streams and workshops with top photographers. Macro, needless to say, has proved particularly popular, as photographers find themselves restricted to shooting around their homes and gardens. Just about every retailer we spoke to earlier in the year reported a strong uplift in sales of macro lenses and interest in the genre. Landscape photography has been popular, too, with the second English lockdown allowing for unlimited time for exercise (although landscape photography workshops at home or overseas have been seriously disrupted).

People were keen to boost their macro skills via online tutorials and live streams

Also, let’s not forget how photography has been helping people get through this difficult time; as Steve Byford from independent retailer Ffordes noted when we spoke to him earlier in the year, ‘We believe photography will be a big help to people in years to come as they deal with the far-reaching effects of this lockdown – depression and anxiety can be overcome by creative hobbies such as photography.’

A year of change for Olympus `
The biggest manufacturer story of the year concerned Olympus, which announced back in June that it was selling its camera and lens division (Olympus Imaging Business) to a private equity firm called Japan Industrial Partners, Inc. The announcement, coming a year after Olympus’s centenary celebrations, was the culmination of a difficult period for Olympus, and the company referred to an ‘extremely severe’ market in the announcement of the planned sale.

As it stands, Olympus has confirmed it has reached an agreement to transfer the Olympus Imaging Business to Japan Industrial Partners, Inc (JIP) at the beginning of 2021. Come 2 January, 95% of this company will be transferred to OJ Holdings Ltd, which has been created by JIP to take care of the transfer. While Olympus has confirmed that the ‘Zuiko and OM brands, which are grounded in optics and digital imaging technologies cultivated by Olympus over many years… will be appropriately positioned to further pursue new developments’, there is still some speculation whether the Olympus brand itself will survive. It’s certainly been quite a saga, and a sad one for many. ‘

Here, perhaps, we come to the nub of the problem,’ wrote AP editor Nigel Atherton back in June. ‘Olympus’s often-bizarre product-line decisions were just the visible tip of an iceberg of corporate mismanagement that hit the world’s headlines in 2011 with a major financial scandal in which eye-watering losses of over £1 billion were revealed. Add to this the fact that the camera division is only a small part of a much larger business for which the main focus is the lucrative medical equipment sector, and you can see how things might have gone wrong.’

Image editing market strong and diverse
On 19 February, Adobe celebrated the 30th anniversary of Photoshop, and while it and Lightroom remain the dominant image editors by market share, the competition intensified during 2020 – particularly in the application of AI and machine learning. Skylum, makers of the AI-powered Luminar software, had a busy year, bringing out a fully AI-powered version of the software in September. Luminar AI incorporated the machine-learning tools from Luminar 4 while adding some new ones, creating quite a different editing experience.

Easy sky replacement has long been one of the key selling points of Luminar, and in early October, this AI-powered feature was finally announced for Photoshop. DxO has also had a busy year, announcing a well-received new version of the Nik Collection in June, including Silver Efex Pro, and bringing out PhotoLab 4 at the end of October. Its AI-powered noise reduction tools are particularly interesting, with AP regular Angela Nicholson concluding in a recent head to head comparision with Lightroom: ‘It’s a win for DxO PhotoLab 4 and DxO DeepPRIME.’ Adobe is investing heavily in its ‘Sensei’ AI technology, so it will be fascinating to see what 2021 brings.

Gone but not forgotten
As is customary, in our year-end round-up we remember some of the great photographers who died in 2020. One of the biggest names was Peter Beard, author of The End of the Game, whose body was found near his home in Long Island back in April. He was 82. Beard, who had been suffering from dementia, was a contradictory character, being both a New York socialite and hedonist, as well as a passionate environmentalist. He made his name recording the loss of African wildlife before it became a cause célèbre. In July, Fiona Adams, whose famous shot of The Beatles jumping in the air was used on the sleeve of the Twist and Shout EP, passed away at the age of 84.

Chris Killip (above), a noted British social and documentary photographer whose outstanding work concentrated on working class life, particularly in the North East and the Isle of Man, died in October aged 74. In November, we remembered Baron Wolman, a legendary ’60s rock photographer who worked on Rolling Stone magazine right at the beginning, and the Magnum photographer Bruno Barbey, noted for his striking documentary images and beguiling travel photography.

What will 2021 bring?
It’s a brave soul who will make confident predictions at the moment, but the mirrorless market is likely to remain strong and buoyant – both in terms of full frame sensors and APS-C. It will be fascinating to see what happens with Olympus and the Micro Four Thirds format generally; let’s hope we see some dynamic new Olympus-branded cameras coming out. Fujifilm had a positive 2020, despite all the challenges, so there could be further releases in the higher-end GFX range, while Canon, Nikon, Sony and Leica are unlikely to be resting on their laurels either. All is speculation and rumour at this stage, however.

Retailers are soldiering on during the various Covid-19 restrictions, where possible, and doing lots to push online sales

A bigger and more immediate concern is the effect of all these lockdowns and draconian tier restrictions on makers and retailers – most ‘non-essential’ stores are now closed in England, and the continued economic uncertainty caused by the effects of the lockdowns and rising unemployment will obviously have a big impact on customer behaviour. Much of the economic recovery will depend on how effective the new vaccines prove to be in returning us to some kind of normality. Here’s hoping for a better year for the industry and for you and your family…

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