More Americans Becoming Serious Photographers

The point-and-shoot pocket camera is on its way out — not only because of cellphone cameras, but because Americans want to do more than just point and shoot.

In the past year alone, sales of high-performance cameras with interchangeable lenses (most known as "SLRs") jumped 21 percent — from 3.3 to four million units, according to research firm IDC. And though prices of new cameras generally stay the same year to year, Americans spent about ten percent more on high-end equipment in the past year, according to a new survey by J.D. Power and Associates.

This isn't just a matter of people buying better gear because it looks cool. They are actually learning how to use it. "It's more about taking great pictures," said Chris Chute, an analyst at IDC.

The mark of "serious" photography, going back to the film days, has always been the single-lens reflex, or SLR, camera. Today's digital SLR, or DSLR, has three advantages over point and shoots: It can take an interchangeable range of specialty lenses, it has a much larger image sensor and it has an internal mirror that allows the photographer to see directly through the lens while composing a shot.

In the past few years, companies have been making so-called "mirrorless" cameras that remove that last feature to reduce bulk but still have the large sensor and, most importantly, the interchangeable lenses that allow photographers more flexibility in how they shoot. [What Makes a High-Quality Camera?]

"There were many cases in which they were buying extra lenses," said Sara Wong Hilton, who oversaw the J.D. Power survey. That goes beyond just getting a bigger zoom.

Chute of IDC said that people are also starting to buy a once-obscure type of lens (outside professional circles), called a "prime," that doesn't zoom at all. Dollar-for-dollar, prime lenses tend to offer higher image quality in exchange for giving up the complex zoom mechanisms.

So photographers will pick the best prime lens for what they are shooting and use what Chute calls "sneaker zoom" — stepping forwards or backwards — to frame the photo. Working within the constraints of a prime lens forces photographers to think about how they compose a shot. "The more you learn about photography the more you learn about composition," said Chute. "It's not the lens's fault, it's your fault." [How Do I Avoid Blurry Photos?]

Chute said that about half of SLR owners consider themselves to be enthusiasts "who really enjoy photography and know how to use manual settings on a camera." According to his research, only about a fifth of SLR owners consider themselves to be novices, "who just want to take pictures," as he described it. Chute finds that surprising, since typically about half the owners of a technology would be in the novice group.

"There is a shift overall in the industry from casual to enthusiast," said Hilton. She also found a big jump in people going from enthusiasts to semi-professionals who earn money as part-time photographers.

Traditional cameras are certainly taking a beating from smartphones, according to Chute's research. "But at the same time photography is alive and well in the high end with all these people investing in the DSLR subculture," he said.

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