Is the Photo Equipment Supply Chain Totally Broken?

Impala Kill

Camera: Temporarily Unavailable.  Lens:  Temporarily Unavailable

Temporarily Unavailable

Those two words seem to be the order of the day for just about any photography related equipment that is desirable these days.  What is happening to the supply chain?  What is happening to manufacturers?  Is the system totally broken?

My Personal Vantage Point

Sometines my personal vantage point differs sharply from other people’s opinions or experiences, but if the anecdotes I am hearing almost every day are a representative sample, then I believe that my current point of view is the rule, rather than the exception.

So, how did I get here?

I am currently preparing to go on Safari in Africa.  As a recovering large format view camera addict, Medium Format shooter, and someone who does not like (and does not currently own) 35 mm DSLR’s with their hundreds of custom functions, dozens of buttons, bad ergonomics, excessive weight and size, etc., I found myself in the interesting position of not owning the right tools for animal pictures on a Safari. As tempting as it is to try something really different, most of the tools I own are probably not the best tools for the task at hand.

Water Buffalo

Camera: Out of Stock. Lens: Out of Stock

The Task at Hand

I view the task at hand as follows:

1. I will be traveling overseas with my family and I do not want to be burdened by huge amounts of heavy and bulky equipment.

2. I need something that allows me to shoot quickly and discretely with very long focal lengths.

3. In general, I do not expect to make large prints of these images.  My intent is to either put a book together or make a portfolio in a size that will probably not exceed something of the order of 16 inches on the large side.


Lions Double Yawn

Camera: Currently on Back Order.  Lens: Not available until further notice

Choice of Tools and Lack of Availability

My initial thought was to procure a professional level DSLR such as a Nikon D3x or a Canon 1Ds MKIII.  That is where the problems started.  I looked at the B&H ads.  These cameras are not even listed!  I perused the B&H website, and the cameras are listed as “Temporarily Unavailable”.  I then checked a number of other  major camera stores and the story was the same.  I checked my local dealers and the story was exactly the same again, not only with the camera bodies, but also with the most desirable lenses.

You want a Nikon 200-400 zoom?  Forget it.  You want a Canon 400 mm lens?  Forget it.

Frankly, I was amazed.

Although originally I was going to buy the cameras and sell them immediately after the trip (which in the past has cost me less than the rental fees for several weeks), my next thought was to try to rent a couple of camera bodies and lenses.  The response was the same:  Not available. The reasons varied form things like “we can make more money selling the few used units we see versus renting them” to “due to the recession, people are not buying these cameras anymore, so all our equipment is fully reserved until 2013“.

While this was going on, some contrarian thoughts were going through my mind:

Why shoot with a 35 mm DSLR in the first place?  Since my prints will not be that large, why not try aPanasonic GH2? I had heard many good things about this little camera, so I thought I would try my first experience with the micro 4/3 format.

So I made a momentous decision: I decided to get a GH2 with the 100-300mm and the 14-140 zoom lenses.

I started shopping for one and as you can guess by now, what I found was that this camera and the lenses were also not available!

It turns out that one of my favorite local dealers,Keeble and Suchat Photographyin Palo Alto California was having their annual sale event, and they told me that somehow they were allocated one GH2 camera and one 100-300 mm lens for the event.  I nabbed both. I pleaded and begged for a 14-140 mm lens and after 3 weeks of scouring the earth I have still not been able to find one.  

I must mention that there is some gray merchandise, usually at outrageous prices from overseas suppliers on eBay, but this is not how I want to buy my equipment. I want the full US warranty non-gray version.

In the final analysis, I decided to try the GH2 with the 100-300 mm lens for distant subjects (200-600 mm equivalent), plus my Leica S2 with the 180 mm and shorter lenses for those times when I can get closer to the animals.  

I will be reporting on my experiences with this combination on Safari after my return.

Oh yes, one more thing, the GH2 seems to eat batteries very fast, so I needed a few extra batteries.  Well, you guessed it, they are “temporarily unavailable“! 

Frankly, this is total insanity.  When one cannot even procure an extra battery for a Panasonic camera, the photo equipment supply chain is totally broken.

As I became more curious on this topic, I started to ask other photographers what their recent experiences have been.  I also spoke with a number of major photography stores.

What I found out is that basically any piece of photo equipment that is good and / or popular seems to be impossible to procure these days.  Do you want a Leica M lens?  Get in line.  Do you want the top of the line pro DSLR? You might as well almost forget it. Are you excited by the new Fuji compact camera? You can read about it, but you cannot hold one in your hands.  Do you like the latest camera or lens in the micro 4/3  format? Don’t hold your breath, it will be months before you can get one. 

Hell, even step up rings for filters are in short supply.

Three Lions Eating Buffalo

Camera and lens:  Not available for rent until 2013

What Gives?

Pinpointing the exact source of the problem is not easy.  There are obviously multiple reasons, some of which are practically impossible to verify. So, I cannot claim that what follows is the ultimate explanation of what is going on, but rather a list of some of the key factors I have been told are major contributors to the current situation:

1. As the recession started, many manufacturers decided to dramatically slow down their new product development and manufacturing operations.  The Japanese manufacturers seem to have been the most aggressive in this regard, which might explain why the strongly rumored circa 30 Megapixel pro DSLR’s from Canon and Nikon, as well as the larger sensor Nikon camera never materialized.

2. Due to the smaller manufacturing numbers, these companies are being extremely cautious with inventories in order to protect their profitability. They are trying to keep things as tight as possible.

3. In this environment, when a product becomes popular, manufacturers are extremely reluctant to ramp up production and would rather have the demand far exceed the supply, even if they frustrate or lose potential customers.

4. Because of the recession, certain raw materials such as specific types of glass, metals, electronic components and sub-assemblies are scarce.  This further reduces the number (and raises the cost) of items that can be produced.

5. The economic woes have literally put some vendors and distributors out of business, further tightening the supply chain.

And last but not least,

6. The earthquake/Tsunami/Nuclear disaster in Japan has made matters even worse for products with Japanese content. It is important to note that the disaster in Japan seems to often be blamed to a  higher degree than it should. The Tsunami is an easy one word scapegoat, but the reality of the situation is that the disaster in Japan is not the cause of the problem. The problem existed well before the Tsunami , and the disaster in Japan only aggravated it further.

Yellow Billed Hornbill

Camera: Impossible to find. Bird:  Abundant in Southern Africa

What a Shame!

The world of Photography has never been more vibrant and more exciting.  Certainly not in my lifetime.  And yet, amid all this excitement and all this demand for photographic products, the supply chain seems totally chocked for the best and the most popular products.

What a shame this is! 

Unfortunately, it will take time for things to change.  All we can do is hope that the market will eventually stabilize in much better shape than it is today.

June, 2011