Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

According to a recent report from British market research firm Technavio, the global photo printing and merchandise market is actually poised to grow by US$6.36-billion between 2019 and 2023.Sinenkiy/iStockphoto

This year, 1.43 trillion photos will be taken worldwide, the vast majority of them by millennials and Gen Z on smartphones. And judging by public opinion, smartphones are where they’ll stay, in photo apps, cloud storage and posted to social media accounts, because younger consumers don’t print photos anymore.

But that’s not exactly true. The photo print industry has seen a decline in prints in the past two decades; according to estimates by digital imaging market research and strategic consulting firm InfoTrends, almost 47 billion 4-inch-by-6-inch photos were printed worldwide in 2016, a figure that fell to 38 billion in 2017 and is expected to decline further to 36 billion in 2020. But according to a recent report from British market research firm Technavio, the global photo printing and merchandise market is actually poised to grow by US$6.36-billion between 2019 and 2023, driven by a rise in gifting culture. It turns out that consumers are printing photos. They’re just seeking out different formats.

While prints have waned, photo books, mugs and even blankets emblazoned with a cherished family photo have gained in popularity. According to Gianmarco Bernaudo, director of marketing and product, photofinishing at FujiFilm Canada, his company has seen 40-per-cent growth in sales of their photo books year over year and 30-per-cent growth on other photo products.

The trend applies to smaller retailers, too; Andre Souroujon, the founder of Toronto photography store Pikto, says he’s seen a five-per-cent decline in print photos every year for the past five years – but his photo book business has more than made up for the decline, growing about 20 per cent per year.

And it looks as if the novel coronavirus will have a positive impact on those numbers. Souroujon says his company saw a large increase in photo book orders in April. Some orders came from brand-new customers, but others were from people who had started a project last year, or even the year before, and came back to it during the lockdown. FujiFilm’s labs temporarily closed in April to develop new staff safety processes, but they were back up and running in the first week of May – just in time for Mother’s Day, which is the second-busiest time for the company (after Christmas). Bernaudo says the most popular orders at this time of year are photo mugs, blankets, pillowcases and puzzles.

Younger consumers are driving much of this growth. “Millennials like to gift like their parents did, rather than just sharing content strictly online,” Bernaudo says.

Part of the reason for these products’ recent popularity has to do with accessibility. Thanks to advances in photo print technology, it’s easier and cheaper to print photos on all sorts of material, which explains the rise in textiles and ceramics. And while DIYing a photo book used to require downloading clunky software and choosing from basic templates, today’s photo books are now easier to create and often of higher quality.

“We just recently upgraded the software, so [now] you don't need to download anything,” Souroujon says. “Everything's done online. It can be done on a tablet, on a phone, on your laptop.”

There are also more services available now, and they’re doing a better job of encouraging customers to print their photos. “When you log onto sites like Shutterfly or Costco, it automatically shows you mugs, calendars, blankets. So there’s a real marketing push,” says June Cotte, a professor of marketing at Western University’s Ivey Business School. “A lot of people wouldn’t have thought about them before, but suddenly, they think, ‘Oh, Grandma might like a mug’ or ‘Grandma might like a sweatshirt or a mousepad.’”

The ability to create totally custom gifts is another huge factor. “Greeting cards are also very popular among this segment of customers. Many people are seeing value in customized, physical cards,” Bernaudo says.

Of course, many of those 1.4 trillion photos do end up on social media. But what consumers print is very different from what they post. On Instagram, a photo of an ice cream cone against a colourful wall can rack up thousands of likes. But photobooks, which are the most popular photo product, are full of treasured photos of family and friends, which isn’t so different from previous generations. “My first camera had 24 prints on a roll of film. Not only were they expensive, but they were rare, so photos were chosen with much more care than today and they became more important when they were printed,” Cotte says. “That association is still there for many people: if I print something, it's important. No one really wants the work of maintaining photo albums anymore, but gifts and useful photo items can serve that same nostalgic memory function.”

Nostalgia has affected photography trends before – instant-print cameras spiked in popularity in the mid 2010s, especially among millennials and Gen Z. In 2012, FujiFilm reimagined its Instax instant-print camera, launching the Instax Mini 8, which came in a rainbow of hues and rocketed to the top of many a teenager’s wish list thanks to its retro aesthetic. Similarly, in 2015, eight years after exiting the instant-print market, Polaroid made a comeback with the Snap, a digital camera that prints photos. But this year, our collective nostalgia is for a more recent time – pre-coronavirus.

“Nostalgia actually has a real psychological purpose; it helps people retain positive emotions from the past and revisit them and it strengthens resilience to things like stress,” Cotte says. “Feelings of loneliness even can be mitigated by using nostalgia to revisit happier times, so I would not be surprised if [companies are] seeing people revisiting actual photos and photo gifts to bring on that nostalgia. It brings this connectivity that we’re all lacking right now and helps romanticize the past a little bit. Things were probably never as good as we remember them later, but nostalgia tends to elevate all the positive memories.”

That may also explain the growth in consumers printing their photos for wall decor, especially for travel photos. In the past, globetrotters might have hosted friends for a postvacation slideshow. These days, sharing of that sort gets done on Instagram or Facebook.

Instead, “people are not using photo prints for sharing so much anymore. They’re doing these more elaborate photo books or [printing photos as] wall decor,” says Souroujon, whose store offers prints on metal, canvas and plexiglass, in addition to more traditional framed or mounted prints. “People are taking those really special images, something that really means a lot to them, and making those, as opposed to printing everything and then just storing them somewhere.”

To make the process of creating photobooks easier, he says Pikto will be rolling out artificial-intelligence-enabled design assistance later this year. But he doesn’t expect the process to ever become fully automated, even as we continue to see growth as millennials and Gen Zers reach milestones they want to commemorate, such as weddings, babies and big trips.

“The process is very, very personal and, no machine is going to be able to know exactly what's important to you,” he says. “We just make it as fun and as easy as possible.”

Sign up for the weekly Style newsletter, your guide to fashion, beauty and design, and follow us on Instagram @globestyle.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe