Bowens’ collapse is yet another symptom of a broader, now-unstoppable problem


posted Thursday, July 20, 2017 at 2:10 PM EST


This morning, PetaPixel confirmed what many who follow the industry already feared: Bowens, a lighting manufacturer who has been producing professional equipment for 94 years, has collapsed and will cease operations. Bowens, like Calumet, Photoflex, Creative Light (bet you didn't even know this one existed) and others, is just the latest in a line of western photography manufacturers to fall in the last 15 years. Though Calument and Photoflex have been picked up by a marketing company, their original operations, employees and facilities are gone. I have written extensively in the past on this subject, going as far back as 2012 when I predicted the fall of more American photographic lighting companies. Even back then, this tide of bankruptcy was already too far gone to stop. It would be easy to blame Chinese manufacturers for this, but to say that this is 100% their fault, and the result of malicious intent, would be wholly unfair. The only ones to blame are us, the consumer, and the companies themselves. 

I have detailed recently how many problems with photo companies stem back to us as consumers, but this time I want to cover how it's not just our fault, but the fault of the manufacturers who failed. After all, it's really not fair for us to shoulder all of the blame here.

As I've explained in the past, the desire to lower costs to meet consumer demand made lighting companies look to the east, to China, for manufacturing. Though this decision to outsource manufacturing did lower company costs, the actual price of product to the consumer fell very little. It only helped the lighting companies keep pretty much the same bottom line while being able to sell fewer products. Meanwhile, the Chinese were learning how to make great products on the assembly line, and with the money flowing in from western companies, they were able to invest in their own development teams to produce cutting-edge lighting equipment. Since they also owned the assembly lines, making the product became incredibly affordable. Soon their products outperformed anything that western companies could make, and to keep up, western companies simply started buying Chinese products OEM, and slapping their brand on the side. 

It's a wholly unsustainable business practice, but they all did it. This was not the right approach to avoid collapsing. But looking at Bowens and at Photoflex (where I was employed just before their collapse and got a first-hand look at operations and manufacturing), both made the same mistakes and could not pull themselves out of it: their products were either the same or worse than Chinese equivalents, and priced much higher. By the time any of them were able to really gauge how to fix the problem, it was already too late.

With no manufacturing of their own, and no ability to invest in research and development, Bowens, Photoflex and many others fell into the same sinkhole. Bowens was given a ray of hope a couple years ago. When Profoto left the MAC Group (who distributes the likes of Sekonic, Elinchrom, Benro and for a while PocketWizard), Bowens filled that gap for a short stretch before leaving (or being dropped) and being replaced by Elinchrom. During that time, Bowens was partnered directly with PocketWizard (another MAC brand) to put their technologies together.

That didn't help. By then, PocketWizard was already struggling and Bowens had no American brand recognition. At least, not to the degree of Profoto or Elinchrom. But Bowens had the biggest photo brand distributor in the United States repping their brand. What it proves is that brand doesn't outperform performance and price.

Bowens confirmed to PetaPixel this morning that they "will discontinue its operations" and blamed "considerably less expensive products by Chinese manufacturers" for undercutting their bottom line while also providing products that rivaled theirs in quality. They also blamed "product innovations by competitors" and "changed buying behavior of professional photographers" who "are now only willing to invest in new equipment if the investment guarantees additional income." 

So breaking that down, it's basically two factors:

  1. Inability to compete on price or quality
  2. Desire from customers to purchase actually good product that will enhance their business 

And as a consumer, I see no problem here. It's odd that Calumet, speaking on behalf of Bowens, thinks these reasons excuse Bowens for their failure, like it's somehow not fully Bowens' fault.

Such an assertion is patently ridiculous. 

To claim that photographers are now only buying products that help them make money is a reason for their failure makes so little sense it's mind-numbing. Is Bowens saying that their products have never helped photographers make money? And by that reasoning, they made products no one needed but were buying anyway? If that's the case it's no wonder they failed. Hell, it's a wonder in itself they stayed in business for 94 years. Bowens is playing the part of the wronged victim, but their failure is their own. The fact that Bowens had the support of MAC Group and failed to move enough product to retain that support (and eventually be replaced by Elinchrom) shows that the problems at Bowens had very little to do with anything other than Bowens. To blame others is not only disingenuous, it's disrespectful to former/prospective customers and the others in the space. Sure, the desire for cheaper product from consumers most certainly had a part to play here, but the other reasons Bowens' points to are all symptoms of their own previous decisions. That's a problem that started many, many years ago and has grown to be quite unstoppable.