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On “The Online Photographer” I recently wrote four or five posts about the Sony Alpha A900, (compare prices) (review), which I had borrowed for a week. One of the comments I wrote in passing was this, “It would be extremely tough for me to part with three thousand simoleons for a camera that’s disposable (as all digital cameras ultimately are)....”
That “disposable” comment ignited a flurry of discussion. One commenter asked if 3-5 years was not a “more-than-justifiable ROI” (return on investment).
It strikes me that there are basically five things that can happen to a digital camera purchase:
Supersession: a model gets replaced by a newer model. An ordinary occurrence, and familiar to most people who buy successive iterations of anything, from cars to iPods.
Obsolescence: newer models have more advanced technical features which make the older one clearly less desirable. This was certainly very familiar to early adopters of digital, although the pace has been slowing in recent years.
Totaling: a camera breaks or develops problems that would cost more to fix than the camera is worth, or simply loses all of its value on the used market.
Exhaustion: a camera is used so much that it is “used up.”
Orphaning: a camera requires a type of storage media, connector, or battery that is no longer made or used. Or, less critically perhaps, the company that manufactured it goes out of business, limiting support, future development, and system expansion.
It’s never a good day for a camera to die
A picture taken with my first DSLR--a camera that now suffers from not one but several of the fates mentioned here.
Calculating ROI can range from straightforward to highly subjective. Professionals can calculate ROI precisely, in dollars, using hard, real numbers. For many of us, of course, “return” is harder to judge: how do you quantify pride of ownership or the enjoyment derived from a hobby activity?
While 3-5 years might be a reasonable lifespan for a digital device (mirroring the typical lifespan of computers for most people), I occasionally use a camera I have that was made the year I was born. That’s certainly more of a “return,” measured in time, than any digital device has approached yet. While using a camera that age is mostly a conceit for me, it isn’t for everybody—Joel Meyerowitz regularly makes and sells high-value art photography created with a Deardorff 8×10 that was made in 1938, the year he was born.
Thanks to a successful print sale, my current DSLR paid for itself very early on, a number of times over. That discharged its ROI duty in dollars. Of course the camera still had a lot of life left in it after that.
The first fate I mentioned, being superseded, is not much of a problem for most people, on the face of things. Even so, about the longest a digital SLR will go without being supplanted by a newer model is, what, maybe four years? The Olympus E1, (compare prices), and Canon EOS 5D, (compare prices) (review), had comparatively long runs without being superseded by newer models, but I believe those time periods in years were four and three respectively—not very long in any absolute sense.
As far as obsolescence goes, people on the Internet love to argue contra by pointing out that older cameras still make pictures as well as they ever did. I always find this argument somewhat disingenuous, although not exactly specious. It’s true, of course; but it’s increasingly impractical as the devices in question get older. A restored ‘32 Ford Coupe might still run as well or even better than it did in 1932, but that still doesn’t mean you’d want to drive it to work every day. Similarly, I’m sure many sub-1-megapixel digicams still take pictures as good as the ones they took in the late ‘90s. That hardly means a photographer today would still be completely satisfied with any of them them.
The ultimate durability of digital devices is something that probably doesn’t get tested much. How many people really “wear out” their digital cameras? I suspect that in the lion’s share of real-world cases, cameras—top models, anyway—succumb to replacement for some other reason long before they actually wear out. Still, sensors are electronic devices that do have a finite lifespan. I don’t know what that lifespan is, and it probably varies from case to case. But it looms as a limit to potential camera longevity.
Is it still an ‘investment’ when it’s sure to decline in value?
It might not do so for you, but for me, considerations of life expectancy that pertained with my older cameras puts a brake on what I’m willing to fork over for a new one. I currently have two cameras that are “totaled.” One is a c. 2003 digicam that cost $700 at the time that simply no longer works at all. The other is a DSLR I bought used for about $1250 in 2005 that I still use but that needs repair. Service is complicated by the fact that the company that made it, Konica-Minolta, no longer makes cameras. Sony has taken over the marque to some extent, but Sony’s service for older K-M’s has the fatal flaw of being open-ended in terms of cost; I’m not willing to get into it on that basis. The camera can’t be sold without being repaired, so it ends its useful life with me, which means every dollar of that $1,250 I spent will end up going up in smoke. It’s ironic, because, even though the K-M has been superseded and is clearly obsolescent, I’d be perfectly happy with it if only it still worked right!
In both these cases, I got a good ROI out of these cameras. In the case of the digicam, it came in education and in enjoyment; the DSLR also paid for itself many times over monetarily. But most of the cameras I’m most interested in right now cost between $2,600 and $3,000, so, as part of a purchase consideration, I have to think about how I’m going to feel if all or most of such an investment ends up going up in smoke within a three- to five-year time frame. Perhaps counter-intuitively, I find I’m not willing to spend $3k on that basis. Or, at least, my resistance is high.
Part of my problem might stem from old habits with film cameras. I was in the habit of buying a camera, using it for a year or two, and reselling it for approximately what I’d paid for it. I got good use out of literally dozens of cameras that way. The clock ticks in those cases too, but much, much more gently: in some actual cases, I used film cameras for 3-5 years and then sold them for a profit.
What’s that ticking sound?
The upshot seems clear, and is hardly a revelation. It’s that the “return” you get for your money with a digital camera, when measured in time, is far less than it was for good film cameras in days of yore. What this means is that you have less time to achieve an effective ROI in other respects, whether in terms of pleasure, pride of ownership, number of pictures taken, or actual income. So it means you kinda gotta get after it, making it pay in some way or other. It might still make perfect sense for you to spend $1k, $3k, $5k, or even $7k on a digital setup. But in every case, somewhere in the background, maybe a little louder in some cases, maybe a little softer, the clock will be ticking.