The Digital Camera Clock

On “The Online Photographer” I recently wrote four or five posts about the sony_a900, 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


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, and canon_eos5d, 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.


Text and photos ©2008 Mike Johnston

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    • Look at buying digital cameras, as buying film with for example 100 000 frames ;)
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    • Okay, I'll bite: Why not just reduce your "investment?" There are plenty of high-quality DSLRs that cost less than $2,000-3,000. The lower the investment, the higher potential return--assuming, of course, that you use it at all. You may answer that lower-priced DSLRs are undesireable for one reason or another, but if so, I humbly submit that ROI is not what you're really most concerned about.
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    • I only hear one clock-my own one. “The dark side clouds everything. Impossible to see the future is.”
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    • I think the comment about the sub-megapixel / 1932 car doesn't really apply to digital camera's anymore. I recently bought a D80, which has 10.2 megapixels, and pretty good image quality / light sensitivity. I'll admit that newer models will have better high iso performance, and may have shiny new features (such as liveview, video recording, and automatic GPS geotagging in the D90), but that doesn't take away from the fact that my D80 is going to be shooting print-quality pics a decade from now, something the camera's from a decade ago could never do. As with any new technology, digital photography has come of age. It's reached a high level of quality, that isn't being improved on by leaps and bounds like it was in the beginning. To stick with the car analogy, you wouldn't drive a car from the 30's to work every day, but a car from the 90's would be perfectly suitable, and will continue to be so till the next quantum leap in motoring technology.
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    • My gut reaction is that my old OM's seem to last forever but then I think how much they are used and realize that I put 1/100 the amount of use on them a working photojournalist in 1975 would have. The failures may be more complex in modern cameras but I wonder, for pro models at least, if the service life is about the same as in 1975. Note: I pulled the 1/100 figure out of my bum. I really don't know how many frames a day these guys shot, but I always figured it must be in the hundreds for some of them. Now, with media that will hold 600-1000 shots they may tend to put even more cycles on the shutter/mirror works of DSLR's.
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    • 1. Comparing film to digital, recall that film was a mature product by 1930. Digital is still in its childhood years. I look back on film cameras fondly, reverently, but they were designed to use film, and I don't look back fondly on film. Film is a primitive medium compared to electronic imaging. Digital is hard to master but I enjoy struggling with every frustration I meet. 2. I do wish there was some way for us consumers to get a broad perspective on the photography industry. For example, I fear that Nikon will be subsumed by Sony (who makes the Nikon sensors). But that might make my old Nikon equipment actually worth something.
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    • The cost of ownership isn't really included here... And more importantly, I include the cost of consumables in the 'cost of ownership'. No two ways about it - shooting film was and still is an expensive pass time. How many rolls would you put through a camera in the 4 years or so we now allow as the 'lifetime' of a digital camera? Assuming $25 a roll for transparency and processing and shooting a roll for fun on the weekend adds up quickly. Given that we no longer have the significant cost of film and processing to work into the financial justification of a new body, maybe we shouldn't be so reluctant to shell out a few more bucks on the latest DSLR body? I still am, but believe the argument is valid anyway! ;-)
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    • John R, I remember during the Gulf War I stopped in at my favorite camera repair shop one afternoon. They did a lot of work for photojournalists--this was in Washington, D.C.--and that day one of the techs had two Nikon F4's on the table. Both were painted sand color. I asked, and he told me the name of the shooter who'd brought them in, a famous news guy. (I've since forgotten who it was, I'm afraid.) The cameras looked to be on their last legs--they were really badly beat up. I made a comment about that, and then the tech told me that both of the cameras were only eight months old. He also said they'd never last another eight months. So there's no real rule of thumb--how long a pro camera lasts can vary wildly depending on the kind of duty they have to serve, I guess.
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    • I have an Olympus E-20 that I bought in January, 2002, not long after it came out. It still takes perfectly good pictures, some of which have given surprisingly good prints on13 x 19.paper, with only a bit of wasted space.

      Even so, I almost never use it anymore--but, when I do, it typically does the job. I increasingly shoot the Canon 5D or the 1Ds II (which I bought new--and much reduced--when the 1Ds III came out). I sold a Kodak 14n and most of my Nikon lenses--but it still worked as well as it ever had. Changing lens systems was almost a dead loss, but that is is another issue. Even so, the money went to the purchase of the 5D, and so even there perhaps a "dead loss" is a bit overstated.

      In my case, none ever wore out or became strictly obsolete. All still work (or would work) with my existing computers. I see each one as having paid for itself in terms of film and processing costs--if money were the only consideration.

      Since all are still functional, is it fair to compare the ROI for all of these with a camera that simply would not work? I am not sure, that is, that defining ROI so broadly really is helpful. One one consider the costs of film and processing, I am not sure that it even makes sense.

      I should point out that I drive two old Honda cars from the 1990s (a 1992 Accord and a 1995 Civic). Maintaining and insuring both is a bit of a hassle, but I keep telling myself that one of the cars might fail anytime--and so I dutifully alternate driving them so that the batteries do not corrode. I also ride a 1982 Honda CB900C motorcycle that smokes Harleys--but cannot begin to smoke the typical "crotch-rocket" bikes. As long as it holds together, it is probably more than I need--but do I really need a motorcycle at all? Perhaps, that is, the "need criterion" ought to be driving our decisions, not the profitability criterion.

      I think that I would have to speak of an "embarrassment of riches" even with some of the older equipment and machinery. In all cases I have more than I need. I just ordered a couple of low light Fujifilm Fxxfd series point-and-shoots that I think will get used in situations where all of the others would be overkill--or be too obtrusive. Do I need all of this? Can I justify it?

      I think that the answer to that question really gets down to questions of the simplicity of our lives, measured against the appeals of new gadgets, more than it does any real question of return on investment. (Don't even get me started on lenses, much less on tripods and heads.)

      For the record, I also own a lot better cold weather hiking and climbing gear than I ever really use--and I try to remember that I crossed the Smokies in one day in the winter of 1970 by myself wearing a car coat and a paper bag with two sandwiches in it. It was not a prudent thing to do, but it was "doable." I also went through half a dozen sea kayaks, when one would have sufficed--but all were perfectly good when I sold them. The loss I took is less compelling an issue for me than whether I ever really needed so much gear in the first place.

      I am reminded of Wordsworth's sonnet, "The World is Too Much With Us":

      The world is too much with us; late and soon,
      Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
      Little we see in Nature that is ours;
      We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
      This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
      The winds that will be howling at all hours,
      And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
      For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
      It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
      A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
      So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
      Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
      Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
      Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

      I think, that is, that with digital cameras--as with so much else--perhaps relying solely on the issue of profitability is our real problem. We seem to have lost a more profound measure of what is worthy.

      Sorry, Mike--not trying to hijack the thread here, but just pointing up what I consider to be the more insidious issue than profitability, conventionally defined.


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    • Very off-the cuff calculations: Digital: $3000 Sony A900, depreciate over 3 years. Another $4000 for a decent computer, software, hard drives, and memory cards. Film: $1000 camera, depreciate over 20 years. $20 a roll for film & processing. I take 3,600 images a month with digital, as a "hobby" (home + artistic works) - not pro level by any means. Total cost for 3 years: $7,000 If I had film, I would probably cut my shooting to 1/5, only 720 frames/month. Let's ignore that I would still buy a computer, etc. Cost for 3 years: $14,500. So the moral of the story is, if you have a digital camera, you're going to take a LOT more images (and probably ditch the worst half, resulting in a better set), have them digitally accessible form the get-go (I suppose a scanning service would be the same as printing, but processing costs still apply), and I'm willing to bet, enjoy it more! I took MANY rolls of B&W film in the 80's & 90's - Shooting digital blows it away. I think I just convinced myself not to wait long to upgrade form my A700 to an A900. (Which has potential to exceed 35mm film results.) - Bert
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    • I have to agree when you are speaking about money lost on investment in a $2000-3000 DSLR. But you are only factoring in the cost of the camera itself when comparing your investment against a film camera. If someone is serious about photography and shoots say a modest 3500 frames a year, which is about what I use to shoot when I was shooting film. So that is about 100 rolls of film a year I burned through. Take that 100 rolls of film and multiply that times cost of the film and processing which is about $10 a roll. That comes out to be $1000 a year times 3 years is $3000. Now if I invest in $3000 DSLR and after 3 years sell it and buy a new one I will probably get maybe a a third of my investment back, lets say even less $700. I now spent $2300 over three years. Looks like I saved myself about $700. Now you also have to take in account having the images scanned or investing in a good scanner. Lets say you go cheapest route and invest in a high quality scanner which is about another $2000. However that scanner will probably be good for more than three years. Lets say 10 years. So that is another $200 dollars a year spent on scanning the images, which would be a consertative estimate. So now I have spent $1200 a year on film, proccessing and converting to digital, times three years is $3600. So over three years I see my self saving $1300. Plus factor in the advantage with digital is I don't have to worry about how many images I take, there is no cost difference if I shoot 3500 frames a year or 35000 frames a year. Either way I can see the DSLR as a better investment money wise. I also don't factor in the cost of new computers and software because I would spend that anyway weather I was shooting film or digital. I have enough horespower on my PC now to handle any image weather it is a 20+ MP image or a scanned image. Also computers keep getting better and cheaper all the time. So I think your way at looking at the lost of intial investment compared to film cameras isn't lookinig at the whole picture Mike. So please tell me if I am wrong here, because I don't see how you can argue these points.
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    • Mike I have found this discussion very intriguing. However it seems to me that you have left out an important estimate in ROI calculation. The Return Of Investment from possessing an object that could legitimate an "Identity". So I did some calculations myself and predated a sentence from the previous post and modified it ad hoc. I mean no refererence nor offence to the poster, just a joke. "Now you also have to take in account having the identity problem resolved or investing in a good psychologist. Lets say you go cheapest route and invest in a high quality psychologist which is about, per year 2 sessions per month: $2000. However that psychologist will probably be good for more than three years. Lets say 10 years.... which would be a conservative estimate. So now I have spent $2000 a year on the psychologist , processing and converting to an identity, times three years is $6000. So over three years I see my self saving $3000 ..." Again no reference or offence for the previous poster. Mauro
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    • "Also computers keep getting better and cheaper all the time. " This thinking is part of the consumer culture. It's not really true. They are no "better" than they ever were nor are they really cheaper. The computer you want is much the same price it was 10 years ago. Most of the reason for upgrading is simply due to the fact that old software becomes outdated (or no longer opens your current files) and you need a more powerful computer to make current software work nicely. Most of this is really beyond our individual control The current digital camera culture will run its course too and the manufacturers will have to dream up something else to entice buyers. Soon all those people who have been updating their $3,000 cameras every 2-3 years will not be doing so. Then what? The "happy time" for camera manufacturers will soon be coming to close.
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    • No, computers are better and cheaper now than they were ten years ago. By a lot of measures. Moore's law for the most part, has lapped software bloat, as surprising as it may seem. Ten years ago, 1998, if I remember correctly, the $1000 computer was barely hitting the market, and without a monitor to boot. For the same $1000 now, I can get get a machine that runs vista/office07/photoshopcs3 much much faster than a 1998 $1000 machine can run 98/office97/photoshop2. Windows and office may have just been filled with more useless bloat since then, but photoshop is much, much better. But as far as the ROI comp between film camera + film v digital, I think digital wins easily. And this even if you assume that you take a ridiculous 10 times as many throwaway shots with digital than film.
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    • A bit behind on cleaning up my inbox and came to this link... Agree with those few here who observe that ROI does not come down to dollars and cents for those that pursue photography as a creative outlet. Like statisticians, we can all bend the facts to suit our personal rationalizations. Computer-based photography is still in it's infancy compared to traditional photography. If you enjoy the ride that the constant change in computer technology by nature must follow then hop on. Each person must choose the creative tool that best suits their own personal need to create and leave the justifications to the psychoanalysts! I dislike quoting bumper stickers but "Just do it!"
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    • The biggest advantage of digital photography is its biggest flaw. The sensor which replaced films. Let me elaborate a bit. At first glance, one of the bigger advantages of digital photography, was that film and printing were no longer required. Operational costs can be practically 0 for the average enthusiast. What is not so obvious is that cheap film bodies could produce high quality images easily comparable to those taken with more expensive ones (under certain circumstances of course). This was because the actual major optical elements, the film and the lens were completely irrelevant to the body itself. On the other hand, with the introduction of the digital sensor, a whole new world of segmentation was introduced to the SLR body arena. Now cheaper bodies, cannot reach the image quality of the more expensive ones. Add to that the immaturity of the sensor as a device and we got an endless game of potentially infinite upgrades that offer clear advantages over their predecessors, something that was not such a big issue during the film era. You could say that the digital age reduced the operational costs of photography and capitalized them in the cost and longevity of the dSLR body. At at the same time it reduced the depreciation time of the body itself while increasing the return on investment for that depreciation time frame, at least in terms of number of photos taken. I don t know about the rest of you, but It sounds like a fair trade to me... Now on the upgrade portion of you article, I don t see a really good reason why an enthusiast or a professional would "need" to spent a few thousands on a body and feel bad about it. A D700 might be able to shoot flawless photos at outrageous numbers of ISO, but it is also something that was never up until now possible or that reachable in terms of money. Think of the average film user and how much of the final quality he had to sacrifice by using fast but grainy films. Would it matter if the D700 last for only 5 years? Probably not because for you to want to spend that kind of money for a body, it means that your are either a pro and you need it anyway, or you have enough money to not care. For the rest of the average enthusiasts, the situation is not that bad either. All they have to do is invest on high quality glass and buy bodies conservatively. In my opinion, good lenses provide a far more solid investment than a slightly improved body (for twice the price of the old one) and a far more solid upgrade in terms of optical and final image quality. There are very few cases where a new model provides significant upgrades to its predecessor to justify its high price. If money is an issue, my thoughts are invest on glass, and upgrade the body only when something significant appears in your range of budget.
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    • Having spoken to Canon, they only support their EOS cameras for 7-10 years with parts limitations starting after 5. As an enthusiastic amateur I am a bit concerned about spending much money on something that may be unrepairable in 5 years.

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