A new strategy for buying cameras. Circa 2009.

Ceiling detail from the Alexander Palace in Pushkin, just outside of St. Petersburg, Russia. 1995.

If you were alive and shooting in the time of film you worked with the presumption that you would buy camera bodies and lenses and then use them until the little cogs and gears were worn down to nubins, then you would sell them all to your first assistant and retire. The image on the left was shot in the time of non obsolescence with the epitome of that breed of camera, the Hasselblad medium format film camera. This shot is most likely from an SWC/M wide angle camera but we didn't have exif in those days so I'll never know. Film was the thing that got outmoded but we could remedy that by buying newer and better film. Although sometimes the film was merely newer.

I caught myself being stupid over the last four years. I was using a film business model in the acquisition and retention of camera bodies. I was buying digital SLR's as though they would last a lifetime. In one sense, they might. The Kodak DCS 760's that I adore are well made and seem to go on forever. But what i really mean is that every two years there is either a doubling of resolution or the introduction of a "can't live without" feature that compels us to rush out and buy another body.

So I looked in the drawer and there were generations of cameras. Fuji S2's S3's and S5's (and I couldn't bear to get rid of them because i'd gotten "magic" files with each of them.....) Nikon d300's, d2x's, and D700's. Old lenses that were purported to be magical, like the Nikkor 50mm 1.1.2 and the 105mm 2.5 and so many more that hadn't be used in years. Like the 28mm f2 that I bought because all the reviews raved about it. It never focused well on a D2x so it sat in the drawer.

We are quoted a price to trade in our older bodies that seems laughably low so we keep them and justify this by calling the body a "back up".......as though we'll go back and use the antiquated thing in the uncomfortable case that our main (and brutally expensive) main body dies prematurely. We won't.

When budgets were rising and work was plentiful the strategy was relatively harmless because we could assuage our longings for more and our nostalgia for the recently retired cameras by shrewd applications of massive cash flow. And are we really doing anyone a favor with all the equipment overkill anyway?

I don't think so and here's why: Since the beginning of the recession over two years ago clients have moved relentlessly to the web. I hardly need to tell anyone here that you don't need four or five thousand pixels on a side to make a good web image. Some magazines have lost 70% of their ad pages. When they fold they'll never be back. We might fantasize (while in front of the camera case) that we'll be shooting double trucks again before long but it might be a couple of years and by then the $8,000 wondertool that we crave today will be old news and ready for the scrapheap. Do you have more downtime than you really want? If so, do you want to spend it with an extra $8000 to $12000 worth of camera inventory?

I took a hard look at the kind of work we're doing lately. The one thing that seems to not go out of style is the need to light things well. If we light them well then we don't need peerless high ISO performance. Oh I'm sure someone will chime in and say that we do but I notice an interesting phenomenon: The ultra pro shooters who demanded super high ISO performance in their 35mm based DLSLR's moved into medium format DSLR's for a spell and never whispered a peep about the high ISO output of those $30,000 cameras. Which are not anywhere near as good as a $1,000 Canon or Nikon....

If you shoot weddings or sports I don't begrudge you the best high ISO tool you can find but if you are shooting advertising, corporate work or studio portraits you don't need (or probably use) anything over ISO 400, maybe 800 in a pinch.

So why go crazy on the bodies. It's the lenses that retain their value.

With that in mind, here's my new buying strategy: I'm buying up the pro level Olympus glass for the E system but I'm swearing to only buy camera bodies that are less than $800. I'll keep em for a year and then trade em for whatever comes out next. That way I'll always have the current sensor technology without the investment in the "talisman of power" that the high end cameras represent.

Don't believe me? That's okay because I'm not always right. But I ran into John Isaac the other day (big time Olympus shooter) and he was sporting the e620. Swore it's his favorite camera. Cost? $599. His take? Superb.

Just a thought. Lenses for the long haul, bodies year by year. No matter which system you favor. Because even when the megapixel hysterics wear out we'll still have dynamic range to drive the market.

I've sent off most of the Nikon and Kodak inventory. For jobs that require (and pay for) the high end gear I'll gladly rent. For all the rest I'll be happy with the 12 megapixel bodies that are now $599 and blow away anything that was available for less than $5,000 just five years ago.

Works for me. Might not work for you.

Hope everyone is staying cool.


KameraKevin said...

Unfortunately, for a base price of $599, I still can't get a D5000 (which has the same sensor as a $900 D90 and the $1500 D300). The sensor on these camera is amazing. I'm addicted to 1600 ISO on DX as it opened up so much more possibilities. I'm also addicted to 3200 ISO on FX. Maybe when Nikon releases a Nikon D700x, the price of a D700 will drop to... a mere $2000, which is still 3X more than your base price of $599.

I do a lot of nights+events, so if 6400 or even 128000 ISO produce good pictures (maybe in 4-8 years?), I have no choice but to use those high ISOs just so that I'll get more usable shots and standout in the sea of photographers. Better+more shots=more clients. I think the limitation of $599/body makes it very very difficult to compete in this tough market.

kirk tuck said...

You might be right. As I said above, I've been wrong. But for the normal stuff I do it seems to be good. I'm still holding on to my D700 and some fast glass. Most as a safety net until I'm really sure.

Everyone's uses vary. That's the tricky thing.

Robert Teague said...

I was considering getting a D700 earlier in the year, but I came to realize that I didn't need it, I just wanted it. My current Nikon F6 and a few rolls of Velvia or Provia will give me everything I could have gotten from the D700.

I have to admit, that I primary shoot 4x5, but I occasionally like a small camera, and the F6 is probably the best body Nikon has ever made.

Thanks for the continued insights; I enjoy reading your blog tremendously.

Dean said...

Another version of this that I think I read was Ctein's idea to go low (spend as little as possible) on the camera and to spend much more on the computer. That flies in the face of some of the direction you've dealt with in the past. But If I remember correctly, computer tech seemed more stable to him whereas, as you said, camera bodies have less lasting power. I imagine this would make sense from the perspective of an expert printer. Not being an expert in either department, I will defer to both of you!

KameraKevin said...

By the way Kirk I do like the idea of having a preset budget for the camera body. For Nikon bodies, I think a budget of $2500 every two years seems reasonable for people who shoot part time as a living. Nikon is starting to trickle down its sensors aggressively every year (probably for cost reasons). Pro sensors trickle down into prosumer bodies, and finally to consumer bodies... year by year:


Nikon's revamping its numbering system so that Dx=pro ($5000-8000), Dxxx=prosumer ($2500), and Dxxxx=consumer ($1000). So who knows, maybe in 2-3 years, we'll have a D8000 ($1200?) that has the same sensor as the D700.

The reason I picked $2500/2-years as the budget because is because it's difficult to justify spending $8000 for the body unless you make all your living on it. On the other hand, if you have to wait for the nice sensor to trickle down into a consumer body ($1000), it's already too old. Spending $2500 is a compromise.

The other thing is the final cost isn't really the cost of purchase, but the cost you bought it for minus the cost you sell it for. D3 was $5000 brand new in Q4 2007. It's about 18 months later and is ~$3000-3500 used on eBay. That's 30-40% depreciation in 18 months (slightly better than computer depreciation rate). Likewise, a D700 was $2600 last year, and in another year a used one would probably be around $1500-1700 some time in 2010. Thus if you bought your D700 for $2600 in 2008 and need to sell and upgrade in 2010, you've spent only $1000 in two years "renting" the D700. Compared to the cost of film and development in 2 years, this is actually very economical.

Herman said...

I think that your approach is very valid in your area of expertise.

However I don't think it maps to all needs of all photographers (like for instance those of Kevin).

I for one have been investing lately in some 20 year old bodies and glass (Mamiya RB system). This way I can provide higher quality files for less, if and only if the client is patient.

I also happen to like the look of b&w film, and would love to be able to reproduce it digitally, but I haven't managed that yet.

Plus it is my favorite tool for personal work.

Vinh Pham said...

Older, all mechanical lenses are durable because of their simplicity; this maintains their long term value. What about modern lenses stuffed with electronics and motors? How reliable are they? If they break, are they cheap enough to repair? Does the tradional advice of "invest in lenses" still apply?


Miguel said...

I'm just waiting until you are ready to sell your D700l. I will be glad to add it to my D3 and give the D300 to my wife. Oly? Seems like a surprise move...until you figure in the price. I assumed that Sony was the fast-rising alternative to Big C and Big N.

jylitalo said...

If you've grown custom to do your post processing in certain fashion, your RAW converter might not support latest and greatest USD599 dSLR (unless you've grown to use camera manufacturers tools that come along with camera for post processing).
This is just nitpicking, because you could always limit your options to latest and greatest USD599 dSLR body, which is supported by some specific raw converter.

Timothy Gray said...

Great writing as usual, Kirk.

I've adopted a similar approach as I revert back to shooting film. It's really quite simple - buy new lenses and used bodies.

I've bought both medium format and 35mm bodies from reputable used dealers for a fraction of what they cost new.

One example - I picked up a gently used Elan 7 for under $100. I liked it so much, I bought a second body. One is always loaded with slide, the other color neg. Two bodies, each with a lens, and 5-6 rolls of film and my gear bag is still lighter than my old digital 35 setup.

photomb said...

As a long time employee of Fuji, I applaud your acknowledgement of the magic that the S3 and S5 are capable of. Really awesome skin tones, just sooo smooth that my D300 can't duplicate. The Nikon however I do use for the event work I shoot (iso and frame rate), but for almost anything outdoors, or a portrait, it's always the S5. And I completely agree that 12mp is just plenty good enough.

Anonymous said...

Well, if you're going to concentrate more on the glass than camera bodies, you could hardly have picked a better company to invest in. ;)

Have you had the chance to toy with a 35-100 f2 yet? That, the 7-14, and the 150mm are the three lenses that would have me invested in Oly alongside my Pentax gear if I had the money.

bryan rapoza said...

my sentiments exactly.
lenses dont depreciate like bodies do.
my 5000 dcs14n? worthless.
my 70-200 nikkor? priceless.
90% of my lenses have aperture rings still...

Robert J. Sherman said...


Just found your blog, thanks to a tweet by "Strobist" DH. I think your views here are reasonable, and very sensible ... not that you needed me to tell you that.


FergusonPhotography said...

This is the view I took when I started my wedding photography business, and (big suprise), I'm still making money even in a down economy because I'm not heavily invested with ridiculous amounts of overhead.

David D. said...

Right on Kirk, when I finally decided to go to digital capture...I was sorely tempted to jump to Nikon or Canon but reason prevailed and I dipped my toe in the digital water with an Olympus 720SW, mainly because my favorite film system had been Olympus from OM-1 to the termination of OM production. The 720, and Clayton Jones extolling the virtues of the 4:3 format conviced me to go with Olympus E series 4/3s. I got the 420 and have never regretted it. I thought about upgrading to the to the 620, but my results with the 420 and my OM 50mm f1.4 and 100mm f2.8 are so good I couldn't see the $600 outlay. I'll wait for the 620 technology to filter down to the next 420 equivlilent. Patience is a hard virtue to cultivate in the world of cameras...but it does pay off.


kirk tuck said...

I'm pretty thrilled with even Olympus' pedestrian camera, the e520. Seems plenty sharp and plenty fast and the built in IS is good.

Anonymous said...

Words of wisdom mr.Kirk. Indeed the lens is mightier than the sensor and the integrated electronics. Pro photographers are somehow afraid of the smart and advanced algorithms of modern dslr's and feel that the machinery is stealing their creative touch. A fully automated perfect camera is a boring camera.