Why digital cameras will all die but film cameras will live on

Digital cameras are great – the technology they’re built on is remarkable, underpinned by remarkably sophisticated designs. Not only that, but the images they acquire are of such stunning quality that it makes anything that came before pale in comparison. So why do digital cameras have a (relatively) short lifespan compared to film cameras?

The value of used cameras

Leicas have never been cheap, but if you buy a new one M3 back in 1964, it would have cost you a relatively svelte $297 (about $2,500 today). It’s quite similar to the Nikon F which cost $330, although it came with a 50mm lens. Today, a used M3 in reasonable condition will set you back somewhere in the region of $1,600.

Okay, you’re not going to make a fortune selling antique M3s – unless of course you have your grandfather’s. M3 prototype sitting in the back of the closet is worth a pretty eye-catching $400,000 – but the original ticket price hasn’t really gone down that much.

We all know this trend in the automotive trade; for example, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class takes first place for the fastest depreciating car in the UK, losing some 65.8% of its value in the first three years, which equates to $123,000! So how do the cameras compare?

My first serious camera was the Nikon D700 which hit the scene in 2008, costing $3,000 (about $3,600 today). If you were to buy a used one today, it would cost you around $450 or around 87.5% depreciation. Of course the depreciation is a result of the perceived value on the used market and the Nikon D700 was not only great performer but was also built like a tank and is backed by a huge range of mount lenses F high quality.

By comparison, the Pentax K20D had a list price of $629 (about $750 today), but you’re unlikely to find it at a reputable second-hand dealer. on eBay you will probably pay around $130 and that will probably include a lens. Depreciation is about the same as the D700, but now you enter the ~$100 and under camera segment, where the models are one step away from worthless.

Suddenly this Leica M3 looks like pretty good value.

The Leica M3 is a 35mm film camera introduced in 1954 but which continues to be widely used by film photographers decades later. Photo by Andrew Basterfield and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The strange workings of the second-hand camera market

So what’s going on here? New products – at least those made in volume – are priced to make a small markup on the cost of manufacturing (which includes things like sales and marketing), as well as recouping any research and development. You want to price your product to encourage consumers to buy it, while competing with other manufacturers in an open market.

Hopefully your new product has a consumer value proposition that makes them want to buy: the Nikon Z9 is the first pro-spec full-frame mirrorless camera on the market, which makes it “worth” more. In this case, Nikon has priced it very competitively to increase demand and increase the popularity of the Z system. Over time, this value proposition decreases as new products come in, R&D costs are recouped and manufacturing costs are approaching the optimum, which means the price should drop.

Of course, as soon as a product is “used”, it is immediately less expensive than a new item, even if it has not been used and is in its original packaging. We see a small space – with a price premium – for refurbished, “like new” and ex-display models, but, overall, as soon as it’s sold it loses value, which , as we have seen with cars, can be quite dramatic. When an object becomes a collector’s item or an antique is debatable, but rarity is clearly a factor in play, hence the price of this Leica M3 prototype.

On the other hand, I doubt a Robbie Williams CD Escapology will soon reach a high price judging by the number of them available in second-hand stores.

However, there’s also another factor at play here… you can still drive a 1964 Ford Mustang and shoot with a Leica M3, which means, barring hardware failures forcing you to source spares, you just need gasoline or 35mm film to get them working. This is not necessarily the case with a Betamax video player or a Sony Mavica FD75: for the first, you would need a Betamax cassette and for the second, a floppy disk.

The Sony Mavica FD75 used 3.5″ floppy disks for data storage.

The simple fact is that many technological devices become obsolete because they are unusable.

Digital cameras are quickly becoming obsolete

So why will digital cameras become obsolete much faster than film cameras? The first reason is mentioned above: media is a real problem for any digital device, because storage formats have evolved over time. Floppy disks, CDs, and Memory Sticks will become increasingly difficult to obtain over time; when will these devices no longer be able to record images? And even if you can save them, can you really transfer them to your computer?

The fact remains that digital cameras – and in particular those up to the beginning of the 2000s – more will probably be useless in 50-100 years (if not much sooner), in which case you may well always be able to film with your Leica M3 film camera!

This is a stark reminder of the second problem: the image quality of early digital cameras was very poor, and it took a long time for digital to approach film fidelity in terms of dynamic range and resolution. Any camera before 2012 (the time when DSLRs improved dramatically) will have significant limitations, but even much newer mirrorless models may already be outdated.

Third, another key camera component is the battery; if there are still companies, large and small, producing camera film in a wide range of formats, will the same be true for critical camera batteries decades from now? In 50 years, will you be able to get this EN-EL3e for your Nikon D700? Most cameras are battery-only devices, which means they will sit idle until you figure out how to turn them on.

Will an equivalent to the Nikon EN-EL3e battery still be produced decades from now?

Fourth, modern cameras are more like computers (which quickly become obsolete) than old, purely mechanical cameras (which can often live indefinitely with proper maintenance and repairs). High-tech camera electronics can fail over time, turning digital cameras into paperweights unless an expensive repair is carried out to replace the faulty components.

The last element concerns software and is perhaps less of a problem. Digital cameras incorporate increasingly sophisticated firmware that generally remains proprietary and closed; it’s not essential, but it would be a social good if manufacturers released firmware for the photographic community, rather than risk its loss. Related to this is the use of proprietary raw image formats and although Adobe has supported the latest cameras well, who knows if the legacy formats will remain usable.

Will a computer or software still be able to read less used raw formats in future generations? the LibRaw project offers long-term support, which may well alleviate problems in the future.

How long should a digital camera last?

The obvious question is how long should a digital camera last? The above points have suggested some reasons why we may not be able to use digital cameras in the future, but they miss another point. Although a camera may work exactly as it did the day you bought it, it may no longer meet your needs. It’s not about the camera, but rather how you intend to use it, which says more about you and the wider photography community. And, of course, hardware acquisition syndrome!

A good example is something like the Nikon 1 J5: a great camera for many users, but with System 1 shutdown and a limited range of lenses it meets the criteria for obsolescence even though it’s perfectly fine. usable. And the J5 was only announced in 2015.

The Nikon 1 J5 was announced in 2015, but the Nikon 1 series camera line has since been discontinued.

What are your longest and shortest cameras? Do you think about longevity when buying a new camera and are we finally entering an era of longer-lasting models? Or are product life cycles mirroring those of smartphones and getting shorter and shorter? For my part, I’m grateful that the hopelessly poor image quality of early cameras is long gone and digital is now arguably better than film.

What I really want to see is the next revolution: what’s the next big thing that isn’t the smartphone?

Picture credits: Leica M3 in header illustration by Andrew Basterfield and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, stick figure illustration by Depositphotos.

About Debra D. Johnson

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