Let’s face it, digital cameras are effectively ‘gadgets’, with many of the same ‘rules’ applying. They depreciate like bricks and manufacturers are punching out new models and associated gizmos (grips, anyone?) as quickly as they can (especially Sony). The likes of Canon have been fairly slow, with an average of about four years between new marks of a given model, but even with this sort of cycle, keeping up is expensive. After four years, a camera that cost £3000 may only be worth £800-1000, plus or minus. This is especially significant when, for many people, the old model will do just fine.
Does it ever end? Well, I think it is more ‘yes’ than ‘no’, actually.
I have bought plenty of new models over the years, but I am doing so with decreasing frequency and expect this trend to continue. I bought the Ricoh GR after it had been on the market for two years at a price very much lower than the minimally updated 2015 Ricoh GR model now sells for. Even the eventual replacement model is unlikely to tempt me away from a camera that already does all I need it to. New camera models are always coming and buying at the end of a model’s life cycle often results in seriously good prices, especially if you take advantage of special promotions. Better still, you can wait until the new model hits the market and either buy new old stock, or pick up barely used old models on the second hand market for a fraction of their new price.
Then we have audio. I am not an audiophile by any stretch, but I was hugely impressed by my Cambridge Audio Minx 200 wireless speaker thingy when I bought it about 3-4 years ago with a fair discount off the RRP. In my new home, I figured that a full stereo system just wasn’t going to work, so I wondered about adding a second Minx 200 unit and checked them out online. The V2 was £399 (mine is a V1). Then I saw second hand V2 examples going for about £250. Then I found a store shifting ex-demo and refurbished V1 models for £109 (Richer Sounds – a great store by the way). Obviously I bought one of these knowing that they sound the same to mortal ears (and to the staff in Richer Sounds). I paid 27% of the price of a new Minx 200 V2 and I am precisely 0% worse off for it. They even look the same.
Over the last couple of years, I feel we have been passing through a tipping point with cameras. Today, manufacturers have little more to offer that we truly need. There are exceptions to that, naturally, but artificial redundancy and clever marketing tempt photographers back to the store for improved models that offer little additional core performance. How many photographers feel post-purchase guilt for precisely this reason?
Now that sheer sensor performance is rapidly approaching a plateau in terms of practical benefits, it is becoming more about the form factor and package. The Sony A7 series offers top notch sensor performance in a small form factor. The Hasselblad X1D-50C gives us Sony’s amazing 33x44mm 50MP sensor in a body only a little larger than the Sony A7. But here is the rub: for anyone happy with the size of their D810 or Pentax 645Z, this doesn’t mean much. We now have 100MP cameras, which in 10-20 years will still be 100MP cameras that can produce immaculate 50+” prints. Between now and then, they will transition first to ‘affordable’ and then to ‘cheap’ and eventually people will be practically giving them away. Why? Because they won’t have 500MP and come bundled with a digital plastic surgeon for improved studio shots of course.
The reality of how photographers respond to mature technology can be seen throughout the history of the camera. If you wanted to upgrade your 1960s Leica M2, you might either move to a Leica M6 with a meter (if you wanted one), or shoot a more modern high resolution film with the same old body, if resolution is what you sought. The brass Leica MP ‘felt nicer’ and looked sleek, but that’s about all it really held over the M6. What about large format cameras? Well, they’re primarily about two things: camera movements and a huge piece of film. The difference between a fifty year old large format camera and a new one was often slender. And how many professional landscape photographers moved to digital having shot the same Hasselblad bodies for 20-30 years? Plenty. As for Leica M shooters, often they have been dismissed as ‘traditionalists’ with ‘fetishes’, but I think there is a simpler explanation as to why many kept shooting with their M3s or M6s for decades: there was simply nothing to be gained spending more on a newer model.
Of course technology will move forwards and there will be benefits to shooting new equipment. Nonetheless, I struggle to comprehend how camera manufacturers will shift new cameras to dedicated photographers who know what their old cameras can do ten years from now. I can only imagine that pretty well all future purposes will be framed in terms of ‘I’m being kinda silly, but it would be nice to have…. ‘ rather than ‘I need it for this specific reason’. I do think compelling needs really existed in recent times, especially for those wanting some of the qualities they were used to with medium or large format film. But how many have not been provided for in the last few years, at a lowering price point? I can’t actually think of any, for me personally. Sony, Leica, Ricoh and Pentax have delivered on all of them and it looks like Canon is about to tick the last box with the Canon 5D IV. Assuming the 5D IV has the sort of dynamic range and high ISO performance we’d expect from a sensor related to the 1DX II, what could possibly tempt you from a MK IV to a Mk V, with a likely £2200 upgrade cost?
Will I replace/upgrade bodies I already own? Yes, I think I will, but most likely having skipped at least one if not two generations and, even then, probably buying when new models have replaced the one I intend to buy. A Sony A7R III would be nice to replace my original A7R, but how much would it make sense for me to pay to get rid of the noisy shutter, improve that tends to shoot static subjects only and add IBIS? Not thousands, that’s for sure.
Maybe we will see second hand camera shops proliferate again? Remember when some specialist second hand photographic retailers were like an Aladdin’s cave? It seems they went extinct when they understood that film camera sales were collapsing, yet nobody wanted yesterday’s digital either. It became ‘new or nothing’. That tide will surely reverse and the days of picking up a bargain priced (digital version of a) tatty but working Mamiya C330 will return! I am already seeing many more second hand cameras on display in my home town. Twenty years from now you may just be able to pick up a Sony A7R II at a flea market for a £5!!! And don’t worry, those ARW raw files will be perfectly useable.