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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

The Price of Photography

The Price of Photography

Of late I’ve found that I’m simply not as interested in equipment as I used to be. GAS seems to be less of a thing. It’s not that I have transcended to some higher plain of photography where the image is more important that the gear that is being used. That would be a good thing of course. No, the reason GAS escapes more and more, comes down to the fact that everything is just so darn expensive these days.

The commonly received wisdom tends toward the idea that consumer goods (and cameras have been consumer goods for a very long time) come down in value over the years and become more accessible to more people. When a new technology first emerges the entry price to that tech is exorbitantly high. As the the R & D costs are recovered, that same technology filters down into more mass accessible products. The tumble in price of CD and then DVD sound and video devices twenty years ago is a good example, as is the cost of personal computing devices in the early 2000s.

Not anymore though. I stumbled across a thread in another photography related sight where someone was complaining of the apparent increase in prices across the board of what were once consumer items, but are increasingly becoming niche or luxury items. Cameras, particularly the cameras that are currently being announced and pushed on the internet seem to fall into this sphere. Interestingly so too do a number of laptops and computers as well.

Again, the usual received wisdom is that the ‘dollar’ value of an item will increase in time based on currency and inflation, but that the intrinsic value should stay constant. So, in theory, something purchased in 1995 costing X amount, should cost X+inflation if bought new today. In theory. So I took a look at some of the camera categories that I have followed over the years and their apparent dollar value (I’ll stick to dollars as the South African Rand, where I live, is such a Mickey Mouse currency that it is difficult to track pricing over the decades as it gets pounded by investor sentiment continuously, throwing any concept of inflation on a more than micro scale completely out of whack).

It’s very difficult to make apples to apples comparisons as technology does indeed change over time. However we can look at basic categories. I entered the Digital world with the Nikon D200 camera. At the time the US list price of the camera was $1700. In 2005 this was quite a lot of money. The D200 was also considered as something of a mini D2x, much like the D300 was to the D3, and the D500 was to the D5. If we were just to add inflation to the D200 you could assume that it would cost around $2300 in 2022 (I actually got figures between $2346 and $2316 using online inflation calculators). The D500 was launched in 2016 for a list price of $1999. This actually tracks really well with inflation as the D200 with inflation would have cost around $2080. So far so good actually.

The introductory price of the D700 in 2008 was $2999. With inflation that would come to roughly $3700 today (rounded down a bit). Good news here is that the Z6, the then entry level mirrorless camera from Nikon sold for $1999. That’s great! That means things are getting cheaper right? Except the D700 was not considered entry-level by any stretch of the imagination. The D700 begat the D800, which begat the D810, which begat the D850…whose not quite equivalent mirrorless sibling is the Z7, which was introduced at $3999! Ah, not quite the same then after all.

The thing is, if you are a photographer working with a particular kind of camera, and you are wanting to upgrade to the newer model, you are unlikely to want to downgrade to a model that has fewer features than the one you are using. You essentially want to keep up with some of the advances in technology/imaging/optics. I am hearing more and more from amateur photographers (along with a number of professionals) that this is becoming more and more difficult. Yes there are the outliers such as the Nikon Z9 which have been very aggressively priced. The more typical movement though is upward in price.

Canon are interesting because their pricing seems to yoyo all over the place. The venerable 5D line of cameras is a good case in point:

Canon Pricing over the years

The R6 is not the 5D. In essence the R6 is to the R5 much like the 6D was to the 6D. Most 5D users tend to gravitate towards the R5 despite the fact that the two R cameras are very similar. So here it seems, despite the steep increase of price, that the Canon R5 tracks almost identically with inflation. If anything, the Canon small body pro-level cameras have actually come down in price since the introductory price of what was a new category of camera with the original 5D was actually really high. The introductory price of the 5Dmkii was extraordinary because it was so much lower than that of the original 5D. The jump 4 years later to the mkiii was way above inflation, but then Canon locked the same introductory price in for the mkiv.

For the most part then it would seem that the cameras have actually held to inflation. Is this the case across the board? If you look at the Leica M8, something of an aspirational product, it hasn’t tracked with inflation at all. The M8 was launchd in 2006 as the first Digital M camera. It had an introductory list price of $5000. Today, that would be $6598 if we just added inflation. Except the newly launched M11 costs a whopping $8995. That’s over $2000 higher than the inflationary price of the model. Look, Leica was never an affordable brand to start with, but it’s getting ludicrous. As another example of Leica excess, the Leica Summicron-M 35mm f/2 ASPH cost $3195 in 2014 (not a small amount of money by any stretch of the imagination). The new APO version of the lens was launched last year (2021) for a staggering $8195! I had to check that it wasn’t an April fool’s joke. If inflation were the only accumulative, the lens should be in the region of $3600. The argument of course is that there is now an included Apochromatic element in the lens design (which apparently justifies the $5000 increase).

Here’s the rub…the manufactures often feature pump the product to make an elevated price tag appear justified. The feature creep takes an already expensive product and makes it that much pricier….at a time when incomes are not matching their historical equivalents (https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/01/09/trends-in-income-and-wealth-inequality/). It isn’t just perception. Things are actually more expensive based on earning power today. The camera manufacturers are also slowly scaling back from the entry-level cameras in order to pursue more expensive premium products. However the R&D for these premium products used to be subsidised by the sales of the cheaper entry level kit. Basically the cow that is the premium product is going to be milked that much more…expect even higher prices for the kit that you want.

The above is all based on available information on the internet, but has a bias towards Europe and America, where most camera sites and equipment tend to be sold and marketed (the Asian market is a special place unto itself to a point that camera trends can be completely different and some equipment never even crosses the Pacific to the ‘West’). I’m not American, nor European. I’m that strange animal called a South African, or Saffer, which means that living on the southern tip of the African continent produces an economic double whammy towards the price of photography. Not only is the measly Rand currency battered by the Dollar and the Euro, we usually pay insanely high importation fees and taxes. On average , when currency exchange is taken into account, South African photographic and tech equipment is about 20 percent to a third more expensive than the same equipment in the US (as an example the Nikon Z7ii which is currently $2996 at B&H Photo in New York, the same camera is marketed at $3943 in South Africa, although we are currently seeing ‘specials’ for $3310 - Similarly the Canon R5 is sold for $3899 in the US, but $4325 in South Africa) . On top of all this the median income is significantly lower than our European and American counterparts (the argument against this is that the cost of living is so much lower in South Africa - an argument that is rapidly falling apart as our genie co-efficient becomes even steeper as costs rise and income diminishes…people reading this are the lucky ones as an increasingly discouraged workforce literally exits the job market for lack of opportunities, or as a respondent to a newspaper put it, it is more expensive to travel to work than the money that is earned at work).

So is enthusiast photography getting more expensive? The answer, as noted above isn’t exactly clear-cut and obvious. In some respects photographic equipment is staying at the same price level based on inflation (outliers like Leica excluded). Camera manufacturers try to introduce new features in order to justify price increases, but arguably it is getting cheaper to produce the same ‘image quality’ images than before (it just costs more if you want to stay current or even moderately current with technology).

Finally there is the value of the image itself. If equipment is tracking steadily with inflation, the value of imagery is most certainly not keeping pace. Professionals have been looking at steadily  declining incomes for their photography for the last 20 years. The maxim ‘adapt’ or die has always been applicable to photography because of its tenuous connection to technology which moves inexorably onward. Yet now it seems to be that much more precarious for photographers. New AI technology moves the bar once again, meaning that obtaining well paid work as a photographer is becoming increasingly difficult, with an image consuming public that expects more and more for less and less.


It all seems so very depressing. Then I look at a recent photograph I created while leading a workshop to Kubu Island in Botswana. 20 Years ago, hell 10 years ago, this image simply wouldn’t have been possible. I photographed it with a camera and lens that is are nearing 5 years in age. Yes, technology has moved rapidly forward and everyone is going gaga over new camera’s and glass, BUT any equipment of the last decade is capable of images that we could only dream of at the turn of the century.

At the same time there is such an enormous uptake in photography as art, and appreciation of photography within a burgeoning international community of creators, that one can’t help but feel inspired for the medium. So yes, things are expensive. They are likely to get even more so. My loss of GAS doesn’t exactly help the camera manufacturers, but I am happy to say that it’s nice to get to know what I already have, and learn to use it to its best abilities.

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