Posted by: kerryl29 | June 18, 2018

Cost of the Endeavor

Recently, I saw a post on a photographic forum I frequent from an individual who was selling some old–12 to 14 years since purchase–gear.  All of it was described as being in perfect working order, most of it in excellent to pristine condition.  While there were a couple of camera bodies in the haul, most of it was in the form of lenses.  While the purpose of the post was to gather information about recommended venues for selling used equipment, I took note of a side issue:  the cost of the gear and the likely return.  The best guess was that the equipment that was being put up for sale originally sold for roughly $20,000 (US).  Making allowances for compounded inflation, that would amount to roughly $26,000 (US) in 2018.  The seller hoped to receive $2500 for everything when it was all said and done, meaning 10 cents on the dollar would be an acceptable, if not good, return.

Secret Beach at Sunrise, Samuel H. Boardman State Park, Oregon

Most durable goods sell for a pittance of their original price on the used market and I don’t know that photographic equipment is all that different, at this point, in terms of resale valuation than the average widget.  But I do know that the price of used photographic gear has declined substantially over the last couple of decades (for a variety of reasons).  Put another way, photography equipment used to hold its value significantly better than it does today.  There was a time when the cost of purchasing a new item could be more easily justified, knowing that a healthy percentage of the price could be retrieved (assuming the item was kept in good condition) by selling it used at a later date.  (Some people I know essentially treated new purchases as glorified rentals…the difference in the purchase and resale price was the effective cost of the rental, deferred over time.)  That philosophy is effectively out the window today.

Jobs Pond, Orleans County, Vermont

This all serves as a stark reminder of just how expensive a hobby photography can be, particularly when the implied (and inferred) disposability of current gear is factored into the equation.  I know of other hobbies that carry a steep “equipment price” for enthusiasts but I’m not aware of anything with the implied ongoing equipment expense for someone “serious” about photography.  This is particularly true in the digital age when the assumption is that people who are serious about the endeavor will upgrade camera bodies, if not necessarily every generation, at least every other generation.  For most camera lines marketed to enthusiasts that new body can be expected to cost north of $1000 (US), often far north.  (The current version of the Nikon D8xx line–my camera body belongs to this model line, though is now two generations old–sells for more than $3000 (US).)  For other hobbies with a significant cost in terms of gear , the expectation is that equipment will be used until it wears out.  With photography, that decidedly is not the expectation.  The assumption is that equipment will be replaced when something “better” comes along and in most cases that’s every couple of years or so.

Sunrise, Coral Cove Park, Palm Beach County, Florida

The good news is, you don’t have to buy in to the marketing hype, as I have noted several times in the past on this blog.  You don’t necessarily need a top end camera and lens line and you almost certainly don’t need to purchase the latest iteration of whatever camera model/make you’ve ultimately bought.

Cades Cove Morning, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Think of your photo equipment as your tool set; your cameras, lenses and accessories are the items you use to carry out your vision.  Period.  There may be compelling, applicable reasons to go with expensive gear, in at least some instances.  And there may not.  That upgrade that’s being touted as so wonderful?  What practical, actionable reason is there to spend several thousand dollars obtaining it?  How, exactly, is it going to impact your photography?  What problem that you have with your current camera (or other piece of gear) is this new product going to solve?  These are the kinds of questions that, answered honestly, will help to ensure that your (likely considerable) investment in photo equipment will actually bare fruit.

Virgin River Intimate black & white, Riverside Walk, Zion National Park, Utah

It was, after much tortured questioning and answering, that I broke down and purchased a new lens recently–my first such purchase in roughly four years:  the Sigma 24-35/2.  I will use this example to flesh out the principles elucidated in this post, next time.

Sunrise Silhouette, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

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Responses

  1. I like the way that you express your views on this topic. You make your points well without completely dismissing the opposite view. It’s amazing how often folks make comments like, “That’s a great picture. You must have an expensive camera.” As you point out so well, ultimately it is not about the gear. I suppose if you are a professional, you can justify constant upgrades, but for hobbyists, even serious ones, we make do with what we have as long as we can. I look forward to your next post when you talk about your new lens. By the way, I can’t help but mention how much I love your photos. I was going to try to choose my favorite of the ones in this post, but simply couldn’t decide. 🙂

    • Thanks very much, Mike!

  2. In this digital age, we have new, ‘better’ products coming out with greater frequency from more manufacturers than ever before. It reminds me of golfers faced with the latest drivers or putters to take their game to the next level. When you ask a golfer how many of those clubs sit in the garage unused, because they now have the latest ‘tool in their bag’, I think we’d be surprised. The best equipment made is no substitute for improved technique, practice, and a proper workflow to finish an image. A timely article Kerry, and a reminder the all of our camera gear are just tools in our toolbox. The rest is still up to us!

    • Thanks, Ross! The golf comparison is an interesting one.

  3. I had forgotten to add that for those who have not upgraded their computers in the last 5-6 years and are contemplating spending money for a camera upgrade, i’d certainly be doing that first with the computer. New cameras’ software demands may not be accessible on older software that can’t be upgraded due to not meeting minimum hardware requirements… like not having a new enough graphics processor or lacking 64-but functionality. I know. I’ve run into this issue with my older Mac and have little choice but to make an upgrade here first. That is food for thought.

    By the way Kerry, keep up the fine photos and articles. I’m enjoying it all!

    • Good point re potential software (and hardware) incompatibilities. When I moved from the D700 to the D800E six years ago I knew that the computer system I owned at the time was likely to choke on the files that were roughly three times the size as their predecessors.

  4. Great piece Kerry! I still have all my stuff from way back when (Kodachrome 64 era). Two of Minolta’s x570’s and a multitude of lenses. And I am still shooting with my Nikon D80. It has never failed me. I have longed for a camera in the D7000 series primarily for the better dynamic range…and maybe to play with the intervalometer feature. It is difficult to justify the expense. But as you say in this article in more words, will it really make a difference in my photos. Maybe. Circumstances would dictate that. Thanks again for a superb bit of wisdom.

    • Thanks, David! There have been a lot of substantial improvements since the days of the D80…but only you can decide if those improvements are worth the expense. I think, ultimately, that’s really the point: assuming that there are documented improvements with a camera (or lens), is the cost of the upgrade worth it to you? There’s no objectively correct answer to that hypothetical question. Two different people could very easily come–legitimately–to entirely different answers.

  5. Your Cades Cove image is gorgeous. And I agree with you to a point. While you don’t need to go purchase each new iteration of a camera that comes onto the market every few months, it makes sense for the serious photographer to upgrade at some point in time, simply because the technology of the newer cameras is so much more advanced than older ones. I look at the images I captured with my Canon 5D some 10 years ago, versus the images taken with my current Canon 5DS, and I can see a world of difference in the quality and clarity of the image, not to mention the tones, shadows, lighting and color. Sure, I’ve improved as a photographer over the years, so that helps to make a difference in the images. My camera upgrades, though, have helped to showcase this improvement.

    • Thanks very much!

      No question, there are frequently identifiable improvements to photo gear. The Nikon D8xx series that I shoot with has been improved twice since I purchased the D800E has been upgraded twice and there have been undeniable updates made; I’m intrigued by a couple of them, in fact. But it’s not enough to make me plunk down another $3000+ dollars for a new camera. Someone else, of course, could very easily arrive at the opposite conclusion; in fact I know people who have made such a decision (i.e. upgraded to the D810 or the D850…or both).

      But, you’re absolutely correct; some of these upgrades have resulted in massive technical changes in the upgrades which bring a lot of potential advantages that some folks might need to see to believe.

  6. Like Rebecca, the Cades Cove photo is a gorgeous one.

    I couldn’t help to think about a trend developing in equine sports while reading your post. Rather than learning how to be a better rider, some mediocre riders have gone out to purchase talented horses (the $100K+ horse) instead to ride the higher level shows. While their results may have improved short term, the lack of riding ability eventually reveals itself over the medium and longer term.

    Though I covet some of the newer cameras, I still make good use of the 12 year old technology in my camera. I suppose I will upgrade at some point when my Canon bridge camera gives out. I am with the school that a quality image is made not with what camera is in your hands, but in how the scene is set up before ever pressing the shutter. I’ve found the improvement in my skill shows when I shoot with film, which I still do to an extent these days. (We have a local, professional photographic lab that develops film using the C41 process in most cases.)

    • Thanks, David.

      Interesting comparison re equine sports; I confess that I wouldn’t have thought of that endeavor off the top of my head.

      With regard to camera equipment, only you can decide when obsolescence sets in, regardless of what the manufacturer may say. 🙂

  7. […] how does this purchase comply with what I said about new equipment in my last entry?  It will allow my large prints to hold up to closer scrutiny.  The corner sharpness difference […]


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