Some Thoughts on Digital Camera Lifespan

This small mountain of gear leads to two very frightening thoughts. Firstly, there’s no ending in sight; one keeps accumulating more and more equipment in order to keep pushing the edge of what’s possible both from a compositional and artistic standpoint, as well as from an image quality standpoint. You’ve either got to have a great day job and very deep pockets, or some good recurring clients.

The second thought is around obsolescence. In the film days, the camera body and lenses lasted a long time; you invested in glass, got a decent body – one that fulfilled your personal needs as a photographer – and then picked the right film for the job. In that sense, image quality differences between brands were down to the lenses and the photographer. This is to say that if you put the same film in every camera, the difference in sharpness or acuity or color or whatever would be down to the lens only. If you wanted more image quality, you went for a bigger format – and thus a larger sensor. The digital equivalent to this would be having only one photo site design of a fixed pixel pitch; say around 4.9 microns, which would get you 16MP at APS-C, 36MP at FX, about 60MP on 645, and something silly on large format. For an equivalent size print, the larger format would definitely outdo the smaller format by an amount proportional to the difference in resolution.

Except, that’s not quite the case, because there are technological tricks employed on some sensors that land up yielding image quality that isn’t quite where you’d expect along the size-quality curve. Bottom line: the camera body now plays a much more critical role in the imaging chain because it also contains the ‘film’, and this isn’t something you can change when the equivalent of a new emulsion is released.

Cameras from the 1950s and 1960s are still alive and well today – and in some cases, quite plentiful. Yes, some may have sticky shutters or mechanical issues due to neglect or lack of servicing, but the reality is that they were a) built to last and b) will continue to do a fine job so long as one can find film for them. The chemical process for film processing hasn’t changed much in the last forty or so years. Negatives can (probably) last hundreds of years with proper archival and storage conditions – how long, exactly, is anybody’s guess.

However, we’re facing some very real issues with digital, and ones that matter to all digital photographers. Let’s examine these individually.

Camera life. In the film days, shutters may have been rated to 50,000 or so exposures for a professional body – the reality is that nobody but a professional would shoot this many frames; film always has a per-shot cost and effort cost associated with it. You think a bit harder before letting off a frame, and this generally results in fewer frames but more keepers. Since digital is free, photographers experiment a lot more (and learn a lot faster) – but this means that you’re probably going to wear out a shutter if you are a dedicated shooter and keep a camera more than a few years. Even the professional grade cameras have shutters rated to around 300,000 or so exposures; I know of many sport photographers whose cameras are well over the million-frame mark. I’ve had to replace shutters a couple of times on my own cameras. This in itself isn’t a big deal, so long as parts are available. However, if something goes wrong with the electronics, your camera becomes a brick the minute the manufacturer runs out of spare circuit boards – the chips are not something you can repair with an experienced hand, unlike mechanical shutters for instance.

Lenses. Even modern lenses are not immune to this – yes, they all still use glass and helicoids, but they also rely on a lot of electronics to control autofocus and aperture functions. Let’s not even talk about those with magnetically-activated gyroscopes for stabilization. Even the coreless ring-shaped motors used to achieve fast focusing aren’t infallible; early Nikon AFS lenses are notorious for requiring that expensive repair once the lenses start making squeaking noises. Again: you’re up one of those brown creeks with no paddle if something electronic gives way. The sole exception to this is the entirely mechanical glass by Leica and Zeiss; those will probably survive the apocalypse.

Batteries and cables. Anybody who’s got an older camera that uses Ni-MH or Ni-Cd cells is going to relate to this one instantly: once the batteries are no longer available, you’ve got a brick. And the inherent nature of the chemistry means that this can be as short as five years, or perhaps ten if you’re lucky. I’m glad I don’t have any that fall into this category, but I do have some lithium cells that were so heavily used that they’re pretty much useless now; I’d be worried about not being able to get replacements for these in the future. (Fortunately, I’m paranoid about spare batteries, so I have at least two for each camera I use.) Once supplies dry up off eBay, that’s probably the end of the line – and who even knows how old or new those stockpiles are. One thing I really hate about some cameras is the necessity to use proprietary connectors for things like video out or even USB – if you lose or damage that little adaptor or cable that came in the box with the camera, you’re probably out of luck getting a replacement unless there’s a huge ecosystem for the camera – but so far, no camera connector has reached that kind of popularity. At least some makers see sense and use standard mini-USB cables or 3.5mm minijacks. And putting the two together, the same of course goes for battery chargers…

Storage media. This one concerns me quite a lot: we’ve already seen big shifts from one type of digital media to another, with almost zero support once a type of card or drive or storage goes out of fashion. Self-burned CDs from just a few years ago seem to be hit and miss when it comes to readability; early DVDs are a tossup because of the format used; and has anybody tried to mount an old drive recently? They don’t always work. I’ve found the best way to keep your files and backups accessible is to use external hard drives, limit the amount of uptime they have (if you’re not using them, don’t turn them on) and change them every couple of years. This serves several purposes: firstly, maximizing forward compatibility; secondly, giving you more space; thirdly, hopefully more reliability as technology matures; and finally, the old drives can be kept somewhere as an incremental backup. And drives fail, too – you might want to take a look at my article on storage and backups.

Online. If you’re storing files online, make sure you have an offline backup. I’m sure Kodak Gallery had a lot of users at one point – at least until they shut down this month. I dread to think what’s going to happen to their servers when everybody’s aunt and uncle suddenly realize that all of their photos are there and must be downloaded immediately, or worse still, forgets completely they’re there at all. The problematic thing is that there is usually no automated backup for these things – you have to download the images one by one. If say Flickr went down, I’d lose the 13,800 or so images I’ve got there – at least the small, web-sized archives – and that wouldn’t be so critical, except that all of the images from this site are hosted there. Still, it would be recoverable – but not great. And problematically, there’s no way of executing a backup to this, either.

File compatibility. Of all the future proofing problems faced by us digital users, this is by far the biggest. I’m no so worried about JPEGs, because it seems that as a format it’s here to stay; even the improved JPEG 2000 format introduced by the same group that created JPEG compression originally didn’t really make much of a dent in the photography world. What worries me more is the ability to open all of those RAW files in future; so far, Adobe Camera Raw is doing a great job of maintaining full compatibility with older cameras (which explains why the update files are now enormous), but I wonder what will happen if that platform shifts in future. We can only hope the size of the demand for such support is large enough to support a continuing market for such products. A second set of DNG files may be an option for increased future proofing. However, it’s well-known that ACR isn’t the best converter for all files, and better image quality can be obtained via other converters for specific cameras – so I’d be concerned about what information isn’t being fully captured and transferred over. I don’t have a solution for this other than keeping a full set of uncompressed TIFF files, whose encoding is relatively simple and shouldn’t be too difficult to retain support for in future.

There’s one final issue I’d like to touch on in this article, and that’s the ecosystem. I’m not about to go greenpeace; I’m referring specifically to the support tech that’s required to maintain a full digital workflow; this includes everything from the memory cards to cables to batteries to the computer involved. Image quality competitiveness aside (more on sufficiency in another article), I think you’re going to have to think about a full upgrade cycle for your support gear every three to five years. It’s no longer your camera body you’ve got to cost in, but also a new computer to handle the larger files, Photoshop upgrades to get the most out of those RAW files, bigger memory cards and hard drives to store everything on, maybe even a higher resolution, more accurate monitor. And all of this of course costs money.

There are two ways of dealing with this – as a hobbyist, I’d recommend buying one complete (and compatible) set, then using it until one critical component dies or absolutely has to be replaced. This should get you at least five years of use, probably more. The upside is lower money out, but also close to zero residual value. As a professional, you probably have to consider the other extreme – upgrade as soon as an improvement is available. Your used gear still has resale value, and this can be used to offset the upgrade costs. Incremental upgrades to the supporting equipment can be made with relatively small spending. (I don’t like to use the word ‘investment’ when it comes to equipment, because it is really a losing proposition.) It also keeps you competitive. I’m a masochistic early adopter, so I’ve always taken the latter route. I think it’s very important to pick one approach and stick to it (or buy film, then consider owning only one camera and lens for the rest of your life) – otherwise you’re going to be stuck in the expensive no-mans’ land inn the middle.

If you enjoyed this post, you can support the author by using this Amazon affiliate link to purchase your gear.

About the author: Ming Thein is a Malaysia-based photographer whose career has spanned fine watches, wildlife, photojournalism, travel, concerts and food. Visit his website here. This post was originally published here.

  • Jonas N

    Not too worried about file formats or storage mediums going out of fashion. That may be a problem if you take a decade-long break from photography, but I think not if you’re active. There are always transition periods after all, since a photographer would be far from alone if typicallyused hard/software would change. As for forgotten photos later recovered 20 years after a photographer’s death, that may of course be a problem.

  • Carlos David

    Excellent article that touched on all the major issues. I’m currently in the process of upgrading from a D200 to a D800E, and the peripheral costs (Computer,Storage etc..) are staggering.

  • davebias

    Fantastic article! As a film shooter and on a meager budget, I long ago discovered that film was much more cost-effective for me for many of the reasons you discuss. Plus, my 1950’s Balda Super Baldax that shoots 6×6 on medium format film is both pocketable and the equivalent of about 46 megapixels when I scan the film at 3000dpi on my consumer-grade Epson.

    Even if I just get one good frame per roll, I’ve got a total investment of $150 for the camera, $6 for the film and $8 for the processing. I have a negative that will last far past my own lifetime for a storage cost of roughly 1¢ per frame (with archival binder boxes and sleeves). My only concern, at this point, is that good film scanners will go the way of good film cameras…
    I would love to see a real cost comparison – especially concerning the TIME that digital photography eats – and how this compares to a modern film workflow.

  • Young

    Conclusion: Just shoot film!

  • Stephanie Pingel Adrihan

    I thought of all these things when I made the heartbreaking decision to go digital. During my deliberation I stumbled across negatives belonging to my grandparents and was able to actually get prints made. I remember talking to a salesman and telling him how sad it was that if I went digital my grand kids would not be able to stumble across my old “negatives” in a usable format. I made the decision then that I would only go digital if I promised myself that I would continue to print all the usable images. I don’t want my memories trapped in a computer when I am old and gray and don’t have the ability to keep up with technology. And now that I went digital I have a heck of a lot more memories to look at. Thanks for the article!!

  • Mummygirl

    And even when we use our Raw files we need to buy more and more expansion memory, so more cost.

  • M’sieur Eddy

    Great post, I’m actually in the process of getting more involved in shooting film than digital. But I already met a problem around scanning, one of the best products, the Nikon Coolscans, are not supported anymore. A big shame for all film users, and even for professional labs who are still using them.
    By the way, you mentioned a 135 film would be equal to a 36Mpix sensor. But I always read that the maximum you could get of a 135 film is nearly what you get from 3600 or 400 DPI. So around 18Mpix. Did I get things wrong ? Or your example is based on a particular film, which grain is very thin ?

  • bob cooley

    Interesting article, and as someone who shot a LOT of film for many years, I sympathize with the general thesis, but shooting with film wasn’t utopia, either. And it most certainly wasn’t cheaper.

    Here are some thoughts to consider:

    Camera: I’ll use the Nikon F4s as the model, both because of the many film cameras I owned over the years, they my favorite 35mm. The shutter was rated at 150,000 actuations (and I replaced the shutter in both of my bodies at least once).

    Average cost of a roll of film and processing at the time (assuming you are using a decent lab) was about $10-12/ per 35mm 36exp. roll. – its more expensive today.

    So the life of that camera, based on shutter would cost a minimum of $41,666 (based on the 4166 rolls of film you put through it in in that 150,000 shutter clicks. For a pro, or a very engaged enthusiast, that’s a couple years of shooting. For a photojournalist or sports shooter, its about a year (mileage will vary).

    Storage: Based on the same model, 4166 contact sheets with negative sleeves means a couple of file cabinets. Assume you buy 2 cheap file cabinets at $150/pop, so add $300 plus the cost of sleeves, boxes or binders, etc.

    Based on those 4166 rolls (approx 150,000 shutters) and if you are shooting with a Nikon D800 (files are 40MB/ea. for RAW) that’s 6 TB of storage.

    A Drobo or other RAID storage device, stacked with 8TB of space (6 usable for the safety and redundancy of the Drobo) – cost about $800.

    So to measure the cost of just the F4, film, developing and storage during that 150,000 shutters: about $44,000

    Against the Nikon D800 + 8TB Drobo: about $3800.

    Add in a high-end Mac, memory cards, software, etc. and you still don’t come close to the extra $40,000 you would have spent in film + developing, and you’ve saved a LOT of (physical) storage space.

    If you were a develop-it-yourselfer, and very frugal (hand-loaded your own rolls of film, did your own darkroom, etc.) you were reducing your cost by about 40% on materials (if you are a very proficient printer). You then have to factor in the cost (and space) of maintaining a darkroom. You still don’t come close to the money saved with digital.

    And then there was the environmental impact of darkrooms.

    New lenses do come out, but there is no requirement to upgrade in that space. Faster autofocus and other options may come out, but no earth-shattering improvements are made in resolving power of a truly pro lens in a decade. I can create images that are just as vibrant, sharp with as much resolution on my D800 with my 105mm f/2.5 that was built in the 60s as I can with any of my modern pro lenses, within about a 5% margin (because of modern lens coatings) – but that’s a 40 year old lens. So if you have to upgrade your pro lenses every 8 years, you would have to do so due to simple wear in any event.

    I’m not aware of any notorious repair issues with Nikon AF-S lenes, I’ve had a bag full of them, and only had to repair one of them when it was hit by a flying baseball…

    Bottom line, if you are a prolific photographer living in the digital world, you are probably spending about $10,000/3 years (150,000 shutters) upgrading your camera body, upgrading your computer (which you would probably own and do anyways), upgrading software, and adding storage.

    Stack that against the $42,000 you are spending on film and storage of negatives for that same 150,000 shutters, you won’t see any savings in film.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love film, and have for many years. But I can tell you as someone who shot film for 15 years before the digital frontier, the cost of doing business was significantly higher.

    There is likely a curve for where it makes more sense for a hobbyist to stay in film over digital, but I imagine the threshold would be pretty low.

  • ninpou_kobanashi

    Oops, accidentally thumbs down this. I compensated by also giving an up. I thnk it’s a good idea to do some archival prints. I personally give away photobooks.

    I think people do not really realize the problem of losing file format information that is yet to come. Think about computer programs that you used 20 years ago. And all that optical media is going to go the way of floppy floppy disks, the floppies that were floppy before they were hard! (^_^). Remember tape drives as magnetic media?

  • Peter Hansen

    Resolution versus ISO rating of the film is one side of the issue, another is the films ability to capture details in shadows and light areas in the same frame, or steps.

  • Matt

    Cost effective? $14 for what 12 6×6 frames? A SD card for that price can store a whole lot more photos. Too be frank, that kind of cost kept me from taking a lot of photos. And, sorry to say, film is not for life. It degrades, and how it degrades is dependent upon how well it was processed. Even silver has issues because of the other chemicals used in processing. And, IMO film is extremely delicate, scratch it or get water on it it may be beyond repair. I’ve lost many more photos to film damage than to digital damage. I must say, there was something magical about seeing a good MF positive film on a light table. But, you know what? There is something magical about digital as well, its more the subject and the photographer… We just for some reason have a prejudice against anything labeled “digital”. The number of keepers I have the last few of years is a lot more than the keepers I had in my film days.IMO the “good ole days” are now, take advantage of it.

  • davebias

    As Mr. Cooley comments above, the costs of digital can be extremely high. His calculations for film, however, are far higher than my total investment in the thousands of frames of film I’ve shot. But then, I’m no pro blasting through shutters.

    Concerning your particular points:

    a) I’m not interested in taking enough photos to fill an SD card. I actually NEED the limitation of knowing I’ve got to get it right in 12, or 8, or 1.

    b) My film won’t degrade too awful much in MY lifetime and if you read the article above, I’m sure you’d agree that film certainly has more longevity than most digital storage media. As a graphic designer, I’ve lost more files to hard drive crashes and obsoleted storage devices than I care to talk about.

    c) I take great care not to damage my film. More care than my digital files and I think this is precisely because they exist in the real world instead of digitally.

    d) I’m no digital hater. I’m a fan of photography regardless of the gear. And I’m not looking for a return to the (never truly good) “good ole days”. I simply feel that it’s dangerously short-sighted to wish analog film photography out of existence “because it’s too expensive” and I relish articles like this one that point our the true costs and exhort us to balance the equation properly.

  • Tim

    I am a Canon user, i feel sorry for you.

  • Daniel Austin Hoherd

    While I agree with most of what this article says, “The sole exception to this is the entirely mechanical glass by Leica and Zeiss” makes it sound like other entirely mechanical lenses aren’t also an exception to the electronic limitations. Inexpensive brands like Rokinon and Arax make fully mechanical lenses of good quality, and even more reputable brands like Nikon and Canon have several currently available lenses that are entirely usable without the need for any electronics in the lens.

    I think it’s important for people to know that they don’t have to buy expensive Leica or Zeiss lenses to be future-proof.

  • jsaon gold

    the digital world is always evolving..Windows XP already for the chopping bloc,new model cameras all the time making long term support impossible! The very real risk of “losing” all ones images in a PC glitch, a server/storage going belly up, Kodak, Picnic, etc, a storage device or item no longer reading..
    I make prints. i store my prints. i have extra drives.
    i still use film. i have my Leica cameras repaired as needed! The Nikon F has no knowledge of such needs..
    Digital is fun, it’s way easier but very scary as regards the future!

  • bob cooley

    This made me chuckle… “Windows XP is already on the chopping block” – it was released in 2001. 11 years is an incredible life-cycle for an operating system.

  • Ken Elliott

    Thank you for an excellent post. I’d like to add one suggestion.

    Like you, I’ve shot both film and digital, with the very cameras you mention (F4/D800). Since there is not weight/logistics cost to shooting 10 times the shots I’d have taken with film, I have the option to do so. When I was shooting film, I’d wait for that “decisive moment”, and not take as many chances. Yes, with the D800 i do reject more images, but I still keep them. So I’d offer the suggestion that many of us shoot 5 to 10 times the shots with digital, so if you cut the film cost by 1/10, you end up with nearly the same cost for both film and digital. (yes, I’m being lazy and not breaking down all the numbers, so this is only a rough guess.)

  • Ken Elliott

    Most people forget what a stinker XP was when it was introduced. But it did age well.

    Of course UNIX was introduced in 1973 and is more popular than ever (including Unix-like Linux, Android, etc.)