We all love interesting and perhaps somewhat obscure facts and anyone reading this site has at least a moderate interest in cameras — and hopefully, their history. Part of that history includes the unique, weird, one-of-a-kind, and (you guessed it) extremely expensive cameras which have, in one way or another, played a role in paving the way to where we are today.
Apollo 15 Hasselblad Moon Camera
It is fairly well-known that the cameras used in the Apollo 11 mission — which landed the first men on the moon on July 20, 1969 — were Hasseblads. One stayed inside the Eagle, and another was strapped to Neil Armstrong to take photos on the moon’s surface. But neither camera returned to Earth, with the two cameras and the lenses having been left on the moon’s surface.
In 1971, a latter mission known as Apollo 15 sought to obtain an even greater variety and catalog of lunar photographs and therefore used significantly more photographic gear. Three 70mm Hasselblad Data Cameras (one LM1 and two LM2 bodies) were operated by astronauts David Scott, James Irwin, and Alfred Worden. The two LM2 cameras, fitted with 60mm lenses, were fixed to the astronauts’ suits to photograph the moon’s surface. The cameras were semi-automatic and battery-powered, so the astronauts could easily fire the shutter via a trigger affixed to the camera’s handle.
The third camera, LM1, was fitted with a high-resolution 500mm lens.
One of the two LM2 cameras (with its lens) sold at auction in 2020 for $910,400.
Canon IXUS 65 Diamond Edition
Holding the record for the most expensive Canon digital still camera ever made is 2006’s special edition Canon IXUS 65. Encrusted with 380 diamonds surrounding the lens, the camera itself is really nothing more than a blinged-out Powershot SD640 — the kind of very tiny, cheap, and basic point-and-shoot digital camera that was extremely popular in the early to late 2000s.
Only ten were ever made, and all of them were auctioned off on eBay for about $40,000 each (equivalent to $54,000 today), making it not only one of the most expensive cameras ever but likely the most expensive digital point-and-shoot of all time.
Canon donated the proceeds to the Red Cross.
Jony Ive & Marc Newson Leica M Prototype
Leica is quite well-known for its limited-edition releases of both cameras and lenses, with some opening to more positive reception than others. Famed industrial design Marc Newson and former Apple Chief Design Officer Jony Ive came together to make this one.
Ive and Newson went through 561 models and nearly 1,000 parts over 85 days until finally settling on the design of the final prototype — a laser machined aluminum body and anodized aluminum outer shell with almost zero lettering or markings of any kind to be found anywhere on the camera. Nor will you find any red dot, either.
The prototype camera, built around the innards of the 24-megapixel Leica M240, was fitted with a matching APO-Summicron 2/50 ASPH lens and sold at auction for $1.8 million in 2013. The actual limited edition production run sold for much, much less, though still far from pocket-change. (You can see what the final public-release design looked like in the header photo at the top of this article — it is significantly different than the prototype here)
Louis Daguerre’s Suisse Fréres Daguerreotype
The daguerreotype, invented by Louis Daguerre and introduced to the world in 1839, was the first publicly available photographic process. Arguably, the Daguerreotype represents the beginning of photographic history. Images were exposed on a silver-plated copper sheet that had been treated with fumes to make it light-sensitive. Exposure could vary from a few seconds in the brightest conditions up to several minutes or more, depending on the lighting conditions and artistic intent.
Along with Alphonse Giroux, French company Susse Fréres was granted exclusive rights to produce and sell daguerreotype cameras in 1839.
There is only one known surviving Susse Fréres daguerreotype. Made in 1839, it is also the oldest surviving camera in the world — but it also fetched quite the price tag at auction.
Its 382mm meniscus achromatic doublet lens (with an effective working aperture of about f/14) was made by optional engineer Charles Chevalier and is only the third lens Chevalier made for a daguerreotype.
Considering not only its one-of-a-kind rarity but also its historical significance, the $740,000 sale in 2007 (equivalent to $940,000 today) does not seem unreasonable. But the best part? The camera had been lost for almost 170 years before being discovered in a dusty attic in Munich, Germany where it then went on to be auctioned.
Leica II Luxus
In 1932, Leica manufactured just four luxury versions of the Leica II — a 35mm rangefinder camera designed by Oskar Barnack, typically paired with a 50mm f/3.5 Leitz Elmar lens.
The Luxus II featured the same design and functions as the standard Leica II but came adorned with gold-plating and a lizard skin covering. The copy sold at auction even included an original crocodile camera case. The camera had been gifted to a Welsh camera enthusiast after World War II — he went on to use it for several decades after that. It made its first public appearance in 2001 when the owner brought it onto the BBC series Antiques Roadshow, though it did not go up for auction until 2013, after his death.
It sold for an enormous $620,000 at auction, which was actually significantly under expectations.
It is not known where the other three copies are or if they even still exist.
While the record for the most expensive camera ever sold goes to the next one on this list, this black paint Leica M3D-2 holds the record as the most expensive non-prototype camera.
One of just four cameras that was customized by Leica for American photographer David Douglas Duncan, who most notably worked for Life Magazine, National Geographic, and covered World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam as a combat photographer. He once even found himself going above and beyond the parameters of his job by fighting in actual combat against the Japanese in World War II.
The M3D-2 was accoutered with a black anodized aluminum 50/1.4 Summilux-M lens with a custom focusing lever. Leica also outfitted the camera with a Leicavit — a rapid winder affixed to the camera’s underside, commonly used by photojournalists to aid them in fast-paced situations. The four cameras were used most notably for Duncan’s Vietnam work and his photographs of Pablo Picasso and Picasso’s second wife and muse, Jacqueline Roque.
The camera and lens were sold at the 2012 WestLicht auction and fetched a staggering $2.18 million.
Another Leica. Shocker, I know.
Part of a prototype pre-production test run, the Leica 0-series consisted of only 25 cameras, created by Ernst Leitz in 1923. Of the original 25, only twelve survive to this day, and only three of those are in original condition.
The 0-series served as a prototype series for the Leica Standard, which was released two years later in 1925. Like the Standard, the camera does not have interchangeable lenses and instead sports a fixed 50mm f/3.5 known as the Leitz Anastigmat based on the design of the Cooke Triplet (Leica would later drop “Anastigmat” with the release of the Standard, calling the lens the Leitz Elmar instead).
In 2018, one of these cameras sold at auction for a whopping $2.97 million, breaking its own record from 2012 of $2.79 million. This makes it the most expensive camera ever sold.
Holding the record for the most expensive camera currently on the market — aside from even more specialized cameras for industrial, medical, etc. — is the world’s first large format digital camera, the LargeSense LS911.
We recently covered this camera in a hands-on review and as you might expect from a camera with a sensor that’s even larger than 8×10 film, it isn’t exactly going to fit in your Tenba shoulder bag. I think it might even test the capacity limits of my Toyota Yaris.
The camera sports a 9×11-inch monochrome CMOS sensor (with pixels clocking in at an enormous 75-microns), dual native ISO values of 2100 and 6400, electronic shutter up to 1/30th of a second, 11.9-megapixel resolution, and quite amazingly, 14-bit CinemaDNG RAW video up to 30 frames per second.
Weighing in at forty pounds (without tripod, lens, and other accessories), requiring a 120V power source, and costing $106,000, it is not a camera for everyone, to say the least. But it is certainly one of a kind.
(Gen II is expected to cost less at $85,000)
Phase One XF IQ4 & IQ4 Achromatic
While it’s certainly still a niche product, Phase One’s XF IQ4 medium format camera is the most expensive camera currently on the market among mainstream manufacturers. The Danish company is widely known for its expensive, high-performance medium format digital cameras — and for good reason.
With a massive 53.4x40mm, 150-megapixel CMOS sensor, the IQ4 cameras are the highest resolution, largest sensor bodies available today.
When you combine their extraordinary Schneider Kreuznach lenses, incredible dynamic range and resolution, and the ability to use both focal plane and leaf shutters, and you end up with cameras that are highly revered by high-end fashion and landscape photographers alike.
Phase One sells the regular IQ4, with a Bayer color filter array, as well as the IQ4 Achromatic, which is one of the few monochrome medium format cameras on the market. Both will drain $55,000 from your wallet.
Seitz 6×17 Digital
Super wide aspect ratio cameras have been around for a long time — the Hasselblad XPan (aka Fujifilm TX-1), Fujifilm GX-617, Linhof Technorama 617 models, and the Widelux are just a few of the more modern examples. There are also 6×17 medium format backs for large format cameras.
The Seitz 6×17 Digital, however, is unusual in that it, well, is digital. Released in 2007, the camera is built around a massive 6×17 TDI (Time Delay Integration) Dalsa sensor and produces insane 160-megapixel, 48-bit files.
The high bit-depth and true color files are thanks to its scanning sensor — however, this also means the camera is best suited to static or mostly static subjects as the scanning time can range from one second (at 1/20,000th second exposure) to hours (a 1-second exposure would take five hours to scan). But you can use higher ISOs to mitigate this, should you need to. The one-second scan time at 1/20,000th of a second is quite impressive, however, as it is far quicker than any other scanning backs. This makes it quite useful for bright daylight landscapes and similar photography.
The Seitz 6×17 can make use of hundreds of large format lenses from Schneider, Rodenstock, Fujifilm, Nikon, and many others. When equipped with a high-quality lens, the camera is capable of mind-blowing results.
The camera retailed for $38,000 upon release, equivalent to about $50,000 today.
Image credits: Part of header photo licensed via Shutterstock.