Some thoughts on digital camera lifespan

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Some of my 2012 gear. Missing is the D800E, PCE 85/2.8 Micro, AI 45/2.8P, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE, Pen Mini, OM-D, Panasonic 20/1.7, Panasonic Leica 45/2.8, D-Lux 5 Titanium,a couple more SB900s, light panels…

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.

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A Parisian cliche. 2006 vintage Leica M8, Voigtlander 50/1.1

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.

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Minute repeater works. 2005 vintage Nikon D2Hs, 85/2.8 PC Micro

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.

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Shipyard worker. 2007 vintage Panasonic TZ3

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…

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A quiet moment. 2004 vintage D2H, with a 1960s vintage 55/1.2 SC pre-AI converted Nikkor

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 Kodakgallery 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.

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End of the line. 2007 vintage Panasonic TZ3

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. MT


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. Why would I ever want to be rid of my “ancient” Canon 1D mk ii N. 8.5Mp gives superb prints up to A4 and beyond, I never need sensitivity beyond its (very clean) 1600 ASA, and a couple of old Canon Prime lenses (35mm f/2 50mm f/1.8 70-210 f/4 … no USM, no IS) nevertheless are tremendously sharp, resolve good detail, are light and compact and seem perfectly suited to this camera,

  2. joe ullman says:

    a REALLY likeable website, excellent photographs, and good perspective. I just bought an OM-d. I’m a hobbying; i like gadgets, i’ve been shooting since the 70’s with a Canon FTBn and 3 lenses, upgraded to a Hoya 35-105; the entire package must have weight 6 pounds. realized I just liked snapshots, side-graded to a Ricoh film point and shoot and loved travel photography again.
    I love digital. I have had a dozen cameras and although I am just amazed and thrilled with the OM-d (upgraded from an EPL-1 and a Canon G10) frankly, I don’t know that I have ever seen more beautiful color and sharpness than on my pocket sized Fuji F30. I have pics of Croatia that just are marvelous. Great perspective on the differences between now and then. It is funny because when I finally “arrived” financially and was tired of inexpensive Toshiba and Fuji point and shoots I went into my local camera store and said I want to buy a legacy camera. Something I can will to my kids. A leica, a contax a Rolleiflex…I walked out with a $200 Fuji F30….so I think we are in an era of dispoable cameras and thence picking up a $1000 OM-d may not be the smartest use of discretionary cash (but it is fun…)
    So I enjoyed your article(s) and photography and hope to check back often.

    • I had an F10 – perhaps I should repost some images from that – that was quite an amazing little compact. I don’t think any of the digitals are legacy cameras; instead, pass down images and lenses – the bodies will always improve.

  3. On the other topic:
    Not sure I understand using Flickr as a backup medium. I just uploaded a 3800×2600 image there (as a test) and Flickr downsized it to 2000×1400, using who knows what process. The result looks OK, I guess, but it’s certainly not the same as the original.

    • Do you have a pro account? That takes full res tiff and jpeg files, and doesn’t do anything with the originals. Only the small sizes are compressed.

  4. I have Nikons and Leicas that I bought (used) in the 1970’s. Like the hundred-year-old axe that’s had 3 new handles and four new heads, they just keep soldiering on. As you say, digital is a whole different kettle of fish. Since I have no clients who care what I use, I try to stay 1 or 2 versions behind the wave; my current Canon is a 40d. When I get to be a better photographer than the 40d is a camera, I’ll move up.

    I did break my rule for the OMD. And the X100.

    The problem with digital is that the value of older equipment quickly approaches zero if you’re lazy about selling it. I have a Pentax k100d (and several others) that I should have sold when it became surplus, but didn’t. My bad.

  5. Luis Castro Solla says:

    Ming, congratulations, you wrote another very interesting article. I would add one more potential problem: lack of organization. If you are not very methodical, it gets almost impossible to find pictures in loads of external hard disks and other supports, and you easily start having lots of duplicates around. Of course, when dealing with negatives and slides, one also had to know how to search for a picture, and most of the work involved was manual. But before digital cameras, we took hundreds, as opposed to tens of thousands of pictures.

    • Thanks Luis – yes, organization is very important. And it’s one of the things I cover under workflow and backups. I think the biggest difference with digital is that there really is no penalty in having multiple copies of the same file…

  6. I am in the court of “we need more”. I am with you on your assessment. My vision of the future includes finer resolution and better stabilization in lenses. We may see a combined lens AND glass stabilization technique. Why would I want more? Digital accuracy and digital zoom. I want fine macro on micro capability. How many people would want that? Many many, especially in the baby boomers who are looking for challenging hobbies with beautiful creativity in mind. The infrastructure and as you call it, the ecosystem of cameras have a great deal to change to take these next steps. How would a large telescope quality photo be when viewing the stars? How would a camera that takes the photo of an animals foot at 100 yards do? How about clearly photographing a butterfly in full frame at 30 yards away?

    • I presume you mean body and lens stabilization? Have a look at the Planet Earth series, the quality on that is amazing – they used a gyrostabilized camera called a Cineflex mounted to a helicopter for most of the shots; the lens on that goes from 17-2000mm or something similarly crazy. The only problem with these things: you can’t physically make them that small.

      What does worry me isn’t so much the cost, but the complexity and lack of longer term serviceability – especially important if you’re going to be plonking down serious coin…

  7. Steve Jones says:

    Yes, all digital cameras are disposable products with about 3, certainly a 5 year shelf life which makes them too expensive really when you think about it. My film Minolta 9000AF, ( first pro AF camera from around 1985) is just about hanging in there, but the LCD display is fading. It has lasted FAR longer than D-SLR’s and still has a better viewfinder. I’ll be sad to see it go. I think ( unless you are making good money from your photography) it isn’t worth buying top end digital cameras especially since the performance of the basic models isn’t a whole lot worse. I appreciate my Leica M6TTL more and more. I don’t care that it’s not digital since I get the negs scanned to a disc and print digitally. The camera needs no updating every few months, I lose no sleep over pixels, sensors etc, the battery lasts for ages without any recharging nonsense and the optical quality is always dependable. Digital has given us better exposure accuracy especially in low light, the means to take pictures without a tripod ( via image stabilization ) but at what cost? Constant recharging of batteries in cameras that consume more power, rapid obsolescence ( can I spell that?) poorer viewfinders, too fast a replacement cycle before we have become proficient with our camera of choice, and.. the worst of all…electronic menus that actually slow down the picture taking process and force you to look away from the subject. progress? I’ll have to try real hard to convince myself that replacing that old Minolta with an OMD is a good idea. But at least I’d be able to use my M lenses with an adaptor.Small compensation.

    • Totally agree. I keep saying we’ve passed the point of sufficiency; the limitation now is the sack of meat behind the finder more than anything else. Hopefully a ‘pro’ model gives you some more useful features and better reliability, but usually even that’s moot…

  8. Hello, Ming! I’m newcomer here.

    Very true story. I had six HDD failures during these last 5 years and that’s a heck of a pain. Even the last living 80GB WD HDD with IDE interface is a dead brick due to incompatibility with current SATA-II. I’m still searching someone with ancient computer just to take back some of my worthy files. On the other hand, all my films I’ve shot back in the film days are still at reach and for sure negatives and slides would live longer than current RAW files and spare TIFF conversions. Some time ago we had a small software that counted running meters for curved lines for milling machine. Unfortunately, computer died and I was forced to find a computer with floppy drive in it, because spare copy of that software was laying on a diskette, so there were no chances to take it back other than insert in a outdated receiver. It was frustrating experience.

  9. Herwig Vennekens says:

    Very insightful and thought provoking. Enjoyed reading this. You are raising some very profound points. I’m currently considering to buy a M 9 or M9-P. And frankly speaking I’m hesitating in light of the soon to be announced M 10 and the release of the D800 because of the advanced camera features these two very different cameras offer.

  10. Ming, I think there may be a third approach to replacing stuff. I haven’t thought it through with all my stuff, but at least with camera bodies I have come up with another approach. I have used it with two Oly dSLR bodies and one Pany (GH2). I wait until 12-18 months into the cycle and then watch carefully using various rumor sites for a price that is 40% off. Sometimes this requires buying a kit with yet another kit lens but I just sell off the lens on eBay. Anyway. With the Oly 520 and 620 I bought and sold two years after buying for the same price I paid! With the GH2 I paid $999 for it this past December on Amazon (it was something like a one day opportunity) with the 14-140 and sold the lens for $625. That leaves me with only $375 of skin in the deal… after 5 years of shooting interterchangeable lens cameras.

    On the other hand, I am not always that disciplined…. LOL… I preordered and received the EM5, obviously at full price. But what the heck.

    Peter F.

    • That makes a lot of sense – if you live in the US. Doesn’t really work in Asia, unfortunately. How are you finding the E-M5?

      • fishingwithflies says:

        Hi Ming, Just got back from 2 weeks in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, alternating day to day the GH2 and EM5. I haven’t yet posted on my own blog (my log in with wordpress is fishingwithflies, but my photoblog is at blogspot… don’t know if it is appropriate here to post the link … I don’t want to be too selfserving… please let me know) from the trip, but am expecting to do so. Obviously, as we all should know, none of my images were ruined by either camera (nor the LX5 which I also had with me), nor would they have been ruined by using a Nikon or Canon – they’re all good. But between the GH2 and EM5 there are some big differences. EM5 advantages were the vertical grip, fast bracketing and writing speeds, and I love the live histogram with the green histogram within the larger histogram. The EV control through the front dial is very smooth. I also like autoISO within Manual exposure mode. Huge disadvantage is the access to bracketing, which I set up as a preset, but going back and forth is difficult because the buttons are so small and squishy. Buttons are so bad, and I dont remember how I have them set up, so I use the SCP all the time for most settings, which is just fine. THe GH2 has many advantages. I love the multi-aspect sensor and have the custom button on the top plate set up for this. The user interface is nice too. Buttons are all labeled and handle most everything. And the touch screen is very fast. The slider for bracketing is easy and fast. But I hate the clackity-clack sound of the shutter.

        My lenses are reg43 14-54II and 70-300. Focus speed was slow of course, but equal on both cameras. My wildlife shots came out fine (bears, deer, elk, mountain goats, long horn sheep) in spite of the slow AF. I did not use IBIS at all. Just 1/focal length speed with max ISO set at 3200 on both cameras.

        Peter F.

  11. German Zoeschinger says:

    Just one small remark to your online storage paragraph about flickr: I am using flickr a lot (I have over 40000 images uploaded – in original jpeg resolution). There are several possibilities to do backups from the flickr site using third party applications. The one that I am using is bulkr.

    • Good to know. But I’m concerned about having more original size files in yet another location that I don’t have full control over…

  12. what you forgot is that most cameras, once a newer version comes out, can be bought at ridicoulous prices (for replacement, for spare parts), so even professional cameras can last very long. What drives us to buy new gear all the time is the wish to improve and keep up. But this curve will also slow down once people realize that the additional benefit is getting smaller each year. Lets say that if, in three years, a D900 comes out, with 120 Mp and max Iso, wil there be a real benefit over the D700 for a photographer? The progress in sensor technology was amazing those last years, but now we come to a point where the real benefits for users get less important. Thankfully!

    • Good point. And of course the older gear doesn’t make any worse quality pictures than it did when new, but psychologically we think it does (and clients of course demand more and more resolution, then complain that the files are too big for them to open!)

  13. Scholar Mel says:

    Reblogged this on 1 Million Reblogs.


  1. […] 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. […]

  2. […] From the same blog, some good points on digital camera lifespan […]

  3. […] 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. […]

  4. […] 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. […]

  5. […] 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. […]

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