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Digital cameras How long should they last?

Back in the day, as they say, analogue film cameras were simple things. They started off with a simple lens attached to a lightproof box and a sheet of film, ready to be exposed by uncovering the lens.

The design didn't change for many years. Of course, the lenses became more sophisticated, the shutters became more reliable but the basics remained the same.

It's because of this simplicity that many of the very early film cameras can still be used today. The shutters can usually be repaired if necessary and light leaking bellows can be patched or replaced. Film is still available (indeed, it's currently enjoying something of a resurgence) and the general love of the vintage charm of such devices is being cherished by not just the old timers but the new generation too.

So, film is not dead by a long way.

Now, this article is about the longevity of digital cameras, so, how do they compare?

Let's start by defining longevity a bit.

When a digital camera first becomes discontinued (often due to a new version taking its place) we could define the older model as defunct. Actually, I don't think that's a fair or accurate definition. Film cameras were upgraded in a similar way by manufacturers, yet the older models (like their digital equivalents) remained popular for along time. The new versions often cost more, whilst the previous version's prices dropped (through manufacturers' discounts or via the second-hand market). The difference between the latest and the last models often isn't huge, so the appeal of a camera which is nearly as good but much less expensive, makes the older model still relevant (for a time at least).

When the newer model itself gets replaced then the older version shifts down the mortal coil one more time. After several updates, the once shiny new digital camera is now looking a bit dated.

Film cameras, of course, had the same experience. However, they received updated at a much slower rate than their digital counterpart. The older film cameras had more staying power!.

Today is quite different from twenty or thirty years ago in terms of modern manufacture. Although the digital camera is far more technologically complicated than film gear, modern production does allow for a quicker turnover of ever newer models (Sony's particularly known for this). Innovation in technology is changing rapidly and, like computers, seems to be outpacing itself on a monthly basis, or so it would seem.

The marketplace has changed too in the last decades. Manufacturers face an ever more fierce competition and one way to fight that off is by constantly innovating.

Nowadays, they can't stay still too long.

Technology also helps reduce the longevity of digital cameras. Obsolescence is a big reason to ditch the older camera. Batteries become difficult to replace, firmware and software are no longer supported, connection sockets become outdated and so on.... Once those factors come into play it starts to seal the fate of an ever aging model of digital camera after only a relatively short few years.

Other factors spur the demise. xx megapixels were once regarded as plenty. Now we have xxx megapixels, then xxxx and so on. There's a lot of marketing hype going on too. xx megapixels were actually fine, but we are cleverly convinced otherwise on a regular basis!

Of course, it does become difficult to support the idea of keeping an ever aging digital camera. 6 megapixels is OK for many things but does look meagre compared to a more standard 24Mp (as of 2021).

In addition to the pixel count, some other factors make older digital cameras less desirable. Having owned most of the Sony alpha series I once bought an a7ii as an everyday carry-around / spare camera. I owned an a7riii at the time and realised just how awkward the controls of the older model were (despite having previously owned that model and not really noticed at the time!). It seemed that the advance in ergonomics has been glacial, almost drip-fed, over the model range. One would think that it can't be difficult to design a camera where the buttons are basically in the right place early on in a modern camera's design. However, for whatever reason, it hasn't panned out that way. The sceptic in me thinks it's a deliberate ploy so the manufacturers have something new each time (it must be getting tough finding new features at the rate that some camera models get replaced). It all just means that the desirability of an older model really is affected (for me anyway).

OK, so obsolescence, new features and technology, better ergonomics all conspire against the cheaper prices of aging models. This tug of war, push-pull effect will only end one way; that the newer model is kept while the older versions are skipped (eventually).

I wonder how long it takes before the mark one is finally disregarded by even the least demanding photographer? Five, ten years probably at most.

If we tolerate cheaper cameras and accept that they will end up in landfill (one appalling aspect of consumerism) then where does that leave the more expensive cameras (which include high-end Sony, Canon, Nikon, Leica, Hasselblad, Phase One etc). Professional high end cameras tend to get used much harder. Wedding photographers will wear out shutters at a great rate, the press and sports photographer will hammer their gear in all weathers etc. Many top photographers don't necessarily treat their gear with kid gloves; they don't have time to always be placing gear back in its box and polishing it on a Sunday. At these levels in the profession the camera gear, whilst vital to the work, is there to make money. I'm not saying we treat our gear badly, but it is an tool and in constant use, so it will wear more than in the hands of a careful amateure. It may be the case that, even though cameras at this level of hardiness, will only last a finite amount of time before repairs and servicing become too expensive and a new camera is needed.

So, between the cheap plastic (almost throwaway) camera and the very expensive professional high-end model, there is a large range of prosumer cameras out there. This is the bit I have most concern with. If I bought a Leica, with its premium manufactured body, then I'd want to have that for a lifetime. Leica's are supposed to get better with age! Vintage Leica's have a beautiful patina acquired over many years of use. The brassing adds to their love of ownership. A modern Leica won't be around long enough to gain this aging. Long before any signs of loving use have developed the camera will be obsolete, irrespective of its premium price tag. The software and firmware will eventually not be supported when manufacturers concentrate their resorces on the newer models. Repairs (especially electronic) won't be either possible or economically viable in time. I think that's a great shame. Even a vintage Nikon FM gets a patina (the brass metal showing though where the camera has been handled over many years). But the Nikon is still serviceable. It's relatively simple (being all mechanical) and film is still available. But the early digital Leica is, alas, doomed to become an expensive paperweight. It may have a longer time to get to that stage than a Sony, but, in my opinion, it's a greater shame than the Ford Escort equivalent.

Conclusion

A solution to this waste would be a modular design; one that would have the high quality, fine workmanship body of a Leica but with replaceable internal components and a lifetime firmware / software support. The whole camera would be serviceable. We are at the stage where the ergonomics must surely be there (generally, our hands are the same and the buttons and dials won't be changing now). The envisaged design would be high-end (you'd want to be keeping it for years and expect it to last, so would expect a good level of mechanical resilience). The internal components would all be replaceable, as modular units, which would allow for further sensor and processor development etc. The design would be more traditional, which would hopefully add to the longevity appeal. Customers would invest in such a concept with the real expectation of owning this camera for life (their life, not the product's). Imagine a digital camera which is twenty, thirty years old or more; one that has maybe passed through many hands or been in the same for that time; a camera made of such high quality that it wears well and wears beautifully, yet is always up to date technologically. Imagine the reduced landfill benefits. I know that this is largely a pipe dream. The manufacturer would have to survive for the whole time or be able to be taken over by an equally committed business should they fail. But I think we are at the stage where this concept isn't far off becoming a reality.

All images made by me

Created By
Dayve Ward
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Photography by Dayve Ward