The True Cost of Upgrading Cameras

The hot photography topic over the past few days has been Canon’s announcement of the upcoming 5D Mark III. I’ve seen a number of posts already being written about it on various social media platforms and blogs. Naturally I took a look at the specs out of curiosity but there is nothing being announced that strikes me as ground-breaking or even that significantly different from the 5D Mark II. When the Mark II came out, I believe it retailed for $3,500 if I remember correctly, and that is what the Mark III will sell for when it is released. Not exactly cheap so that leads me to the topic of this blog post: What is the true cost of upgrading cameras?

I don’t care who you are, whether you are Kobe Bryant or a 25 year old just starting off your photography career, when something costs $3,500 you should carefully consider what benefits you would be getting for that kind of money. If you already own a 5D Mark II for instance, will you gain an additional $3,500+ in value above what you would get from continuing to use the Mark II? Will that additional clarity in long night exposures help you to sell an additional $3,500 in prints above what you would from the Mark II? That’s just breaking even. Does this camera help you make images you couldn’t with the Mark II? Will anyone care about the difference? If the answer is no, then you just wasted $3,500.

If you own a Canon Rebel XTI, will you gain an additional $3,500 in value by purchasing the Mark III over what you could make off of the Rebel? If you are an aspiring professional photographer, then perhaps in this case. Maybe the Mark III makes you seem more professional so you can pick up more jobs or the ability to sell more images though to be honest, publishers almost never ask what camera you photograph with. Stock agencies do but any DSLR made over the past six years will generally make the cut, including some high-end compact cameras.

I’m not bashing the 5D Mark III as I’m sure it’s a fine camera but I’m using it as an example to question why people feel the need to upgrade every time a new camera comes out. If you look at this from a practical financial standpoint, there is a lot of opportunity cost to purchasing cameras. If the Mark III doesn’t make you more than $3,500 above what you could with your existing cameras over the lifetime of the camera, then consider what you could have done with the $3,500 instead.

  • $3,500 can get you three week trip to Alaska or just about anywhere else in this world.
  • $3,500 can pay for two Mountain Light Photography workshops and then some.
  • $3,500 invested in Fidelity Low-Priced Stock mutual funds today will be worth nearly $25,000 within 20 years. If you have kids or are planning to have kids, that can fund a California State University education for four years.
  • Now take into account how many times you have purchased DSLR’s in the past five years. If it’s three cameras at a value of $3,500, you know how much that mutual fund would be worth in 20 years? That is $85,000 in opportunity cost. That same amount of spending on cameras over 20 years comes out to $178,000 in opportunity cost.

My calculations above don’t even consider the computer and software upgrades necessary to process the files. Generally when a new DSLR comes out, it forces us to upgrade to the latest version of Lightroom and/or Photoshop if you want to process RAW files. For some people, they need an entirely new computer to handle the files. I get it though. Cameras are sexy and photographers get emotionally attached to their craft so the rational side of the brain gets shut off.

What photographers should spend more energy on is honing their vision and on the educational process. That is the hard part of photography and the most rewarding. Your photography should be in a constant state of evolution over a lifetime, and I don’t see how owning every latest and greatest camera model helps you to achieve that. Hand me a 1985 Nikon and a roll of Fuji Provia, and my scenic photos would look similar to what I’m currently doing with my modern DSLR.


20 thoughts

  1. I agree, but only if you don’t have the extra money (btw, it’s a $1750 upgrade, as you can easily sell a used 5D2 for that amount). If you have it, it doesn’t make sense to produce inferior files – anything else being equal – after all the time and effort involved in planning, executing, and processing a photo shoot.

  2. Good point about the resale value, QT, but I’d hardly consider the MKII to produce inferior files. If you are coming up from a P&S camera or from a 3rd party brand, then yeah that is probably inferior no doubt. I’d still argue that upgrading all the time is a waste of money regardless of your socio-economic status.

  3. I conpletely agree Richard. Way too much thought is put into gear when it should be put into planning and execution (ie vision!.

    The exception would be (as QT mentioned) is if you need the upgrade to produce better quality and the resale on your current equipment justifies the cost.

  4. Another well thought out and relevant post. Something else to consider is if the newer model uses different memory cards. I’m still using my XTI and have my sights on the newer entry level models because of the increased ISO capabilities but will have to switch from CF to SD cards and have to include that in the cost along with different extra batteries. The mid level cameras are exciting and probably have more status but as a hobbyist I need gas money more than gear bragging rights.

  5. That is a really good point, Leann. For photographers who have a normal real life obligations with family, mortgage, etc… there is so much to consider when it comes to buying a camera or not. I too would rather travel and have gas money, or retirement savings… than upgrade every time a software upgrade or camera comes out.

  6. “Cameras are sexy and photographers get emotionally attached to their craft so the rational side of the brain gets shut off.” <– Love it, that is so true! Though I do have to admit after careful thought and budgeting for the past few years in anticipation of 5DmIII, I did jump on preorder bandwagon. 🙂

  7. Thanks Kim. I think the keyword in your case is “after careful thought and budgeting for the past few years”. That makes sense since it’s not an impulse purchase. Hope you enjoy the MKIII.

  8. Outstanding article Richard.

    Just because a new camera is released does not mean you must buy it. Releases are aimed at one thing – to make money for the parent company.

    A new release camera often will make no difference to your photography if you’re already using high end equipment.

  9. Thanks Iain. To make my point, perhaps I should post ten images from different cameras and see if anyone can pick out which ones came from which camera. If I didn’t shoot them, I sure as heck couldn’t tell the difference unless I’m pixel peeping.

  10. How true, Richard, how true.

    I was disappointed by the 5D mark III announcement. I had expected something else, either going for much more pixels (which, however, would bring the lenses quickly to their limits) or better film features (XLR audio jacks would have been nice, or 4:2:2 output). So the 5D III is not for me.

    Having said that, I did an upgrade to Canon’s 1D mark IV back in December. Huh? Why now, with the 1D X lurking around the corner? Well, over the years I realized that the 21 MP of the 1Ds mark III was too much, and that I really liked the additional speed the 1D mark III was giving me (but the 10 MP were clearly not enough). And I BADLY needed the film features. So I went for the last professional 1.3x crop camera from Canon – the 1D mark IV – and have been a happy camper with this one.

    One thing you did not mention in your post is the fact that some customers (mostly corporate marketing types) who are paying big bucks for photo assignments just want to see the lastest equipment when they visit the studio or the set. They want to see the L glass. They want to see the 1D bodies – even if they need the photos just for, say, an 8×12″ brochure or their web site. We should never not destroy the illusion that you technically might be able to do the shooting with an iPad or a Rebel XTi.

    But, yeah, you are right. Every photographer considering an upgrade should justify this through a business case. The hard rule: If an upgrade does not generate new business, just skip it.

  11. Ah, re-reding my post above. The sentence about the iPad should read:

    “We should never let it sink in that you technically might be able to do the shooting with an iPad or a Rebel XTi.”


  12. You bring up a good point, Mark. The occasional client might only feel comfortable if you shoot with a certain type of camera, sometimes even more pricy than a pro DSLR. A lot of those studio and fashion type shooters still seem to be using medium or large format so there must be a reason for it other than just resolution.

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