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Even after a decade since its inception, digital photography is still expensive. Each and every component from battery, lenses, accessories to printing is expensive. For a student who wants to pursue photography by acquiring some decent gear it is considerably difficult. Why is it so?

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    Expensive as compared to what? Couldn't it be equally said, "For a student who wants to pursue [activity X] by acquiring some decent gear is considerably hard", for several values of X? Sailboating, SCUBA diving, classic car restoration, fine woodworking and cabinetry, etc. What is the basis of expectation of the price of expensive hobbies? – scottbb Jul 1 '17 at 19:08
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    For a student, pretty much everything is expensive. The per shot cost of photography is a lot lower now than it was 30 years ago. – Michael C Jul 1 '17 at 20:01
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    Professional gear costs money - in any profession. – Gmck Jul 1 '17 at 20:33
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    Adjusting for inflation and considering the cost of film and processing, digital is MUCH LESS expensive than film. My 1972 Nikkormat and 50 f/1.4 cost $250, which is $1450 today, so the cost of comparable gear has stayed constant. The premise of the question is incorrect. – Jim Garrison Jul 2 '17 at 5:12
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    Clearly you've not bought a film, then got a lab to develop and scan it recently. – Whelkaholism Jul 4 '17 at 11:05

10 Answers 10

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Digital photography is not expensive but buying into it is.

With film photography camera and lenses were a moderate investment but these lasted quite long. Even a battery in a film camera would last several years. Cameras and lenses were mechanical and much simpler than today's models. This made them require less expertise to manufacture and also made them incredibly sturdy. A lifespan of a decade for a camera and several decades for lenses was not uncommon.

However, the real cost of film photography is film and development. Each roll of film costs several dollars and gives up to 36 images. Specialized rolls were more expensive and had fewer exposures. Then, if you did not do development yourself, you had to pay for development. Also prints. Even if you did your own, chemicals and papers were recurring costs. And there was the added expensive of creating a wet darkroom. In the end, the hobby was quite costly.

With digital photography, you pay nearly all costs up-front and it comes out much cheaper for anyone who is into the art and shoots regularly. A mid-range DSLR with good lens and memory can easily be obtained for less than $2500. Many entry level ones exist for under $1000. If you were to shoot 10,000 frames before both your camera and lens dies, it would cost you between 2.5¢ to 10¢ per frame. It is far far less than even just the film for each frame. Still most cameras have shutters rated to at least 100,000 frames and lenses last much longer than cameras. Even if you only captured 1000 images, you would have a better deal than with film photography. All digital cameras come with rechargeable batteries, good for 500-1000 shots-per-charge (for DSLRs) and can be charged at least 50-100 times before needing to be replaced. That means you actually will not use up the battery before you have taken full advantage of the better value of digital photography.

Market conditions are forcing the price of digital photography to increase. The loss of market share of compact and ultra-compact digital cameras to cellphones forced manufacturers to discontinue such products and concentrate on higher-end offering. While the number of unit sales of digital cameras has been declining, the average price is going up to compensate for reduced revenue. This trend is expected to continue for a while.

  • So, is cellphone camera quality equivalent to compact / ultra-compact digital cameras? – Malady Jul 2 '17 at 1:59
  • "A lifespan of a decade for a camera and several decades for lenses was not uncommon." I bumped into my Minolta X300 a couple of months ago. It still works after about 15 years of moderately rough use and then about 15 more of just getting moved around the country in its soft case. It's a shame I don't care to fool about with film any more, because that's a beautiful piece of kit. – dmckee Jul 2 '17 at 2:34
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    @Malandy - The sensor on a cellphone is often very similar to that in an ultra-compact camera which gives it similar noise and dynamic range characteristics. However, the optics on a cellphone are much more constrained and will notch match that of even an ultra-compact in terms of sharpness, focus, distortion, aberrations and flare. – Itai Jul 2 '17 at 3:25
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    The problem is not that the cellphone camera quality is actually equivalent, but for the price of a compact, it matches the price of a typical cellphone, so most people simply don't know an actual camera is much better in quality. But in reality,, most people don't care about the quality. People upload to facebook, and the resolution on an ultra-compact easily exceeds a standard user's computer monitor resolution by at least two fold. A computer screen is typically only 1920 x 1080. – Nelson Jul 2 '17 at 11:41
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    @Malandy, a cellphone camera isn't equivalent in quality, but it's close enough that cell phones have killed off the market for "cheap camera you stick in your pocket and carry everywhere". – Mark Jul 3 '17 at 18:39
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On the contrary, basic digital photography is essentially free nowadays, unlike any other time in history. When purchasing a phone (and everyone has a phone), you automatically get a camera, paying nothing. Taking photos is free, as is publishing to unlimited world audience. Just go and create.

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    still the same big players in the "serious" camera market (samsung tried to join but failed). little competition and innovation. what is worse, the market is shrinking because of the mobile revolution. maybe this is why the prices seem to increase, instead of going down. – szulat Jul 1 '17 at 17:09
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    @digiwizkid "Mobile cameras are ok for casual uses but not more than that." On what do you base this statement? Also, please define "casual uses". – user29608 Jul 1 '17 at 17:45
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    @digiwizkid A good photographer learns to make the best images he can with whatever camera he has in hand. – Blrfl Jul 1 '17 at 19:15
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    @digiwizkid And name any other piece of technology of comparable complexity to a camera that's available for less than $300. Note: your mobile phone doesn't count because networks sell them at a huge loss, which they recoup by charging you to use the phone. – David Richerby Jul 3 '17 at 8:02
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    @DavidRicherby Actually, mobile phones count just fine if you look at what they cost when bought unassociated with any phone company. Then you are looking at anywhere between $500 and $800 for a somewhat common model smartphone, even though both cheaper and more expensive alternatives exist. In all fairness they do more than the average entry-level DSLR, but they are also worse at being a camera, as discussed previously. So you are likely to, on some kind of average, pay more to get less (camera) than if you simply bought an entry-level DSLR kit. – a CVn Jul 3 '17 at 8:56
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I disagree with it being expensive.

For a student, implying that they have to learn the craft, you don't need to buy the best and baddest D5 or D750 or 7d MkII. As they say in photography, what truly matters is only 4 settings on a camera, if you learn to play around with them, you can always gain expertise and experience with it.

I am not talking about point and shoot cameras, let's talk about DSLRs. For over a decade, DSLRs, whether one agrees or not, has been the symbol of 'good or professional gear', although mirrorless, m43 s have caught up, people who don't know about photography and want to take it up, always eye a DSLR.

I have seen so many wedding photographers shooting with a D40 and a couple of lenses. A used D40 in 'excellent condition- sells for less than £60 on ebay, even cheaper if you hunt (I know because I bought mine with an 18-70 lens for £105 and sold the lens for £89, essentially getting a near mint D40 for £16.

Such an entry level camera, with a basic 18-55 kit lens is more than one needs to learn photography, or get into it. If you get serious about it, there are tons of opportunities to sell your work and make money these days. Competition is tough, but it is the same in any profession, one has to be good to succeed. What would this setup cost if bought used, less than £100, that, for students, is a couple of cinema tickets and popcorn and half a dozen visits to the pub!

Starting out with a budget kit, bought used, has a lot of advantages. One can learn their true style and then research into the type of camera that suits them and build their bank balance through working to get the gear you want.

I started out with a budget used kit 8 months ago, not I own a D750 with 24-70 and have gotten paid gigs through networking and good workmanship, the paid gigs are only so that I can afford better cameras as I already have a full time job. But here is the catch, I always buy used gear, so you cut out the depreciation from coming out of your pocket, and I sell everything I don't use, I have made more money buy hunting for good used lenses from Gumtree, giving them a good surface clean and putting on eBay, making a little bit of profit.

If you still want to get into photography, I highly recommend reading two articles from Ken Rockwell: 1. How to afford anything 2. Is it worth it

People have mixed opinions about his camera reviews. But I like them, they are honest and detailed. But the aforementioned articles are a good read for anyone, especially for someone starting out.

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I think one of the first things I learned about photography was, it is not a cheap hobby.
It will eat all the spare income you have.

Cameras are pretty sophisticated bits of kit, whether to film or to digital. Long before they included batteries, they still were expensive.

I did some quick Googling on the price of a well-known camera from the 1930's to the 50's.

The Zeiss Ikon 'Super Ikonta C'
Selling price in 1938 £ 25 UKP
Average income in 1938 £ 200 pa
That makes the camera the equivalent cost of about 6 weeks' wages.

No batteries, no digital, just lots of very specialist engineering.

...and of course, you had to pay for the film & developing on top of that, whereas digital is to all intents & purposes 'free'.

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    I wasn't sure which camera to use as a direct comparison - but very roughly, if an entry-level camera & lens can be bought for 500 now, that's only about 2 weeks' wages. [though 'average' income seems a lot harder to get a simple figure for these days - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Income_in_the_United_Kingdom ] – Tetsujin Jul 2 '17 at 5:58
  • All hobbies do that (eat all your income) IMO if you are passionate about them. – DRF Jul 3 '17 at 15:06
  • A bare Nikon F (prism, no meter, no lens) was $233 in 1963. That's about $1500 in today's dollars. An F4, introduced in 1988 had features comparable to today's professional DSLRs. Price? $2500 for bare body. That's just under $5K in today's dollars. – Llaves Jul 5 '17 at 4:17
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The cost stays high for new gear because it is new gear. The cameras you can buy today are much better than the cameras you could buy even 2-3 years ago. New technological development costs money and this is passed on in the cost of the cameras.

Digital costs more than film because it is reusable. Film spread the cost out over time because the complicated part of the camera was the part that you only used once, the film. It was what was responsible for capturing the image and was a considerable cost over time.

Digital cameras moved the complexity to the camera itself in the form of a digital sensor and associated circuitry to store the image after capturing it. They cost more upfront, but are usable with an absolutely minimal cost overall. The cost, per shot, of my 5D Mark iii with L series optics is cheaper per photo than the free 110 film camera I started shooting on, and that's for a camera rig that cost me over $9000. I've taken over 100,000 photos with it, so the cost per photo has been less than 10 cents. On film, that cost would have been upwards of 30 cents a photo.

The cost efficiency doesn't really help when you are trying to get started on a budget though. Fortunately, you don't have to start out with the latest in digital hardware. There are many older cameras that can be picked up cheaply. Even older high end cameras with great controls can be had at a very reasonable price because the resolution and light levels they can shoot in has been so far exceeded by modern gear.

As a student, this older gear will actually benefit you in forcing you to be more considerate of your craft. The new stuff is great because it makes it easier to deal with hard situations, but the old stuff will save you a ton of up front costs while also teaching you how to deal with hard situations even better. Then, once you are ready and have the budget for newer stuff, it will just make your life easier.

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    "The cameras you can buy today are much better than the cameras you could buy even 2-3 years ago." - They are, really? Sounds like something that would be said by a photo gear head :-P – dpollitt Jul 2 '17 at 18:31
  • @dpollitt - well, I guess maybe more than the quality of improvements moves down market. On the high end it's less so, but we see features in this years mid-range models that were only in higher end models the previous generation. I was specifically thinking of things like the number of cross type AF points on the 6D Mark ii compared to what was available on the 5D Mark iii. They aren't critical improvements, but they are significant nice quality of life things. Low light performance also continues to grow quickly. – AJ Henderson Jul 2 '17 at 18:39
  • $9,000.00 divided by 100,000 photos is 9 cents per photo, not less than one cent. – Michael C Jul 4 '17 at 5:23
  • @MichaelClark indeed it is. Math fail for me. Thanks for pointing it out. – AJ Henderson Jul 4 '17 at 13:16
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The thing about digital cameras is that they were already so good ten years ago that even old, used equipment is more than adequate for students or even serious amateurs. I'm still using my Nikon D50 (ca. 2006) and I would still gain more by buying another lens than by upgrading the body.

The ideal kit for a student would start with a relatively cheap but excellent quality lens like the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G. Stick it on an old used body and you may never need to buy anything else.

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    This is actually more important in my opinion than the votes indicate. My own camera is a Canon EOS 50D, released in Q4 2008. That's almost nine years ago now. It does everything I need, and takes some amazing pictures when I don't mess things up (at which point something like a brand new 1D X MkII almost certainly wouldn't do any better). The difference is that I paid something like $600 for the 50D in just about mint condition (already had some Canon mount lenses) several years ago now, and the 1D X MkII lists for $6,000 new. – a CVn Jul 3 '17 at 9:03
  • @MichaelKjörling It is true that a camera like the 1D X Mark II can't do a lot better taking the same images you take with your 50D. Where a camera like the 1D X Mark II demonstrates its worth is with the images it can take that your 50D can't. (That and the increased ruggedness and longevity of such a camera.) The same is true of your 50D and an average phone camera. Your 50D can't do that much better than a phone when taking the same shots that a phone can do well. It's when you need to take a shot that a phone can't capture, for whatever reason, that your 50D is worth lugging around. – Michael C Jul 5 '17 at 0:33
  • @MichaelClark Oh, I didn't mean to imply that a high-end camera (such as the 1D X MkII) offers no additional value in any situations over a mid-range camera (such as my 50D), or that a mid-range camera offers no additional value over, say, a smartphone camera. Obviously they do, or I wouldn't be lugging my 50D along. The issue here, IMO, is rather: does the added value contribute constructively to what I am doing? (for some value of "me") If it doesn't, then it's probably better to cut 90+% off the price and go with the cheaper alternative, at least until you need and can make use of more. – a CVn Jul 5 '17 at 12:27
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This is not a question about photography. It is a question about economics.

The cost of retail products is not determined by the cost of manufacturing. The reason camera retailers charge so much for photographic equipment is that consumers are prepared to pay that much for them.

The first DSLR's were extremely expensive and very few were sold. Prices gradually fell until large numbers of cameras were being sold. This was the optimum price. Economists call this "Value-based pricing".

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    The cost of retail products is of course determined by the cost of manufacturing; if you sell below that cost, you'll run out of money. The first DSLRs were expensive because the technology was new and hard to make cheaply. With seven manufacturers of DSLRs, the price is going to decrease towards one defined by the cost. There's a bunch of other factors, like brand names, and they'd be cheaper to manufacture if they were more in demand, but what it takes to make them does play a big part in what they cost to buy. – prosfilaes Jul 3 '17 at 5:34
  • @prosfilaes Your prediction of continually decreasing prices assumes a continuing stable or increasing demand. That may not be the case. As volumes of dedicated cameras decrease, the R&D costs of bringing a camera model to market must be spread amongst fewer sales units. – Michael C Jul 4 '17 at 5:17
  • Cost of manufacturing sets a minimum retail price. The idea that a product retail price is determined by cost plus fixed profit margin is very outdated. A modern company will sell at a price determined by "the value that the customer will derrive from the product". In other words, the maximum price they can convince the customers to pay. This is sometimes many times greater that the cost price. This is the reason that companies spend about 600 billion US dollars each year on marketing. – Alvaro Loustau Sep 10 '17 at 3:03
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You got some great context on the relative price/performance ratio of photography equipment over time, some not-entirely-true economic theory, some commentary about not being an early adopter, some highly situational specific gear recommendations, and not particularly an answer to your question. The answer you accepted touches on the challenges of the shrinking market from a revenue perspective, but I'll hit it from an even more specific one:

Very large CMOS sensors produced at low volumes are very expensive. The R&D and tooling/set-up costs for one are extreme. And yields (how many sensors are actually good) drop precipitously as sensor size increases). And the latter problem is amplified by the high-speed readout requirements of the high resolution high framerate video everyone now expects - Red is apparently yielding single digit numbers per production batch of their Weapon Dragon 8K sensor (which is slightly smaller though much faster than a full frame 35mm sensor).

And this is only getting worse as the camera market shrinks. For comparison, Apple sells at least twice as many iPhones every hour as Nikon sells D5's in a month. And that in turn is probably more cinema cameras that Red sells all year.

  • Yes, and the camera body requires a lot of extra circuitry and firmware to accommodate the sensor, write to storage cards, produce jpg for display on LCD and histogram etc. which weren't part of film cameras – MikeW Jul 5 '17 at 0:00
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From an engineering perspective the expensive bits of an SLR type camera are the physical working parts and especially the lenses. These are essentially the same whether a camera is digital or film. Indeed a lot of the features which distinguish an SLR from a compact camera are physical rather than digital.

Lenses are fundamentally the same regardless of the technology used to capture the image and quality optics are expensive whether they are for cameras, telescopes or microscopes. Having said that there are, if anything more cheap lenses around now than previously as digital photography has opened up the SLR market to more casual users (as actually getting the images in a usable state is much less of a faff) plus lenses tend to become obsolete much more slowly than camera bodies.

The current top of the line version of anything will always be expensive . Having said that you can get a new Canon 1300D with lens for £300.

I've got a Canon 20D which is absolutely fine for most purposes, the resolution is perfectly adequate at 8Mp (indeed the full resolution images are still too large for most web applications).I got that (body only) for about £100 about 5 years ago, now a 50D is in about the same price range, not long ago this was a pretty serious semi-pro camera.

The current mid/top-range cameras have a lot of extra features but these are things you never got on film cameras anyway. The latest 5D is about £2000 but you certainly don't need that to take decent photographs. 20Mp resolution is not a bad thing but it is certainly not necessary to learn how to use a camera properly and is vastly in excess of what any screen will be able to show.


From a personal perspective I think digital photography is great. I'm sculptor rather than a photographer as such but I'm moderately competent at photography and my very cheap Cannon 20D is great for taking decent quality pictures of my work and I would be the fist to admit that I'm more limited by my ability as a photographer than the equipment.

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    With 20 MP you also need very high quality optics in order to make use of it all. It's no use having a huge number of pixels and putting poor glass in front of it; that will only make it easier to tell just how bad the lens is. Even my 15 MP, circa-2008 50D needs high-quality optics to make good use of the camera's capabilities. High quality lenses are anything but cheap, even on the second-hand market. – a CVn Jul 3 '17 at 9:14
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Your premise is simply wrong. Digital cameras are not more expensive than analog ones were. A decent mid-level camera cum lens has always cost a couple hundred dollars, high-end was in the thousands, and entry-level or used gear was always affordable to students. If anything, cameras are cheaper today in the low-quality segment because they come for free with your phone or tablet.

It is also notable that you get a lot more for the money. Things like face, smile or person recognition would have been science-fiction 30 years ago. Even autofocus was limited to high-end. Panorama shots, HDR, 10000 ASA, you name it. All unheard of, indeed plain impossible, in the 80s. The growing feature list is one reason why cameras are not much cheaper than they used to be. That would be a reasonable expectation because manufacturing, especially of electronics, has become really cheap. But the cost savings are used to provide a better product for the same money instead of building something cheaper that doesn't have a chance on the market. This is a trend which can be observed with other manufactured goods as well, like TVs or cars.

Last not least there is one central, costly component which is almost anachronistically in the way of radical redesign and cost reduction: The lens. Beyond all else, a good camera depends on a good lens — a high-precision quality product which still needs a carefully tuned manufacturing process. To this day only a handful companies are able to build high quality lenses. They have improved, too (there was no super zoom in the 80s, or f1/1.8 in a compact zoom), but there is simply no cheap way to produce a high-quality lens. This reminds me of the cathode ray tube standing in the way of a radical TV redesign, or the combustion engine which makes contemporary cars laughably similar to their ancient ancestors, if you look beyond the appearance. We know where the CRT went, and we can see where the Otto motor will go. How cameras of the future look I am not sure, but I bet you we will see ubiquitous cameras for free without conventional lenses within our lifetime.

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