Last Camera Syndrome

(commentary) (have combined two articles)

It happened with film, it's happening with digital: last camera syndrome. 

The email usually goes like this: "I'm looking at updating my aging camera, but I really want to make sure the new one I pick will last me 10 years. It'll be my last camera." Somewhere further down the text you get to the DX versus FX angst, amongst other things, but the salient point is that people are grappling with what they think will be their last camera purchase. 

Last camera syndrome isn't anything new. Back in the 90's we had a similar thing happen with film SLRs. Quite a few Nikon pros just balked with the F5: their F4 was perfectly fine, thank you, and this new beast was more expensive, bigger, more electronic, more complicated, required new accessories, but didn't really push many performance bars very far. Basically if you made the switch you got better autofocus (after you spent days studying what the heck the new AF system did and how it was directionally and distance sensitive). Ditto the F100 versus the N90s. What did you really gain given that your current camera was certainly still taking perfectly fine pictures? Nikon discovered post mortem that they had sold their last camera to some of these folks.

Well, the syndrome is back. Nikon has sold perhaps 20 million very competent DSLRs in recent years, cameras that, as long as they're well maintained, are perfectly capable of taking great photos in most situations. Do you really need more than 12mp? More than 8 fps? More than ISO 3200? More than nine or ten stops of dynamic range? Certainly I never turn down more when offered it, but to justify paying for more gets tougher and tougher. And to pay for these gains in small increments is even tougher to justify. 

What's happening now is we're seeing a lot of DSLR users who think they're on their last update cycle. For some, it's because they're now in retirement and they don't have a lot of funds to stay on the update track and just want to learn one thing and be done with it. For others, they've noticed that the same US$1000 doesn't buy them nearly as much visible gain as it used to, so they'd just like to get to a nice comfortable spot where they won't outgrow something on the camera they buy. Still others have realized that they pursued marketing promises and it didn't really make their photography better, so they just want something that gives them the basics and will last. Yet another group was waiting for FX to become affordable: they had always planned their lens acquisitions with "I'll be done when I get an FX body." Now that "affordable" FX is here, they are ready to make that one last leap.

So what's your last camera going to be? Nikon spent 2012 trying to convince you that it should be FX. The cynic in me says that Nikon realized what was happening in terms of likely future DSLR sales and just wanted to extract the most they could from you on your last purchase (the cheapest FX body was at least US$500 more than the most expensive aging DX body, and a good US$1000 more than the DX body many people should have bought).

Realistically, any of the current DSLRs should last for five to ten years if properly maintained. It's difficult to suggest that they will last beyond ten years because of the way companies handle parts: in the US you're legally required to have parts for only a short time after the product is no longer manufactured. California law is the base here: an electronics item costing more than US$100 has to have service and parts available for seven years after the date of manufacturing. Thus, by extension, the D50 and D70s probably fall beyond that period, with the D200 and many of the D2 models also close to that line. So, for the higher end cameras (Sendai manufactured) call the likely repairability time is eleven years, for the lower end cameras (Thailand manufactured) call it nine years. Of course, now that Nikon doesn't sell parts to anyone but authorized repair stations, the places at which you can get a camera repaired have dwindled, no independent stations are stocking up on parts, and the price for some repairs now exceeds the cost of just buying a used copy, but that's another story. 

So, yes, the next Nikon DSLR you buy may end being your last for the next ten years, as it's hard to imagine that DSLRs will still be what they are today ten years from now, You very well may be on your last camera as you know it. Choose wisely, grasshopper.

  • Aside: In doing research for this article, I happened across the Magnuson-Moss Act, which I hadn't read for a long time. I'd forgotten one of the provisions of that federal law: warrantors cannot require that only branded parts be used with the product. You know, like Nikkor lenses instead of third-party lenses. NikonUSA won't repair your Sigma lens if it's the problem, obviously, but someone complaining that their lenses, including third party ones, don't focus right with their camera body can't be denied repair because they're using third party lenses. Indeed, even if they're only using third party lenses. If the body is at fault, it must be fixed.
    Frankly, the whole point-the-finger-at-the-other maker problem would pretty much go away if Nikon were actually licensing the mount. Either company would pretty much know where the fault lay if there were actual mount specifications in play. 

Many of you after reading the above indicate that you think you may already own your last camera. Heck, it might even be your cell phone ;~). 

So why are you still reading about cameras on a camera Web site? 

Actually, I know the answer to that: because just having the camera doesn't mean you know how to use it as well as you could. I've written a lot of articles over the years that address bits of this (like "Blame the Equipment"). But here's the concise list of what you need to do:

  1. Understand how your last camera is controlled. Read the manual again. And again. Or read my book on it and refer to it again when you have questions. Have you memorized the sequence of things you need to set a manual white balance? To set bracketing? To change the ambient/flash balance? If you answer no to virtually any of those questions (and many more that I can come up with), then you don't know your last camera well enough.
  2. Know what the best results your last camera can achieve really is. I have to admit I'm not sure that I've done enough on this site to help you with that, and I'm still puzzling how best to do that. But I'll work on it. Still, have you really looked around at what others are achieving (have achieved) with your last camera? It's worth knowing what various pros are using so you can pay attention to the results they're achieving with it. Many pros have "what's in my bag" laying somewhere around on their site. Making a perfect connection between gear and an image is a little difficult if they aren't labeled that way (which is why photo magazines tend to tell you), but most pros don't change gear all that often. Attend a slide show or presentation by someone good who's using what you use. See if those are the results you're getting.
  3. Figure out the boundaries. How big can you print with your last camera? Really, figure it out. How low can the light be that you can shoot in? Yes, figure that out, too. Your last camera has some limitations, but you need to know out what they are. If you have no idea what those boundaries are, you actually don't know if you have your last camera. 
  4. Make sure you have the photographic stuff down cold. I write about shot discipline a lot (do the following Google search: "shot discipline" Make sure you've got that part nailed down. Need to practice? Take out your iPhone and try to get your shot discipline up with that! Yep. If you can get it right with a simple camera like that, you're on your way to doing it with the Big Boy Last Camera you picked. Go ahead, try it. Use your casual drive by shooting technique with your iPhone on a static subject. Now actually try using the iPhone like it was the world's best camera and needed you to pay attention to every bit of shot discipline to extract all it offers. Funny thing, shot discipline works with cheap cameras as well as expensive. It'll work with your last camera, too.
  5. Relax and enjoy what you've got. You can't make your last camera do something it's not capable of. You're not going to get 10 foot prints from a D2h in a single image that compete with Peter Lik's stuff, so don't try. In step 3 you learned something about the boundaries (I hope ;~), so just respect them. There's a slim possibility--okay, make that a huge possibility for some of you--that you can't just relax and enjoy, that those boundaries really frustrate you. Congratulations, you're still in the market to buy your last camera.
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