The Intimidation Of The Expensive Camera

Regular readers of 35hunter will be well aware of my penchant for a bargain camera, both film and digital.

I find something very satisfying in using kit that cost me peanuts to make images I love.

The most I’ve ever paid for a camera was also the only one I’ve ever bought new.

My Nikon Coolpix P300 cost £300 in 2011, and was the first “serious” camera I’d bought, after around five years of using increasingly capable camera phones (mostly Sony).


I figured at the time, that although I used a phone for other purposes, like, you know making calls and sending text messages (this was when it was too painful to use a phone for any kind of online activity!), a major use for me was as a camera.

I might have a phone for two years at £12 a month, and it cost me £288, so I may as well invest a similar amount in a dedicated and far more capable camera, that would hopefully last more than two years anyway.

Eight years on, my Coolpix is still going strong, aside from the zoom occasionally sticking briefly, so it’s proved an excellent investment.

A very conservative estimate at the total images I’ve made with it is 15000. I know for the first seven or eight months I was shooting 1000 photographs a month. So it’s probably closer to 25k by now, maybe even more.

Assuming even only 15k images, over the eight years, per image that means it’s cost me two pence. At the more realistic 25k images this become a penny a photograph.

Or, per month, it’s cost about £3.13.

None of which I think can be considered expensive by any measure!

So why am I so intimated by owning and using what I consider expensive cameras?

And why do I feel much happier using, say, my £26 K100D DLSR, over my K30 which cost six times that, and which on paper is far more capable?

Here are a few theories –

1. I’m afraid of breaking an expensive camera.

What if one day I dropped the camera, lens first, and it shattered, also managing destroy the camera body beyond repair too? All that money would be wasted in a second.

The reality is, I’ve only dropped a camera from waist height once in about thirteen years of shooting. Even then it just dented the filter ring.

One other time a lens rolled onto the ground and stopped working (that story, and how eventually it pushed me in a new direction, is here) but that was a very rare blip.

I always use a wrist strap, and I’m really careful, so the chances of dropping any camera, regardless of its value, are minimal, so the cost of the camera and replacing it are virtually irrelevant.

I can write this one off as pretty irrational!

2. I only see the initial cost, rather than breaking it down over time.

As you can see with the Coolpix, a penny an image is ridiculously cheap. Even a camera that initially cost £1000, over the same period, taking the same 25k shots, would have cost me four pence per image, or £10.41 per month.

Still dead cheap, really, relative to my income (and significantly more affordable than film, despite its enduring appeal).

The problem here is that I don’t (or at least haven’t) bought just one camera then used it exclusively for years.

I’m starting to realise (again!) that someone who pays £1000 for a camera then uses it intensively for three years is actually investing far less in photography (financially) than someone who buys a dozen “cheap” bodies and lenses a year, because they all add up to far more over the same period.

3. I’m afraid of an expensive camera being unnecessarily good.

As I wrote about my Lumix GF1 a while back, some cameras (let’s say over 10MP and less than a decade old) I find almost too good. The images can be too refined, too sharp, too digital.

With my K30, the most sophisticated camera I’ve ever owned, I dumb it down to generate only 8MP images for example, and ignore most of the menu options.

Trouble is, even with this enforced simplification, it somehow bugs me that the extra capability is there, it seems wasteful and superfluous.

Like ordering a five course meal when you only need a light lunch. Or buying a huge expensive Range Rover just to take the kids to school one mile up the road.

I’m not sure how to get beyond this one currently, it seems to go against my fundamental frugality ethos in life.

4. I like the challenge of getting more out of a supposedly lesser, older, camera.

This is something that grew out of using film cameras, and getting images I liked far more than digital images I was seeing, and for a tiny fraction of the cost.

Also, this is kind of the opposite (or the other side of the same coin) of number 3 above.

I’d rather have something simple and more primitive, then push it to its limits, than use something incredibly capable and only explore 5% of its potential.

This then followed through to digital cameras, both with old compact digitals (I’ve written many posts about 4 and 6MP digital compacts I’ve bought for £20 or less and how much I love them) and most recently with my two dead cheap Pentax DLSRs (the K100D at £26, and the £30 K-m).


5. I don’t like to conform.

Which naturally follows on from number 4. By using older, cheaper cameras, and not getting sucked into the endless upgrade trap, it feels like I’m bucking convention, breaking the rules, a renegade.

I’m proving that you don’t need to follow the advertising hype (in cameras or anything else) that only the very latest model is good enough, and unless you buy it now and discard everything older and thereby inferior you will be utterly miserable and your family and friends will abandon you, unable to live with the shame of knowing you.

A little dramatic, perhaps, but in a culture that’s increasing disposable and superficial in so many aspects, it feels very gratifying to not become another one of the herd buying the latest camera (phone/computer/car/gadget…), whatever the cost.

As you can see, I have a fair few arguments against buying and using what I consider expensive cameras!

Some I’m able to see through and unravel, but others just feel too embedded in my psyche and belief system to change.

I think the only way I would buy an expensive camera (my own yardstick for “expensive” was set by the £300 Coolpix, but as the most I’ve paid since then is £150 for my K30, it’s dropped even further) is if I sold all others, and that single camera could serve all my needs, and would be a very affordable investment over time, and wouldn’t be new to me in the first place either.

Oh and it would have to be old enough and simple enough to not feel “unnecessarily good” (or complicated) as I talked about above.

Which I don’t think is a combination of eventualities that will appear on my horizon any time soon.

Oh well, back to the bargain digital classics it is then…

How about you? What do you consider an expensive camera, and does the amount a camera costs impact how you treat and use it?

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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19 thoughts on “The Intimidation Of The Expensive Camera”

  1. Hi Dan, as I mentioned before, I reckon that the purest form of camera is a rangefinder film camera. The only reasonable and acceptable automation being (possibly) aperture priority and a built in light meter, as long as they can be switched off.

    However, I became fed up with some aspects of film photography and after spending most of my dad’s legacy on various digital Leicas, Sonys, Ricoh’s, Fuji’s and Canon’s, I have returned to the most basic Leica M (the M-D type 262) with just the same control as a film M. Currently, due to lack of funds, I have a W Nikkor 50mm lens with the ltm, which is effectively a Sonnar lens, beautiful, cheap and flawed in a good way. I bought this attached to a post war broken Japanese Nikka rangefinder for just under a couple of hundred £s. One day I might be able to afford my favourite 50 Summilux.

    The bits of film photography that annoy me are the running costs, the feeling that when scanning, one might be just as well off to use a digital camera in the first place, and the sheer time taken at the computer, scanning is a slow business. My M-D removes all that from the equation. The Mac (Catalina) even seems to read DNG natively now. I mainly use Iridient Developer to produce colour balanced or monochromed JPG versions of the DNG’s, I use “Preview”, the mac os version of Adobe PDF to view them, and just occasionally (very occasionally) I will use something like PhotoScape or Darktable to remove offending items from the frame. I feel awkward doing it though.

    What is good though is the connection between the photographer’s finger and the resulting negative, it is a real tangible connection. When you throw a load of electronic data processing into the mix, that connection is lost. There is stuff, especially if you develop raw data in-camera, that has nothing to do with the photographer.

    Having been a happy family snapper with a couple of suitcases full of holiday snaps, made with a series of generally cheap but carefully chosen cameras, I made the move to a more serious type of photography (aka spending a fortune on GAS), I read about Mike Johnston’s (The Online Photographer) “One Camera, One Lens, One Year” which I did, and learned from it. I am now inclined to rework that mnemonic to “OCOLOL”… One Camera, One Lens, One Life.

    This comment was meant for your last piece, but it is just as contentious placed here. 🙂

    My point is that, I am not a dentist, I just took a different view to you.

    The determinant factor regarding the final output, unless you are going to go full tilt digital and employ all those useless in camera tools, is the lens. A Leica 50mm Summicron APO will cost somewhere just short of £6000, a Russian ltm lens can be had for a tenner, both will give a 50mm aspect, both could be really stunning.

    So I s’pose what I am saying is that the price of one’s tools are irrelevant. In my case, my dad left me only a few quid, comparatively, and I chose to spend it on something that I could remember him with every time I use it.

    Horses for courses.

    Oh, and if you don’t want to drop your camera, simply get an artisan and artist handmade silk strap… Only £170! 🙂

    In the end, this discussion is irrelevant to photography though…

    All that matters is:

    Where to stand and when to press the button.

    1. Stephen, it took me a while to realise that buying a bunch of cheap(er) cameras and lenses will eventually add up to more than one more expensive set up that you can then use for years.

      Of course there are other appeals of a variety of different gear, especially if you are new to a certain form of photography (as I was with film initially). But on the cost front alone, investing in one camera you love then getting to know it inside out makes sense to me.

      I wonder how these kind of discussions panned out 25, 50, 75 years ago, when the options were far fewer than now? Your average photography enthusiast I imagine would invest in one set up after some research, then stick with it until it broke or was in some other way redundant. Which was probably many years. We’re too spoilt for choice.

      Ultimately yes I agree about what matters most with photography, where you stand and when you release the shutter…

      Thanks for your thoughts!

    2. All that matters is: Where to stand and when to press the button.

      Amen brother.

      Your comment about the silk strap made me laugh out loud and remember a comment I saw someone make on a different forum about the Instagrammers taking more pictures of their Leicas than they do with them.

  2. All good points Dan. Another thing to think about is the criminal angle, There was a case a few years ago in California where a fellow got killed when he wouldn’t relinquish his expensive camera to muggers. A lot of photographers here took notice of that. I don’t have any especially valuable cameras, but my Panasonic LX7 makes me nervous because it’s the only camera I ever bought new. It’s unblemished and the way the zoom lens constantly goes in and out always reminds me that that is the most common failure point on compact cameras, so I do treat it differently than other cameras. I’m less likely to bring it along than an older camera with some wear on it that I paid $50 for.

    1. Jon, that’s a scary story. There’s nowhere I go where I think that would happen, but the fear of damaging an expensive camera (or it breaking) is a concern. And it can make your whole approach overly cautious – you never quite relax and get into the flow as you might with an old camera you’re happy to throw into a bag…

  3. hey. I would like to buy a real camera, mainly to shoot bird pics. Not fancy, just so I can have the pics to identify the bird later. My phone camera is good, but not over distance. I need something that will shoot distance but I don’t want to deal with add on lenses. I’m in the U.S. so i don’t know if you have any tips for 1. what should i be looking for and 2. should i buy online is it cheaper? My husband is better at understanding the tech stuff but we don’t know where to start.
    To be honest I don’t want to spend much bc I’m only a backyard birder, so to speak, not a birdwatcher.
    ALSO I AM VERY HAPPY TO READ the cheers for the frugality as possible.

    1. You might want to look at what’s called a “bridge” camera. This looks like an interchangeable lens camera, but really has a fixed lens. They are usually superzooms, that is, they have a very long range of focal lengths available to you, so they are very flexible.

      These would be great choices and can be had just south of $300 (here in the States):
      Panasonic Lumix FZ80
      Nikon Coolpix B500
      Nikon Coolpix B600
      Canon PowerShot SX420IS
      Sony DSC-H300

      Another thing you may want to consider is an inexpensive used SLR and superzoom lens. A Pentax K-10D with a Sigma or Tamron 28-200mm superzoom can be had for under $200 and gives you the flexibility to move into fixed telephoto or prime lenses if you so choose. You’ll get better picture quality than the bridge camera, but with a significant weight penalty.

      Not sure what your budget is, or what distance you’re shooting at. Since you used the phrase “backyard Birder”, I assume you’re shooting at less than 100 meters. All of the options I’ve suggested should cover you if this is the case.

  4. Hiya Dan
    This one’s been bouncing around in my mind for a loooooong time, and I’ve had quite a lot of time for quiet contemplation. So in response, here the rub…

    What’s always plagued me when using ‘expensive’ equipment is how I feel about using the gear. I have owned a bewildering variety of cameras and formats. From 2 iconic Leicas (Leica iiif and Leica M3) to variations on the RF setup – Bessa R and R3M and a couple of YASHICA Electro GTs. I’ve owned a variation on EACH and every format (yes, even a little 110mm and Minox Sub miniature) And yet, I end up loving and using 90% of the time an old bet up Nikon FM. What got to me when using the M3 was that I felt I ‘had’ to do justice to the camera’s history. This burden was way too heavy for me.

    Of course it’s all down to me over-romanticising about the camera gear. I wanted to belong to a ‘time’ and find my place using a Leica iiif with the collapsible 50 Cron. But history weighed me down. Don’t get me started on how much pressure I put on myself using the M3. Yes, it is only the gear, but to me, how and what I shoot, the history of it all was crushing and stopped me from enjoying the gear and ultimately the experience.

    So, it’s not only financial expense that can be crippling to one’s creativity. Find what makes YOU get out there and shoot. Gear doesn’t matter… it’s about how you feel about shooting, and how you feel about the images you shoot. Nothing else matters!!

    Have a good mate

    1. Anton, thanks as always for your thoughtful input.

      I think because I’ve never actually owned a camera of any great expense – or brand history – I’ve never experienced first hand that weight of history you speak of, but I completely understand what you mean. Especially with Leica.

      It’s connected with the reason why some are obsessed with also knowing the gear used to make any photograph they like – they think that by having that exact same gear they’ll be capable of the same photograph. And on a technical level – the fact that the camera/lens/film combo made that image once, means it theoretically can make it again. But they are of course discounting that “the single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it” as Ansel Adams famously exclaimed… If a race car is capable of 200mph and a lap of 59 seconds with a top race driving behind it, it doesn’t mean the average person will be able to achieve anything like the same result with exactly the same tools.

      I do certainly feel a kind of reverse variation of what you describe. Sometimes the kit I’ve used has been so anonymous and ordinary (and/or obscure), there has been no benchmark or historical standard to live up to. Which is why cheap cameras can feel so liberating – that low expectation, that when exceeded, can cause great exhilaration.

  5. An expensive camera is one I can’t afford 🤣

    I remember years ago buying a brand new Olympus EM10 Mark II and it cost me a fair bob, but that is probably the only time I’ve spent more than £500 on a camera. I prefer bargains generally these days, but mostly due to my lack of pocket money than because I’m a “cheapskate”.

    I will have a larger wallet soon so might treat myself to a new lens or something for my FM (and maybe some lovely Portra 800!).

    But I’ve gone off topic….

    I think another reason I don’t like spending too much on a camera is because you end up with high expectations, and then – for me anyway – they often fall flat.

    My Nikon FM was an absolute steal, and it’s also my most favourite camera ever. Less than £100 for it and a 35mm lens, and I ended up selling the lens for about £60. So, having made quite a few expensive mistakes (i.e. buying pricier cameras I didn’t end up enjoying), I’d rather keep my purse all zipped up.

  6. From the very beginning when I came unto my first “serious” camera (a Nikon dslr) I was taking it into the backcountry on rugged walks, keeping it around my neck or tucked into the crook of my arm like a handbag so it was easy to reach, got used to it bouncing around against my chest, perspired all over it, resting it on rocks and dirt, being rained on, etc. I must be a careful person because I’ve never experienced any sort of self-induced equipment failure so consequently I don’t worry about breaking anything, too much (even now that I’m using a smaller, less robust Fuji than my old Nikon gear). Lots of nicks and scratches. I’ve gotten my money’s worth, I guess. Don’t fret too much about the risk to my camera. It’s my life, that’s how important the craft is to me and the tool has to be swung or else. Haven’t answered your question exactly so I’ll say this, upgrade-itis faded for me a long time ago. My boys are big, strapping lads, they eat into our discretionary income. New cameras seem much more like lifetime purchases than they used to and the zeal for vintage and old cameras makes a lot more sense to me than it used to.

    1. J, thanks for your thoughts. It makes great sense to go for quality gear that is going to survive a few knocks and scrapes. And will likely feel better to use too.

      I remember having a conversation a few years back with a work colleague who was looking at buying a new car. They could afford a brand new one if they went for the budget end of a lower quality brand, and this seemed to be the way they were going.

      I said why not go for something a year old, but a higher spec model? Or a better quality brand? Two or three years down the line, the higher spec/brand model will be worth more than the cheap one anyway, and you’ll also have had those two or three years in a higher quality car.

      “But I want a new car,” they replied. “New” seemed to be the major criteria, regardless of the quality and spec they could(n’t) afford new.

      I didn’t understand it then, and still don’t now!

      Perhaps I’ve gone off at a slight tangent too, but it seems connected to what you were saying about your robust Nikon!

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