Tip of the Iceberg

Think camera bodies are expensive? Think again.

Original: 1/12/2008
Update: 1/14/2008 Getting the McKinley right; reader comments at end
Update: 1/25/2008 More reader comments

Let me preface my remarks today with a qualification. If you're purely a snapshot type of shooter, just buy a low-end DSLR with the kit lens and go back to what you were doing; you don't need to read this article.

If you aspire to making great images of the highest possible quality you can attain--which is probably most of you reading my site regularly--then I've got some bad news for you today. Camera bodies are cheap. You'll spend less on them than the rest of what you need.

Let's take a D300 user as an example. Ostensibly, you spent US$1799, possibly as much as 12% more than that for tax and shipping (and those of you buying out-of-state via the Internet to avoid sales tax, be aware that your state tax collector will someday be coming at you for Use Tax, and you won't have a recourse but to pay it). So let's put the camera body cost at US$1999 including shipping, sales tax, and the Christmas wrapping paper you went to the trouble to add to the box to help mentally justify your purchase. Ah heck, let's round the numbers to the nearest five, that gives us so far:

Camera body: US$1800
Shipping and tax: US$200

You need a lens, of course. Probably more than one lens, actually. Let's be nice to ourselves for a moment and give us a nice basic set of lenses. Since we're trying to be frugal but still want top quality, we'll compromise on a few third-party lenses:

Sigma 10-20: US$500
Tamron 17-50mm: US$450
Nikkor 70-200mm: US$1600
Shipping and tax: US$250

Hmm. We just spent more than the camera body. Feel that iceberg tipping yet?

Of course, you've already read other articles on this Web site that say "in order to see the quality of your DSLR you need good lenses, but in order to see the quality of your lenses you need good support." So it's off for some tripod shopping:

Gitzo GT2530: US$550
Really Right Stuff BH-40 ballhead: US$375
Really Right Stuff plates: US$55 + US$100
Shipping and tax: US$100

Well, there went two McKinleys (for the non-US crowd: that's the President featured on our US$500 bill). With some compromises, we could have probably gotten the support costs down to somewhere near US$600 plus tax, but we're not in a mood to compromise today; we want the very best photos possible. Better get off the top of that iceberg, it's definitely gone unstable.

Of course, we're not close to done. We need some accessories and something to carry our equipment in:

LowePro Vertex 200 AW: US$175
2 SanDisk Extreme IV 4GB cards: US$200
Extra EN-EL3e: US$45
MC-30 remote: US$55
Shipping and tax: US$75

Are we done yet? No, not really. While Nikon gave us Capture NX for free with our camera, we need something to run it on. I'll be nice and just assume you have to upgrade your computer and not completely replace it:

Double your RAM: US$100
Add 500GB drive: US$200
New larger display: US$300
Calibrator: US$100
Lightroom: US$300
Large format photo printer: US$450
Starting supplies for printer: US$200
Shipping and tax: US$150

Surely we're done now, right? Somehow I doubt it. You're going to go to at least one photo workshop, buy at least six books, download at least two or thee programs, purchase one or more DVD or video instructional items, obtain at least US$100 worth of sensor cleaning supplies, and if you really shoot a lot, you'll be upgrading your computer some more. But I'll be generous and put these remaining odds and ends at another two McKinleys (US$1000).

Let's tally things up, shall we?

Our hobby so far has cost us US$9330. Suddenly that US$1799 body price seems pretty inexpensive. Oh, and we haven't yet explored getting a backup body, adding flash, getting into macro photography, buying filters, obtaining panorama support equipment and software, or a host of other things ("boy that MB-D10 sure looks inviting..."). And have we yet discussed where you're going to be taking those pictures? Hope it's in your backyard, or else we have to add travel costs to the iceberg (and if you're traveling to an iceberg for photos, your iceberg just got a lot bigger). Heaven help you if you get into shooting exotic wildlife, as the lens and travel alone will make everything I just outlined look like pocket change.

People--even camera makers--sometimes tell me they're startled and perplexed as to why an amateur would buy a D3. But as you can probably figure out from the above, the body cost is only the tip of the iceberg. Ultimately, any serious photographer pursuing the best possible photos they can make in the most interesting places to make them spends far more than what they did on their camera body. Enough, actually, to probably make the camera body purchase less of a burden than it at first appears. Sure, it might be the item with the highest price tag (especially if you opt for the D3 and avoid wildlife), but the camera body only represents a small portion of a serious photographer's outlay. If you're ultimately going to spend US$20,000 on your hobby, the difference in price between a D300 and D3 is now just 16% of your total, not the 178% difference in list prices.

So, how big is your iceberg?

(p.s. keep this article and your calculations out of sight from your spouse ;~)

(Off-topic: somehow in my haste I managed to find a picture of the McKinley bill and think I was seeing US$1000 when it said US$500 [note to self: have eyes checked]. Here's the progression just for the heck of it: US$500 is McKinley, US$1000 is Cleveland, US$5000 is Madison, US$10,000 is Chase, and US$100,000 would have been Wilson had it ever circulated. So, let's see, your iceberg is at least a Chase, or perhaps a Wilson with some Chase's in change...)

Reader comments:

  • One reader who purchased a D50, which as we all know is supposedly a consumer camera, pegged his iceberg at almost US$3000 and growing.
  • Another reader pointed out that his Nikon S2 with 50mm f/2 lens purchased in 1956 for US$345 would be roughly equivalent to US$2500 in today's dollars. So we've been growing icebergs for years (and film and processing costs always added to your iceberg).
  • Still another reader has grown his D300 iceberg bigger than the one I suggest.
  • And two readers have commented that, despite the camera body being the tip of the iceberg, they still are afraid to even mention a D3 to their spouse.
  • "Just buy a medium format digital body in the first place, then all the extra stuff is in the noise. The best Gitzo tripod looks downright inexpensive compared to that US$30,000 body."
  • "Just as global warming has an ugly tendency to melt frozen water you neglected to mention the iceberg shrinkage problem. Each year I have to struggle with the inevitable need to upgrade as my equipment (the iceberg) becomes technologically inadequate and/or obsolete (the poetic equivalency of melting ice)."
  • "I wish I could remember where I saw it (I think it was in National Geographic), but a comment in one of the earliest articles I can recall concerning photography still rings pretty much true: 'If you expect to pursue photography as a serious hobby, be prepared to spend an amount equivalent to the cost of a second car.'"
  • "Great article but you forgot the small, portable notebook PC ($1500), external USB hard drive ($120), Image recovery software ($50, San Disk’s free offering isn’t Vista compatible). Aircraft power adaptor so you can work on those images while you fly ($150). Extra power leads so that you can charge the batteries in Europe, USA, Africa, Australia, UK ($10 each). Then there are the spares, finder eyepiece, LCD cover, Clock batteries (no you shouldn’t need one but you know the rules, they always go flat when the nearest spare is out of reach.), Battery door, especially with that MB10D. Then you have missed out the one vital ingredient, the Nikon Field Guide, can’t think who wrote that great book though!"
  • "I love the look on the driver or valet's face when I say 'hey leave it alone, that's $20K in that bag I'll carry it.'"
  • "My husband and I have the same photo hobby. So multiple your minimum x 2. Whoaaaaaaaaaaa  that's the down payment on a house!  Ok so we get brownie points on our credit card!  I used to think that women did aerobics so that we could run in airports wearing heels, carrying a laptop, purse and overnight bag.  Now I know it's for lugging photo equipment in 90% humidity at 90 degrees ( we live in FL )."
  • "Hypothesis: Camera bodies should be treated like computer equipment. Only buy a new one when you absolutely need one and only buy what you need, since buying higher up the curve costs exponentially more. By the time you need a feature it may well drop to your price range and even be an improvement over the more expensive camera you looked at. The difference between getting an $1800 body and a $5000 is also VERY important. That additional $3200 affects you in far reaching ways.
    Example:  If you purchased a D200 for $1600  vs. a D2Xs a year ago for $4500, this year you could buy a D300 and have a backup and be WAY ahead.
    1. You now have a backup camera.
    2. The D300 outperforms the D2Xs so you have a better camera.
    3. You have an additional $1100 to spend on lenses and other more durable items, or more if you sell the D200."


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