Scaling Kit Costs

Many years ago I wrote an article about how buying the camera was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what you’d spend.

Today I want to write about the subject of overall cost scaling

Everyone knows that camera companies have a range of cameras to sell you. For instance, the modern Canon—the older Canon is still alive, but on life support—will happily sell you an R3, R5, R6 Mark II, R7, R8, R10, R50, or R100. That’s a US$480 to US$6000 range in eight models. 

Maybe you can afford US$480 but not anything close to US$6000. However, you’re not done if you just buy a body. Lens(es), remote control, new cards, case, another battery, all these things start to add up. Suddenly the US$480 has become US$1000 (two-lens kit with the above items). Just like the camera body costs scale—almost exactly 1.4x in Nikon’s case—the overall kit costs also scale. Move up a model: 1.4x. Fill out the kit: 2x. Suddenly what seemed like a US$480 purchase walking into the store became a US$1350 hit to your credit card because you moved up a model and filled out the kit. 

The reason I bring this up is it points to one of the problems that the camera companies are having with the reduced sales volume of the current (and likely forever) market.

It’s easy enough to see with the Nikon D500. When it came out people forget that we also had the 200-500mm f/5.6E and the 300mm f/4E PF lenses available. Thus, you could “scale” a D5 kit down to a D500 very satisfactorily: buy the budget camera and lower performance lenses and the overall cost reduced down just like the body cost did. Yet you came remarkably close to what the pros were doing with their top-end gear. Everyone happy! (Okay, I’m being an optimist today ;~). 

One complaint I hear is that we didn’t get a Z90 (DX) body with the Z9 (FX). Thus, the ability to scale your purchase is broken. It’s actually worse than that, because we also don’t have a 16-80mm f/2.8-4 VR S DX lens, either. And even worse because, well, the Z8 is D500-sized, creates D500-size images in DX crop, and gives you both the FX and Z9 experience. But the body price doesn’t scale right, and the all-in price definitely doesn’t scale right once we start talking about lenses 

For a while, Canon RF had this odd set of lenses (f/8 telephotos) that didn’t seem to match the bodies. This worked for Canon because they encouraged you to just bring your EF lenses with you to RF (they even enticed you with a drop-in filter lens converter).  

On a related subject, the “attach rate” of lens purchases to body purchases has long been in the 1.6x range (e.g. 1.6 lenses were bought for every body bought). This isn’t so much a new camera user buying 1.6 lenses—good luck with that ;~)—but has tended to more reflect upgraders buying additional lenses with their new body. Any move from APS-C to full frame, from DSLR to mirrorless, from Brand A to Brand B tends to provoke more lens buying. When viewed over a longer period, users tend to accumulate lenses, but they’re not always right for the new body they purchase. 

When advising a new camera user (or one moving from type or brand to another) I tend to think in kits. That means I’m not thinking about the body price, but the price of the complete ensemble that will achieve what the buyer wants/needs. It’s rare when that kit turns out to be under US$2000. In fact, US$2000, US$2800, US$4000, and US$5600 (that 1.4x factor again!) seem to be about where any such discussion lands us. 

The point I want to make is that when camera makers go up-scale with bodies in order to preserve profitability on lower volume, it isn’t just the body cost that impacts whether the established user decides to upgrade or not. Canon and Nikon, in particular, are fighting a tough battle here. They want to move people from DSLR to mirrorless now. 

But think about the person who paid US$3000 for their D850 one to five years ago. Nikon would love them to move to a Z8. But the Z8 is more expensive (US$4000) and we get into the kit scaling issues, as to truly benefit some new lenses are likely to enter the picture. Indeed, as I’ve pointed out, it should be a no-brainer to get D500 users to buy a Z8, as the Z8 not only gives them all the things they’d want to upgrade on the D500 while also giving them a built-in 0.7x teleconverter that produces more pixels (full frame ;~). But the true all-in cost gets excessive to what that D500 user expects to pay based upon what they originally paid. 

Canon and Nikon, of course, point to mount adapters to “ease the pain.” Then they turn around and point out all the benefits of the new mirrorless lenses and invoke new pain. 

What I see in what’s happening in the camera business is self-inflicted contraction. If pushing users higher were to become a permanent thing, there’d be fewer users in the future (and they’d be upgrading less often given how good the new cameras are). Other than perhaps Canon and their recent RF-S line (still lacking lenses, buzz buzz), I don’t see anyone targeting the narrow “good enough” area between smartphones and the high-end cameras. But as I just noted, even Canon’s tripping over themselves there, as the RF-S lens lineup isn’t enough for those users to establish permanent residence in the, say, R7 to R10 realm. 

A lot of short-term thinking is happening in Tokyo. I’m not getting the impression that the long-term thinking is clued into how to re-grow the camera business. As a long-practicing technology creator, I don’t see it the same way. Why is it that there isn’t a really good kit that fits into the US$1000-2000 range and can enjoinder near permanent satisfaction on the part of a broad spectrum of users? 

(I’m sure I’m going to get emails saying there is, but go back and read my comments on communicating, programmable cameras. I believe that to truly get that satisfaction among a larger group, you have to tackle those two things head one. See the question I raise in today’s other article.)

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