Why have cameras and lenses got so expensive?: Digital Photography Review Leave a comment


Asking $6500 for a pro-sports camera isn’t new, but the fact that this one looks the same as a model costing half as much helps fuel the idea that cameras are getting more expensive.

‘Cameras and lenses are getting so expensive these days.’ It’s a sentiment I hear regularly expressed, so I thought I’d take a closer look at what’s going on, and why. And, as is so often the case, it’s not as simple as it first appears.

We looked at the launch prices of products in several product categories, and corrected for inflation, to see how widespread any upward trend is in real terms. All three camera companies we approached were reticent to draw any attention to price rises by discussing the issue, but it’s still possible to identify a series of factors that are involved.

Camera prices

We’ve yet to see the full impact on prices of the current silicon chip shortage, but it’s not universally the case that prices have increased. For instance, Sony appears to have steadily increased the cost of its photographer-friendly APS-C mirrorless models…

Sony intermediate APS-C mirrorless cameras
Sony NEX 5 Sony a6000 Sony a6100
Launch date May 2010 Feb 2014 Aug 2019
Launch price $550
(inc 16mm F2.8)
$650 $750
Price in 2021 $ $668 $733 $774

…but a look at Nikon’s roughly comparable range shows the opposite trend:

Nikon intermediate APS-C ILCs
Nikon D50 Nikon D5000 Nikon Z50
Launch date Apr 2005 Apr 2009 Oct 2019
Launch price $799 $730 $860
Price in 2021 $ $1096 $907 $885

Of course, models get repositioned and aren’t always like-for-like replacements. Fujifilm’s X-E series have become significantly less expensive over the years, but the cameras in that series have become less and less enthusiast-focused over that time. But add in the X-S10 and it should be apparent that you can still buy an enthusiast-friendly Fujifilm, it just happens to be SLR shaped. The X-S10 includes image stabilization and a feature set far beyond what you got in 2012, but costs less in real terms.

Nikon X-E / enthusiast mirrorless
Fujifilm X-E1 Fujifilm X-E3 Fujifilm X-E4 Fujifilm X-S10
Launch date Sep 2012 Sept 2017 Jan 2021 Oct 2020
Launch price $1000 $900 $850 $1000
Price in 2021 $ $1145 $973 $861 $1017
The X-E4 isn’t a like-for-like replacement for the original X-E1, but you can still get a lot more camera for less than the X-E1 cost elsewhere in the range.

But some cameras cost over $6000 now!

If you’ve been watching the industry, you’ll see there are more really high-end cameras on the market, but it’s worth remembering that the launch of more expensive models doesn’t mean prices are going up, so long as the less-expensive alternatives still exist. For instance, Sony launching its a1 at around $2000 more than its previous top-end model doesn’t prove that Sony’s cameras are getting more expensive, it just means that with the a1, the company is trying to compete at a higher level than it previously had (at a price that Canon and Nikon charge for comparable models).

Are the prices of more attainable cameras going up, though? Ricoh’s new Pentax K-3 III isn’t any more expensive than similarly high-end DSLRs were in the past.

High-end APS-C DSLRs
Nikon D300 Nikon D500 Canon EOS 7D Pentax K-3 III
Launch date Aug 2007 Jan 2016 Sep 2009 Mar 2021
Launch price $1800 $2000 $1700 $2000
Price in 2021 $ $2293 $2236 $2085 $2000

However, changes elsewhere in the market can end up undermining the apparent value of a new product. It was much easier to justify the (higher) price of the Canon EOS 7D back when you had to spend nearly twice as much to get an EOS 5D. Entry-level full-frame cameras are now significantly more affordable.

Entry/intermediate level full-frame ILCs
Nikon D600 Sony a7 Sony a7 III Nikon Z6 II
Launch date Sep 2012 Oct 2013 Feb 2018 Oct 2020
Launch price $2099 $1700 $2000 $2000
Price in 2021 $ $2404 $1928 $2128 $2034

The D600, like the original Canon EOS 6D, was considered low-priced for the time, but now looks expensive alongside comparable models such as the Z6 II or Sony’s a7 series. And another tier has opened up below this: Canon’s RP and Nikon’s Z5, released in 2019 and 2020, are the least expensive full-frame digital cameras to ever hit the market. Of course both cameras are clearly part of a strategy to encourage more photographers to adopt their respective brand’s new lens mounts. Which is to say: to encourage people to buy new lenses.

Lens prices

A distinct trend in the industry is the move toward addressing fewer but more committed customers, and towards finding high-end niches to explore. So at the same time as companies pushing to sell full-frame bodies for less than $2000, we’re also seeing the launch of lenses and bodies aimed at ambitious amateurs and pros.

So while we’ve yet to see 50mm F1.4 lenses from either Canon or Nikon for their new mirrorless mounts, both they and Sony have introduced 50mm F1.2 lenses, with correspondingly rarified prices. And even the less-exotic end of the new mirrorless lens lineups seem focused more on quality than affordability.

Nikon’s latest Z-mount 50mm F1.8 costs more than twice as much as the F-mount version (launched at $261 in today’s terms), but results in a lens Roger Cicala describes as: ‘probably the sharpest mid-range prime Nikon has put out.’
~50mm F1.8 lenses, nifty and otherwise
Canon EF
50mm F1.8
Canon EF
50mm F1.8
STM
Sony FE
50mm
F1.8
Canon RF
50mm F1.8
Sony
55mm F1.8 ZA
Z Nikkor
50mm F1.8
Launch date Dec 1990 May 2015 Mar 2016 Nov 2020 Oct 2013 Aug 2018
Price at launch $130 $130 $250 $200 $1000 $600
Price in 2021 $ $257 $145 $278 $204 $1134 $630

The nominal price of ‘nifty fifties’ has crept up, but it’s worth noting that they weren’t actually as cheap, back in the day, as a lot of people remember. And the Sony ZA 55mm and Z-mount Nikon 50mm make clear that not all 50mm F1.8s are intended as simple, inexpensive optics.

Sigma CEO Kazuto Yamaki, whose company has gone from making affordable alternatives to cameras-makers’ lenses to making some of the sharpest high-end lenses on the market, confirms this in a recent interview with DPReview (which will be published soon). “Customers’ demand is gradually shifting from low-end, affordable devices to the higher-end, higher-performing lenses,” he says, “so that pushes up the average selling price in recent years.”

24-70mm F2.8 lenses
Canon EF
24-70mm F2.8 II
Sony 24-70mm ZA SSM II Nikon
24-70mm
F2.8G ED VR
Sony FE 24-70mm GM Z Nikkor
24-70mm
Canon RF
24-70mm F2.8
Launch date Feb 2012 Apr 2015 Aug 2015 Feb 2016 Feb 2019 Aug 2019
Price at launch $2200 $2100 $2400 $2200 $2300 $2300
Price in 2021 $ $2580 $2370 $2689 $2477 $2429 $2395

Looking back, you can see that there hasn’t been any real increase in the price of 24-70mm F2.8 lenses. The perception that the price has gone up may hinge on when you last shopped for one.

Competing at the top end of the market also raises costs, he says: “The customer’s demand for lenses is getting higher in terms of quality and performance. They check every detail of the lens, and that increases the production cost for us. We take more time polishing each lens element, we take more time checking the performance of the lens during assembly.”

Nikon 70-200mm F2.8s
Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8E VR II Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8E Z Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8
Launch date Jul 2009 Oct 2016 Jan 2020
Price at launch $2400 $2800 $2600
Price in 2021 $ $2951 $3068 $2669

But if we look closely at the prices of a couple of workhorse lenses, you can see the same complex picture we saw with camera bodies. Nikon’s latest Z 70-200mm F2.8 is less expensive in real terms than the two that precede it, but Canon’s novel, retractable RF 70-200mm F2.8 is more expensive than the two previous versions. It’s comparable, in real terms, to the price of the version launched in the early 2000s, though.

The latest, RF-mount Canon 70-200mm F2.8 is more expensive than its immediate predecessors but was introduced at a lower price than the version from 2001, in real terms.
Canon 70-200mm F2.8s
Canon EF 70-200mm F2.8 L IS Canon EF 70-200mm F2.8 L IS II Canon EF 70-200mm F2.8 L IS III Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8 L IS
Launch date Sep 2001 Apr 2010 Aug 2018 Feb 2019
Price at launch $2000 $2100 $2100 $2700
Price in 2021 $ $2971 $2555 $2206 $2829

Interestingly, it’s a similar story if you look at the cost of Canon’s EOS 5D series. The mirrorless EOS R5 is a lot more expensive than the recent EOS 5D DSLRs, because all four models in that series were launched for around $3500. But look back to the original EOS 5D and you’ll find that $3500 in 2005 equates to $4720 in 2021 dollars: only a fraction higher than the R5’s $4500 launch price. So perhaps Canon is trying to reaffirm the position its products had back in the early 2000s.

So what’s going on?

From the examples I’ve found, there’s no clear evidence that camera and lens prices are rising, overall. There are certainly instances of new models being more expensive that the older ones but, having tried to look at a cross-section of bodies and lenses, it doesn’t seem to be a universal trend. So why is there the perception that they are?

Part of it will undoubtedly be because there are fewer low-cost options as the industry focuses on higher-end users. Similarly, we’re not seeing such regular refreshes of whole model ranges, which would leave the market flooded with older models at marked-down prices. New models aren’t necessarily getting more expensive, but there aren’t so many bargains to be had if you opt for the previous version.

It’s not always the case that lenses for mirrorless cameras are more expensive. Sigma’s 24-70mm F2.8 DG DN Art has the same nominal price as the DSLR equivalent, meaning it’s less expensive in real terms.

There’s perhaps something similar going on with lenses. A lot of the examples I’ve looked at are very long-lived, so while a 24-70mm would have launched at around $2200, you probably won’t have paid that much if you bought it five years into its life cycle. The move to mirrorless means that all your options are much newer, and hence you’re more likely to have to pay the full launch price, whatever type of lens you’re looking for.

But, as with camera bodies, the new versions often perform better than the ones they replace.

Sigma 24-70mm F2.8s
Sigma 24-70mm F2.8 EX DG HSM Sigma 24-70mm F2.8 DG OS HSM Art Sigma 24-70mm F2.8 DG DN Art
Launch date Sept 2008 Sep 2012 Apr 2021
Price at launch $900 $900 $900
Price in 2021 $ $1099 $1030 $900

But I also wonder whether it could be that we tend to remember big purchases. I have a good recollection of how much I paid for most of the bikes I’ve ever owned, but it’s only when I find old photos that I realize how long ago each purchase has been. That $2800 I remember spending is worth much less now than it was in what turns out to have been 2011. Where does the time go?

I remember how much I spent on this bike (and how much of a disappointment it was), but it’s only finding this photo again than makes me realize that ten years have passed in the meantime.

Value > price

None of this is intended to excuse any increases in pricing. This article has attempted to look at the trends in pricing and some of the rationale behind those changes, not influence your response to them.

Ultimately, the thing that matters more than price is value: what’s it worth to you? Knowing why a company has put its price up doesn’t change that calculus. Regardless of price, the decision comes down to: will this new camera or lens result in more enjoyment or better quality images, to a degree that the price is worth it? As always, that’s something only you can assess.



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