Digital cameras (like computers, other electronics, and cars) are one of the worst financial investments you can make. Ken Rockwell even calls them disposable cameras. However, they're also really fun to use and if you're reading this, you probably want to buy a camera (and not be talked out of buying one). This post will attempt to explain which digital SLR I think you should buy (based on my personal experience and research). The advice might also be relevant if you just want to buy a point-and-shoot camera.
First off, if you're a pro, or really rich, then go ahead and buy the most expensive camera; however, if you're like me & the majority of amateur goobers out there, you'll just be wasting your money. I'm only familiar with Nikon and Canon (which most people seem to agree are equally good), but I'm not really interested in talking about brands. Instead, I'm interested in the fractional resale value of the camera body, F, which I'll define as the ratio of the average used price on Adorama to the CPI inflation adjusted original MSRP (for more discussion on fractional resale values, see my cars article) :
Although digital SLR camera bodies are essentially disposable, the lenses maintain their value much better. For that reason, I'm only interested in F for the camera body.
Boring details (please skip this paragraph): Adorama sells used cameras under a variety of conditions. To compensate, I adjusted prices (D = no adjustment, E+ = $10, E = $20, E- = $30, etc.). Some, but not all of the used cameras come with kit lenses. Cameras with image stabilization (vibration reduction) kit lenses I adjusted by $114 (the going rate for a used kit lens on Adorama); cameras with older, non-stabilized lenses I adjusted by $94. For the models that had multiple cameras for sale, I calculated an error bar based on their standard deviation.
I calculated F for entry level (Canon Rebel/Nikon D40,50,70,80 -- cameras with MSRPs between $500 and $1000) and high end (Canon 1d/Nikon D1,D2 -- cameras with MSRPs between $4000 and $8000) cameras and came up with the following plot:
As you can see, it only takes a couple of years for a camera to lose half its value. Moreover, with the exception of the point at 10.5 years (a 2.7 megapixel Nikon D1 that retailed for $5850 (that's about $7600 when adjusted for inflation)), the data appear to fit really nicely to a line, with a x-intercept (when the camera is just about worthless) of about 8 or 9 years. The data at about 9 years are for the Nikon D1-h (2.7 megapixels, MSRP = $4500 ($5500 inflation-adjusted)) and the Nikon D1-x (5.3 megapixels, MSRP = $6130, ($7500 inflation-adjusted)). I'm sure both of those cameras were awesome for their day, but today's entry level cameras outperform them in nearly every aspect.
The graph below shows the most-loathed of camera statistics (the megapixel) for the cameras I looked at above. I'm probably going to lose a lot of credibility for showing it (read about the megapixel myth), but it really is the easiest statistic to monitor.
The above graph shows that entry-level cameras catch up to their high-end counterparts (at least in terms of megapixels) in about 4 or 5 years. The graph doesn't show the major advances that are made yearly in battery technology, digital memory, camera firmware, or any of a dozen other things that are hard to quantify or don't make dramatic improvements; however, hopefully it helps to quantify that newer cameras (in addition to being cheaper) are often better.
So Which Camera Should I Buy?
My recommendation is that you look at the cheapest entry level camera and buy the newest model (currently the Canon Rebel XS and the Nikon D3000). Whatever you buy is going to be worth just about nothing in 8 or 9 years, so why not minimize your loss? Entry-level dSLRs take really good pictures (well beyond my ability as a photographer). You can't go wrong with either of those cameras.
Copyright © 2009 Peter Dolph