Even reviewers were never really privy to truly inside information about the camera industry—at least not in the English-speaking world. But I had it on pretty good authority a number of years ago that as a general rule of thumb, the cost basis of a camera is approximately 1/4th of its street price. The rest goes to overhead, middlemen, advertising, and support and service. That would mean a Sony A900 has a unit cost of $675 to manufacture and a Canon S90 costs a bit less than a hundred bucks to make. Sounds about right, if you take as Kentucky windage the fact that I don't know what the hell I'm talking about.
When we say a camera is overpriced, what we mean would be a camera that sells for a higher multiple of its cost basis than 4. There are a couple of "situation normals" here: it would make sense that unpopular cameras and cameras that are about to be discontinued sell for closer to their unit cost, and popular cameras have more margin built in. We're all aware that new cameras often have a healthier price than the same camera will when it's a year or two old and its shimmer of newness is gone. Although, of course, the cost to manufacture might well go down over the lifetime of a successful product.
You might think that I'd name the most expensive cameras on the current market as the most overpriced, but I wouldn't. True, the Nikon D3x costs $7,470, and that's 3.7X the cost of the Sony A850 which has the same sensor. But I'd never call the D3x overpriced. It really does offer features and build that justify its cost. Or you might think I'd call out the Leica S2. Again, no. It's a unique offering and part of an all-new system, from a company that no doubt had to invest deeply in its development. I have no problem believing that it's selling for 4x what it costs to manufacture. Well, maybe 6X—I don't know—but nothing so terrible.
We can't really count rare collectibles or auction items, since those things are essentially sold for what the market will bear—more than anything else, they sell for exactly the right price. Boutique cameras such as Leica "collectibles" (I've gotten great mileage over the years ridiculing the "King Bhumiphol" M6, but it actually had actual value added to it—its gold plating—and proceeds from its sale actually did go to a good cause) might be priced at, oh, say, ten times their cost to manufacture, so you might think they're the overpriced champs...
...But not even close. No, nothing in the world comes close to this, the Diana Mini—nothing except other very similar cameras. Now, I've got nothing against the Diana or its aesthetic. I've seen great work done with them and I've even done some myself. But let's face it—even for a piece of sh•t, this is a piece of sh•t! I simply can't imagine that it costs more than a dollar to manufacture, and it might actually be some fraction of a dollar. In Oak Park, Illinois, there's a toy store called Pumpkin Moon that is chock full of cheap '50s-era style toys, and they've got buckets of things on sale for 25¢ or 50¢ or a dollar that seem just as well made to me as the Diana Mini. Diana cameras in my day—the 120 ones—cost $5, and might have been overpriced at that, compared to the markup multiple on, oh, say, an Olympus E-30, a camera that strikes me as particularly well made relative to its selling price. I once interviewed a photographer in Boston called Mary Kocol who made a body of work that consisted of very large prints made from color negatives shot with a camera called a "Sun Pet." The price of the Sun Pet? $2.98 and five "Bazooka Joe" comics. And somebody somewhere was making a profit on that, bless 'em.
In fact I'd love to see a really well-made plastic camera come on the market. I have no doubt that a decent modern plastics fabricator using good modern plastics could and would run rings around the ancient, shoddy Dianas. Of course, the question of why you'd do such a thing could preoccupy philosophers; but I can think of one really good reason. Imagine if a top-flight model manufacturer such as Tamiya were to make a model camera kit. Any half competent designer could come up with a kit camera that would run rings round the Dianas of the world. And I'd love to see such a camera model packaged with everything a kid would need to expose a roll of 120 rollfilm and take it to the proofing stage. If there were any market for it at all, I'll bet you could do all that for less than the $55 now being asked for a Diana Mini. I picture legions of future photo fans who'd carry fond childhood memories of such a thing into old age.
And would you be tempted to build one? I'm not sure I'd be able to resist. But then, I've been certified as certifiable about such things.
But in any event, I think the Diana Mini takes the "overpriced" prize going away. Without knowing what it costs to make, I simply can't imagine that its current price represents anything less than 20X its unit cost to manufacture. And the real multiple could conceivably be as high as 100X!
Either way, it puts even the King Bhumiphol Leica squarely in the dust.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Jim Mooney: "Tamiya Camera Kit? I'd build it for sure. Not that I need it or can't already take a roll of 120 from package to proof with what I have on the shelf in the basement, but I would totally build one just because it sounds really cool and would be a blast."
Featured [partial] Comment by Kelvin: "Blame the funky hipsters...."
Featured Comment by Paul Amyes: "The kit has already been made by Otona no Kagaku magazine and is available from Japan Exposures. I do agree with you about toy cameras. Here in Oz the local distributer for Holga sells them at $120 AUD, they can be bought of off Ebay for $25 and I got one in China for $5. I'd be very surprised if they cost more than $1 to make."
Featured Comment by Luke: "Tamiya story: Long ago I assembled a very detailed Tamiya model of a Formula 1 Ferrari. I was disappointed when two body panels fit poorly, with a crude overlap, especially since the rest of the kit was so perfectly detailed. Several years later, I saw the actual car at a vintage racing event. The same two body panels had the exact same crude overlap."