Mike's recent article "The End of Cameras" engendered some pretty strong reactions, so I thought I'd make some points about the greater context of the history of cameras. As I said in my comment there, 99% of the camera business has produced what we Serious Photographerstm call "cheap crap" or "CC" (that's a technical term of art*), since George Eastman was alive. The overwhelming majority of photography has been for socialization, memory-saving, and personal record-keeping. That will continue to be true. We SP elite live on the fringes, always have and always will.
For much, even most, of that period, the SP business was distinct from the CC business. A truly minuscule percentage of photographers owned what we would consider Serious Cameras. Notably, that changed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the major camera manufacturers, led by Minolta and Canon, realized that they could apply mass production manufacturing techniques and economies of scale to produce serious cameras that non-serious photographers could afford.
We have all reaped the benefits of that in a grand and glorious thirty-year ride. We've gotten accustomed to getting rather good cameras dirt cheap.
So, what's going to happen to the business if, as some fear and some hope, the digicam market pretty much disappears, with cell phones and multifunction electronic devices taking over that role? Simplistically, it returns us to the traditional situation where the Serious Camera business was largely disconnected from how 99% of the population made photographs. It's a very weak similarity; corporate structures, multinational conglomerates, and entirely different business/profit models define the landscape in a way that was not true in 1970. This might be good for SP's; it might be bad for SP's; it will most assuredly be different.
But let's imagine, for the sake of amusement, that it won't be different. In that case, return with me to the thrilling days of yesteryear! It's entertaining to take a look at camera prices from 40 years ago, a time before the aforementioned mass production/economy of scale era, and compare them to today's.
At this point a bit of arm waving is necessary. Doing "constant dollar" calculations over a 40-year period is a dicey business. There is broad agreement that the Consumer Price Index underestimates real inflation, but different analysts and different models have different estimates by how much. I've read numbers as low as 1/2% per year and as high as 2% per year, on average. Well, I have to pick a number, so I'm picking 1%. Understand that this means that my constant-dollar prices have an uncertainty of easily +\– 25%. Eh, more than close enough for utter speculation.
All the following prices are given in my calculated current dollars. One I think I know by heart; 1970 was when I bought my Pentax 6x7 kit in college. The camera body plus metering prism cost $10,000 (yes, just about the price of the Pentax 645D). The standard normal lens was another $2,000; the 300mm ƒ/4 telephoto I bought was another $4,000. Interestingly, the entry price for comparable configurations of the Pentax, Rollei SL66, and the Hasselblad (the three high-end medium format cameras of the era) was about the same.
For other cameras, I turned to ads in old issues of Modern Photography for street prices from reputable vendors. A Pentax Spotmatic ran between $1300 and $1700 depending on which prime lens you bought; the Konica Autoreflex T and Minolta SRT 101 ran about the same. Some cameras, like Mamiyas, sold for modestly less. You could get some really cheap-ass medium format cameras like the Pentacon or the Kowa for around $2500 (optically it was unlikely they performed much better than 35mm cameras, but bigger frames cut way down on film grain).
Feel like spending a bit more for your 35mm? The much-revered Alpa 9D would set you back around $2,500. A Nikon Photomic FTN would set you back $2500–$3000, depending on the prime lens you bought; if that was too rich for your blood, the excellent but not so prestigious Nikkormat could trim that by a third.
What about Leica? It was just like today; if you had to ask, you couldn't afford it.
• • •
Next week, I'll throw out some designs for building psu's wished-for "tablet based digital view camera," using current technology. Seriously. No joke.
Illustration: Leica ad from 1970 Modern Photography magazine. Scan courtesy Marc Bergman.
Ctein's weekly column on TOP is published on Wednesdays.
*He's kidding. —Ed.
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.