Thursday, January 19, 2012

Fuzzy Math and the Nikon D4

So Nikon finally delivers the new D4 body in January, after Santa already made his rounds. But unless some Secret Santa decides to gift me this newest-best-ever-of-the-day, I won’t be dragging one of these new $5,999 cameras through the mud and snow of western Montana.

Current issue of Montana Outdoors (cheap cell phone capture)
Right after the D4 was announced, the State of Montana delivered $160 into our business account for two photos published in “Montana Outdoors,” photos of a trout and a ladybug (the only insect in this issue!). Photography-wise, “Montana Outdoors” is a respectable magazine that still pays for wildlife and landscape photographs, just not real well. “Texas Highways” pays about the same while “Arizona Highways” pays a little better.

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to compare my sale of two images to a respectable magazine, and the cost of producing those images. Just the equipment costs, not including any the back-end expenses like the photographer’s time, fuel for and wear on his truck, a decent computer, hard drives for file storage, editing software, etc. (Don’t even think about calculating a cost for the years spent learning the craft.)

Those are the rules to this game. Got it? Okay, let’s play.

The trout image ($80 sale) was made with a D700 and 70-200mm lens, or $4,350 worth of gear. The ladybug image ($80 sale) was made with a 105mm macro and ring flash, or $531 worth of additional gear. Grand total of $4,881 worth of camera gear.

Based solely on the constant of a respected magazine’s payment schedule, I would have to sell two photos every month for another 26 issues to break even on this subset of my gear. More than two years. (Viewed another way, I would need to sell one image to 52 more magazines to break even.)

Still want to be a magazine photographer?

Now let’s visit the opposite end of the spectrum. One of the best bird photographers out there, Arthur Morris, is also one of the top business minds in my industry. I’ve never met him, but I can certainly respect his success in both arenas.

Mr. Morris has just a few favorite camera/lens combinations. The majority of his images are made with the following set-up. He favors an EOS-1D Mark IV camera body ($4,999), with an EF 800mm f5.6L IS lens ($13,899) and 1.4X EF III tele-converter ($474) wearing LensCoat covers ($90 and $20). Even at telephoto distances, he likes to throw in daytime fill from a Wimberly-mounted ($202) Canon flash ($987) and Better Beamer ($44). Mr. Morris balances this modest little set-up on a carbon-fiber tripod ($899) with LegCoat covers ($43) using a Wimberly head ($607).

Mr. Morris never carries just one camera/lens/tripod. But, just considering this set-up, he’s making images through more than $22,264 worth of camera gear. If he sold two images every month at my “respectable magazine rate,” then he would pay off his gear after 139 issues, or 11 years and 7 months later.

In this exercise, that means that he spends five times what I spend to make an image - and in reality, he spends a whole lot more.

Mr. Morris normally carries about twice as much equipment as I listed, and he acquires the new best-ever equipment just as soon as it appears, every year or so, not once every 10 years. But of course, I’m not floating around at the top of my field, like Mr. Morris (and I do a rather dismal imitation of a businessman to boot).

Also, while I use cameras to (mostly) sell retail prints, Mr. Morris is mostly selling one image – his own. He  projects the best-instructor-ever image to sell his photo safaris, which is where he makes his serious money. Retired doctors and dentists apparently line up like schoolboys for the chance to shoot in a group with the best-instructor-ever, on photo vacations “of a lifetime” that cost between $3,300 and $12,500 - gratuity not included.

Funny thing is, I’d bet you a dozen D4’s that Mr. Morris could easily make sellable images with my gear, and with gear even older than mine.

What’s my point?

You don’t need the newest-next-best-thing if your goal is making good photographs. If you just have too much money to deal with, then go for it. Camera companies are happy to solve that problem for you. But for the most part it’s not the working photographers who are buying the astronomically-priced gear. It’s a tiny handful of top photographers (many of them getting free gear), plus a growing hoard of retirees who are probably more interested in their personal image than in their photographic images.

I’m a wee bit green with envy, of course, but I never intended to buy a D4 anyway. My $2,700 D700 was more than enough camera – at least until I dropped it in the creek. No, I’ve been waiting on the one that comes after the D4. The D700 arrived one year after the D3, so the D700 replacement is now – finally – on the clock.

That means the oft-rumored D800 may finally arrive this year, maybe even as early as February. And compared to the $6,000 D4, a $3,900 (estimated) D800 might be an affordable bargain. If not, I’ll be satisfied to pick up a used D700 from someone moving up to the D800.

Buying the most expensive, newest-best-thing every year – what some might call “conspicuous consumption” – is the American way, but it’s not the only way. By choice or not, many of us still make quality photographs while travelling a saner, cheaper path.

1 comment:

  1. Great take on this desease we sometimes contract. Gearitis is incurable though, just saying.