Different camera makes and models are better than others for longevity. The main failing point of cameras is the shutter, because it is a moving part. Most manufacturers publish targets for shutter life. By spending a little more, you may get much better value and reduce environmental impact too.
A few months ago, I sold this camera.
Although a bit tatty, this old Zeiss “coffee can” TLR was still going strong and took great pictures. I hope I am in as good repair when I am that old. What are the chances of your current camera still working in twenty-years, let alone eighty?
As digital photography has been commercially available to the masses for over 20-years, will modern cameras hold up to the test of time? As Indiana Jones said, "It's not the years, it's the mileage." It's the amount of use that will cause a camera to fail, not its age.
Are Online Databases Reliable?
It is a challenge to get definitive data about how long cameras last in the real world. Oleg Kikin’s database tried to tackle that issue, but that now appears obsolete with newer models missing. Furthermore, the low number of entries for some models make the results meaningless; there were insufficient cameras entered to be statistically significant. If one camera out of the three recorded of a particular model is shown to fail, that doesn’t reflect the true pattern across every one of that model sold. It could be that the one failure was a freak, or that the two that were still running were the exceptions.
Other online databases exist, but they all have their failings. One group's cameras within ranges as wide as 80,000 actuations, which isn’t helpful. Did all those Canon 5D Mark IVs fail near 81,000 or 162,000? With a life expectancy of 150,000, one hopes it is nearer the latter figure, but there is no telling.
I am deliberately not linking to those databases because their results are too easily faked, but, if you are interested, they are easy enough to find if you search for them,
It’s also worth remembering that an open database like that is prone to abuse; it would be easy for a manufacturer to sabotage them to skew the figures by submitting entries in favor of their own brand and against another. These sorts of dirty tricks do happen online; just look at the trolls who attack articles criticizing major brands brand, or false accounts that praise certain manufacturers and retailers. Politicians are not the only ones who employ fake news to win votes.
The Sin of Built-in Obsolescence
Is the relatively low shutter count on cameras is built-in obsolescence? This is the morally dubious practice of knowingly building goods to fail, so we must buy new ones when they die. If you care about the planet, then it is something you should challenge with your camera's manufacturer. With the ever-growing awareness of Earth's limited resources, we should be calling out the manufacturers to address this issue.
Most consumer end cameras have low life expectancies, some as little as 100,000 actuations, and in real life may be achieving less than that. For beginners who typically shoot hundreds of photographs every time they go out, that maybe only a couple of years’ usage; a disgusting waste of our planet's resources.
Higher End Cameras Have Longer Lifespans
Going upmarket, cameras last longer. For example, the 5D Mark IV has an advertised shutter life of 150,000 actuations. But that’s still modest when compared with its closest-priced competition from other brands. The Nikon D850 and the Lumix S5 both claim 200,000. The Sony A7iii is rated at 250,000. Canon’s mirrorless R6 does much better than its DSLR counterpart with 300,000 actuations as does the Fujifilm XT4.
Olympus Bucking the Trend.
However, both the $1,499 Olympus E-M1 Mark III, and the $1,799 E-M1X boast a 400,000 shutter life. That’s up there with the $4,499 Canon 1DX Mark II and the $6,496.95 Nikon D6 at a fraction of the cost.
With four times the life expectancy of beginner kit cameras and with better all-round specifications for around three times the price, the Olympus seems an attractive alternative; it's good value. This isn't a sales pitch for Olympus, but if they, one of the smaller brands in the market, can achieve that in more affordable cameras, one must then suspect the motivation for those bigger companies restricting their cameras’ lives in this way. The attitude of the camera will fail, you must buy a new one, must be treated with contempt.
We should remember that the expected shutter-life of the camera is a target. Just as companies greenwash by producing environmentally attractive goals they never meet, the advertised target is not necessarily what is achieved in the real world. Shortly before the Covid crisis, a client’s camera died after a measly 53,000 actuations. It should have been good for 100,000. Sadly, it was just out of warranty, but they were able to pay for the repair.
Of course, you can get shutters replaced, but only if the manufacturer is still prepared to fix that model. Recently, another client of mine scrapped her DSLR because its shutter was worn out, and no spares were available.
Wouldn’t it be great if manufacturers made their cameras as long-term investments and not a throwaway consumable? Maybe we should pressure legislators to force manufacturers to guarantee that they will perform repairs on any equipment for twenty or thirty years. How highly would we consider manufacturers if they guaranteed to do that voluntarily?
Looking To the Future
The good news is that manufacturers are starting to increase the lives of their cameras.
As I have said before, they are all capable of taking great photos with the right eye behind the viewfinder, so maybe before investing in a brand, we should look at how long the camera is likely to last. We should also ask camera reviewers to make a big noise about longevity, as it is far more important to our world than the pixel count.
This isn't the end of the story for me. I have also been researching how many cameras from different manufacturers have failed. But that is a topic for my next article.