Like most technology we own, our cameras will eventually stop working. Not only is this bad news for our bank balances, but if a camera were to die mid-shoot then it could potentially land us in a world of professional problems. Minimize these risks by knowing what to look out for and the kind of plan you need to have in place for when that inevitable disaster strikes.
For as long as I have practiced digital photography, I have had a persistent apprehension that my camera is on the brink of taking its final few frames. I think this complex came from shooting very high shot counts day in, day out in my first commercial studio job as well as owning several secondhand cameras early on in my career. This worry is justified by the fact that the shutter in a DSLR camera does not actually last forever and will eventually cease to function. For those who don't know exactly what the shutter in the camera looks like, this video is a fascinating watch and will help you to understand what we are talking about. In a nutshell, the role of the shutter is to allow light to pass for a determined period of time onto the sensor which captures the image. This shutter moves at some speed and force every single time you take a photograph and because of this the shutter will eventually wear out and kill the camera.
Depending on the camera you have, the typical life of a shutter can vary from anything as low as 50,000 shutter actuations right up to 350,000. Some photographers may get unlucky and find themselves on the lower side of those numbers while others may find their cameras are still going strong after 500,000 shots. For this reason, it's crucial you keep an eye on how many pictures your current camera has made and how many frames your particular model will be at when it reaches the end of its life cycle. Knowing these numbers is equally as important to be aware of when looking to purchase a camera secondhand. If something you find on eBay has already taken a lot of pictures it may not last as long as you hope or be as much of a bargain as you think.
Typical Shutter Counts for Popular Cameras
Even though the site is a little dated now, The Camera Shutter Life Expectancy Database is a great resource for camera shutter actuations and their life cycles. If you've had the same camera for a few years or are considering buying something secondhand, this website can quickly give you a ballpark figure. A quick Google will also return the typical life of a camera shutter for your particular body. Personally, I'd also drop a line to the necessary service center to get an official answer on a shutter's lifespan. In some cases, camera companies will replace a shutter if it fails before that particular number so it's well worth knowing if that is the case.
Finding the Current Shutter Count on a Camera
Hopefully you now have a rough idea of how long your camera will last, so it's now time to find out how many shutter actuations you have already made. Unfortunately, there is no universal way to perform this task as the camera manufacturers all do things slightly differently. Some cameras actually store the shutter count in the Exif data of every image you make. This means that it's possible to view the count information in Photoshop by going to “File Info.”
Once you are in the File Info menu, click on the "Raw Data" tab and use the search box to help find your count number. Depending on which camera manufacturer you use the wording will vary. Try the phrases “Shutter Count,” “Image Number,” or even “Image Count” to help direct you to the correct part of the code.
For those without Photoshop, there are also many handy websites like Camera Shutter Count, Nikon Shutter Count, and MyShutterCount.com which will read the Exif data on an image you upload and instantly display your shutter count.
If your particular camera manufacturer in their infinite wisdom has decided not to include the shutter counter figure in the Exif data, there are some third-party programs which can still give you the current shutter reading directly off the camera body when it is connected to a computer via USB. Both EOSInfo and Shutter Count from Dire Studios are very popular although I haven't used either so can't comment on their reliability. Canon users may also consider using Magic Lantern which is a free software add-on that you install directly onto your camera and unlocks many new features including an on-screen shutter counter reading when you visit the “Debug” menu.
If none of the above suggestions work for you then your camera manufacturer's service center may be happy to give you a reading off the camera. I seriously doubt they would do such a thing for free, but for peace of mind, it would be worth the financial outlay.
Preparing Yourself for the Inevitable
So now you have an idea of how long your camera will last and how many shots it has already taken, it's time to put a plan into place. If you are only an occasional photographer who makes 5,000 images a year, your camera body still probably has years of life left in it. If, however, you have purchased a secondhand camera with a six-figure shutter count on it, or like me you're a commercial photographer who can easily shoot 150,000 images per year, then you need to be keeping a closer eye on the numbers and for all important shoots be carrying a backup camera with you.
Thankfully it's not all doom and gloom as camera shutters can usually be replaced. You still need to plan for possible downtime while a shutter is being repaired as the turnaround for such a job is usually several days. It is also worth knowing that the price to replace a shutter from a camera service center can be anywhere from $300 right up to $600. It's probably a good idea to find out how much your particular camera will cost to fix now so you can budget accordingly. In some instances, the cost to repair may not be worth it and a replacement camera will need to be bought instead. If you keep an eye on your shutter count this won't come as much of a surprise though. Lastly, for those who are both thrifty and handy with a screwdriver, you could attempt to replace the shutter yourself, but it's a task not for the faint-hearted.
So there you have it, how best to minimize the risks of a failing camera. This article is not intended to scare you into shooting less with your cameras out of fear of wearing the shutter out, but more to make you aware that just like many things in life cameras don't last forever. By preparing yourself with the numbers and having a plan in place you can avoid any nasty surprises while shooting or when purchasing secondhand gear.
What sort of shutter actuations are your particular camera bodies currently on? Do you have any stories about a camera shutter going? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.
Lead image originally by Skitterphoto from Pexels.