"Splash on the glass" or so goes the time-worn mantra. Has the market flipped, and is that the right advice anymore?
There's no getting around the fact that lenses are expensive. Actually, that's not strictly true: the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 costs only $125, while the Holga is a trifling $20. The latter is less than going for a coffee and cake with your partner.
However, when I say lenses are expensive, I'm not talking about plastic lenses or the simplest of glass designs. No, these are fast glass, often at longer focal lengths, or zooms. Take, for example, the 85mm, a popular focal length for portraits: if you invest in the budget version, such as the Nikon 85mm f/1.8, it will set you back a moderate $423. However, that might not be fast enough for your tastes; at which point, step up to the Canon 85mm f/1.2 ,which costs a fair bit more at $2,000. Move on to medium format, such as the Fuji GF 110mm f/2.0, and the price jumps to $2,800. The general principle, however, is that the bigger the mount (the Fuji G is 62 mm compared to 50.6 mm for the Canon RF), the bigger the lens, so the more glass you will need. Throw in a little more technology, such as Canon's RF defocus smoothing version of the 85 mm f/1.2, and it increases the price to $3,000!
Moving up a notch, you could always go to the extravagant — and eye-wateringly expensive — Nikkor 58 mm f/0.95 Noct, at a wallet-busting $8,000. But then, manufacturing a top-end lens is expensive, as this Leica video shows.
The profit margins on lenses are variable, but can be less than 10% for the retailer. For the manufacturer, it is much more difficult to know, although high-ticket items generally have healthy returns. This is one of the reasons that manufacturers have been retreating from the decimated high-volume, low-price sector usurped by the smartphone, focusing instead upon lower volumes and higher quality. Lenses also have an expectation of longevity, the principle reason for a vibrant secondhand market with robust prices that only gradually fall away from the new price.
The Camera Market
Lenses are a big investment, and it is for this reason that Nikon was wed to its F mount for so long: they last a long time, and if a user buys into a system (with its incumbent mount), then they expect to be able to continue using it. In short, lenses tie users into a manufacturer's system, and over the lifetime of a lens purchase, you expect multiple camera purchases. In fact, this has probably increased in the digital age of faster design times and shorter periods for iteration to the next camera body.
However, this fact highlights one of the key characteristics of the modern camera market and, in fact, consumer electronics more widely. The pace of technological innovation is rapid and is the result of a number of factors. The first of these is the free market with open competition between businesses. The focus has traditionally been upon profit, achieved through a combination of selling more products (because they are cheaper and/or better), higher profit margins, or lower production costs than your competitors.
In short, build a camera, sell the heck out of it until you lose competitive advantage, then build a better camera to supersede it. Or as Sony does, continue selling the old model at a lower price. This requires constant R&D to develop products, along with efficient production systems.
The second factor is globalization, where capitalism allows you to expand sales to the global market, selling widely. The combination of these two factors leads to complex business systems, which manage product development, supply chains, and production. This is something that Apple mastered, which in combination with high profit margins, has led to large cash surpluses. It is also something that Toyota is renowned for with its Toyota Production System (TPS), or kanban, where production is designed to exactly meet supply, all the while iterating over product improvement.
Businesses therefore have an intrinsic inbuilt motivation to increase sales. Providing newer, better products is one method, while creating obsolescence is another. The smartphone sector is particularly adept at deploying these strategies — just look at how rapidly phones become unsupported. I sometimes wonder if the tech sector works on the principle of "buy today, so that it is defunct, redundant, or obsolete tomorrow."
What this means is that products change quickly, and where there once was an impetus to support aging devices, this no longer holds true. In fact, manufacturers are not averse to killing products and changing strategies. Google has a long track record of software it has jettisoned (the Google Graveyard has a full list).
So where has the real innovation come from in the camera sector? Without a doubt, the products that have been most high profile for consumers have been camera bodies with developments that include full digital, component miniaturization, the mirrorless form factor, IBIS, WiFi/Bluetooth, touchscreens, in-camera raw processing, video output, high frame rates, focus tracking, on-sensor focusing, focus by wire, and EVF. That's not to say that there haven't been developments in lens design and production, enabling smaller lenses, lighter designs, and sharper images, but they are far less obvious to the end user.
All of this innovation comes at a price, as camera bodies are relatively high-ticket items with rapid depreciation. But here's the rub: as a pro, you can leverage innovation for a competitive advantage, which means having the latest camera can be a valuable commodity, be it the high frame rates of the Sony a9 II9, remarkable color depth of the PhaseONE XT, or video capabilities of the Panasonic GH5.
Buy the body, take the financial hit to do what others can't, but rent the lenses. The marginal cost on a shoot is low, but the return on investment is high. You may find there is one lens you shoot with so often that it is worth buying, but try to think long-term. This is not an investment in a particular system, but simply buying a manufacturer's capabilities at a single point in time. By not buying glass, you can easily switch systems, selling the body to maximize any return. In fact, go the whole hog and rent the camera body as well. That way, you get genuine flexibility.
Of course, this is exactly what manufacturers don't want you to do. Having a 70-200 mm f/2.8 sitting in the houses of 10 pros unused for 250 days a year is a great way to sell more lenses. It's for this reason that Lens Rentals has been so successful, celebrating their millionth rental in March 2020.
For may pros working on jobs that don't require that extra special spicy sauce of the latest camera, they simply drop back to a "yesterday system camera" using relatively cheap standby lenses. Fstoppers' Nando Harmsen suggests thinking hard about the features you need in a camera before buying. Moving beyond renting, leasing has become more common across high-price items such as cars. Will we see a similar move with cameras?
Will you be renting or buying your next lens?