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Have you been thinking about prices lately? If you're like most people, you do so only on occasion. On the occasion of refueling your car, for example, or paying the electricity bill, or in the supermarket checkout line. On such occasions, folks turn nostalgic, reflecting on the day when a barrel of crude cost a mere 60 bucks--way back in 2006.

Kinda makes you wonder where [consumers] find the dough to keep the photo trade going, let alone prospering. For when the market is spending so much on essentials, you'd think spending on picture-taking--a pastime for most, an entertainment, a luxury--would become quite an occasion indeed.

One thing that makes this occasion less momentous financially is the trend of cameras to provide more value than before. Why couldn't everything be as cost efficient?

This buck-saving trend is coming up again as yet another wave of features--additional things cameras can do, or ways they can do things better--begins infiltrating our wares.

With photokina just around the corner, we wonder how much more of a value that next-generation camera will be. It's a large consideration for the photo trade, because business rides on self-fulfilling prophecies. If people think a new purchase is a wise one, they'll make it so.

THE CPI AND THE CPI

Everybody's heard of the Consumer Price Index. The Camera Price Index is a little more obscure. Exactly how greatly has the value of a camera improved since, say, 1976? When we examine trends then and now, we find some pretty breathtaking estimates.

The Consumer Price Index, according to inflationdata.com, "is compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is based upon a 1982 Base of 100. A Consumer Price Index of 158 indicates 58% inflation since 1982."

The Consumer Price Index of '07, the last year completed as of this writing, was 207.34. The Consumer Price Index for June '08, the most recent monthly compilation, was 218.81.

Sounds like prices have gone up since '82.

But the bureau lists the CPI back almost to World War I. We have a fondness for 1976, as that is the year PTN's Digital Dude--yours truly--was born. We'd been around for some decades already, but 1976 was the year we discovered digital photography.

The Consumer Price Index for 1976 was 58.2. In other words, the 100 figure for 1982 was already inflationary, compared to the year in which the Digital Dude was born. Sounds like prices have really gone up since 1976.

Have camera prices gone up, too? They certainly have, as far as the number of dollars is concerned. But a dollar in 1976 bought a different amount of stuff--indeed, a different kind of stuff--than it does today when purchasing a camera.

BANG FOR THE BUCK REVEALED!

Statistics are great playthings, but robbed of context they have no meaning. What do we really learn when they say that the Consumer Price Index in 1976 was 58.2 (or 56.9, according to a second website), and how does that compare to last year's 207.34?

According to the second website, 1970sflashback.com, the price you paid in 1976 for a first-class postage stamp was 13-cents, a dozen eggs was 85-cents, a gallon of milk was $1.65, and a new home was $48k. Median income that year was $12,686, and a gallon of regular cost 59-cents.

That year's median income, in dollar count alone, approaches today's poverty line for a family of four. Something to think about, huh?

But clearly, prices have not gone up at a uniform rate. Mailing a letter, for example, has increased about four times. The price of gas (regular selling at four bucks a gallon) has increased nearly seven times. Milk and egg prices are higher now, too, but probably not by seven times. We buy the supermarket brand of milk, for example, at a little less than three times the dollar figure for 1976.

Of course, the rising cost of fuel drives everything else up--warming the hen, cooling the eggs, bringing them from farm to store, bringing them from store to home, cooking them, washing the griddle, disposing of the eggshells--all get costlier, separately and repeatedly, from the rising cost of fuel.

One of the fuzzy factors in the Camera Price Index: What kind of camera did you have in mind? An entry-level P&S? An interchangeable-lens SLR?

WHY 1976?

The counterparts to 1976's cameras exist today, though, like everything digital, they employ new means to reach traditional ends. Cameras used film in 1976, and the photo trade made big bucks in processing. Cameras used lenses and shutters much like today's, but they were governed by springs, not microchips. AE was just taking root, and AF was still a decade ahead.

There were no digital cameras as such in 1976--the CCD itself developed just seven years previous--but there were scanners for digital reproduction of film images.

The producers of the movie Futureworld invited a young writer from Popular Photography magazine to Culver City to watch Peter Fonda's image get digitized, then manipulated by the computer. Turned inside-out, upside-down, animated, made to look like glass, like marble, like chrome. The astonished young writer published his predictions under the title "Electronic Clones are Coming" in the December '76 issue. The Digital Dude was born.

It took another 20 years for computer-based cameras to reach the mass market, and most of the early ones were overpriced junk. But their progress in the past dozen years exceeds everything that came before.

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