People ask me how old I am. "I'm so old," I tell 'em, "I can remember riding the New York subway for a nickel." They blink in astonishment. They gape in disbelief. "My goodness," they exclaim, "you don't look a day over 90."
If they think the train fare went up so startlingly since, say, 1948, what would they think of the price of cameras?
The subway ride that cost five-cents in 1948 costs two dollars now. For the price of 40 rides in 1948, you take one in 2007. It's an air-conditioned ride, to be sure, which it wasn't in '48, so that probably represents added value.
Let's put camera prices in the same context as mass transit-as vital as mass transit is, as much as it may be subsidized. Let's multiply the price of leading cameras of 1948 by 40, and compare the results with the digital SLRs you'll be selling in 2008.
Apples and Bananas
It's not such a simple thing, deciding which cameras of 1948 are comparable to modern prosumer DSLRs. For starters, SLRs as such were an inconsequential force 60 years ago. They existed, but just barely-they didn't take off in 35mm for another 15 years. So rather than comparing SLRs across the years, we're better off comparing whatever else advanced amateurs and pros actually used in those days.
Both groups used the Rolleiflex, a twin-lens reflex rollfilm camera of considerable repute, having been on the market 15 years already. The Speed Graphic, a sheet film camera with a sports viewfinder, was also widely used by scientific investigators and the like, portraitists, and photojournalists. Both the Rollei and the Speed Graphic had their compatriots and their imitators in "lines" that make fair comparison with the DSLRs the same users would buy today.
In 1948 the Rolleiflex was advertised by Willoughbys with an Auto-Tessar f/3.5 lens for $265. The 4x5 Speed Graphic was advertised by Peerless with an Ektar f/4.7 lens for $249.54.
What did these cameras provide for that kind of money? Good construction, a rather large size, a viewfinder, a manual-focus lens, a manual-exposure system without a metering system, depth-of-field control (if you mounted the Speed Graphic on a tripod, yanked out the filmholder, and used a groundglass for viewing), rapid advance to the next frame (if you used the fast-winding lever of the Rolleiflex), and a shutter you cocked before each picture.
The fact that there are so many great photographs from the late 1940s proves that these were truly worthy cameras, but it wasn't a lot of tech for the money. That's one of the differences between the cameras of yore and today's midrange DSLR, the type that's all the rage this fall.
Doing the Math
If the price of cameras went up since 1948 as much as the price of a subway ride, 40 times, today's counterpart of the Speed Graphic would be priced at $9,981.60; of the Rolleiflex, $10,600. That's unadjusted for inflation-just the straight arithmetic.
In Part 1 of our Fall Preview last issue, we covered the two newest ultra-high-end cameras just coming out, arguably the most advanced since the dawn of time. These were the Nikon D3 and the Canon 1DS Mark III, priced at only $4,999.95 and $7,999 respectively. Less than the price of the Speed Graphic or Rolleiflex, if they went up as much as the subway. That's in today's dollars, we might add.
But the big news this season isn't on the ultra-high end. It's the middle tier now. We're seeing five new DSLRS, all a little different from the others-one each from Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony-whose average price is $1,539, and whose features you couldn't buy at any price in 1948.
The Buck, The Bang
Canon and Nikon have both introduced midrange as well as high-end models: $1,499 for the Canon 40D, $1,799.95 for the Nikon D300. The Olympus E-3 is placed at $1,699, the Panasonic L10 at $1,299, and the Sony A700 at about $1,400. The Canon, Olympus, and Panasonic models have 10-megapixel imagers; the Nikon and Sony are 12s.
So if today's cameras had exactly the same features, capabilities, and versatility as a 1948 Rolleiflex, and the modern DSLR had never been invented, a prosumer Rollei at $1,539 would probably seem like a pretty good deal. It would offer everything cameras did 60 years ago for only about 6 times the dollar amount. It's still 40 times to ride the subway.