Collecting is different from hoarding junk.
I’m sure we all have a few compact digital cameras stored in a drawer somewhere, that we don’t use anymore because, let’s be honest, any decent smartphone will do a much better job at taking, editing and publishing pictures than a dedicated compact digital camera sold 10 years ago. It does not make us digital camera collectors. We’re simply consolidating our inventory of obsolete electronics before a future trip to the recycling center.
Collecting implies an intent.
A collection tells a story. The collector assembles objects which are significant for him or her, because of their esthetic or sentimental value, or to satisfy some form of intellectual curiosity. He or she may hope that, over time, objects in his or her collection will gain value, but financial gain is not the primary motive (if it was, he or she would not be a collector, but simply a speculator, a scalper).
We have the benefit of hindsight, and it’s easy to see what makes a particular model of film camera a better collectible than another one. I will group the criteria in three categories:
- what the camera was in its early days: its technical significance, its build quality, its beauty, its performance, its cost, its rarity,
- what it can do for you now: its usability (are film, batteries and lenses still available for that type of camera), its reliability over the long run, its ability to help you get great pictures, and the satisfaction you derive from using it,
- the legend around it: is the brand prestigious, was this model of camera used to shoot a famous picture, or used by a whole generation of war correspondents or reporters, did this particular item belong to a star or a famous criminal?
Obviously, by all three groups of criteria, a Leica M3 will be a better collectible than a mass produced, entry level, plastic bodied and unreliable APS camera from the late nineties.
What if we apply the same list of criteria to digital cameras?
- what it can do for you now: that’s the biggest issue: older digital cameras are not as good as modern ones. A film camera has the benefit of being different from a modern digital camera with which it can not be directly compared (it’s a different user experience, a different workflow, and the output is somehow different), but an old digital camera can directly be compared to a modern one, and it’s not to its advantage: the resolution and the ability to shoot in low light are massively inferior, and the dynamics of the sensor is much narrower. And to add insult to injury, old digital cameras are also outperformed by smartphones in many casual shooting situations.
Older digital cameras may not be as durable as film cameras – they’re full of electronics, and are generally powered by proprietary batteries that may not age well, and will require specific chargers, specific cables that, if lost, will rapidly become difficult to replace.
Some of the most technically original (and therefore interesting) digital cameras like the Sigma cameras using Foveon sensors or the old Fujifilm S3 or S5 cameras using SuperCCD sensors require specific software to process or get the best of their raw files – but the software may not work with current or future versions of Windows and Mac OS.
- what the camera was in its early days: it has to be put in perspective with what it can do now. Does it really matter that a Panasonic compact camera was considered the best compact camera for enthusiasts in the fall of 2005, when it’s in any case outperformed by an iPhone 7 Plus?
By that measure, only a few cameras that made history technically are worth of attention : you can argue that the Nikon D3 changed the way we take pictures in low light and made flash photography obsolete – and as a consequence deserves be part of a collection focused on important digital cameras. Similarly, cameras of an unusual design like the Nikon Coolpix 995 or equipped with a unique sensor that helps create different pictures (like the Sigma Foveon cameras) could become interesting curiosities.
- the legend around it: I don’t think any digital camera has reached the legendary status yet. Some cameras may be of special interest to collectors of equipment from a legendary brand – the first digital M camera from Leica, or the last digital camera made by Contax. But so far, I can’t see any digital camera that defines its generation, the way the Leica M3, the Nikon F or the Olympus OM-1 did in their heyday.
What digital camera would I collect?
What is important to me is not necessarily what’s important to you. To me, a camera has to be usable for casual photography, at home with my dogs, on a stroll in my neighborhood or while traveling. That’s why, when I shoot with film, I prefer cameras from the late seventies-early eighties to their ancestors of the fifties or sixties, too complex and too slow to operate for my taste.
In the world of digital cameras, I would not buy anything not capable of providing a good 8 x11 print, which places the bar at 6 Megapixels. I would also want the digital camera to be better at doing its job than a smartphone (if it was not, I would never use it and it would collect dust on a shelf): it would need a viewfinder (optical or electronic), and would have access to focal lengths ranging from 24mm to 135mm. I’m not necessarily willing to invest in a whole new system: if the camera accepted interchangeable lenses, I would prefer some compatibility with the lenses I already own (through an adapter, possibly).
Lastly, I’d like the camera to represent a significant step in the evolution of digital cameras, and to have a few unique characteristics that would differentiate it from the mass of the me-too products of its generation.
What camera would qualify? A few Nikon pro cameras from the mid 2000s (D1x, D3) because they pushed the boundaries of image quality and low light capabilities and made the film SLRs and flash photography obsolete, their cousins from Fujifilm (a S5 Pro, maybe) for their original SuperCCD sensor and the unique images it captures, or the Epson R-D1, the first digital rangefinder camera, or one of the most original bridge cameras from Sony, the F828.
Your choice would be different. Up to you.
More about using old digital cameras today: Ashley Pomeroy’s blog – http://women-and-dreams.blogspot.com with interesting reviews of the Fujifilm S series (Fujifilm S1 Pro, Fujifilm S3 Pro, Fujifilm S5 Pro) and its competitors from Nikon (Nikon D1, Nikon D1x).