Lenses as software

John Gruber links Brian Tiemann’s piece on the cost of platform switching.

Pounce the Geek Cat

Pounce the Geek Cat
Mountain View, California

Pentax Optio S
1/8sec @ f/2.6 iso800, 5.8mm (35mm)

My ex-cat Pownce preparing to jump away from the Mac OS X platform?

The argument centers around that the cost of switching in photography is high because of lens investment just like the cost of switching in computers is high because of software (purchase) investment.


Let’s ignore the fact that this “Mac platform switch” is nearly a decade in the making…

Light doesn’t care

To repeat something I said four years ago,

More on why cameras are not computers:
Photography [isn’t as likely to breed natural monopolies]. Once I have an the arca-swiss bracket, my ball head and tripod don’t care if it is connected to a Nikon or Canon. My Hoya filters only care if the threads are the right diameter around, not if they are filtering for a Canon or Nikkor optics. Neither do any lighting tripods or backdrops care about my brand preference when I set up a bunch of lights, nor does the sun when it rises or sets.

As I like to put it:

Light doesn’t much notice the logo on your camera.

About the lens thing

Well I did take into account lens cost. Even in the article from four years ago I mentioned that sunk costs in the form of lenses and custom hardware create an “activation energy” cost to switching.

But how big an energy cost?

About as much as putting your stuff on eBay.

Here is a recent example.

Last week, Nikon introduced a new 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. As it so happens I own the current version which I paid about $1500 for in 2005 after rebates (the lens was introduced in 2003). The new lens retails for $2400.

Out of curiosity and the prospect of perhaps upgrading, I decided to price my current lens: $1900 new and a scan of completed listings on eBay had an average selling price $1576—about the same as what I paid for it new.

Some might say that a huge price drop would ensue just like when a new computer or consumer camera comes out. But the AF-S 80-200 f/2.8D ED IF which preceded this had a selling price on eBay of over $860. Indeed there was a big price drop when the new lens was introduced, but that’s because this lens retailed for $1500, and the new lens that replaced it was $1700, only $200 more for a newer optical design and vibration reduction.

(In case you are a curious Nikkor gearhead, the new 70-200mm lens has the following changes: a revised optical formula that doesn’t have as much vignetting on the corners in FX sensors, nor as much difference between contrast differences in the merdional and sagittal directions on the extreme edges, coating to reduce internal reflections when used on digital bodies (nanocrystal coat), and an improved image stabilization model (VRII).)

Now before you say I cherry-picked this example, I will note that this is a “G” lens, a class that has a reputation for not holding its value and that this is a currently “in production” lens. If you want to see what happens when a popular lens falls out of production, try eBaying the 58mm f/1.2 Noct or the 28mm f/1.4D—but beware the scammers. Amd. I know a couple people who have made over a thousand dollars profit recently with the sale of their Leica 50mm Noctilux lenses!

Good lenses don’t cost anything to own. They don’t add much to the switching cost other than inconvenience.

If lenses aren’t the software of the software world, then what is?

Where is the cost?

I wrote:

Familiarity in one particular set of design conventions and philosophies breeds contempt for competing ones.

Ask any photographer who does over 10,000 shutter clicks a year, and the biggest problem with switching brands is the learning curve demanded. I can’t tell you how many excellent digital photographers whose work I admire are helpless when I first put my Leica M8 in their hands—and that’s a relatively straightforward camera with a fraction of the options and menus than your typical pocket digicam! I feel the same way every time I use a modern Canon as it takes seconds for me to translate “Av” to “A” and “Tv” is “S”. If the situation gets particularly challenging, I give up, hand the camera back to the owner with a query like, “Can you put this thing at ISO around 3200, center point fixed focus, f/30 at max ISO, and turn the flash into the most advanced TTL, and hand it back?”

Even in software you see the same is true: Apple’s UI makes the largest inroads where people are not willing to invest the time creating expertise (iTunes, iMovie, iPhoto, Keynote, iPod, iPhone), in areas which require a lot of investment, there is a lot entrenchment (Word, Excel, operating systems). Sometimes, even some software isn’t the “software” of the software world. 😉

Going back to Brian’s car analogy: the car world would be a very different place if switching from GM to Ford actually meant that you had to learn a new way of steering.

And therein lies the biggest cost to switching in all systems: It’s not the investment in things bought (whether software or lenses or those custom front-end car bras), but rather the investment in time to learn.

That’s a very big investment—whether that purchase is a Macintosh computer, or a Canon camera!


Mountain View, California

Nikon D70, Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D
1/20sec @ f/1.8 iso800, 50mm (75mm)

I can’t even leave Aperture for Lightroom because of my investment learning it. Let alone leaving the Mac platform.

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