Photography, so many failures!

When buying a photo camera, we often research in order to decide if this is the best camera, if its features will be goo enough, but will it be robust enough? Will it be useful or necessary to purchase a warranty contract extension? Will it fail very soon?

When somebody asks me these questions (and it happens quite often since I consider myself some kind of photography expert), I am usually without good answers; Nobody really speaks about this dirty little secret: Reliability of photo cameras is a taboo issue. In most cases, talking only happens for very extreme situations (I will not mention any pro camera events in the past few years). But on a daily basis, will my camera follow me everywhere? will it survive the bad treatment I will apply? Or will it fail at the sight of the first cloud (of dust or rain)? Preferably just a couple of days after the end of the warranty period?

So, I decided to collect more than the usual information to try and answer these questions with more than: Entry-level cameras are too cheap to be robust, are less protected than pro cameras; And, mechanics fail more than electronics.

And, I found a few interesting articles with adequate documentation. Of course, they are the rightful product of the business of some shops repairing or renting equipment and accepting to share their data with us.

And I found interesting data. For example, there is nearly no information on photo cameras, or camera bodies. But SquareTrade published rather detailed report about the repairs they did in the recent years (though mostly on point-n-shoot cameras) with some frightfully clear conclusions, like:

  • More than 10% of the cameras failed before 2 years
  • The statistical projection tells that there are/will-be more than 15% failure within 3 years
  • Accidents are a major cause for failure: 40% of cameras were broken in such a way; We are rougher than our cameras!
  • The more expensive, the more robust
  • For SLR cameras, Canon and Nikon go hand-in-hand

And to think that the failure rate of major brands is around 4% within two years for a camera whose price is nearing 1000€…

But, look at the graph below:

Reliability of cameras between $300 and $500, by manufacturer

Reliability of cameras between $300 and $500, by manufacturer

I would like to believe that you can extend these figures out of point-n-shoots and into the SLR market, but my own professional experience with quality and reliability management (in the automotive world, if you want to know) tells me that we should not even try.

On the opposite, I found additional data about interchangeable lenses to plug into our SLR cameras. Two studies from LensPlay and LensRentals bring some more light to the issue.

From LensPlay, hundreds of lenses and users have been analyzed: among the voluntary answers provided for Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Minolta/Sony, Tamron, Tokina and Sigma, only Minolta/Sony produced less than 200 answers (a pretty nice representation of the market).


Lens brandFailure rate
The other lens brands10%

LensRental gives us a finer status because they go down to a model-by-model level. So, it’s no longer necessary to compare brands, but you can get a good idea of which glass piece is more fragile or more sturdy than others, forgetting about the good (or bad) fames.

LensAnnualized Repair RateTypical Problems
Sigma 120-300mm f/2.841%Zoom mechanism, calibration, autofocus
Sigma 18-200mm OS37%OS, Autofocus, zoom, barrel separation
Nikon 18-200mm OS31%OS, Autofocus, zoom
Sigma 50-500mm31%Zoom mechanism, autofocus
Canon 300mm f/4 IS25%IS, autofocus electronics, barrel separation
Tamron 70-200mm f/2.827.5%tight mount (Canon), autofocus
Tokina 12-24mm f/4 PRO25%zoom mechanism, autofocus
Nikon 17-55mm f/2.825%Calibration, zoom ring, motor burnout
Canon 50mm f/1.422.5% AF motor
Canon 35mm f/1.422% Calibration, focus mechanicals
Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 EF-S IS22%IS failure, AF electronics, ERR99
Canon 10-22mm EF-S17.5%barrel separation, autofocus
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR17%zoom mechanism, manual focus clutch
Nikon 17-35mm f/2.817%calibration, electronics
Nikon 80-400mm15%Electronic issues
Canon 85mm f/1.213%Electronic issues
Sigma 30mm f/1.412.3%calibration
Canon 24-70mm f/2.811%Calibration, zoom mechanism
Canon 100-400mm IS11%Zoom tension ring, Err99, calibration
Nikon 14-24mm f/2.810%zoom mechanism

We also appreciate a lot some of the additional comments like:

  • The super tele prime lenses (300mm f/2.8, 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4, 600mm f/4) from either Canon or Nikon are among the more reliable lenses (their simplicity is probably a good reason for such a score).
  • The Sigma 120-400mm & 150-500mm had a 45% repair rate (as long as they were included in the LensRentals catalog of products).
  • The Canon 50mm f/1.2 and Sigma 100-300mm are well under 10% (which is considered a good level in LensRentals)

Of course, these raw figures must be taken with a grain of salt: Rentals are often more mis-handled than bought parts, but the relative results are quite certainly representative of the underlying reality. And for example, the Canon 100-400mm seems to have an unfair bad fame about the reliability of its stabilization mechanism.

All in all, many reasons to treat your photo hardware with some care…


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