You wouldn’t buy a used car without checking how many miles were on it, and you shouldn’t buy a used DSLR without knowing how many clicks are on the shutter. Read on as we explain why the shutter count of a DSLR camera matters and how to check it.

Note: The techniques outlined in this article can be used to check the shutter count on mirrorless cameras, like the compact Nikon 1, as well as DSLR cameras.

Why the Shutter Count Matters

DSLR cameras, like the SLR cameras they replaced, have very few moving parts. The two largest (and most important) moving parts are the main reflex mirror (the mirror that allows you to look through the lens from the viewfinder and that swings up and out of the way when you take the photo) and the shutter. Between the two of these devices the mechanical shutter is radically more delicate and prone to failure over the life of the camera.

In the video below you can see how the mirror swings up out of the way, and the shutter opens and closes to allow light to land on the digital sensor. Watching the shutter slam open and closed in slow motion really emphasizes how much abuse such a tiny and delicate part really endures.

Practically speaking, if your camera survives the first few months without failing the electronics are solid and they will more or less last indefinitely. The shutter, however, is like the engine of a car and eventually it will reach the end of its lifecycle and fail to actuate properly. At this point the camera is rendered non-operational and you’ll either be paying for an expensive repair (easily $400-500) or if you’re a very brave do-it-yourselfer you can typically find replacement shutters on eBay for around $100 (but you’ll be responsible for taking apart your sophisticated and tiny-part-packed camera and conducting the repair yourself).

In light of how catastrophic and expensive a shutter failure is it’s worth both checking the shutter count both on cameras you own (to get a rough estimate of how much life is left in the camera) and on used cameras you’re considering purchasing (after all a premium camera at rock bottom prices isn’t such a deal if it’s 20,000 shutter cycles past the average failure point).

Let’s look at how you check the shutter count and what to do with the data you find.

How to Check the Shutter Count

There are several ways to check the shutter count of a camera and all of them rely on either having access to the camera, access to an image created by the camera, or both. Fortunately many manufacturers embed the number of shutter cycles/actuations in the EXIF data of the pictures produced with that camera so you can examine a recent photo taken with a given camera and see how many clicks are on the shutter.

Checking with CameraShutterCount.com

It’s because of the aforementioned EXIF data that the handy CameraShutterCount.com website works across so many camera models. You can upload a picture to the site, the site will read the EXIF data, and fire back not just with the shutter count but the life cycle of the camera (based on the manufacturer’s estimated shutter life for your camera model).

You can check the bottom of the main page to see if your camera manufacturer/model is listed as a confirmed working model. Even if you don’t see your camera listed it doesn’t hurt to upload a picture and try it it out.

Manually Check the EXIF Data

While the CameraShutterCount website is convenient you may be unable to use it (because your manufacturer is unsupported) or you may not wish to use it (because you don’t want to share any image data with a third party).

In such cases you can manually search the EXIF data of a sample image using a wide variety of EXIF-related tools.  Use the following table to find the EXIF shutter count value name for your manufacturer; if your manufacturer isn’t listed that doesn’t mean there isn’t EXIF data but that it isn’t commonly used or widely publicized:

Manufacturer Search String
     Canon      “Shutter Count” or “Image Count”
     Nikon      “Shutter Count” or “Image Number”
     Pentax      “Shutter Count” or “Image Number”
     Sony      “Shutter Count” or “Image Count”

If you already have a tool on your computer that allows you to examine EXIF data (like the popular InfranView freeware image viewer) you can open up an image and examine the data looking for the search string outlined above.

Alternatively, you can grab a copy of the cross-platform command line tool ExifTool and use it to search through the EXIF data. We prefer this method as it allows for quick string-based searching without reading over lengthy EXIF data lists (and if you’ve never looked over EXIF data before, trust us, there’s typically over a hundred entries per image file).

To use the ExifTool simply string together the Exiftool command pointed at the image file you want to analyze followed by the find command to search through the output and find the string you want. So for example, if you’re running the tool in Windows on an image named DSC_1000.jpg and you want to search for the EXIF data string “Shutter Count” you should use the following command:

exiftool DSC_1000.jpg | /find /I "Shutter Count"

Here’s what that command output looks like in real world use when the command is run on the same image we used at CameraShutterCount.com.

The benefit of using ExifTool is that even if you aren’t sure what the EXIF data string is for the shutter count on your particular camera brand/model (or if it exists at all) you can try various queries to narrow it down. If known values like “Shutter Count”, “Image Count”, or “Image Number” yield zero results you can always search for individual terms like “Count” or “Shutter” and work your way through the list.

Let’s say, for example, we didn’t know what string Nikon used for their cameras. We could use the above command and search for the string “shutter” or “count” to get all EXIF data values with those words in them like so:

The results are a little more cluttered than searching for the precise term, but if you don’t know what the precise term is it at least offers you a much shorter list (than the full EXIF data output) to comb through.

Reading Your Shutter Count Results

Knowing the shutter count is like knowing how many miles are on a car and you should act on that knowledge accordingly. If you’re shopping for a used DSLR and the sample image you request from the seller reveals the camera has a scant 500 shutter cycles on it you know you’re getting a barely used camera. If it has 500,000 shutter cycles, on the other hand, you’re getting a camera with some serious miles on it.

How serious those miles are depends heavily on both the manufacturer’s shutter lifecycle estimates and reported averages by consumer and professional photographers. You can generally hit up Google and search for your brand, model, and “shutter life cycle” or similar search terms to turn up official documentation.

It’s safe to assume that any DSLR shutter is good for at least 50,000 cycles or so. Beyond that most professional level cameras (like the Canon 5D Mark) are rated for 100,000 or more shutter cycles.

That said many cameras well outlive their rated shutter life by tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of cycles. The Camera Shutter Life Expectancy Database is a crowd-sourced database of camera shutter actuations and when the camera died (or if it is still alive). While the database carries the risk of inaccurate results (as any crowd-sourced project does) for the most part the data is pretty useful in terms of getting a general sense of how long your camera will keep on snapping away.

If you look up the stats on the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, for example, the camera might be rated for 100,000 shutter actuations but the real world data gathered in the database indicates that the camera typically makes it to around 232,000 actuations and in the sample size out of 133 cameras in the 250,000-500,000 range 90% of them were still going with well worn, but functioning, shutters.

In short, if you’re worried about a climbing shutter count on a camera you already own we’d advise you to not stress about it and just save a little extra money back here or there in a rainy-day fund for the replacement camera you’ll inevitably need. If you’re buying a used camera, however, and the seller insists that it’s practically brand new when it’s rocking a shutter count of 100,000+ then you definitely want to either pass on it altogether or demand a very steep discount.


 

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Image credits: Leticia Chamorro.