Cameras, Lenses and Other Voodoo.

Eddie_Wilson_1, originally uploaded by kirkinaustin.
This is a photograph of Eddie Wilson. He's the owner of a famous restaurant/music scene called Threadgill's. When I eat chicken fried steak I eat it there. Mr. Wilson is a revered fixture in the Austin music scene and the Austin restaurant scene and he was a perfect candidate for inclusion in the play, Keeping Austin Weird, by David Steakley. (The play was performed to rave reviews at Zachary Scott Theater a few years ago.)

I can't remember what lens I shot this with or what camera. I'm sure you can find it in the exif info but I didn't check it before I uploaded it. I could have shot this with a Leaf AFi7s or a Canonet QL17 and it wouldn't have made much of a difference. Why? We shot it in the studio under controlled conditions. The ISO was probably set to it's lowest setting. The lighting was tested and tested. The lens was carefully protected from flare. The light came from Profoto flash units. And the real kicker, the image was separated and used in a press printed brochure at about 5 by 8 inches.

If you do the math you'd see that any camera since the Nikon D1x could handle this image with aplomb. With a bit of trial and error it could probably be done with a Canon G10.

I'm as guilty as the next guy of chasing the latest and greatest cameras. At least I was until the recession hit and I sat down and got all accountant-y with myself.

Then I decided to work with cameras that were ideally suited for a new age. I'd love to be a very high end advertising photographer but I'm not. I do a lot of corporate work and a lot of public relations photography. A bunch of portraits for B to B and a fair amount of studio work for design studios and regional ad agencies.

Most of my output these days ends up on the web. Or in smaller direct mail pieces that are cheaper to mail. I haven't shot a double truck spread in a magazine for a long time. But my work is consistent and we're able to pay the bills and even sock a little away for the kid's college and a subsistence retirement.

So why do many of my peers feel the need to run out and buy the latest and greatest cameras. Just last year they were singing the praises of the Canon 5D. And clients were loving the files. The paper they printed on hasn't changed since then. The print sizes haven't changed since then and the art directors haven't suddenly become unhappy with files they raved about last year so why have so many abandoned the 5D for the 5D mk2?

I think that the bleeding edge upgraders are constantly looking for a magic bullet that will differentiate their work from everyone else's. But what no one seems to get is that the majority are moving in lock step to each new generation of camera. In a sense, based solely on cameras acquired, photographers are commoditizing themselves in the eyes of clients.

What do I mean? Well, they are making the power of the camera part of their "sell" or their "pitch" to clients. In a sense they are giving credit to the camera for their photography. As they give more power to the camera they are subliminally telling the client two things: 1. Some of the magic power resides in the camera. That means for shots that are like the one above, shot on white and requiring no special skills or effects, just about anyone with the magic camera will turn out nice work. And 2. That creativity behind the camera is no longer important as long as the magic camera can generate a big file with high quality. Everything else can be fixed by the magic elves in post production.

If you poll working pros you'll probably find that most are working either with a Canon 5d mk2 or a Nikon 700. The Canon users have the megapixels and the Nikon users have a body that does good auto focus, good high ISO and the best flash on the market.

But coming back to the majority of non-sports uses none of those parameters is particularly important. Most studio and corporate shooters are locked down on tripods and lighting stuff because clients perceive the lighting to be a point of magic that separate pros from the guy in the IT cubicle with a similar camera. So really, does the camera matter at all?

I contend that it really doesn't. Once we hit 8 to 10 megapixels we hit the sweet spot for 98% of the images we produce. I won't argue that a 24 megapixel sensor doesn't resolve more but if you map out those pixels you'll find that you can only print about 6 inches longer on a side than a camera with 12 megapixels, given a 300 dpi resolution.

I buy it if you say you need the extra bang for printing huge and that all of your clients want huge prints. But that's not my market and when I talk to other commercial photographers I find that isn't really their market either.

This may sound a bit wacky but I'd rather have a great set of lights and lighting modifiers and try to do all my jobs with a Canon G10 than have a fortune invested in quickly depreciating uber cameras and no cash in my wallet.

I think I hear a lot of people telling themselves that it's time to step off the upgrade escalator. But it may just be me talking to myself.

And the picture of Eddie Wilson worked for my client because we got an expression that is "classic" Eddie, and he has antlers and an armadillo on his hat. I don't think anyone cares what camera i used.


KevinKevin said...

I was at a virtual photographer trade-show last month and Kevin Kubota asked the audience what the most important thing is in photography. Most people said body. A few said lens, and even a fewer said lighting.

I was completely shocked. I've always ranked lighting as #1 (for indoors/studio), or lens as #1 (for natural lighting).

Anonymous said...

Please change back to lighter background. Young eyes can read on the black background easily. Older eyes of 63 cannnot read the paragraph under The Visual Science Lab because it blurs due to the lighter shade of "gray".

Lee said...

I agree with you. After jumping from the D200 to D2x to D700, I went back to get a D70s and has been using it very often. I still have my D700 but the camera that see most light are my nikon FE, FM2, D70s and my favorite LX3. All these equipment chase is mad.

Mike Murrow said...

Good words as usual kirk.

I see this a lot in my area and market. Some photographers out right declare that what makes them a pro and "why you should hire me" is because they have "pro" gear.

Since they are competitors I think I won't pass this article on and let them continue to build the value of their work around their gear not the photographer.

David Chua said...

I have been a faithful follower on your blog. I really prefer your previous white template. It's so much more inviting to read. Please change back to previous template. I also find problems reading your text. White on black is really no good. Loves your posts! I switched to Olympus partly because of your writings too! Sold my D700s away!

cidereye said...

Text, what there's text on this page? :-) Yup, I'm only in my mid 40's and even I'm having a struggle to read the pages since the template change, sorry Kirk!

So it's not just me thinking of selling my heavy Nikon DSLR gear then and maybe getting a little & light Olympus? Worked it out if I sold my D200, grip & dx only lenses I'd be easily able to afford an E520 or E620 + whatever choice of lenses I so desired. I'm more than tempted I must admit. I'm finding my new toy in a Ricoh GX200 is pretty much all I really need for most of my digi work and the colour & quality more than up to the job .... heck do I even need another DSLR considering that I've gone back to film for most of my serious work anyways?

No, personally I also have far more fun shooting film for leisure these day's and my new camera wish list probably comprises a Leica M6 and a Nikon F2AS to replace the F2A I've always regretted selling. Constant upgrading is crazy though I'm sure many of us are guilty of that since AD Digital but it's good to see so many are seeing the light and realising that hey, 6 or 10 MP or whatever is more than enough for almost everything.

Anonymous said...

Love your rants on the perpetual equipment upgrade cycle. I am sure a client would rather see a portfolio of quality images, than an equipment cabinet with the newest wizbang dxxx body.

Michael Tissington said...

These notes are great and I'm curious to hear what you think about you computer hardware/software ... have you sold all that too and reverted to an abacus ;)

kirk tuck said...

Well Michael, let's talk about computers for a second....I used to buy the big Mac desktop units but now I just use laptops. I like Macbooks best because they can drive a 24 inch monitor and they seem just fine. If you run away from the24 mpxl cams you really don't need much. Next year I'll try running the whole business from and iPod Touch.

But you won't get my slide rule until you pry it out of...........

Bronislaus Janulis said...

Off topic, but aren't armadillos kind of hot for kitchen wear?

Always like the equipment "curmudges". (Thanks Mike J.)

cidereye said...

Kirk, if the rumours are true and the next versions of the ipod touch are fitted with a camera ala the iphone maybe it's then time to all throw our camera gear in the bin as well? :-)

David Chua said...

Thanks for changing the template back to white! I'm so-enjoying reading your always-so-inspirational articles again! I sold my two 5Ds and changed to two D700s about a 9 months-1 year ago, was conned into all these marketing hype, lost my direction and the true innocence in enjoying photography. But, thank God, now I'm back to my first love - enjoying the images rather than the equipments! I've since sold my D700s, changed to much simpler system, a E620 with 14-54mm and 50mm macro, and a E-P1 two lens kit set, and a bunch of old film cameras. I'm enjoying photography like never before without the distraction of multiple latest equipments and lost the urge to upgrade. If I ever want to shoot fast photography like sports or some fast action events, I might just rent a nikon, or get a used D40/D60. All the extra camera features and megapixels are really unnecessary. THANKS KIRK! You have been most inspirational!

Anonymous said...

I think you're dead on regarding the potentcy of lighting versus camera bodies. Bodies seem to me to be the least significant part of photography. Even the most basic equipment is capable of turning out stunning photos in the right hands (not mine) and in the right light. If I thought I could improve my mediocre photos by buying a new $5,000 camera I'd do it. But it's not that easy.

kirk tuck said...

This one is from Russ,

Anyhow, here's my comment, prompted by your reply to the computer question, as I tried to
submit it. Hoping you might be able to answer it in the comment section of your blog post since
I imagine other readers have similar questions.

"Hi Kirk - I've enjoyed your blog for some time now. I have a question for you - did you
upgrade to PhotoShop CS4 to work with E-30 raw files or do you have a work around? I know
LightRoom 2 can read them but CS3 doesn't and the version of ACR that does requires an upgrade
to CS4."

Thanks, and keep on posting the very insightful blog comments.

Thanks in advance

kirk tuck said...

Hey Russ,

I haven't upgraded to CS-4 yet so I'm either converting the e30 files in Capture One or in LIghtroom 2.0. Capture does a great job with the colors and the contrast. Given that Lightroom and PhotoShop share the same ACR module I think I'll stay with Capture One until something better comes along.

Also, I think Olympus Studio 2 is a klodgier program the files out of it look really good. Different than Phase One but nicer than ACR.....

roteague said...

I can't agree with your article more. Too many people get too wrapped up in their gear. For me, I find that when I need, or want, to shoot a small camera, my Nikon F6 and a little Velvia or Provia works just fine. I don't need or want the latest DSLR ... in fact, I had a DSLR at one time, but I dumped it to go back to 100% film.

Niels said...

I think what you are talking about is addressed pretty well by one of my favorite photography-related quotes:

"The difference between an amateur and a professional photographer is that the amateur thinks the camera does the work. And they treat the camera with a certain amount of reverence. It is all about the kind of lens you choose, the kind of film stock you use...exactly the sort of perfection of the camera. Whereas, the professional - the real professional - treats the camera with unutterable disdain. They pick up the camera and sling it aside. Because they know it's the eye and the brain that count, not the mechanism the gets between them and the subject that counts." -- David Hemmings (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hemmings)

BTW: The picture of Eddie Wilson appears to be missing from your Flickr photostream so it isn't appearing on this page either, but you probably know this already. ;-)

kirk tuck said...

I have a reverence for well built machines because of the energy that goes into the design and production....but I don't think they are as important as the lens or the vision of the photographer. But most important of all is the intentionality.