Of Course It's Better. It's Bigger. Altogether now, "Supersize Me."

Ben.  Photographed with a Leaf 40 megapixel camera
and a wickedly cool Schneider lens.

Can you feel it as it crashes against the shore?  A wave of camera rationalization that's just amazing.  Driven by the desire to differentiate the work of photographers who want to make money from those who just want to be photographers.  A new approach that provides a new set of reasons for clients to hire photographers who'd like to make a real living doing this stuff, the lure of medium format digital cameras.  And the new crop of maxi-pixel Nikons and Canons (believe me, they're coming).

Will it work?  For some.  Will it fail?  For some.  I've played with the "big boy" cameras.  They didn't make my work better or worse.  Had I kept them they would have made more cost of doing business rise appreciably.  Here's the deal:  If you are already working for the big time clients you'd like to be working for you probably didn't need the big medium format camera you just bought, anyway.  The clients came to you because they already liked the way you do stuff.  The camera gives you a new anchor to try to hold them to you but deep down you know you're held captive by the capriciousness of styles in the advertising coliseums.   And if the clients you wish you worked for aren't already returning your calls then just showing up with new hand metal isn't going to convince them that you just became an artist.

When I look at the portrait above the first thing I notice is not the pixel count because we've downsized it for the web.  The first thing I see is the expression.  The direct connection with his eyes.  His self-assurance.  If the first thing you noticed was some expression of dynamic range (remember, we're looking at 6 or 8 bit monitors and we're looking at 8 bit compressed jpegs here....) then I haven't done the job of bringing direction or feeling to the image.  

When I hear people talk about the NEED for more pixels and more dynamic range and more bits I think of this image below:

Brio.  For Time Warner.

If you listen to the howling masses today you'd think nothing could be accomplished, photographically, with fewer than 16 or 18 megapixels.  But we did the image above with a Nikon D100.  A whopping six megapixels.  A four frame raw buffer.  Molasses slow CF cards.  But the light is good and the expression is good and the ads worked and the check cleared.  And I'm not really sure if the image would have looked better in newsprint at a higher pixel count.....

I think we tend to lose track of what we really need in the emotional flurry of the new camera announcements.  I felt excited when I first talked to the Olympus reps about the new OM-D.  I really had a desire to snap one right up.  But I shot with my little Pen EP-3 today when I looked at the files I saw a camera that was outperforming my Nikon D2sx from four years ago.  I saw detailed files with perfect color.  And I chuckled to myself when I was reminded by the client that our destination ( along with 60% of marketing work these days ) for the portrait I was shooting would be on the company's website.  Last time I checked the portraits were running about 320 by 320 pixels.  Would we be able to pull it off???  Or would we NEED the power and the glory of a Phase One?

I've used a lot of cameras.  My readers will attest to that.  And I like almost every one I've held in my hands.  But they're interchangeable.  From six megapixels to forty megapixels, none of the specs really matter if I can't make someone genuinely smile and if I can't have them engage the camera in a collaborative and self assured way.  And if I do that part of my job right then just about any camera I can clutch in my hands will probably deliver a serviceable file.

It's more fun to shoot with the latest stuff.  But it's hardly necessary.  

The portrait I shot today was fun not just because the subject was fun and knowledgeable and personable.  And it wasn't fun just because it went well and the images looked good.  It was fun because I did it on a camera that many people think isn't suited for professional work, with lights (LEDs) that people still don't get.  At the most we were using less than $2,000 worth of gear.  And it was fun because the success or failure of our undertaking didn't depend on the gear.  It depended on me doing things correctly and the sitter joining in with the spirit of the engagement.  And that's why this business is fun. Not because we can bring "the big guns to bear."


Mark Davidson said...

I have been feeling the same way about res for some time now. I have precisely one client that sends my files to print. And they were happy with my 5D files.
I am very attracted to the promise of lighter smaller and more discreet cameras for my wedding and event work. Heaven knows I don't want to spend all my profit on Advil after the event.

D&E Photography said...

The new arms race is off and running. Who can get the ultimate photographic howitzer? For me its not just the cost of the camera, but the other pieces. Nikon's new 70-200 VR zoom sells for over $2,000. Their 24-70mm goes for about $1,900. So dropping $3k for the D800 and adding just those lenses brings the initial tab to $7,000 without adding the $2,000 14-24. Who is buying this package? A lot of them will be enthusiasts who then lug that 12 pound of gear around to try and capture "real life". It has all the trappings of a British comedy sketch. Never mind the time they spend after that looking at snapshots of brick walls or dusty bottles of booze.

To me micro four thirds isn't about trade offs, its about doing more with less in a time when that's not being a cheapskate, its an economic reality. Its also about matching the right tool for the job, which for me and many like myself is often family shots, occasional product & portraiture gigs. Its also about having a camera that I *like* to shoot with every day.

The good side of all these new releases is that people are selling off perfectly good, lightly used (photos of brick walls aren't that taxing) cameras and lenses at good prices

Carlo Santin said...

I'm still shooting with my Nikon D50, a 7yr old 6 megapixel camera. It still gives me terrific images and I've made 16x20 prints from it that I am very happy with. Lately I've been using my little sensor Nikon P7100 and am quite happy with it. I am even considering getting a Fuji X100 and using that and my P7100 when I want some reach and calling it a day, no more lenses, just a camera in my hand and go.

John said...

Call me crazy, but I just sold off 99.99% of my pro digital gear and am looking at film, both medium format and 35mm. Although I am "moving up" to medium format, I also appear to be "taking two steps backwards." I'm tired of lusting after high-end gear that costs thousands upon thousands of dollars.. I came to the realization that I should use those thousands of dollars on improving ME- taking some classes, visiting new places, etc. Improved YOURSELF and your photography will also improve.

On the topic of gear, this post reminded me of the "iPhone Fashion Shoot" on FStoppers: http://fstoppers.com/iphone

christian davis said...

Improved YOURSELF and your photography will also improve.

Hear, hear!

Ken said...

Gone are the days when a pro film camera would be updated every ten years. Every year the siren call of bigger, better lures us into thinking the tool we've been successfully using to make a living is suddenly inadequate. Megapixels keep going up yet resolution for fulfilling job requirements keep going down. My body aches for smaller, lighter gear yet my ego doesn't want a "lesser" camera than the guests at the weddings I shoot. So I sell my D3 and keep the D700. I investigate fast primes to replace the zooms. As the low light and focusing capabilities of mirrorless solutions improve so do the chances that they will shoulder the burden of future work.

Thanks Kirk for always keeping the focus on the joy and the passion and the final image, rather than being endlessly seduced by the siren song of ever "improving" equipment. Great post once again!

Dave Jenkinsw said...

I carried OMs to 27 countries on documentary photography assignments in the 1980s and '90s. I loved the system and only gave it up when aging eyes dictated a switch to autofocus.

I'm older now, of course, but not that much weakened by age. Nonetheless, I found a 5D and three zooms an unpleasant load to carry around Israel in 2010. Soon after returning, I ordered an E-PL1 and VF-2 viewfinder. Some photos from the little Pen are in my latest book, and you can't tell the difference between them and the 5D photos on 12x12-inch full-bleed pages.

My 5D has always produced files that satisfy my architectural clients, so I'm keeping it, the 17-35, the 24-105, and the 70-200 f4L, plus of course the 24mm TS-E and a 35mm Nikkor shift lens which I use with an adapter.

But for everything else, I plan to get a pair of OM-Ds and return to my first love.

Gregg Mack said...

I still love my 5DMkII, so no matter what Canon announces as its new megapixel king, I'm not buying it. Since a semi-pro is supposed to have a back-up camera with him on every assignment I have a PowerShot G12 - but I don't care for it. I do like that I can use all of my Canon Speedlites with it, just like with the 5DMkII. I think I'll sell it on eBay soon, but then I need to replace it with SOMETHING. I don't care for the newly announced G1X, simply because of the viewfinder.

I'll be closely watching your posts to see how the OM-D works for you. I know it won't work with my Speedlites, but it should work fine with my Einsteins.

Peter said...

I really love these counter cultural, counter consumerism posts – they're practically un-American!

According to the rumour sites, a black ops team has been funded by the manufacturers and big retailers to scour Texas for the source and to neutralize it. Next thing you'll be saying that collectively, we don't need to spend our money on F35 fighters and new nuclear subs!

But it you get thrown out, don't worry, we will take you in Canada. (Although I have to say, we have all the same problems here.)

James Weekes said...

I am very happy with my M4/3 gear. It's a mix and match of Oly and Panny lenses on 3 Lumices, a G2,G3 and GF3 (am I the only person who likes the GF3?).

But the new OM-D is calling to me for one good reason....weather resistant. And it's not really the weather part. I live in North Florida and I sweat a lot in the summer. I had 2 Canon DSLRs go south on me because my shirt got soaked and it went through the buttons on the back and caused about $350. damage both times. The Pentax K-5 changed all of that for me. Now the OM-D promises to do the same in M 4/3.

As to quality, the G2 and GF3 files (12mp) are lovely, and the G3 files are more than I'll ever need. I shoot square most of the time and 13x13 is about as big as I go and those prints are sharp and clear.

Ken Tanaka said...

Two of several enormous prints produced for an exhibit at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario in 2006. I shot those images with a Canon 1D Mark II (8mp) up-sized to 16 mp.

Today I could do the captures at 61mp, but I doubt that they'd have looked any better. Impossible to tell from this little thumbnail but they looked terrific, much better than the film scans used in other parts of the exhibit.

kirk tuck said...

Thanks Ken. That helps me make my point. We've got the gear now we just need the inspiration and discipline to use it.

Mel said...

Dunno, Kirk. Even on the web that picture of Ben just rocks with life. Detail in the hair, texture of the shirt, depth in the eyes. I've also played with MF digital and find it the closest to film for 'presence' among the current DSLR pack. If I could afford it my immediate next camera would be a Leica S2 and a couple of sharp lenses. Wow, then I would be a starving artist!

Ken Tanaka said...

With a bit more time now I'd like to add that what makes Kirk's portrait of Ben such a nicely compelling image has little to do with the camera/back he used. It's firstly due to the lighting and treatment, the style of which has become popularized during the past 6-8 years by Dutch art photographers such as Rineke Dijkstra. It's a style that rather porcelainizes the subject as if cast as a doll. Second, but not secondarily, Ben's light eyes, mop hair and clean skin really lend themselves to this "Dutch-style" porcelain look.

You can see examples of very similar treatment in current Luis Vuitton ads shot by Annie Leibovitz.

kirk tuck said...

Ken, The lighting is soft but otherwise the image is s straight conversion from the raw file with just a few tweaks for accurate color.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kirk,

Oddly enough, as cameras get better, the commercial uses for photos are tending towards lower resolution. In any case, you hardly need more than 12mp even for a double-page magazine spread.

I wonder if you would comment on the dynamic range, or related attributes, of the Olympus m4/3 platform. For example, Laurence Kim (laurencekim.com), a professional portrait photographer, was enthusiastic about the platform until he noticed a certain irritating "plastickyness" (my word not his) related perhaps to the small sensor size and tight pixel pitch. He went back to his Canon 5D classic, the same 12mp but a much larger sensor.

Debbi_in_California said...

I need more pixels for stock photography. That is the only reason. More pixels, bigger size, more money, bigger dinner.

kirk tuck said...

Most plasticky-ness I think comes from trying to shoot at too high an ISO and letting noise reduction run rampant in your image. Kim was remarking on the lower dynamic range. The 5D has more dynamic range. The printed page only yields 4 stops so I guess you have to decide. If you do mostly web stuff or you go to CMYK offset print I'm not sure you'll see dynamic range differences as quickly as other issues such as banding,e tc. But you have to gauge that for yourself.

Debbie, sounds like the new Nikon is just what you're looking for.

Low Budget Dave said...

I will be interested to hear your take on the OM-D as compared to the EP-3. For now, though, I am still shooting with the old faithful Nikon D70.

I have taken plenty of bad pictures with the D70, but the ones caused entirely by the camera are as rare as rocking horse poop.

I still look at new cameras, of course, but I would be better off spending the money on nicer wallpaper.

kirk tuck said...

Dave, I suspect we'd all be better off just shooting more with what we have.

Ken Tanaka said...

"Ken, The lighting is soft but otherwise the image is s straight conversion from the raw file with just a few tweaks for accurate color."

I did not mean to suggest that you had hard-worked the image of Ben, Kirk. I actually assumed you had not! Just explaining why it appears particularly compelling.

kirk tuck said...

Right on the money David. Rates aren't exactly climbing to match the escalating prices of the latest gear. Why buy it if you can do good work on less expensive gear?

kirk tuck said...

Exactly. It's all about good ideas and good seeing, not good spending.

kirk tuck said...

thanks for explaining. I did misunderstand.