The ever changing perspective of the marketplace.

Chanel boxes at Primary Packaging in NYC.
Was my camera "unprofessional"?

It's funny how perceptions change over time. In the higher ends of advertising photography no one wastes time trying to divide cameras into categories. There is no litmus test as to what might constitute a "professional tool" versus an amateur tool.  The new fascination with classification seems to have accompanied the rise of the quantifying class.  The information technology workers who are desperate to make sure they have just the right Swiss Army Knife of cameras to cover their every "creative" impulse.

The shot above was done with what was (and still is, in some circles) considered a reasonably good camera, in the early 1990's.  It was done with a Hasselblad camera body and a 120mm Makro Planar lens. It might, in some circles, be considered unusable today because of all that it lacks.  It didn't have auto-focus and by extension it didn't have lots of focus points or focusing programs.  It didn't follow focus at 10 frames per second (you'd be lucky to wind one frame every two seconds...).  It didn't have a motor drive, you had to wind the film for your self.  There were no automatic modes.  The camera I used didn't even have a metering prism.  You used a thing called an incident light meter to calculate your exposures.  Of course there was no LCD screen on the back to facilitate "stinky baby diaper camera hold" and there was no EVF for the enlightened.

The real deal killer is that you actually had to know what you were doing. What you wanted to come out of the whole exercise and how to make the right adjustments to get what you wanted without the endless iteration of the screen-o-roid.  But the biggest deal was that each click of the shutter cost you about a buck.  You actually had financial skin in the game.

The trade-off is/was that you were able to get images of spectacular technical quality and, in the right hands, brilliant visual poetry. The camera was there as a transparent facilitator of your vision, not as a prosthetic for the otherwise hobbled diletante. 

In the present when I write about or mention my attraction to a new camera and it's inevitable that someone will jump in and scream that the camera mentioned cannot be used for professional work under any circumstances because: (you fill in the blanks...) it's not weather-sealed, doesn't shoot at 8,10, 12 frames per second, doesn't autofocus quickly, is made out of plastic, is too small, has small batteries, isn't a Canon, isn't a Nikon and so many more tiring and gratuitous parameters.

It's a weird universe of new camera users who are dogmatic in their beliefs.  And underlying their belief system, vis-a-vis cameras, is the idea that a "professional" photographer swings from shooting weddings (which must, in their minds, always be shot with fast lenses and cameras with high ISO capabilities) to the next day shooting professional sports to the following day shooting architecture with a bag full of shift lenses.  In their minds every professional camera must be proficient at every thing ever imagined.

But it really doesn't work that way.  Most professionals I know don't shoot weddings and have never shot sports. The majority of the good incomes in the business still come from shooting advertising concepts and architecture and people, in the studio and on location.  We almost never need fast autofocus. Rarely need weatherproofing. And absolutely never need 12 fps.

I bring this up because DPReview.com had a lead article yesterday about a photographer who'd been hired to "cover" the Olympic games with the new Panasonic G5 and a bag of Panasonic lenses.  The usual culprits rushed to the comments barricade to foam at the mouth about the idea that this little camera "wasn't professional" and had no place at the august sporting spectacle.  Someone added that if the photographer were good enough he might struggle mightily and pull something decent from the camera. Of course every one conveniently forgets David Burnett's remarkable coverage two Olympics ago using a 4x5 inch speed graphic camera----which is loaded with one sheet of film at a time...

There's no way to really soft peddle this.  Those people are just full of crap. They have no idea beyond the theater of the web  with what or how professional photographers really do their work or what the ultimate client in this case is looking for.  Performance (speed) can't be the defining parameter because at some point quality is also an issue.  IQ can't be the sole parameter because at some point being able to carry the gear all day and point it at the right stuff is more important.

Here's the contextual reality they always seem to miss:  The stuff we can buy now for $899 (G5) or $1299 (The Olympus OMD) is so much better when it comes to on sensor performance than anything that pros shot at the Olympics four and eight years ago that it's laughable.  And the two targets for the work haven't gotten one lick better.  All the images are destined for magazines or the web.  The paper and ink are the same.  The magazines  are not using high density ultra gloss papers.  Magazines are printed on high speed web presses. On mediocre paper.  Quality is a fixed equation.  Just having a better camera is in no way going to improve the line screen of the press blankets or the alignment of the dots. The images, from a quality point of view, whether from a 16 meg Nikon D4 or a 16 meg Panasonic G5 are both ultimately limited by the conversion to CMYK (much more limited gamma, weaker blacks), the transfer to a lower line screen resolution, the lower reflective value of the cheap paper and the vagaries of matching inks to an electronic sensor output.  

The images that make it to the web, because of the bandwidth constraints, will hardly ever be shown bigger than about 1200 pixels at their widest and any of the current camera sensors from all of the majors can double or triple or quadruple that.  Bigger isn't going to make a difference.  Same with relative noise performance.

I spoke with a swimmer friend who is in London, at the Olympics, right now. He told me that the venue for the swimming is lit for television.  It's bright.  Really bright. Big HMIs bright.  Shooting at ISO 200 bright.  Makes sense since many of the broadcasters and their attendant advertisers are aiming their take at 60 fps 4K video.  That takes a lot of light.  What it means for the photographers is that this venue is nothing like that experienced by "uncle Joe" at the local Boys and Girls club gymnasium, lit by a few old sodium vapor nasty lights up in the ceiling. The still guys at the Olympics can use lower ISOs, coupled with fast lenses to make incredible photographs.  And they can do it well with just about any camera. Granted, the sports cameras are fast focusing and good at follow focus.  They also have massive buffers.  But, believe it or not the Sports Illustrated guys are shooting Jpegs for faster workflow and greater throughput.  Limited to 8 bit capture!

But my basic point is that these two hundred photographers out of the millions and millions in the world are doing something that is not routine for the photographer working in Des Moines or Cleveland or even on the beach in Miami. 

What makes for a "professional tool?"  It sits in the hands of someone with a vision and a client.  The camera facilitates that vision and the photographer delivers his point of view to a client, who, in all probability, hired the photographer precisely because he liked what he saw in the photographer's portfolio. Which probably came from the same camera he's using right now.

To hammer down my point.  If the mark of a pro camera is speed, waterproofing, high ISO functionality and big ass battery capacity then how do we explain the success at the top end of our business by the elite photographers who are shooting work with very slow medium format cameras and pricey, slow medium format lenses?  None of these cameras are weather proofed, none excel at high ISO shenanigans and none of them shoot faster than about a frame per second.

But people using these kinds of cameras are making the majority of high end ad images that you see in international advertising for cars, perfumes, fashion and consumer products.  People are also still using larger format cameras with tilts and swings and they are not using them to do low end jobs shooting soccer for kids clubs.

The idea of the professional camera in this day an age is really all about marketing. No one will keep one of the new bodies long enough to get fair use out of their implied indestructibility.  They are purchased, in part, by people who really do need the performance they offer (1% of the market) and the rest are bought by people who "want the best."

Is it any wonder that there are now two camps firming up in the market place?  One camp are rational users who've found cameras like the Olympus OMD and the Panasonic GH2 and the Sony a77 and Nex's who realize that new paradigms are at least as good in an all around sense as the older genre of cameras that came before them.  The second group are people who worked hard to join a club that is quickly becoming more and more irrelevant. And now they are dismayed that the implied exclusivity of membership which they think they bought is turning out to be largely irrelevant.

I always remember the story of artist and amazing photographer, Duane Michals, who showed up for a job with his camera and lens and twenty rolls of color slide film stuffed into a Macy's shopping bag.  He sat patiently while his client waited for the "professional photographer" to show up. He finally spoke up and they got to work.  That day Duane Michals, with one camera, bereft of ANY of the fey little miracles we take for granted on our present day cameras, knocked the socks off the client and the ad community by creating an ad campaign for multi-national client, Eli Lily (Pharmaceuticals). A campaign that still holds up well thirty years later.  

When the gadgets and over weaning capabilities of the cameras are more important than timing, vision, ideas, access and skill we have truly hit the point of ultimate wimpy-ness amongst photographers.  How will they ever function without automated tripods and built in "art detectors?"

A proficient craftsman masters the right tools.  And more times than not the right tool is a big slow camera with lots of magic.  Or big bright lights with no automation. Or a new pint size camera with outsized performance. Suck it up.  The "professional camera" can often be more of a crutch to the process than a panacea for being creative.

Edit:  I rarely indulge in "featured comments" but I loved this one by reader, George:

"When I stumbled across your site a few months ago I knew I had found a photographer who was concerned about the beauty of the final product as viewed in the real world (not at 100% pixel peeping zoom). If the same critics had examined Georges Seurat canvases only with a magnifier they would have tossed them into the waste bin; now they hang in the finest museums around the world. People forget that the human eye/brain system is incredible complex and subjective. What is pleasing to the eye is not necessarily the sharpest, exact image. I recently visited my son who had the latest and greatest HDTV and HD signal coming into his house. I found in watching a movie on his system that the images were so sharp and clear it somehow the actors seemed separate from the background as if they had been superimposed on the image. This is just my perception. Keep up the good work."


Frank Grygier said...

I was hungry for this kind of post today after reading much of the same "crap" you mention. I am tired of the gadget diatribes and silly arguments over this sensor and that format. I am going to limit my forum trolling to the VSL site and wait for the next post of wisdom form the best of the web.

Marcel Schepers said...

My point exactly!

wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

That photo has some of the magic, definitely. Just love it.

andrewteee said...

Thank you Kirk!

Craig Yuill said...

Back in the early 1980s - in the pre-digital, pre-AF days - a "true professional camera" supposedly had to have a motor drive that fired at a rate of at least 5 fps. This post reminds me of a story about two photographers that was told to me by someone who fired a cannon each day at 12 noon.

One photographer set up a "true professional" camera with a high-speed motor drive and a remote trigger. He had the cannon operator start firing the camera with the remote trigger just before the cannon. Several frames were exposed before and after the cannon was fired, but none contained the flash from the cannon's muzzle. The second photographer used a "lesser" camera. He fired the camera himself, anticipating when the flash would appear. He took only one shot. That shot contained the muzzle flash, and was soon afterwards published on the front page of the local newspaper.

From what I've been able to figure out, a professional camera is one used by a professional photographer to get a job done properly. As you once again remind us, it doesn't have to be the most-expensive camera with all of the most up-to-date features. It just has to allow the photographer to take the desired photos.

atmtx said...

There are measurebators with cameras and photographers with cameras. Only one group makes the real photographs.

ChazL said...

Professional photographer or amateur, the question is: "will the camera (or lights, or other equipment) let me do what I want to do with reasonable reliability and convenience?" Or, put more simply "are my tools adequate for the task at hand?"

As you point out, Kirk, just about any current camera will meet this standard for the vast majority of photographic tasks. For most amateurs (and I very much include myself here), I would go a big step further-- I'd argue that enthusiast-class digital cameras reached a threshold of adequacy about eight years ago.

Pre-digital, only the most dedicated of hobbyist amateurs ever made the jump to medium format. Most were satisfied to work in 35MM, and to do so with film that got damned ugly if pushed beyond ISO 400. None of them put their slides or negatives under the microscope to check for ultimate resolution or telltale traces of purple fringing. These amateurs had their equipment fetishes even then, of course, but most were generally happy with their tools.

That 35MM level of image quality was pretty much achieved (and generally surpassed) with the advent of the entry-level 6 megapixel DSLR's of 2004 -05 vintage (Nikon D70, Canon Canon EOS 300D Pentax *ist, etc.) We've certainly come a long way since then, but it has, for the most part, been all gravy.

Like just about everyone else, I shoot newer stuff than this, and I enjoy the fruits of progress. But I try to avoid fooling myself into thinking that I actually NEED anything better to do decent work.

Right now a kid can buy one of these old DSLR's for a couple week's lunch money on eBay, and then go out and essentially shoot for free. What a great way to learn photography.

Paul Glover said...

I just know I'm a lot happier since getting away from the idea that I need a camera which can do everything perfectly. Whatever the marketing people might claim, no such camera exists and if it did, I don't need it anyway! I don't shoot much action, I don't shoot wildlife much, I really don't need to pay extra for the ability to do those things just because a small number of pros need to do them.

Besides, looking for the "perfect camera" based on internet forum opinion is an exercise in madness. Before I lucked into an old film rig for no cost, I about drove myself to distraction trying to pick a DSLR; based on what I found online all of them had some show-stopping fatal flaw and yet...people who would rather be out photographing than indoors arguing about which camera has the least noise used them all to take great photos.

Libby said...

Damn I will have to kick my RB87s to the curb and I will have to use the 127mm lens as a doorstop ;-)

Graham Winder said...

I'm reminded of the David Bailey ads Olympus ran in the 80s, one of which illustrates the gear vs photographer point particularly well:

Kevin Mayo said...

I love the so called experts. I have posted some beer reviews on youtube and you get people calling you all kind of names because you used the wrong glass. With easy access to information everyone is an expert.

AndyK said...

'twas ever thus and ever thus shall be...

In the '70s and '80s Minolta and Pentax (except for the LX) built camera systems that were tailored for the enthusiastic amateur. But that market often insisted on Nikon (and then Canon) because "that's what the Pro's use".

Any modern camera maker's marketing department ignores that lesson at their peril.

Anonymous said...

Oh Oh,

Kirk Tuck walks into the shrapnel again. Good job you've got a thick skin and clear brain Kirk.

The equipment in your hand was never a substitute for the equipment in your brain.

This is my first stop everyday 'cause I can be sure I won't find a pile of crap on the site. Refreshing.

kirk tuck said...

Thanks Barry.

John Krumm said...

I figured that the Olympics swimming venue must be bright after seeing these EP3 photos posted on DPR: http://forums.dpreview.com/forums/read.asp?forum=1041&message=42137812

kirk tuck said...

Lit for ISO 200 video camera work. Nice and ample.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of the dilettante denizens of many online guitar forums, many of whom would not even deign to consider the sort of inexpensive but functional gear musicians are using on actual paying gigs here in Austin every night.

John Gordon said...

Thanks, Kirk, for your very sensible comments. It is rare today to find such a balanced view about the practice of photography.

George said...

When I stumbled across your site a few months ago I knew I had found a photographer who was concerned about the beauty of the final product as viewed in the real world (not at 100% pixel peeping zoom). If the same critics had examined Georges Seurat canvases only with a magnifier they would have tossed them into the waste bin; now they hang in the finest museums around the world. People forget that the human eye/brain system is incredible complex and subjective. What is pleasing to the eye is not necessarily the sharpest, exact image. I recently visited my son who had the latest and greatest HDTV and HD signal coming into his house. I found in watching a movie on his system that the images were so sharp and clear it somehow the actors seemed separate from the background as if they had been superimposed on the image. This is just my perception. Keep up the good work.

Neal Thorley said...

I love how sometimes you make me feel like a highly skilled professional just because I do everything manually on old (and new) film cameras from scratch, including the processing and printing.


Alex said...

"The camera .... (is) not as a prosthetic for the otherwise hobbled diletante.

I like that.

Gene Trent said...

Once again, you are right on the mark. I just happened to be looking at "The Family of Man" book for probably the hundredth time and I seriously doubt any of images were taken with equipment that meets the "professional" standard of today. I wonder how that happened? :-)

Anonymous said...

From what I understand, even with 12+ FPS, many pro sports photographers still have to "TIME" their shots to get the photos they want, i.e., they don't simply machine gun the cameras to death. Amateurs, lacking talent, skill and/or practice, do the exact opposite, with predictable results.

Nateo said...

I totally agree with the message here I really do! And theoretically I think I could probably take pictures in a war zone with my Canon EOS Rebel T2i but more likely I would grab a used 1D Mk.IV or 1Ds Mk.III for durability. I can ride my bicycle to work instead of drive my car but which one is easier? I invested in fast glass because I feel that: photographer > subject > glass > camera is how it goes...that said shooting indoor ice hockey with a 70-200 ƒ4L is not as pretty on my T2i as it will be on my Canon 6D. I get the extreme beatings that need to be handed out to newcomers I really do but I see posts like this and it almost feels like its wrong to own a 1D series camera or a D800E or D4. I don't use my tools as a crutch but rather a tool. Would you want paintbrushes that are cheap or expensive paintbrushes that are really good to paint your picture? I suppose the answer lyes in whether the cheap paintbrushes REALLY are comparable to the expensive ones in the end result and how much its worth to compromise or spend more.