Accuracy is only important if you are aiming at the right target.

Production Still from "A Christmas Story" at Zach Theatre.

It's interesting to read comments which make sweeping statements about what professionals need, want, use, demand, etc. Recently a commenter on our site made the sweeping statement that for professionals it's "all about the ultimate image quality."  Now, if all of us who are engaged in making a living from imaging were in the employ of packaged good marketers, creating lifelike still life photos to represent products most clearly I might agree. But if I were engaged in making portraits of high school kids with bad skin then ultimate image quality is something I might avoid like the plague. 

When I thought about the comment I thought about how I make a living. I mostly make images and video of people. Most of the people who end up in front of my cameras are not professional models. They are not always corporate officers of multi-nationals who've been through media training and are practiced at presenting themselves to the unrelenting stare of the lens. No. They are every day people who might represent some profession or company and need a portrait. Sometimes our attention (and our cameras) are focused on them because of a story. They have achieved something of note. They have been awarded or recognized by their peers. Or we have cast them as "real people" models who match our (Kirk and attendant ad agency) idea of what an engineer should look like or what an upscale mom might look like.

They are generally unaware of how much their faces and expressions change from minute to minute. Many are nervous or self-conscious and are fearful of what imperfections the cameras (and the unusual scrutiny) will reveal. And they may be part of a concept we're working on which requires me to gain their willing collaboration in our plan. Getting a subject relaxed and settled into the moment is so much harder (and always has been!) that getting a sharp image or a low noise file or some other technical detail. 

In fact, here's my list of how professionals prioritize the goals and aspirations for a shoot, and they are listing in descending order of importance:

1. An idea. (What will make this photo or this ad unique and interesting to a viewer!)

2. The concept. (how do I turn my idea into a visual construction = what is the concept)

3. The production. (does the scene and lighting I'm creating support the idea and concept?)

4. The casting. (Is this person the right representation of the concept? Can they give me the emotional message I need?)

5. The rapport with the subject. ( Can I lead and direct the person in front of the camera into the right pose and expression I need to fulfill my concept and make it look natural and believable?)

6. Are we all on the same rhythm? ( have we found a flow in the shooting of the images which allows all of us to work as a unified team, without conscious effort?)

7. Have I selected the right focal length for the visual effect I wanted?

8. Is the camera making files correctly such that I'll be able to use them in the media the client has chosen. 

And finally:

9.  Is the quality of the optical system and camera sensor and the attendant image processing sufficient to the task at hand? Does it appear sharp and well toned? Are the colors what we need them to be?

We can compromise a bit on  point 9 if we have not compromised on the first eight requirements but falling short on any of the other parameters means failure.

Most cameras in use by professionals now, be they 12 megapixel micro four thirds cameras or 36 megapixel full frame cameras, are capable of getting the important stuff like color and tone and focus just right. In fact, the mirror less cameras may do a better job hitting focus with precision. There is no uniformity of color quality by price point. Many users prefer the color from lower resolution Olympus cameras than from high res Nikon or Canon cameras when it comes to proper (or preferred) rendering of skin tones and color. All of the cameras are quite capable of delivering files that will print well on a single magazine page. All of the cameras will deliver files that exceed the abilities of all but a few pricy monitors to recreate. In effect, unless you are laboring in the lofty realm of routinely making images for double page, high quality printed magazine spreads the argument of quality between cameras is more or less moot. 

We stand on the threshold of an age wherein all cameras can deliver the goods but now we get to work on the stuff that makes a camera a pleasure to use. From the viewfinders to the grips to the total weight. Even the clarity of menus. To say that "professionals" use X specifications to choose their tools now is incorrect. They are choosing the tools they want to work with based on how much fun they are to work with. They are comfortable with the (proven) concept that all the cameras in the running for their attention will deliver the goods.

Here's an incomplete list of cameras I am interested in that will delivery results I want:

Pentax K-3, Olympus EP-5, Olympus OMD, Panasonic GX7, Sony RX10, Samsung NX 50, Pentax 645D, Fuji X series, Nikon D610 and Canon 6D. None of these are "traditional" pro cameras. All of them will get the job done.  If you need a better camera to do real work with then you already know what you need for your specialty; your niche. 

The market has changed. The targets have changed. The budgets have changed. The styles of imaging have changed. And, by extension, the cameras have changed. The barriers to enter got lowered again. But the skills with which to make a living remain the same, and they are encapsulated in the first eight requirements above. 

Skill drives the machine. The machine does not drive skill.


Brad Calkins said...

Good points - it is always amazing to me how many people focus on the outliers, rather than the bulk of the shots they will take. And then there are those who seem to focus on what the needs of a hypothetical pro sports shooter are - when it is quite obvious after spending a few minutes on Flickr that outstanding work comes from the ability to translate outstanding ideas into am image, not from owning amazing gear. The only two things that seem to benefit from spending more money are sharpness and noise, and those are low on the list of things that make a good photo. The reason the weigh so heavily in online discussions is that they are the only points in your list that are somewhat objective, and 'fixable' with equipment purchases.

Anonymous said...

#9 is relatively easy, only takes $ to purchase a great optical imaging machine. 1 through 7 are the difficult ones. I don't have the knack for these to able me to earn a living as a photographer. Even if I don't have the knack, I'm perfectly happy reading the blogs of those that do and taking photos/snapshots of my family with a quality optical system.

Michael R

David Liang said...

Could not agree more Kirk. I use my a99 only in studio and for portraits and sometimes it's scary how much detail it picks up, I spend a good amount of time retouching because the sensor picks up things I can't see with my eyes. Tiny black heads, faint facial hair, every crease tiniest wrinkle and even the slightest yellow/red shifts in skin tone. When it's a retail portrait and there isn't a make-up artist part of me wishes the sensor would dial it back a few notches on the IQ. When I do have hair/make-up present I have no fear.
I keep an old D3 around and still use it to shoot events because it's all I need to get my shots, and the 4 year old sensor with 12mp is more than what the client requires. They need a documentation of that moment in time for web viewing, not a flawless billboard or magazine print.

I find it's usually those who aren't in the trenches doing this stuff daily as a profession, that make ridiculous and/or erroneous statements. Most of which are far off the mark in practice.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Unless one is imaging BIF, black cats at night, or sports, any camera you mentioned or of that ilk will suffice. It's about an idea, planning & execution. Color & lighting. Except for these special applications, does anyone really care about ISO 'ladders' & pixel peeping anymore? It may have been useful 5 years ago; no so much today.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Kirk. And I concur. I'm still getting used to my GH3, which I absolutely love. Not so much for the image and video quality, which both exceed my needs, but for the simple pleasure of utility. My D600 (also excellent)has been spending its time on the shelf since the GH3 arrived. I love both cameras, but the GH3 is a real joy to use. The size, weight - i.e., lack of - and ergonomics suit me, and that it does 95% of what I need exceedingly well just seals the deal.

Anonymous said...

In my experience, most people who publicly express strong opinions on "what pros want/need" (in any specialty, not just photography) haven't actually succeeded at (or may never have attempted) making a living at the thing they're talking about. They're typically posers.

Dave Jenkins said...

Based on my own experience, I think this post is really on target, Kirk. I value image quality, but only up to a point. In wedding and portrait photography, for instance, ultimate sharpness isn't very kind to faces. And even in other areas of photography it isn't always desirable. When I made the photographs for my book "Rock City Barns: A Passing Era" in the mid '90s, I chose to use 35mm film even though the conventional wisdom would have been to use 4x5, or at least medium format. But these were old barns, and I wanted them to have a little atmosphere, not super-crispness in every detail. Even at that, the published photos were often mistaken for 4x5, or even, in one case, for 5x7 by a fellow professional.

In digital photography, the Canon 5D provided more than enough image quality for my needs, even for landscapes and architecture. I've since moved to a 6D, but that is mostly because it is smaller and lighter, and because I don't have to keep cleaning the sensor or zapping dust spots out of skies.

My most-used lens is the Canon EF 24-85 f3.5-4.5. It’s light, relatively small, and sharp enough. I've been using one since 2006.

Over the years I've owned the 28-80 f2.8-4L, the 28-70 f2.8L, the 24-70 f2.8L (twice), the 24-105 f4L, and the Sigma 24-70 f2.8. They are all gone, but I keep on using the 24-85. The zoom action is getting a little loose after seven years and it has a scratch on the front element, but it still does the job.

Lest I be accused of amateurism for such heresy, let me add that I have been a full-time commercial/architectural/editorial and wedding photographer for 35 years.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree. This post should be required reading before anyone comments on a photography forum.

If you're not doing studio work I'd pop another item to the list in between 8 and 9 - ergonomics (how quickly can you get the camera to do what you want - as you often say "is it invisible in the process?"

Very incisive post Kirk, one of your best!