11.05.2014

Why would any reasonably smart photographer buy four identical camera bodies? What the hell is he thinking?

Taking advantage of muscle memory....
...or just giving into compulsive behavior?

Photography is a crazy way to earn a living and there are at least as many opinions about how to shoot and what to shoot with as there are camera models. Everyone is so different. I have friends who wouldn't think of using anything other than a Leica S2, some who feel like I'm insane to not understand that the Nikon D810 is the world's best compromise and others who can't understand why I'd want to haul around an extra camera body, let alone two or three extras.

I shoot a pretty rich mix of assignments. In the last two weeks I've done exacting product shots, celebrity grip and grins, candid social photography, studio portraits, location portraits and even a few interior architectural photos. Try as I might to convince my clients that I'm a portrait guy they are having none of it. In their minds if I can make a nice image of a CEO on the 26th floor of an Austin high rise with the city skyline in the background than I should be equally able to make a rack full of servers sit up and smile. As long as they keep writing the checks who am I to argue?

And if you've read the blog for any amount of time you probably know that we've got a range of cameras we can bring to our jobs, selecting them ostensibly because they are just right for the project at hand. But most camera now can do most of the jobs we come across. The cameras have different visual personalities but in most cases the files are equally good, even if they do have slightly different rendering characteristics. Just this morning I was working on some post production that entailed five different poses of a female executive.

The day I shot this woman's portrait I was vacillating between the Nikon D7100 with an 85mm 1.8 and the Samsung NX 30 with an 85mm 1.4 lens. We weren't in a rush and I thought it would be a good idea to try both cameras in exactly the same shooting configurations. Reviewing them with the filter of time in place I was a bit surprised to find that I much preferred the color rendering and the lens look for the Samsung combination. Their 85mm, shot at f2.2, had just the right blend of roundness and high resolution. Flattering but sharp at the same time. I would have thought the supposedly superior sensor of the Nikon would have won the day but that's the disconnect when there are so many interconnected parts to deal with.

In a good month I shoot and process a lot of files. In October we shot well over 20,000 images across all manner of cameras. For the most part I leaned on the Panasonic GH4 because operationally it is as close to perfect as any digital camera I have ever worked with. But at every opportunity I shot whatever I could (personally and in the business) with the Olympus OMD EM-5. At this point I'll sheepishly admit that after avoiding this particular camera model for a year and a half I am very smitten with it for its combination of eccentricity, handling and image quality. Is it a better imager than any of my other cameras? Hell no. But is it more fun to shoot than anything else in the studio? Hell yes!

As I said, it's a camera I warmed up to slowly. I was put off by the micro size and the daunting and chaotic menu but having now spent a couple of months mastering both I feel like I've put a lot of equity into the camera and finally feel comfortable with it. But comfortable is too generic a term. It feels like a girlfriend in college who was not a "nice" girl, blessed with good social graces and a nice disposition. Instead the EM-5 is the passionate bad girl who inevitably seems to land you in a lot of trouble but who will make the ride so exciting that you don't care.  She may break your heart but you wouldn't trade in minute of the experience. Well, maybe this paragraph is a little over the top but there it is. The camera is fun. A lot of fun. And it does deliver the images you think you want---most of the time. But really, why four of them?

Did I mention that we've pretty quickly acquired four? It didn't start out as a conscious, rational plan (obviously) but after I returned a wayward and troubled, used Nikon D7000 camera body to Precision Camera for front focusing so far you could photograph Dallas without leaving your front porch in Austin, I still wanted to buy myself one more camera for my birthday. On the day I returned the compromised Nikon my eyes stumbled across the used shelf and there was number four.  Precision Camera was also the culprit in the 3rd acquisition. They could see my eyes get wider and my pulse rate increase and they just keeping dropping the prices on the stuff I want until I'm forced to capitulate because the deal is too good. But the first pusher was my friend, Frank, who dangled Olympus candy in front of me until I was well turned. Then he had the nerve to offer me one for a song. I sang an aria from a Puccini opera right there at Starbucks and he sold me the camera dirt cheap just to shut me up....

But back to the original question; why so many? I could answer it like this, "Did you ever go into a clothing store and buy a really cool shirt and every time you wore it everyone in the world told you what a great shirt it was? And when you wore it you always had good luck, like winning the lottery and getting great cameras cheap? And the shirt was easily the most comfortable thing you ever wore and at the same time it made your stomach look three inches smaller? And then you spilled something on it that stained it permanently and the sleeve got caught on someone's dagger blade and ripped? So you went back to the store to buy another one only to find that it was no longer made? Sure, they had a newer models but they just weren't the same. And you remember that whole experience even years later? And you still wish you had the shirt?  Almost as sad as when Leica took the self-timers off the fronts of the M series cameras.....sniff....

According to friends in the mental health field it's a reaction to feelings of anticipated scarcity but to a pro photographer it's all about "back up" and shooting fluidity. Honest. So here comes the rationale.
When I shoot events or document riots, concerts, parties or coronations----even when I shoot theater---I'm always shooting with more than one camera. At the theater I'm shooting with three cameras. One has the 70-200mm equiv. while a second has the 24-70mm equiv. and the third has a very high speed medium telephoto. You want all three bodies to be the same and to be set up the same way so you can drop one and let it dangle on the strap while you grab the next one to make use of a different set of focal lengths. You drop that one when the lights dim and you need the fast prime.  That's three. Makes perfect sense, right?  Of course, and the fourth one sits in the bag just in case a one of the three active cameras comes down with a throaty cough and a high temperature. When the sound of the shutter goes from a warm bummmb to a klaxony jack-hammer. Then you dump the dying body into the bag, put the lens on the new body (already set up like the other bodies) and you get back into the shoot.

This rotation of cameras means you never have to change lenses during a shoot. No dust, no dirt and no time lost. This also means that you aren't putting all of your imaging eggs in one basket. If a camera or lens develops an undetected defect or a memory card goes rouge chances are good that you've got two others that are still happily delivering the goods and keeping your from the unmitigated wrath of a client spurned.  If all four cameras share the same batteries you get to keep shooting longer, even if it means pulling batts from the less glamorously lensed (and less popular) cameras and feeding them into the home coming queen camera.

When all the menus, batteries, settings, accessories and lenses are interchangeable you never even have to think in terms of reliability or recovery from on shoot accidents.

This is the reason that I almost always refuse to enter new camera systems unless I can afford to buy at least two of the cameras I'll be shooting with. And it's even more important if you like to shoot with prime lenses. I was in a location last weekend where I was picking out faces from a social function to photograph candidly. I was experimenting with a 60mm 1.5 manual focus lens on one camera, backed up by a 35-100mm on another EM-5 body. If I needed to focus a fast series of images I could switch to the zoom but when I had the leisure to do so I could experiment with the prime and its faster maximum aperture. I also had a third body over the other shoulder with a 17mm f1.8 in case a couple or small group came over and asked me to take their image.

In the days before zooms were universally loved people swore by single focal length lenses that were obviously saturated with great powers and magic. A journalistic assignment might call for a range of four lenses in order to quickly and fluidly cover a happening. There would be a 20mm wide (21mm on the Leica) a 35mm lens for establishing shots, a 50mm for two person shots and a short tele like a 90mm or even 135 mm for anything you couldn't walk closer to.  A nice way of work actually since you actually had to make fewer choices than you would with a set of zooms.

But even with zooms I often opt for at least a three camera/lens combo which might consist of the EM-5s or the Panasonic GH's with the 7-14mm, the 12-35mm and the 35-100mm. Nice to know there's always an extra body along for the ride...

So, back to the original question: Why the OMD EM-5 X4 instead of the same number of GH4's? Simplest answer? I'd trade them all for a few more GH4s but not because the imaging is better, just because the GH4s are more robust and have a much longer battery life. I use the multi-combo of EM5 because besides liking them viscerally I am able to afford to have four for about the price of a single GH4 body or a single full frame body. Also, when one of them gets dropped (inevitable) the funeral for the body won't be anywhere near as wrenching...

If I shot only in the studio I could get away with using one camera and having one similar back up. But I wouldn't have nearly as much fun. All four of the EM-5 were bought used and total up to about $2,000. The depreciation and resale value had pretty much been wrung out of them by the time I got my hands on them which means that the value won't drop that much over the next year or so.  Just enough time for everyone else to fall in love with the OMD EM1 Super type 2 so I can buy up the new used inventory....

Would I have done this three or four years ago? No. Back then the cameras were still improving by leaps and bounds and EVFs weren't as good. Now we're buying new features and improvements that take our shooting from 94 to 96%. But last time I checked 96% was still an "A" and my mostly poor technique (and yours too) mot probably masks any performance difference in the cameras.

My biggest revelation after shooting about 10,000 frames with the combined EM5 collection? They are just as good as the Nikon D7100 at focusing in low light. Second thing? If you turn off the image review the batteries last forever. Third thing? Even though high speed EVF performance sounds cooler the normal setting makes the EVF look best.

After looking at everything I shot over the last weekend (4500+ exposures) I can honestly say that all the current (in Kirk's inventory) collection do an equally good job creating the nuts and bolts of images. The Olympus cameras were far and away the most FUN to shoot. If you are a very logical (Spock) person that will be just about meaningless to you. If you are a very emotional and mercurial person (Captain Kirk) that will mean the universe to you. After all, on Star Trek (the original series) who made out best with all the hot extraterrestrial babes? Right?

Spread sheets or hot dates. It's all in the cameras. ( meant as humor.... ).

12 comments:

Frank Grygier said...

Going out with the Fuji 100S is like a romp in the back seat with a preachers daughter. Hot and heavy to a point then the passion stops abruptly when you've reached that limit. I like the retro style but when you try to use autofocus the passion stops.

Andrew said...

Sounds perfectly sane to me :D

G Gudmundsson said...

I really hate you, I do... for ages I had the EM5 and you did not mention it, now that I have sold it, you buy, what? four?

After you had the EP3 and I bought it and then you sold yours... and went on that ill-fated Sony fling...

fortunately I did not follow you down that particular road...

anyway, do you, as a(n) honest 'hack' realise the responsibility you do have..?

just joking ...

sold my lovely PanaLeica 25 f/1.4 today, looking to buy the LX100 tomorrow ...

waiting for you to comment on that ...

p.s.

what about the Sony RX10 (is this the only camera we need (blog 10x35), and yeah, I did not believe you then) ...? ! :-)

Kirk Tuck said...

Big smile on my face. As you've pointed out the whole point of the blog is to manipulate people to follow me down rabbit hole after rabbit hole buying cameras willy-nilly. :-)

For the record: The Sony RX10 is a great camera and any good photographer could use that camera to do just about anything. And do it well. Sadly, we have too many choices and don't have to settle for one.

While the LX100 interests me it's bigger, littler brother, the fz1000 interests me more. I'm calling a source in order to get a tester for review.

Read the disclaimers: I reserve the right to change my mind. Nearly constantly. The friction of the brain cells keeps my head warm...

Gary said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I just bought a used EM5 after giving up on my first MFT, the GX7. So far it has been been pure infatuation.

If it turns to love, what do I do with my beloved K5 IIs and all those lovely lenses? I already feel like a heel.

Gary Sloman

Anonymous said...

"Why would any reasonably smart photographer buy four identical camera bodies? What the hell is he thinking?"

Who knows. Mysterious are the thoughts of that photographer.

Although it'll be somewhat entertaining (again) to see what happens to that newly acquired quartet of EM-5's when he realises that Olympus is about to release an all new version of the EM-5 within a couple of months.... ;-)

Will the siren call of the much improved version too strong to resist? Will the four older EM-5 models stay around to reach their maximum shutter count? How will the followers react? Will they end up in a rabbit hole?
Stay tuned for the next episode of... shwoosh! ...the VSL Adventures! :-)

Nick Coury said...

This is a great read Kirk! I love the content but especially your style. I'm in the Fuji camp, but have played with the GH4, in fact I hope to have a system for testing in a few weeks.

I love the idea of how affordable quality bodies are now! It's a great time to be a "shooter." and you my friend are the real deal!

Dave Jenkins said...

As I've said before, I find the exposure metering and auto white balance on my E-M5s to be the best of any camera I've ever owned. The E-M5 is the only camera I've ever used that I would trust to do an all-jpeg workflow without using an incident meter.

What is that strap on the OMD in the photo at the top of this post? Just curious.

Anonymous said...

Just spending time catching up with your blog after a hectic week at work.

It doesn't surprise me that you've had fun with the OMDs, I loved my EPL1 and my daughter is now putting it to good use. Still getting the hang of my new EP5 but can honestly say that it feels such a really great camera in the hand. The images I get from it are lovely (m43 has some great glass).

It's also quite apparent from the photos you post which cameras you're enjoying using. The photos look more natural to me. With that in mind it'd be interesting to see you have a play with medium format again.

Mark

James Weekes said...

I have not followed you exactly, until two weeks ago. Like you, I loved the idea and the quality of the E-M5. The shutter click is almost Leica-ish. But the menus and the odd little buttons were a frustration. Love, but no bond. I had two Panasonic GX1s that were so easy to set up and use, that my E-M5 ended up sitting.

We went on a trip to Provence and I wanted the weather resistant feature. So I got a second, used, E-M5 and the Panasonic 12-35mm zoom (thank you). I took your advice and set them up for single autofocus, lower res EVF (but higher quality) and spent 6 weeks with them. The bond has taken. Where you come in again id why I have a third used body. I have been in full recovery from G.A. S. for over a year.

You are, sadly, correct about the 12-35, it is so good that it's almost boring to go out with it as everything will look great. I have the Leica 25mm and the wonderful 45mm f/1.8 so I have choices.

Thank you.

Rich Gibbens said...

Kirk,

I never understood your resistance toward the EM5 - it was clearly a game changer when it came out. But I see that your transition to the Dark Side is now complete. Welcome to the party. :)

Henry Richardson said...

I have had my E-M5 since May 2012 and I haven't had too much urge to replace it yet. Longest I have ever gone with a digital camera since my first one in January 2000. I was in a shop here in Tokyo this afternoon and noticed they had several E-M5 bodies selling for $300 to $400. They all looked good. I was almost tempted to buy the $300 one, but I don't really need it even though the price was very enticing.