My Most Profitable camera purchase of 2015. And a nod to a lens that has become an unexpected, almost irreplaceable, ally in the same year.

I've owned a lot of cameras since I started doing photography full time, as a for profit business, back in 1988. I've run through a number of camera systems and I'm here to tell you that there's always one camera in every cycle of business that is the one you make most of your money with.

In the film days I could have tossed out most of the cameras I'd craved and bought and just used a Hasselblad 501 CM over and over and over again. In fact, I think that's what I pretty much did.

In the digital age there are certain cameras that stuck out in their time period as workhorse tools that I always turned to when we needed to get stuff just right, and be reasonably certain that our bills would get acknowledged and paid. For a while it was the Kodak DCS 760. After a few years the megapixel counts increased and camera usability improved enough to make the purchase of a Nikon D2Xs seem practical. That camera turned out great files over and over again....

Then things got hazy for a while as I galloped through mirrorless cameras, mirrored 4:3 cameras and various Sony, Canon and Nikon APS-C cameras. But early this year the equipment drawer got thinned out and two new cameras stepped in to take over image making duties; the Nikon D750 and the Nikon D810.

While I enjoy shooting the D750 more because of its lightweight, more manageable file sizes, slightly better video implementation (and cheaper purchase and replacement price) it's the D810 that I turned to for pretty much every advertising shot, every environmental portrait, and even nearly every video project I touched this year.

There's are reasons why the D810 is my go-to money maker. Usually, when I am shooting commercial, corporate and advertising jobs (as opposed to multiple day events) the size and weight of a camera is NOT a consideration. The supporting gear is far more bulky and cumbersome, and everything travels in cases to prevent breakage. We have a large cart we used to bring everything we need for a shoot into a client's environment. It's efficient to carry stuff this way and, if you are working near enough to arrive by car (as opposed to packing for air travel) the cart allows you to bring stuff you might not consider essential but which may come in handier than you thought it might.

On most locations we light rooms, portraits, processes and most other routine photographs so we're pretty much anchored by lighting in one spot at a time, for a while. The camera can sit on a tripod while I do most things so, all in all, for the most profitable jobs the camera's physical configuration is neutral.

On these kinds of shoots I carry the following lenses: 20mm, 20-40mm zoom, 25-50mm zoom, 24-120mm zoom, 35mm f2.0 prime, 50mm f1.4 prime, 85mm t1.5 prime, 105mm f2.5 prime, 135mm f2.0 prime and an 80-200mm f2.8 zoom that has stood the test of time.

The D810 is highly configurable for shooting. I can put a 50mm f1.4 lens on the front and change the angle of view by changing the crop from 1.2 to 1.3 to 1.5 (DX) and I can do this with raw or Jpeg files. This means the 50mm can be it's regular self or a tighter portrait focal length of around 75mms.
The density of the sensor is such that there is very little quality loss even with the biggest crop in camera.

With practice, and an external monitor that allows for focus peaking, the D810 is a great video interview camera. The color science is really good and the camera provides a big and solid base onto which we can connect microphones, headphones, big lenses and larger HDMI cables. I can punch into the scenes before I start shooting to establish that I've achieved sharp focus at nearly 1:1.

But the main two things that make the camera a first choice in critical picture taking are the resolution of the sensor and the dynamic range of the sensor. Clients are extremely pleased when they can keep zooming in on a large monitor and continue to see more and more detail. They always want to err on the side of "too much" rather than "not enough." While most projects can be well accomplished with a 24 megapixel sensor there's a "shock and awe" confidence booster to having more than one needs. I learned this when pressing a smaller, m4:3 files to poster sized, print blow ups, in the previous year.

The second parameter, dynamic range, isn't usually on client radars but comes in handy to me if I over or under expose frames. The very wide dynamic range enables me to cover my ass without embarrassment. The dynamic range also comes in very handy when I do photographs of people out in the Texas sun. Holding both bright highlights and shadow detail to an almost natural degree (especially with the "flat" camera profile engaged) is almost like an advertising magic trick. Client don't know why they appreciate the looks so much but they do.

When you bundle the above with a decent size, a good battery life and great reliability you've got a package that you come to trust. If you are working on a personal project you can hide your mistakes, the shortcomings of a camera or lens, and anything else embarrassing. You can go out and shoot something over and over again until you get it right. You can save stuff in post. Or almost save it. You can state that the image is the way it is because you intended it "to be art." But when the ability to make the mortgage or the tax bill is on the line there's a satisfaction in having a tool like the Nikon D810 in your inventory. It just flat out delivers. And you'll pretty much always know that it's overall imaging quality is within a percentage or two of all the other top cameras on the market.

For work it was a bargain at $3200.

Now, this doesn't mean that the D810 is necessarily the fun camera to shoot. In terms of real fun that honor falls to the Olympus EM5.2; and, if I am being honest, I have to say that the files from that camera (which I use for event work a lot of the time) would work just as well for about 90 % of the jobs. It's just that I'd have to be on my game all the time to pull off the kind of technical  work that I can just phone in with the D810.

My other favorite camera is more of an emotional choice. I shoot the D750 because the file size is optimal, it's not so expensive if the camera gets trashed or stolen but at the same time I get the look of the full frame sensor,  coupled with endless battery life and a fun sized package to carry around. Where the D750 shines is shooting in low light. But that's not a very big percentage of what I do.

I don't love the D810 on an emotional basis but I do LOVE it on a commercial basis. It's a business camera in every respect. Once the D810 and I make some money I can always sit back and play with the more interesting cameras. It's a comfortable schism and one I respect.

And that's why I have a D810 and keep it charged up and ready.

Oh yeah. The lens. I have to confess that I bought the latest version of the Nikon 24-120mm f4.0 VR lens as a stop gap to file the gaps in focal lengths as I grew my Nikon full frame system.  I was a little skittish about buying it since I had briefly (very briefly!) owned the very first version of the lens and found it to be a complete dog. A reminder of the ancient 43-86mm zoom lens Nikon made in the 1970s that was guaranteed to be unsharp at any aperture or focal length.

I have subsequently found that they've made up lost ground quite nicely and the model I now have is at least up to the standards of its Canon competitor, the 24-105mm L series lens.

I use it for lots and lots of stuff because it's wonderful to have such a wide range of focal lengths at your disposal and even at f4.0 it's pretty sharp in the center. Certainly nice for quick P.R. shots of workers or executives. The wide end is usable for most subjects, at least where sharpness is concerned but you'll need to make sure you have a good custom profile for the lens if you intend to use the wide end on anything with straight lines. Perhaps a good argument for owning a copy of DXO's software.

It's a great lens to use for walking through an industrial plant and stopping frequently to make images of processes or really cool machinery. The VR gives me between 2.5 and 3 stops of image stabilization, which is quite helpful. It's also a great lens to pair with on camera flash for fast breaking, news style images.

The lens sells for around $1,200. I found one taken out of a kit but with a U.S.A. warranty new for around $900. I didn't think I'd use it too much but it goes with me on most jobs and I end up using it a lot. The only place I'm not thrilled with it is for portraiture where I always want more control over depth of field and a different handling of tones and details for faces. I find most modern lenses to be so well corrected that they are vicious at rendering skin tones and at creating pleasing portraits. If I'm traveling light and working mostly with the 24-120mm I then also take along a 105mm f2.5 ais lens as it seems to be the aesthetic opposite; lots of resolution without the harsh, baked in contrast. But then adding contrast is the one thing we can generally do well with almost all of our post processing.

I give the 24-120mm my second highest ranking: A worthwhile lens that returns profitable images for commerce. Just under my ultimate ranking: Damn! That's an incredible lens. But it quickly passes my base level test: Would I buy it again? Absolutely!


amolitor said...

Why the Hasselblads rather than one of the other choices?

Kirk Tuck said...

Hmmm. I started with Rollei twin lens cameras but quickly came to understand that I wanted longer focal lengths. I had a friend who shot with Bronica cameras but the external parts fell off all the time (many data point samples) and the backs developed light leaks pretty quickly into their lifespans. I used Rollei 6000 series cameras but the rechargeable batteries and reliability problems + the higher cost kept bringing me back to the Hasselblad stuff. After I had two years of H-Blad work under my belt the cameras and lenses felt so familiar I never wanted to use anything else. Oh ---- except the Mamiya 6's. Those were the ultimate "fun" cameras and much quicker to use on the street, handheld, than a waist level finder. But it's like spouses: My brain might be wired for one thing someone else's brain ... ???

Bottom line, rationally, I would rather have a camera that doesn't need the achilles heel of batteries.

Anonymous said...

Hey I'v got a 43-86 Nikkor, using it as a paperweight on my desk.
Want to relive old times? I will let it go...cheap! (skylight filter
not included)


Anders said...

Besides great battery life, don't you value the dual card slots and record an extra copy of your images just for insurance?
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

amolitor said...

That makes sense, especially given that you love these square, I think?

I've been given to understand that the big mamiyas were the studio workhorses, so I'm always interested in why people went 'blad.

But, not square, and probably not any cheaper than the used 501s, anyways.