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!

Getting my mind into 2016.

I think it's human nature to consider life in temporal chunks. The work week. The fiscal year. The semester. Overtime. The day rate. Etc. We create plans and goals and we set times and dates for their undertaking and their completion. If the project isn't tied to a paycheck the likelihood of getting it done on time (or ever) is less likely than the projects we plan for clients.

At the end of every year I like to sit down at my desk and review what I've done in the past year. I go through the receipts for the paying work because they are a good trigger for my memory of exactly what I shot and how the jobs went. I look at the jobs that weren't as much fun and factor that into my plans going forward. I look at the jobs I really enjoyed and try to plan ways to work with clients to create more like them. At the end of the invoice exercise I look at what I got paid versus the time and energy the job took, and just how profitable each job was when I consider the trade of time for money. I almost always resolve to raise my fees the next time around.

But the most valuable exercise for me is to look back and try to gauge whether or not I made creative work for myself that I really liked. Work that might end up in my portfolio, or on my blog site of the top 100 portraits I like best. This is the category that usually causes little tickles of sadness because I usually end up trading out the time and energy I need for personal portrait projects to take paying assignments instead. Some years the tickles of sadness are more like sharp jabs in the ribs.

While 2015 was a wonderful year in which to pursue client projects and make good money it was a fallow year for personal projects,  for great portraits and for a sense of artistic well being and accomplishment.

But that's what today's introspective exercise is all about. Reviewing all the work (person and professional) helps to show me where things have become out of balance, and it gives me a fighting chance of righting the listing ship before the whole thing capsizes and everything just goes to hell.

There are so many excuses. I keep waiting on edge to jump in a be a dutiful son as my parents age and become less independent. I'm reticent to trade the opportunity to do paying work for the time to do personal work because I worry that the cash flow machine that funds the boy's college adventures will grind to a halt at the wrong time. With Belinda having worked downtown for most of the year I'm torn sometimes by.......the idea of leaving Studio Dog alone for long periods of time. (To dog lovers that will make perfect sense, to non-dog people that will seem insane).

But all of the things I've listed are just excuses. If you are passionate to get something done you can work to create the space and time to do the work. I seem to always make time to swim but I rationalize that it seems harder to find people to photograph now that general interest in photography seems to have waned these days. The glamor seems to have melted away from the portrait process when the newness and mystery of it dissipated like fog in the sunlight.

The exercise of seeing where I've been and figuring out where I want to go is bountiful because it reminds me of the power of intentions. If I intend to stay in good shape then I usually find a way (and the time) to do so. If I intend to be more profitable I tend to find pathways (consciously and unconsciously) to get there. When I find an area where I've fallen down I learn to look past the excuses I've made and look to see where my intentions were. Was it comfort over risk? Am I using all the easy excuses to hide the fact from myself that everything worth doing has it's own momentum?

My desire for 2016 is to totally refresh my vision of what a photographic portrait is. My intention is to experiment with the process, the lighting and the subjects with much more passion. To do so means working on my collaborative skills; not just in working with portrait subjects, but also in finding people who help serve as conduits between me and potential models.

We all tend to get tunnel vision when we work from a place of fear or nervous apprehension. My block last year was mostly about being sure I made the money to make the wheels of family life turn. Making sure to fund retirement accounts (because the reality of aging was made more real and clear to me) as well as to invest wisely for new ventures (because too much reading on the web had me believing that imaging was a "dying" industry).  And in some sense, replenishing the accounts that got punished by the economic collapse of 2007-2011.

I did a good job with those anxiety driven goals and I think I've proven to myself that there is still a rich market for all kinds of commercial imaging (still photography, video and combinations of all media). I've come to grips better with the relentlessness of our individual demise. The thing that sticks in my craw is all the lost opportunity of shooting portraits for myself last year.

So the culmination of today's work/art/life meditation is the understanding that an artistic goal is like the "object" in the physics lesson; an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. My intention to create new work has to be translated into the unbalanced force that creates momentum (inertia) for the object = goal. It's a psychological re-understanding of the law of inertia.

It's also good to understand that objects in motion continue to stay in motion unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. Momentum with no decay or entropy only happens in a vacuum. In real life physical objects are acted upon by gravity and friction. It's good to identify what constitutes "gravity and friction" in your creative practice and be on guard to offset the effects by adding more energy to whatever it is you intend to do. In other words, you can't just depend on getting the creative passion ball rolling and then presuming it will keep on rolling without your active intervention. You may have to re-group in order to push the ball up a steep hill or two. But, if you want to make your own art you really do have to grapple with the psychological laws of conservation.

It's all a matter of balance. Add up all the minutes you spend randomly checking your cellphone screen or tablet for new e-mail or texts, add that to all the boring TV shows you watch in the evening, and all the inefficiencies that slide into our days and you'll likely find you do have the time to get everything you need done. You just need to add the intention and the energy. And a goal.

More challenging portraits in 2016. Your goals may be different.