I'll start with an analogy: I have several friends who are chefs. They own their restaurants but they still get in their kitchens several times a week and "work the line" because, beyond their restaurants being businesses, they also enjoy the art/craft of cooking. Of making stuff with their own hands. A couple of these guys are in their mid-fixities and have a good thirty years of food service experiences under their belts. They've learned some valuable information about successful cooking that makes them fast, efficient and, by extension, profitable.
To help them in their work they've learned to choose the right tools for each process. And few tools are as important to a chef as their collection of knives. They have paring knives for fine work, they have big cleavers for heavy duty chopping, and they have assorted serrated and non-serrated utility knives for chopping and filleting and slicing. But, here's the important thing! They don't do every task with one magic, perfect knife.
It just doesn't work that way. They select the knife that will work best for each kind of work they do. The could do okay with a few well chosen knives but it would not be as much fun and it would just make their work take more time. Some dishes might suffer from the relative mismatch of tools and ingredients... Fingers might get nicked. So, selecting the right tool = good.
What does this aside have to do with us photographers? Well, there seems to be a pervasive mythology in photography at large that somewhere, in some mythical camera store out there, exists a perfectly sorted camera for every user. One all purpose machine that is a perfect fit for everything the photographer might ever want to do. One need only find their own mythical"perfect" camera and all the pieces will finally fall into place, guaranteeing the buyer and user of said camera the success they've always pined for.
(A quick note: This is mostly aimed at professional photographers and people who would like to be professional photographers. At least the ones who regularly read VSL. If you don't do commercial photography for a living none of this may apply to you because your predilection could be to shoot in exactly the same way, all the time. And that's sensible.)
When one comes across a blog or an article written by a famous photographer who is sponsored by, say, Nikon, and the entire article or blog or interview is devoted/dedicated to describing their work with (example) the Nikon D810 and a few, selected lenses, the reader might come away from the article with two ideas. First, since no other cameras were discussed the reader might assume that the D810 is the writer/photographer's sole camera. That this brilliant photographer (who is obviously successful) has distilled down all of the many choices in the marketplace, examined all the variables and has ferreted out "the perfect camera."
The second point the reader might come away with is the idea that the camera is the photographer's magic talisman and that the camera is somehow the photographer's partner in creating the work that makes him successful. No perfect camera = no success...
There is a well known photographer and blogger named Thom Hogan who writes a good blog on gear. He has been a long time user of Nikon equipment and has written a number of good guides for those cameras that do admirable jobs as replacements for the camera maker's manuals. If you only read his reviews about Nikon cameras and don't explore his other writings (on Sansmirror.com) you would miss his frequent discussions about the other cameras and other formats he buys, and regularly uses, in his landscape and wildlife photography. Even within the subset of "Nikon" he has not settled only on the most powerful, full frame, professional camera available but also shoots (and seems to be very impressed with...) the APS-C (cropped frame) D7200 body.
He also makes good use of, and has frequent, nice things to say about Olympus micro four thirds cameras, of which he was a fairly early adopter. In fact, just last week he wrote an article ruminating about which mirrorless camera represented the best value to him, in addition to his full frame, Nikon system. His article nicely summarizes a professional perspective of choosing the right camera for the appropriate occasion. (For him, the second camera system is Olympus!).
(Sometimes I feel as those talking about the "one" perfect camera or the one perfect system are just like the characters involved in the pursuit of the One Ring of Power in the "Lord of the Rings.")
I was thinking of this enormous compulsion toward singular specificity, and the desire of photographers to want/need to winnow down their choices to a final selection of "tools" that equals one. The misplaced desire to use one Phillip's head screwdriver for every task. All of this was going through my head as I did my planning and pre-production last night for this morning's shoot.
Ah. The details.
I've shot lots and lots of products in studios. At one point we shot every product that came through the door with 4x5 view cameras, and learned early on how to use tilts and swings to extend focus in our shots. We also shot a lot at f45 and even f64 in heroic attempts to make everything sharp. But now the small size of the imaging pixels makes stopping down treacherous and the tilts and swing have vanished from our arsenal of ready solutions. But there is one constant in product photography....
The closer you get to a product (subject); the more you fill the frame, the harder you will find it to get all of your subject in good, sharp focus from front to back. Some mistakenly believe that using a wider angle lens will get you something, and it will. It will get you an exaggerated perspective that's usually not at all what a client wants. Using a smaller aperture with today's smaller pixel (each pixel's size) pitch will give you a generalized softness when diffraction kicks in. What's a photographer to do?
I've written before about the challenges of getting enough depth of field and the "gadgeteers" are quick to recommend "focus stacking" as the logical solution. And, indeed, that's a good solution for people with time on their hands, and maybe one or two "perfect" shots to get out the door, but it's not as practical as it may seem. At least not in a production sense.
It takes a lot of time and precision to get the focus just right through each subject. And you'll need a number of files (sample points) to effect a seamless transition from one end of the product to the other. Lots of raw files being flung around and a bit of clean up work needed on the back end as well. If a client wants you to create one perfect image, and it's mandatory that everything be sharp as a tack, this is the way to go. But imagine a real world job where you are tasked (or have bid on) shooting and post processing 20 to 25 different angles in a day, complete with some clipping paths, and you might find focus stacking super high res files to be.....burdensome.
I maintain that by knowing your client's final target for the images you are creating you can fine tune your camera choice from the tool box and have a much more productive and enjoyable shoot. But fine tuning the camera to the final target presumes that you aren't stuck in the mindset of "one precious" camera or format. As a working professional with a wide range of subjects to shoot it behooves you to have a wider tools kit; which doesn't necessarily need to cost a fortune to assemble.
So, last week I wrote a blog, here, about shooting a black, metal product on a white background at the studio. I talked about using the Olympus OMD EM5.2 camera instead of my Nikon D810 camera for precisely the reason we've been discussing. The imaging sensor in the Olympus is one quarter the size of the Nikon. The Olympus evens the playing field, as far as resolution goes, with its Hi-Res mode. The smaller sensor gives me two f-stops more depth of field compared to the full frame camera. Getting two more stops of DOf while getting the same resolution seems like and endless win, right? And last week I was pretty happy with the results but believe me when I tell you that it was a real struggle to find the absolutely exact point on which to focus in order to spread that depth of field out over the entire front to back geography of the product. You also have to keep in mind that there's a vertical axis to worry about as well.
I sent off the results and the client was very happy. I could see a little bit of unsharpness creep into the very back end of some shots but it's only something we might see if we enlarged the images to a high degree. Not something we might see on a page size image. Even less apparent on a website.
But, if you have a curious nature, and you like to play around with the variables, there's always the attraction to try to improve the process on the next go-around. Right?
When the same client called me on Weds. and confessed that he had sent along the wrong product and asked for a partial re-shoot I understood and was eager to help. But also eager to try a slightly different approach. I conjectured that, if the jump down from full frame to micro four thirds format had gained me a couple of f-stops of depth of field, how would an even smaller sensor camera perform? Not a thought I would have entertained before the introduction of Sony's really high performance 1 inch sensor....
I'd been shooting professional jobs with the Panasonic fz 1000 routinely this year and understood how powerful these cameras can be if you use them under the right conditions. The right conditions for the one inch sensor cameras include shooting as close to the base level ISO as possible, getting a custom white balance that's right on the money to start with and getting the shooting camera on a stout tripod in complement with using at least a 2 second delay, via self timer, to trigger each exposure.
I reset the studio and positioned an array of four LED lights over the shooting table. I blocked out any extraneous light from the banks for windows in the studio and I set the Sony RX 10 camera on the tripod. I decided to give it a go for this project. I would pull the memory card and examine the first test on a 27 inch monitor and, if the camera failed to live up to my expectations, I could easily switch back to the Olympus camera I used the week before.
I metered carefully and then did a custom white balance. The RPS CooLED lights were 5100K with a minus 7 green adjustment to pure white. Nice, and kudos to Sony for engineering an easy custom WB solution. Easy to use, easy to remember.
Then I spent the morning photographically examining the product/subject, trying to coax out the best angles and the coolest intersections of heat sinks and inputs; heat sinks and logos. When I sat down to do my post production from the 20 megapixel raw files I'll admit I had a big smile on my face. The images looked great. In fact, I did even less post production PhotoShop stuff on the Sony files than I had needed to do last week with the Olympus files. But I'd chalk most of the differences up to the second shoot being more fine-tuned than the first. Having my lighting down a bit better because I'd had time to think of ways to improve it over the course of the week.
Does this one success mean that I'll be rushing to Precision Camera to trade in all my Nikon and Olympus cameras and lenses in order to buy......more RX10's? Nope, that would be a bit crazy. Does it mean that the RX10 is a better studio camera than the Panasonic fz 1000? Nope, I'll rotate cameras on the next one but in my experience they are almost equally good.
The Nikons are perfect for the kinds of annual report portraits that bring in good fees. They are also good tools for images that require lots of detail along with flexible depth of field controls. They are infinitely better for high ISO shooting and shooting with automatic flash. I'll keep them for those reasons and also for the clients who are convinced that only traditional "professional" camera belong on their shoots. We are still in the service business after all.
We keep the Olympus cameras because they do so many things well but mostly for those times when you really, really need image stabilization; particularly in video. They make marvelous hand held interview cameras and handheld b-roll cameras. Plus the resale value on m4:3 always sucks so it just makes economic sense, after the first year, to use em up in the business rather than trading them away for a song.
Is this "flip-flopping"? Is this being "wishy-washy"? Will I read more whiny nonsense about how often I "change" cameras? Frankly, I don't give a crap. If someone can't understand the idea of using the right tool for the target (job) in front of them then they don't understand the nature of doing commercial photography; or any other craft for that matter.
This isn't a call for everyone to abandon whatever they are shooting with to shoot the way I do, it's just a suggestion that there are optimal formats for every task out there and it's not a short attention span or flip-flopping to want to make your jobs easier and better. It's just good business.
Don't let your camera's ego hold you back.