How reliable are cameras? Why do I always write about cameras needing to travel in pairs?

I am always, always shocked to meet a photographer with pretensions of being professional who is out on a location with only one camera. And lately I've been meeting more and more photographers who tell me that their cameras are so reliable that they've never even thought of buying a second one...just in case. That's fine with me. I love competitors who will one day let a client down instead of making a modest investment in a back-up camera. Clients who've been badly burned by lackadaisical photographers are easy to win over.

But why the my paranoia about camera reliability? Why do I bother bringing along at least one extra camera on every single engagement? Why don't I just take my chances along with seemingly everyone else? There's got to be a few backstories, right?  Well, in fact, I have a few at my disposal to share.

Many years ago the gold standard of professional film cameras was the Hasselblad system. The cameras were expensive and by all accounts very rugged. But they did have a few idiosyncrasies. 
If you tried to shoot a 500 CM body before fully winding the camera between frames the whole camera and lens would lock up. You needed to be able to take off the film back, stick a specialized tool though the rear baffle shutter, engage a slotted gear on the back of the stuck lens and re-cock the lens shutter (leaf shutter technology...). Only then could you shoot again. 

There was one photographer in Austin who was notoriously cheap and, though his business could well afford it, he owned only one Hasselblad camera body. Being anxious about technical things he never bought the emergency tool and never learned the technique of unlocking a stuck camera. Several times a year he'd be shooting in his studio or on location and, yep, the camera would lock up. Sometimes with clients and models on the set. When this happened the whole shoot would come to a stop and he would send his assistant, along with the camera and lens, to Precision Camera so the owner and repair guru, Jerry Sullivan, could unlock the camera for him. 

The roundtrip to the camera store took an hour or two. Longer if Mr. Sullivan happened to be out at lunch. You can imagine how well this went down with some clients. To be fair though, Austin was pretty laid back in the 1990's and I guess everyone could have just grabbed a beer, sat on the loading dock and spaced out. I just know this wouldn't fly today. Not with the deadlines everyone is under. 

When I bought into the Hasselblad system I started with two of the ELX motor drive bodies. They were supposed to be built to take lots and lots of exposure cycles reliably. As my business grew and the cameras became central to my workflow I added another motor drive body and one of the workhorse, fully mechanical, 500 CM bodies.

I would always take the three bodies out with me if I was going to be shooting out of town. Just in case. Paranoid, right?

Well at one point on a dry and toasty August day I found myself in San Antonio working for one of the big home improvement chains. We were shooting a sports oriented campaign for the stores and it revolved around kid's sports. We were heading into late afternoon and we'd already shot a complex basketball shot with complicated lighting and a camera rigged onto a backboard. We'd shot a fake swim meet, and some young track stars running hurdles. Our last images of the day were going to be about kids who participate in Little League Baseball.

Our location scout had found a great ballpark and locked down the location. Our casting person had pieced together a small team of young men who play baseball and outfitted them. We set up to shoot in the late afternoon and we were contending with a lot of wind and a lot of dust. Apparently, there were dust storms in west Texas but we hadn't heard about them yet. The nice thing about the approaching storms was the way the dust diffused the sunlight and gave me a very interesting (and compelling) light to work with. 

We were finally set and had a shot blocked out. One of our super stars would be sliding into home plate as our catcher tried to tag him out. The temperature hovered in the low 100's and we were moving fast to get our shots before the sun moved out of its perfect position. I had a 110mm f2.0 Planar on my tripod-mounted camera and I shot off about half a roll of 220 color transparency film when the camera and lens just locked up. The client sensed something had "gone south" and came over to see what was wrong. I didn't feel like trying to perform field surgery with the special tool so I reached into our equipment case and pulled out a second, identical body and stuck on a similar lens; the 120mm Makro Planar. We picked up right where we left off and started working on different angles and different actions.

And then the second (almost brand new) body locked up and I started getting nervous. What were the odds? I Grabbed the third body and put the 80mm lens on the front. I figured that with the bigger transparency we could crop in and still get a nice angle of view, even though the lens was slightly wider than I would have liked. We were able to get through the rest of the project and finished with our last shots just as the sun started to set and we started to run out of light.

Since  I was 70 miles from home and had a crew and cast of nearly 16 along with me I was deliriously happy I happened to have the third body with me. The cost of not having it would have been multiples of the one time purchasing price. The client was pretty impressed too. It was an agency I still work with. 

It was a weird event and it never happened again. The repair service cleaned out the bodies (too much coarse dust) and we shot with those same cameras for years afterward. But it was a good lesson.

Of course many readers might be tempted to think that my misfortune could be tied to the fact that these were mostly mechanical cameras with lots of moving parts and tight tolerances, and I can give you that. But...

I remember when the Fuji S3 digital camera was a popular workhorse camera of the early digital days. I bought two of those as well. They both worked perfectly for months. Then I was up in a helicopter shooting luxury properties at Lake Travis when the screen on the back of my shooting camera started flashing an error message. "Card Not Readable." or something like that. Maybe it was, "Card Error." 

I popped the card out and replaced with with a different one. It gave me the same error message after three exposures. I pulled the lens off the offending camera and put it on my back up camera and put a fresh card into that camera and formatted it. We got through that shoot thanks to the back up camera. And it's a good thing we did because the helicopter my client rented was a Bell Jet Ranger and back in the early part of this century the hourly retail rate was around $650. 

"Ah." You might say, "That was a Fuji "Frankenstein" camera. Not the solid technology you would expect from Nikon or Canon!"  Had I been using a real pro camera I might not have had those problems, right? Well that brings me to the Nikon D2X. A camera that I really loved. A camera that I bought to replace the Fujis after a few more card disasters. I'd purchased a D200 and wanted the D2X as it had a few more megapixels and also had a reputation for uncanny sharpness and resolution, so I splashed out $ 5400 and got one. It worked for a week and a half before the shutter stopped working ( purchase new from a Nikon USA dealer) and it had to be sent back to the manufacturer. Seems that there was a "known" early shutter problem and a few subsequent recalls. 

I circled back to the D200 and used a D80 as a basic back-up camera until the D200 developed  non-linear, front and back focusing problems with all of my Nikon lenses. I found this out on an event location when I tested and evaluated images the night before the opening of a 2500 person conference in Orlando. Off went the D200 (which, incidentally, could never be repaired correctly) and I rushed out to a local camera store and bought second D80 to back up the first one. (I guess it would be perceived as "piling on" to mention the three different recalls for my recent Nikon D750...hmmmm). 

I'll close by saying that even the best camera in the world failed me once. It was a Leica M3. Outfitted with a dual range, 50mm Summicron lens. It had just been overhauled by a Leica certified technician and I took it on a romantic trip to Paris as my only camera. On our second day in the city, standing in front of some magnificent example of architecture, the camera locked up and would not wind. With two weeks of vacation in front of us I sighed, pulled a credit card out of my wallet and went looking for a camera store... Time and opportunity lost, not to mention yet another mostly unnecessary camera purchase. 

So, when someone says they don't need a back up camera I'll just assume that they don't do this photography stuff for money or for clients with real content needs and real deadlines. Because my experience tells me they are heading for a fall. Not just by a camera failing on its own but also failure due to drop damage, drip damage, or my favorite = the time an assistant stuck her finger through a fragile shutter curtain. The spilled coffee, the unlatched case, the fast sprinting hit-and-run thief, etc. etc. 

Even though we were shooting in the studio yesterday I prepped two cameras. One to actually do the job with, the other just in case. If you are serious about providing good service you should be serious about having gear you can use if your main camera does a swan dive. You don't have to be two identical Phase One 100 megapixel cameras but your back up should be able, at the minimum, to give your client useable files for the project at hand. Even if that second body has to be rented for the job. 

Get a back up. A decent back up body is less than the charge for one day's work at most people's fees. Seems like good insurance to me; clients are hard enough to find and please...


David Maxwell said...

Great article Kirk! I shoot for pleasure so no clients are worried about my performance, and primarily landscapes, but I could not agree more. Most of my photography involves hiking long distances uphill to get to some amazing views or waterfalls. Does it suck carrying a second camera body body along with one or more night's supplies, yes it does. However, seeing an amazing sunrise/sunset/whatever and not being able to photograph it because of camera issues sucks even more. I learned that the crappy way. My two cameras are a Canon Rebel T5i and Rebel SL1. I love them both considering their size and cost, but the joke is a little bit on me, since they take different batteries.

Craig said...

A timely post - I had a scare shooting some work when it started to drizzle. I hit 'play' to review a file and the whole camera went black with the power switch still on.

Did a battery pull and cycled the power switch and it came back to life, though I think my heart stopped for the duration of the procedure. Fortunately, it's been working fine since that day.

I'm actively looking to obtain a new body as a primary and to make this older one 'the backup' - at this point it's worth more to me in that capacity, rather than trying to sell it to 'soften the blow' of the upgrade.

Kirk Tuck said...

David, That's one of the things I like about the Sony system. Every camera from my original RX10 to the A7Rii takes the same battery. All seven cameras in the Sony drawer can interchange the batteries. So nice!

Craig, You'll appreciate it when you need it. Believe me.

Alan Mermelstein said...


I remember shooting a church wedding in 1999 and when I picked up my Hasselbad 503CW to photograph the bride's entrance, the winder came off in my hand. I leaned over and picked up my 501C and didn't miss a moment thank goodness.

My assistant got the winder reattached in the car on the way to the reception. Now I shoot with 4 DSLRs LOL!

Richard said...

Hey Kirk, great article, great advice.

What really stopped me in my tracks (so to speak) was the camera in your photograph!

That is the first camera/lens combo that I purchased. I was in my late teens and used my very first pay check from my first summer job. I remember that the lens was a screw-mount affair. Since I only had the one lens, lens changing convenience was not an issue. I used the combo for years. Paid the princely sum of $150.00 Cdn for it. I believe that it was a new model at the time.

Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

PS Now days I'm shooting with the Fujifilm X-T2; and I have two bodies. (There are some distinct similarities between the two cameras despite the decades since!)

Michael Matthews said...

Here's one more nostalgic nod to the Pentax Spotmatic. It was my first and only SLR until acquiring a Nikon D80 40 years later (the early digital point-and-shoots don't count). The Pentax was an amazingly well built camera, with a viewfinder that was like stepping into the picture itself. Only in my recently acquired OMD EM5.2 have I finally found a viewfinder that's almost as satisfying.

Craig Yuill said...

Excellent advice, Kirk.

I don't shoot for a living. But once in a while I go on a trip to somewhere I might not see again for a very very long time (if ever). I decided to take both of my Nikon V1 bodies on a recent trip to a faraway land, fearing that one of them might get dunked in water, or dropped, or stolen. Both cameras came back from the trip in fine working order. But it was nice knowing that I had back up.

Alex said...

One more for using small and relatively inexpensive small-sensor-cameras: A second or third body is not a burden.
This back-up thing reminds me a bit of wearing a helmet for cycling. Over the last 170.000km I never needed it, but will continue to wear it nonetheless. Since I happened to come upon several split helmets from friends, but no one paralysed or dead, this is a no-brainer, too.

Kirk, did you ever have a lens fail?

Michael Meissner said...

I hear you. Now, I'm strictly an amateur though I do videos and photos for a friend's renaissance faire, I mostly just shoot for myself. But I at times am a trouble magnet, so I always try to double or triple up. My wife does tend to make the comment that I should get a pack mule to carry the gear.

I've had cameras fail in the field, so I can't believe there are people that don't have some backup solution on them for paying gigs. Sure, it is ideal if you have two identical cameras, so that you can switch immediately and not have to worry about buttons being in a different place, but even having your old camera that the new upgrade obsoletes with a slower lens can save the day.

atmtx said...

Great stories and great examples.

Anders said...

I guess all cameras can be faulty.

I owned the Sony A7 and every time I went outdoors in cold and moist weather the camera would loose contact with the lens (kit lens). I tried polishing the contacts on both lens and camera, but it didn't help at all in those weather conditions with a temperature around 0C (32F) or below.

Almost never had problems with any of my Nikons except on a very early firmware on my D700 that a few times would lock up the camera. Fortunately the battery could just be pulled out to do a restart of the camera.

On the other hand I don't recall my old Olympus OM1 ever fail on me.

Nick Davis said...

Totally agree, Kirk, but then there are many people in this business who call themselves professional who really are not that in any sense of the word. I thought you were little harsh on Fuji though. My first DSLR was an S2 and I'd rather not think about the number of actuations it had had when I retired it. The two battery system gave me some bad moments though, until I realised it functioned perfectly well with the main one! I see your new note about not telling you how to blog. So it's not just photography that's full of people who are walking examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect then!

Anonymous said...

Great stories! We rarely hear about camera failures. I guess most people chalk it up to abuse and move on. Interesting to hear that it can happen for such a range of reasons. Thanks!

Kirk Tuck said...

Alex, funniest (not at the time) lens death story I can remember is when I was shooting in a big box store with a bunch of Hasselblad stuff. I had a wonderfully smart but absent minded assistant with me and we were working under tight deadlines --- trying to get shots before the store opened in the morning. I had just handed my assistant a lens so I could change to another lens on my tripod mounted camera. The lens was pretty big and my assistant had fairly small hands. A few seconds later the nervous client asked my assistant for the time. My assistant turn her wrist over to look at her watch, lost her grip on the lens and it crashed to the concrete floor. It had to go back to H-Blad and have the lens shutter and filter ring replaced. My assistant's face was so red. I took a deep breath and chalked it up to "wear and tear." No use crying over spilled Distagon.

Bruce Rubenstein said...

To a significant degree, this is a second order effect of the "low bar" for doing paid work in the digital age. In the film age, had to be competent enough in their craft to get the image they wanted without chimping. Polaroids were not equivalent, because it took experience to know the image would look on the actual film. Photographers that had to light subjects had to invest in a set of lights, stands modifiers, etc. The cost of backup equipment wasn't trivial, but it didn't double the gear cost either. Also, many photographers started out as assistants and learned from experienced photographers that, "You didn't go out on a job without lots of backup gear."

neopavlik said...

I don't hear this much but I do read a lot of sob stories about stolen gear, mainly camera and lenses costing +$10,000 together, which is sad...then someone asks if they have insurance and they say "no" and my feelings towards the situation changes quite dramatically.

Your earlier version of this article is probably why I have 3 camera bodies but haven't needed all 3 yet.

Paul said...

Thanks for reminding me of the joys of unlocking Hasselblads

Tinderbox said...

This really is one of your most valuable posts. So useful, let's hope good fledgling photographers listen.

Paul Glover said...

This is why, even as a film-shooting hobbyist, I tend to have a second camera of some sort if I'm out with serious shooting intent. Right now, not of the same system (one 645 SLR, and one 6x6 fixed-lens TLR), but at least using the same type of film. I'll be adding a second 645 body using the same lenses at some point.

Just because nobody is paying me to do this doesn't mean that lost opportunity and time wasted are no-cost items!

I also know one semi-pro who would have flunked a wedding shoot had she not borrowed a second body and even then almost lost the backup too. Lots of heat, outdoors. One body just stopped working for a while, and the other became very sluggish. She bought a second camera body the Monday following that wedding...

Ravi Bindra said...

Hate to be the techie nerd ... But are you sure it was the 110/2 lens? I think they only work with the 200 and 2000 series cameras? Actually, I do enjoy being a nerd. But it is a lovely portrait lens. Less DoF than the Noctilux 50/0.95