Many photographers are torn between spending on one camera or another. My decisions generally boil down to "new camera or new light?"


Camera reviewers love writing about cameras because it's like holding fresh meat out in front of hungry dogs. It's an easy sell. And, at times, I'm in the middle of the dog pack trying to snap at the bait. Most photographers have only two cruel mistresses; ever newer cameras and ever cooler lenses. 
I am one of the unfortunate photographers who also has a penchant for wanting new lights. In fact, I go months without thinking about which camera I'll use on a commercial job but almost every day I'm busy considering how I'm going to light the next job and with what sort of equipment. 

I'll be quick to say that in the present time of nearly perfect cameras (across formats and brands) lighting makes a much more profound difference in the way a photograph looks than your choice of camera. From small flashes to large banks of fluorescents the different ways of lighting and modifying lights are, to my mind, where most of the magic resides. And yet, except for a handful of electronic flash brands, the lights rarely get their due.

In the last week, on paying jobs, I have used several Profoto mono-lights, a big, battery powered Elinchrom Ranger flash system, five SMD LED lights, several TTL hot shoe flashes and even two Lowell tungsten fixtures. I used them in soft boxes, umbrellas, bounced off foam core, bounced off a white ceiling in a giant atrium and even direct. 

While I have six Sony cameras in my equipment cases I have far more lights and even more lighting modifiers. Why? Because the quality of light you can create from each source is unique and expressive, and matching the light to the emotions you are trying to convey in an image is a vital part of what photographers, who can light, do to make their images work.

If I want an amazingly soft source with a fast fall off to black shadows I can use a giant light source (like the 6x6 foot silk scrim I love) as close to a person's face as possible. Depending on the thickness and opacity of the diffusion material and the light source I chose I can get a wide palette of possible looks, textures and variations. It will always look different from a hard light or a smaller soft box. 

And yet I can shoot a portrait in the light created by the giant scrim with just about any one of the cameras currently in favor (D810, Olympus EM-1, Fuji XT-2, Sony A7Rii, Canon 5Dmk6, etc.) and, with the right lens, get pretty much the same kind and quality of image. It's almost like the camera doesn't really matter if you know how to light and how to do the camera basics. 

I've pulled files from the Sony, the Nikon, the Canon and the Olympus cameras that I've shot in similar light over the years and, after I equalize for minor color, contrast and saturation differences in post processing I would be hard pressed to tell the difference, even over generations, between any of the cameras. One reason for this is that lights allow a photographer to work at optimum apertures and optimum ISOs, which goes a long way toward minimizing advantages of less noisy sensors. 
Sure, there are differences in dynamic range but at ISO 100 those differences aren't as apparent in the final medium as many might think. But the lighting.... that makes huge differences.

I know many of you will read this and dismiss what I'm saying because you don't work commercially and spend most of your time photographing with natural light. You are, of course right, for your work. But even when I am off the clock I prefer the look of portraits and other images in which I have total control of the quality, direction and intensity of the light. 

Sadly, this means I rarely meet a lighting modifier I don't really like or have a curiosity about. It may be a worse addiction than yours just because it is in addition to the camera buying addiction. 

But in the beginning I seem to remember someone saying, "Let there be light." Except for my bouts of introspective street photography I hardly ever leave home without the lights and nearly always I end up using them. Light em up and you'll be working at a level most people don't bother with. It can be a wonderful component of your photographic vision. But every high end flash or deluxe modifier you choose to buy is one less camera body or lens buying opportunity ahead. It may be opportunity loss but the lighting gear tends to stick around longer and go out of fashion much more slowly. 

And, as ring lights repeatedly show us, lighting trends come back in to fashion faster than you can imagine. Lighting trends are the Groundhog Day of the photographic world. Hold on to your old modifiers, I can almost guarantee they will be cool and trendy again soon. 

Six cameras versus 25 light fixtures and instruments. It's hardly fair.


amolitor said...

Especially with the holidays coming up I find myself photographing minimally, which means churning out one on-point "stock photo" for my wife's blog on her business web site.

This involves a Lego character who has become a mascot, of sorts.

The don't really make lights and modifiers for shooting people who are 2 inches tall. Consequently I spend much of my photography time fooling with tiny LED flashlights and little bits of paper.

It's fun!

Being able to chimp is *huge*. This would be impossible with film.

Dave V said...

Yeah, lighting is where it's at. Most of the cameras have gotten so good that there's very little to differentiate them in terms of image quality. Excluding the models the cost the same as a brand new pickup truck, the Pentax K1 is one of the few exceptions out there. Pixel shift is absolutely brilliant for things like art reproduction. The biggest deal isn't the increased apparent resolution. Rather, it is the almost total lack of false color and moire when compared to other cameras. Of course, great lighting and a really good tripod are probably the MOST important factors in art reproduction.

Wolfgang Lonien said...

"More light!", as they say, was Goethe's last request. I wrote about it too lately, after trying to make photos in almost no light with my ยต43rds camera. That's ok for dark and moody street scenes (film noir like), but if you have moving (read: breathing) subjects, you need shorter times.

Light is all there is - it's our best friend.

Fred said...

You illuminate our path in the darkness. Don't think I am making light of this:-).
I feel the urge to write about the quality of light and shadow that can make or break an image and Impressionist painting...but right now I am really just avoiding taking Bella our for her morning walk. It is 40 degrees out and drizzling after yesterday's snow and the overcast lighting is great, the footing not so much.

Carlo Santin said...

I love lenses, find them infinitely fascinating. Lighting too. I wish I had the space for a home studio. Cameras don't interest me much these days, they are all good enough. There are so many variables and infinite variations with lighting and it's such a personal things. Fascinating really.

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Fred, It's 27 here with gusty 30 mph north winds. Just got out of Sunday morning swim practice (outdoor pool) and the 100 yards from the pool to the locker room was the longest walk I've had in a while. Ouch! But it sure is fun to pound out the laps with the steam rising around you and the chilly air in your lungs. Makes one feel alive...

Studio Dog was willing to walk this morning but her mother was NOT. That makes it a Yoga morning for those two...

Art in LA said...

Photography = "writing with light"

So, given your line of work, it makes total sense that you are always looking for new lighting options. I wish I knew more about controlling and shaping light ... I'm envious of those who can pre-visualize an image, and then set up lights to make it happen!

James Pilcher said...

Albert Einstein called photographers Lichtaffen (Light monkeys). He was right.

Dog Photographer said...

I love it when you talk about lights. I just sold all my Arri lighting and replaced it with RPS Cool LEDs, which I learned about from you. Dot Line has always made a notch better, I mean sold, better stuff. I just built a four foot LED light fixture with two shop lights, I love it. The Lights of America casing is great, solid. Big diffuser and it makes great lighting. I have taken great portraits with it ( you are my portrait hero/mentor) Question. I am currently copying some art with the CoolLEDs, and am wondering about how and if the led effects different colours. Is it correct to ask- are they full colour spectrum? I am shooting through polarizers.
Keep talking about lighting. On Cameras; I am using OM-D.

Dog Photographer said...

Add On.
Do you think Kirk I am better to use Flash for copy work? This is what I have traditionally used

Kirk Tuck said...

HI Dog Photographer, I am so "old school" that I still shoot copy work with two tungsten lights and a copy stand. The RPS LEDs aren't going to be as exact as flash but I'm always happy with the color if I do a custom white balance on a known white or gray target before I get started. Nothing that the camera can't correct for. I shy away from using some shoe mount flashes because at lower powers the shorter exposures tend to lean toward a blue cast and I always worry about how well the tubes are corrected for UV. Hence the old tungstens...

Dog Photographer said...

Thanks for the response Kirk. The art I am currently working on is big. I am going to try photoing it with both the RPS, already did this and am not happy with some colors, and then with a big old Norman flash system. See if the colours are different. I cannot find anything on the web about the issue, maybe because I don' know what to call it. Color response? I always shoot a grey card and calibrate my camera with an Xrite thingy. I guess experimentation is needed. I no longer have any tungsten lights. I miss Ektachrome 64 Tungsten. Thanks again.

neopavlik said...

Lighting is always a consideration.
Profoto B1 is still in my thoughts because that recycle time is so much better than the next HSS alternative. Looking at adding another Intellytech LED Fresnel (or two) as well. With those I'll be set until they make those more powerful and smaller.