Expression trumps lighting. Lighting trumps lens. Lens trumps camera. Getting it all to work together is the ultimate goal.
I chuckle when people look at a portrait I've done and they ask me which camera I used to do the work. It's kinda like admiring a driver's driving skills and then pointedly asking about which spark plugs he chooses. In most cases the choice of camera (or spark plugs) is inconsequential compared to all the parts and pieces that have to come together to make portraits work.
Just for the record, the portrait above was not done with a Hasselblad or Rollei, and it was not lit with Profoto strobes are some other fancy brand of lighting. This image was done with a Mamiya 6 camera and its very nice 75mm f3.5 lens. The lighting came from an old Vivitar 285 flash bounced off the ceiling and mixing with the fluorescent lighting that dominates the kitchen at Sweetish Hill Bakery on Sixth St. The imaging "sensor" was Kodak's Tri-X (ISO 400) film.
Many of my favorite photos over the years have come from innocuous cameras with little to no pedigree. Some of my favorite portraits of my wife, Belinda, came from the only cameras I could afford in the moment and lenses that were even dicier. The worst camera I've probably owned was a Canon TX, an early and inexpensive FD lens Canon with a top shutter speed of 1/500th of a second and a sync speed of 1/60th. It was the ultimate "barebones" camera but it was built like a reinforced concrete outhouse.
That was my first SLR and I bought it new from the University Co-op, along with the Canon 50mm f1.8 FD lens that came packaged as part of a kit. I kept that camera for five years and slammed so much bulk-loaded Tri-X through it that I think I started to wear down the film gate.
When I went on the cliché "backpack through Europe" trip with a girlfriend in 1978 the TX was my primary camera, augmented with a Canonet QL17, fixed lens rangefinder camera. While I have always been disinterested in wide angle lenses I was thrilled to buy a large, cheap, Vivitar 135mm f2.8 lens in the Canon FD mount to use on the trip and found that it spent most of its time on the TX while the 40mm lens on the Canonet served me well as enough of a wide angle.
I was comfortable with the cameras but it was my interest in making specific images that drove the photographs I took; not the cameras and lenses. I think I would have been happy with just about anything. The photos from that time period of camera slumming still appear frequently here on the blog, mixed in with more current work.
So, lately I've been leaning on my Panasonic GH5s to do just about everything. If I'm being lazy I might just take the Panasonic FZ2500 but if money is involved it's more than likely that the GH5s are going to see all the action.
They make great photographs. But only when I point them at interesting stuff. And stuff in which I am interested.
They are "small" sensor cameras and lately, it seems, that all of my friends and associates have convinced themselves that to be competitive they have to buy and use one of three specific cameras. The Nikon D850. The Sony A7Riii, and the Canon 5Dmk4. They seem to think that it's critical to have the highest on sensor performance that money can buy in order to do work that will stand the test of time and the more important test of tickling the fancies of the people who have the ability to write checks for photography. I understand the impulse to trend into overkill. I guess it means never having to second guess one's self while on an assignment.
I had lunch two weeks ago with a photographer friend of many, many years. If you think I love to switch gear you'd be amazed as his ability to move from system to system. The only real differences between us is that he doesn't mind spending real money to buy the best stuff, and he seems content to keep and work across multiple systems instead of leveraging the sale of one system to help pay for the next.
He is currently buying the associated infrastructure of lenses to use on his new Nikon D850. But as an architectural photographer he is reticent to let go of his Canon 5Dsr or his Canon 5Dmk4 because they are paired with every tilt/shirt lens Canon makes to use in the interesting business of coaxing beautiful expressions out of monolithic buildings or to make office and lovely (and expensive) interior spaces come alive. Judging by the speed and intensity of his shopping he'll soon have that lens range duplicated in the Nikon space as well....
But he doesn't stop there. He's also got medium format Leica with a range of optics, and then bits and pieces of various other systems. Of course he has the Sony RX1 Rii and so many other cameras that we all find interesting and desirable.
He's convinced, at some level, that the cameras and their unique output is what keeps clients coming back and writing the purchase orders but I think I disagree. This photographer just happens to be a master of lighting, but even more important, he was a visual design student at a great university and brings with him a love of, and a deep understanding of what is interesting, noteworthy, compelling and unusual about architectural subjects. His background consists of a lifelong interest in traveling to see monuments and buildings everywhere. He's a devoted art lover and amateur art historian and he associates mostly with academics and architects. He understands at a very high level just what it is that his clients are trying to express in their work and translates it for a wider and less lofty audience. It's that ability to effectively translate the work of his clients into a universally understandable and accessible visual summation that is his super power. It's his insight into the work that keeps world class architects knocking at the door.
And when we talk about the latest cameras I remember back to a time when clients were just as thrilled with the work they got from his when the best camera on the market for his work was something like the original Canon 5D. With all of 12 megapixels and no great noise performance as the ISO started rising. The work he did years ago with that cameras stands the test of time. It's elegant. The colors are great. The images sharp. The visual presentation compelling.
His powers of seeing and interpreting aren't necessarily improving because he is using "better" cameras but the images are improving because as he lives longer, travels more and sees more he incorporates the new ideas and styles he sees and experiences into his work. His sources of inspiration grow as he ingests work from more and more places and peers. His vision expands. The brand or model of camera is just a wrench or screwdriver compared to his point of view and his elite perceptions.
Over lunch we rib each other as friends seem happy to do. He pushed me to defend my purchase and use of the system I've made combining Panasonic GH5s along with Panasonic lenses and Olympus Pro lenses. I start by reminding him that at least half of the work I've doing these days is in video while the other half is the kind of photographic subject matter and material that my marketing clients are aiming mostly at the web and at electronic screens. I mention just how little real money I have tied up in my system compared to the kind of outlay we used to routinely make for gear. And then I watch his eyes gloss over as I regale him with minutae about video.
I've had my moments of doubt about my decision to downsize from the full frame Sony A7Rii cameras to the micro four thirds Panasonics but every time I do a comparison based on my non-alternate reality universe uses I end up deciding that my system gets the job done just fine and that focusing only on the cameras themselves undermines and incorrectly minimizes the importance of good lighting. Even more so it devalues the importances of finding the expression and capturing it in the moment.
I don't begin to think that my choice is the right choice for everyone but I do know that with a small and inexpensive flash system I can make a $2,000 camera with a small (but good) sensor beat up on a much more expensive camera combined with no flash system. The light allows me to create the photograph. The flash allows me to use ISOs like 80, 100 or 125. ISOs that leverage the abilities of the sensor. While it's true that using a bigger sensor with the same flashes would benefit the FF camera just as much I remember that I am not trying for the "ultimate in image quality" I am merely going for the ultimate image, which I judge by different metrics that sharpness or noise.
I heard a story recently from a director of photography who works on two hundred million dollar movies. He was being interviewed about the wholesale trend of LEDs taking over film sets and displacing older tech. The interviewer was pushing the idea that the DP could now move much quicker, use a smaller crew and become more efficient. After all, the lights would need less power; they would be more "agile."
The DP laughed and replied that he lights in order to bend the light to his will in the service of fulfilling the right look for each film. He said that he is not lighting to hit a certain overall illumination level but to use the light for qualities such as its ability to have direction, and characteristics like softness and color. He further stated that if all the lights took much less power it would hardly matter because the production would still use the same total number of lights. They would still need to be on light stands. They would still need to be flagged or modified. The grips would still need to run "stingers" (extension cords) and put sandbags on the light stands. Sets will continue on as they have been.
In the photo world the high megapixel count cameras are the rage. In cinema the choices are not so clear cut. The most popular camera for video, at the high end of the production scale, has been the Arri Alexa which is a 2K or 2.5K camera. There are many "comparable" cameras that feature 4K, 5K and even 8K sensors but directors and DPs used the Alexa on more academy award winning movies last year than any other movie camera---by far! Why? The directors and the DPs like the look of the files. They love the unique color rendering. They love the way the tones look.
In today's photography world we might want to stop staring at the overkill specifications of ever more pixels and start looking at more of the parameters the cinema people find compelling. A comparison may result in people finding out that they really do prefer the colors out of Olympus or Fuji cameras more than the Sony and Nikon cameras. They might find that older CCD sensor cameras have a "better" or more desirable overall look, when used at base ISOs, than more "modern" cameras. (Something I have mentioned hundreds of times in articles about the earlier Kodak Pro Digital camera line-up). They might even find that the tonal scale of the GH5 is compelling for some.
In the end photographers who pay attention to all the other steps and process considerations will find that if you get a great expression and pose from a portrait sitter it will be an effective portrait even if the only camera you had at your disposal was a disposable one. Or one with 6 or so megapixels.
They might also find out that artful use of lighting can add more character to an image of a person than adding more data points.
The thing that I like least about the fascination with camera specifications is that it takes away the oxygen from more important things in the mix. We might need to discuss cameras less and lighting techniques more often.
The Panasonics aren't magic but they sure work well and feel good. But if you are good at all the stuff leading up to pushing the shutter you could probably even make a good photograph with a Pentax (kidding, just kidding....).