Why would a working photographer want (need?) three identical camera bodies?

Cases and cases and cases of gear. No, it's not mine.

This particular blog post isn't really aimed at all you photographic artisans who are not consigned to making a client other than yourself happy. You can go on shooting with one perfect camera body and one exquisitely well chosen lens and be as happy as a clam. No penalty involved, in fact the "one camera/one lens" mindset is a wonderful way to hone a vision, and set of pre-visualization skills, that most working professionals will envy. So much envy. No, this particular post is just an explanation of why a commercial photographer, and especially someone who does both theatrical photography, event photography, and corporate reportage might actually need three cameras bodies. And, the more "identical" the bodies the better. 

Some of this thinking (on my part) was triggered as a result of Michael Johnston's acquisition of a Fujifilm X-H1 and lenses. Several people, myself included, left comments on his blog that more or less say, "if you like a camera body a lot you might consider buying a few extras..." On one hand we were making light of the idea that there is "one" perfect camera and it exists only in this one form and  only be available for a limited time before being replaced by something that's not quite as nice or quite as beautifully realized. 

If that is really true then it does make sense to buy up a few more and not suffer the opportunity loss as cameras age and become irreplaceable. This may have made good sense back in the days of film cameras but with imaging sensors being the core differentiator in modern cameras, maybe not so much anymore. But on a different level I guess I was subconsciously channeling what I see as a real advantage to professionals who need to work quickly, juggle different focal length lenses and who also need redundant back up equipment in case of loss or failure of a critical component while on the clock for a paying client.

It all came back clearly to me as I packed for yesterday morning's photo assignment at Zach Theatre. I was heading out to photograph a production of "JunGal Book" (I swear I didn't misspell the title; it's a variation of the Rudyard Kipling story, with a young woman in the role of Mogli, and a title that's familiar enough to potential audiences but doesn't cross the Disney Copyright "We own JUNGLE BOOK" Boundaries. 

At any rate I knew I'd want a fast, standard zoom (cue the Fuji 16-55mm f2.8) and a fast longer zoom (cue the Fuji 50-140mm f2.8) and I also thought it would be handy and fun to have ready access to the super fast Fuji 56mm f1.2 APD lens. If I tried using all three lenses on one camera body I'd have to work frantically; switching lenses (in the dark) over and over again as the play only lasts for one hour and the action moves quickly. I'd probably miss about half the shots I needed during the lens transitions. Just the thought of it reminds me of the one triathlon I tried; the hardest parts were changing "gears" between swimming, biking and the running. Jeez. How many times does one want to change shoes, clothes and equipment to do one race???

The solution for me, as usual, was to put each lens I intended to use on its own, dedicated camera body. I set up each body to be identical in terms of selected menu items and overall settings. Yesterday, with no ability to pre-scout the show, I depended (for a change) on the additional latitude of raw files across all three cameras. Since there was no audience for this dress rehearsal I was able to put one camera on the seat to the left of me, the other camera on seat just to the right and then one in my hands. If I anticipated a wider shot coming up I could exchange cameras immediately and all I'd need to do in able to get off a quick series of shots with the new camera would be to fine tune the exposure and then get after it. Dance scene completed? Ready for a close up of the main actor from across the stage? I grab the camera in the other seat; the one with the longer zoom, and blaze away. 

Having all three cameras within easy reach and ready to go was the best way to handle this shooting situation. The only thing that would have yielded a higher hit rate would have been to put three photographers into the mix and assign each one a different focal length range. They could all shoot the entire play and never miss a shot because they would not be busy grabbing a different camera. (No. We're not going to do that because the (non-profit) theater doesn't have the requisite budget....).

If I were disciplined enough to work only with prime lenses (in order to squeeze out the very last vestiges of quality....) this three camera motif would be even more logical and sensible. Any number more than three cameras becomes a bit unwieldy but anything less than three would limit my flexibility too much. 

Much the same happens when I shoot corporate events. I might need to go from getting a tight head shot of a speaker on an expansive stage to getting a wide, establishing shot of the same speaker while showing the entirety of a one hundred foot wide stage, followed by turning around and getting a crowd "reaction" shot with a faster lens. Many times I can make do with just two cameras and two well chosen lenses but I would still want to have that third body close by. 

If you are working a business showcase that is three days long there are so many "opportunities" to have someone destroy a camera body, or lens. I still remember the sad photographer who was sitting down and changing the lens on his mirrorless camera body when, with the sensor fully exposed, he involuntarily sneezed. Right into the open lens mount of his camera. Rendering it useless until such a time as he could get the sensor professionally cleaned (I hope). I also remember putting down a camera to dig something out of my bag, a few years ago, when someone spilled a pitcher of ice tea over it. That camera and lens were never quite right again.... and that was mid-job. Woe be unto the working stiff that doesn't come with extras!!! Then there was the time an assistant accidentally dropped a Hasselblad body onto a concrete floor..... and the time we had two cameras die as I was trying to shoot on a super dusty baseball field for a large hardware store chain. Lucky we had on more camera in the case. 

You've heard it all before, and the reasons to have multiple, identical bodies at photo assignments remain as valid today as they've ever been. There are different points of failure now but there are failure points nonetheless. Being a Boy Scout or a commercial photographer it's good to know the scout motto: BE PREPARED. 

But wait, there's more. Now that we've added video to the repertoire we've added more layers of complexity to the mix. The falling price of cameras has led to the rise of the "two and three camera" shooting strategy. In the days of super pricey video and motion film cameras a production could rarely justify having a second camera in the mix. If you wanted to shoot a tight shot, a wider shot and a reaction shot in an interview setting you'd do it sequentially, serially. Shoot the tight shots and then move the one camera, or change the lens, to get a tight shot and then move the camera again and get reaction shots. With the advent of much less expensive (but still highly capable) cameras which come complete with outstanding 4K video, productions can save tons of time (and time = $$$$$) and get all three shots simultaneously, using three cameras. But, of course, this is predicated on having three (or more) cameras on hand. The best case scenario is to have all three cameras of exactly the same brand and model and all calibrated and color corrected to the same targets to make blending the footage together in post production that much easier. Which means we're back to "needing" (wanting?) three (or more) cameras in the cases...just in case. Four, if you want a back up in case of failure. 

Considering that my first (and only) 16mm movie camera cost more than a car back in the 1980's and that one can currently buy three Fuji X-H1 bodies (which are very, very good video cameras!!!) for about $3,000 (total!) the duplication I've outlined is actually not wasteful but, indeed, a smart strategy. 

Some folks scoff about the need for back ups against failure in "modern" digital cameras but I think they vastly overestimate the resiliency of the actual imaging sensor bundle. While most dust is easy to clean off I had to change lenses in the field this year and one drop of moisture hit the exposed sensor and bonded with some sort of evil, otherworldly dust to form a spot (visible in any file shot at f5.6 or higher) that even my wet swab cleaning skills could not eradicate. That body had to go in for service and was out of inventory for the better part of two weeks. This in-field-failure didn't hamper our project because we still had two more bodies in the bag, but I did start changing lenses in the car with the windows closed.

Finally, I think there is a very valid point to locking in continued access to cameras you've come to enjoy using and which you know backwards and forwards. There are so few things in consumer life that deliver on their implied promises. When you find a product that seems custom made to fit the way you like to work, and the way you want your user interface to function it seems logical (and ultimately comfortable, psychologically) to want to ensure some ongoing continuity with that product; especially if it's a tool you depend upon to make your living. Every change in process tends to reverberate throughout your workflow and even little changes and differences can disrupt your smooth flow. 

Having used the Fuji X-H1 cameras for the better part of a year now; almost daily, I've learned them and their "personalities" very well. I can pick one up and start shooting without hesitation. It's entirely possible that a Nikon Z7 or a Panasonic S1 might give me a better image, or even better video, than the X-H1 but would the small margin of difference actually be discernible by the clients (or even myself)? And would that difference be enough to offset the requisite learning curve I'd have to live through to get up to speed on yet another new system? My belief is that, for most work where we are not flirting with the ragged edge of the envelope of shooting parameters, nearly every current camera, from micro four thirds models right up to medium format, is more than adequate and each comes with their own sets of compromises; from investment to portability, from color profiles to lens availability. 

To duplicate my current working set of three X-H1s and one X-T3, as well as a drawer fully of genuinely wonderful lenses, I'd have to spend appreciably more money in another system with no guarantee that my results would be any different in the final outcome. So much of the quality of a photography assignment depends more on lighting, composition, styling, casting, and point of view than the final output of one or another camera sensor. And people seem to always forget that.......

So, when I suggested to Michael Johnston that he get extra bodies I was actually conflating two different ideas: one based on the needs of current commercial image makers who shoot certain kinds of assignments, but also the idea that having a "perfect" camera comes (for some of us) with the fear of not being able to buy the same camera or duplicate the same experience at some time in the future. 

Of course, some of you are more conversant with imaging tech than others. I'm fascinated with the people who seem to know every line of the Olympus menu system or the Sony menu system and can get their cameras to operate in wi-fi within seconds. Those people have a gift of knowing almost intuitively how to make digital cameras work. They are probably able to transition from system to system without much more thought than is required to go from one rental car to another. 

There is a different set of photographers at the other end of this largely imaginary spectrum who resist change, hate having to re-learn stuff they were comfortable with in one system and see changing systems as exacting a huge friction of trade. This is who I have in mind with my advice to buy three of anything you love. Be it shoes, cameras or lights. You'll be so happy to have extras when the product you really liked much more than other, comparable products vanishes from the market, replaced by a new model with a flimsier build, a cheaper set of materials but a newer sensor and some inane electronic feature you'll never learn (or want to learn) to use. 

I think I'll go out today and buy one more set of Tyr swim goggles. The pair I have is the best I've owned in the course of 50 some odd years of swimming. And, when I get them I'll be sure to photograph them with one of the Fujis.....

Above and below: a three camera video production with Taylor Holland. 
Edited in multi-cam mode. Fun with multiple camera angles!

The wide shot. Not possible with my 70-200mm equivalent zoom lens.
But imminently possible with a 24-85mm zoom on a second camera.

A tighter shot from mid-house. The perfect use for a longer focal length.

The Sony RX10IV or III solves the "lens change" issue nicely
but introduces its own compromise of sensor geometry and the 
need to have a second, identical camera with lens for back up.
(above and below).

Yes. We have back up meters.

The wider shot. 

The tighter shot.


Gato said...

Back in the bad old days of all-mechanical bodies and motor drives I used to joke I needed 3 cameras -- one on each shoulder and one in the shop.

As to other things, for 15 or 20 years I bought the same black tennies for semi-dress photo work shoes. Last time I tried to buy a pair the design had changed and the quality had fallen through the floor. I've tried 3 brands so far with no luck finding anything that fits as well or keeps me as comfortable through a day on my feet. Maybe I should have laid in a life-time supply.

KK said...

Hi Kirk. It's been a while since I last visited your blog. I was cleaning up old bookmarks in my browser and came across a number of websites that I used to frequent (many of them dead). Then I thought about VSL, and how I used to stop by on the regular. It got me thinking about my consumption trends, and I think I may have mentioned that your Blogger blog didn't work with Apple News a while back. When it comes to reading internet content, Apple News has become my primary tool. It is a rare thing for me to do casual reading on any of my computers these days. The demise of Google Reader took a pretty big whack at my regular blog diet, and it's been years since I have actively curated RSS feeds. So, for a quick view of what's going on around me, I pull up a couple of apps on my phone.

The other thing I'm noticing is how much YouTube has become part of my daily info diet, largely replacing podcasts as my passive media tool. Sure, it's a visual medium, but there are a number of content creators with strong storytelling skills whom I can listen to while commuting or out walking the dog. I cannot do that for the written word.

Over time, I came to your blog more for your writing, and less for the camera geekery (but, I was amused that you are now deep into Fuifilm, as am I). You are a great writer, and I feel a little guilty that I haven't been keeping up with you as of late. Your writing is not too dissimilar from the narratives put out by Ted Forbes and Hugh Brownstone on YouTube. I recall you dabbling in YouTube a while back, but found no videos on your channel. Anyhow, I'm not trying to give you any advice you don't already know. Just a fan of your work who thinks you have a great voice and an interesting perspective, stopping in for what will likely be an increasingly infrequent visit to say hi.

Jerry said...

Please, please, please don't for one second consider YouTube over the written word. I truly hate that the world of communication is turning to all video, all the time. With the written word, I can determine how fast or slow I take in the information instead of having to slog through huge swaths of wasted time to "maybe" get to point. Words matter. Written words matter more.

Coasting said...

Thoughtful article as usual but surely the backup theory should extend to and include a lens or two as well.It would be just as much a disaster to lose say the 16-55 mid shoot I would think