The best camera is the right one for your particular job. But what are some of the less than obvious reasons why we pick up one camera instead of another?
The other day, I was on set, shooting a fitness and activewear campaign, both still and motion work. This is my bread and butter and the genre I’ve built my business around. And, as you’d expect from someone who makes their living via photography, over the years, I have acquired just about every tool necessary (and several unnecessary) with which to do my job.
This includes multiple cameras and multiple sets of lenses all excelling at different aspects of photography. I long for the days when I only had one camera to do it all, but I seem to have reached a point, much to my chagrin, where I can’t seem to find one camera that fully satisfies all my criteria.
I’ve got medium format cameras with superior image quality but that are slow to the point of limiting operation (a difficulty when shooting fast-moving athletes). I’ve got tiny mirrorless cameras with swift performance but lacking the resolution my clients need for their in-store displays and multiple cropping needs. I’ve got traditional DSLRs that find the perfect middle ground, but somehow still fail to set my heart on fire, possibly falling victim to their own perfection.
To make matters worse, the difference between all of these cameras on multiple fronts, from image quality to handling, can be far more subjective than one might like. Case in point: lately, I’ve become re-obsessed with another camera in my arsenal, the Fujifilm X100S. Not the T or the F. But the 2011-released 16 MP second iteration of the X100 series mainly geared at street shooters and travelers who want a camera small enough to jam into their pockets. It’s not that I find it superior to its younger brothers. It’s just that this happens to be the one that I already own, and I have sworn off new camera purchases for the duration of my current camera malaise.
I never used it much when I first got it. Originally, I thought it would be a fun second camera, and it definitely fit that bill. I just never got around to making the time to have that fun, focusing in a bit too much on work and less on the joy of just taking pictures. But lately, I’ve been addressing that and dusted off my X100S, with its straightforward design and low key features as a way to reconnect with the basic joy of photography.
I happened to have it with me on my fitness campaign shoot last week. I figured I might use it to grab a handful of behind the scenes images in-between setups. It wasn’t going to be the primary camera, or course. Those duties fell to the 100 MP medium format GFX 100. I am quickly finding out what I like and definitely don’t like about that camera. This shoot was another opportunity to put it through another torture test to see how it integrates into my workflow. As I would be doing both still and motion work, I was also experimenting with a mixture of continuous and natural lighting as opposed to using my trusty strobes. I wanted a consistent look between still and video, and that is far easier to obtain with hot lights. Or, I guess more accurately, LEDs.
I was in the process of setting up my Aputure Light Storm C300d when I noticed the model casually wrapping her hands for the next boxing shot. The light fell perfectly, so I quickly raised my camera and started shooting. It wasn’t until I was seven or eight frames in before I realized that, in my haste, I had been shooting with my X100S instead of the GFX 100, which I had set to the side while moving the light stand. I quickly jogged over and picked up the larger camera before returning to my model to get the shot that I had intended.
I completed the shoot. The GFX 100, which can be both exhilarating and frustrating, pulled it off in style. I headed home a happy photographer and sat down in front of Capture One to begin looking over the results.
It was when going through the shots that I suddenly remembered my momentary hiccup shooting with the wrong camera. While the problem was remedied, it dawned on me that this might be the perfect opportunity to truly compare the images side by side. One is ten times more expensive and has six times the megapixels as the other. At the same time, they were shot under identical lighting situations and (for the moment) would only be being viewed on a computer screen. The settings weren’t completely identical. But, they were pretty darn close. They were using the same film simulation. The aperture was a bit more open on the compact camera and a bit more closed on the medium format to account for depth of field issues related to the sensor sizes. With a very small bit of correction for color temperature in Capture One, I could bring the smaller camera's colors much closer in line with its big brother. It wouldn’t be a scientific test. But scientific tests play no part in real world shooting, so it was going to be interesting to see what the results would be.
Looking at the two images, side-by-side, there was definitely a difference. But, was it a significant one? The shots were not exactly identical, as this wasn’t an intentional test. So, my reaction may have been a result of a minor shift in model’s position relative to the light.
And, of course, with the GFX 100, the benefits really come out when you begin to zoom in, and in, and in. This story is not meant as a suggestion that my X100S produces better image quality than my GFX 100. They are different tools for different purposes. The benefits of 100 MP aren’t apparent in the initial image. They are apparent in the print.
But, since this particular assignment did not demand a large print as an end result, it opened up larger questions for me about the reasons why we, as photographers, choose or don’t choose one camera versus another. The truth of the matter is that in the modern age, when even an entry level camera has specs that were once reserved for only the top of the line professional gear, you really can get high-quality images out of just about anything, assuming you understand light, composition, and the other non-spec-related aspects of photography.
And while we photographers spend a decidedly unwarranted amount of time bickering about the specs of particular cameras and their relative importance to the final product, we are also in the fortunate position to be able to pick between camera systems for a multitude of other reasons beyond the simplistic numbers offered up by each manufacturer.
Aside from my boxing shoot, I did three other shoots last week alone. On each shoot, I used a completely different camera. Not because I’m indecisive (well, not just because I’m indecisive), but because each job had different requirements and called for a different tool. So what are some of the random, thoroughly non-technical aspects I take into account when choosing a camera to bring to set?
As the above story illustrates, and as many of you will already know, you don’t necessarily need to have the biggest and best camera to achieve the best results. What your clients want is a great image to sell their product. Generally speaking, they don’t particularly care about the brand name of the camera you use to create it.
However, this may also be where the overall client experience may begin to factor into your gear decision. For example, I shoot campaigns for a number of large brands. Many of my shoots have budgets well into six figures and and often exceeding a quarter-million. This money is not going just to me, I should point out. We’re talking overall budget with everything involved in the production.
Usually, these campaigns have a printed component involved, but not always. So, in theory, I could shoot the images with my little compact camera and still get a great result if the images were ever only going to live, for instance, on a company’s social media feed.
But, if a company is spending a quarter-million dollars on a shoot, and I, as the photographer, show up with a point-and-shoot camera, I don’t think that would go down so well. I may be able to capture what they need with it. But, as most of the client team present at the shoot will be far better versed in market trends than photographic tools, sometimes, it’s necessary to make a visual impression behind the camera as well. They may not understand the intricacies of megapixels and print size, but they do understand the sight of a huge and impressive piece of machinery. And this can help a client with a lot of money and possibly their employment on the line to feel more comfortable with their investment.
The inverse of this rule could also be in effect. Let’s say, for instance, that I am out for a day of street photography. My goal is to capture authentic moments of people on the street. I’ll be on my feet all day, just waiting for the perfect moment, and need to capture my subject without raising too much of an alarm that may alter the subject's behavior.
In this situation, having a big DSLR with a massive lens or a slow focusing medium format camera would likely be the wrong choice. Sure, the image quality might be great. But, if the camera’s mere presence prevents the right image from occurring in the first place, what’s the point? In situations like this, smaller cameras, like the X100S, are a perfect choice.
Its small footprint doesn’t put strangers on alert the way a larger camera might. Because it doesn’t attract attention, people are far more likely to continue living their normal lives, which is exactly what you wanted in the first place.
Even if someone is aware of your presence, maybe you even have asked them to sit for a portrait, the smaller form factor of the camera can be much less intimidating. Even on larger editorial shoots which I may originally intend to shoot with a DSLR, I will often find myself carving out a few moments at the end of the shoot to capture a handful of images of the subject with one of my “baby” cameras, the X100S or the X-T3. The resolution, even at 16 MP or 26 MP, is plenty for magazine prints, and the less intimidating camera can sometimes help a subject to let their guard down and allow me to capture more authentic moments.
This is a problem common to all photographers, myself included. We rise through the ranks of photography, moving from point-and-shoot to high-end professional systems, and we sometimes come to confuse our identity as a professional with the level of our camera. This is completely ridiculous if one steps back for a moment to think about it. But it’s a trap we almost all fall into at one point or another.
Want to set the internet comment section on fire? Simply raise the question of whether or not you can call yourself a “professional” if your camera doesn’t have two card slots. Or try telling a fellow photographer that you don’t like just one single aspect of their personal brand of choice, and you will likely find yourself on the wrong end of a photographic rage firing squad.
We define ourselves by brands. Are you an Apple or a PC? Are you a Republican or a Democrat? Are you Nikon or Canon? Are you Fuji or Sony? At the end of the day, these are just labels. But these labels can become very intertwined in our own view of ourselves and can push us to sometimes pick up the wrong tool for a job.
Even though the dimensions of a camera can be measured, the way it feels in your hand is one of the more purely subjective aspects of a camera. Many times, I’ve poured over hours and hours of reviews about a particular camera, obsessed with how its specs will improve my workflow, only to visit the camera store, pick it up in my hand, and instantly be put off by the way it feels. Choosing a camera is almost like picking a new pair of glasses. Some just fit. Some just don’t.
But this will be different for every photographer. Do you have big hands? Do you have small hands? Do you like your shutter button on top or slightly in front? How deep should the grip be? Where do you like your buttons? Are you a screen shooter or a viewfinder shooter? All these things, along with the conditions you’ll be shooting in, will factor into which camera you choose for a job.
Does It Make Me Happy?
The most important reason is by far the most elusive. Sometimes, cameras just make me feel good. Looking at it, pressing the buttons, having it around my neck, and sparking conversations about it with random strangers. Certain cameras just simply make me want to pick them up.
They may be lacking in certain areas on the spec sheet. They may not have been designed to shoot the things that I need to shoot. But, still, I just want to shoot with them. They make me want to shoot more. Shooting more makes me better. Who cares if it doesn’t have an ideal number of megapixels? Megapixels don’t count if you don’t want to take the shot in the first place. Who cares if there’s another camera on the market with a more advanced autofocus system? Are you able to keep your shots in focus anyway? Then don’t worry about it.
Choosing the right camera for a particular job can come down to a million and one different factors, and not all of them can be calculated on a spec sheet. What are some of the reasons you find yourself gravitating to one camera over another? And what gives you joy to want to go out and shoot?