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What Makes a Camera Professional?

What Makes a Camera Professional?

Today, I’d like to discuss one of the most overused and most misunderstood concepts in photography. What exactly makes something a “professional camera”?

If you’ve spent any amount of time reading or watching camera reviews (and let’s be honest, who among us hasn’t), then it’s highly likely that you’ve heard the terms “pro body” or “professional gear” thrown around. Usually, the reviewer is using this term as a sort of shorthand to denote what sets this particular camera apart from the other ones in the same brand’s lens lineup. For instance, why does a Nikon D6 cost around $6,500 whereas a Z 6II only cost around $2,000? As a shorthand, some might say that the D6 is a “pro-level body,” whereas the Z 6II is not.

But, setting aside for a moment whether or not I actually agree with that statement, it’s also a bit misleading because it gives the impression that, in order to be professional, you need to be shooting with a “professional” camera body. It makes sense why reviewers use this as shorthand. There are features that high-end cameras have that would appeal to pros but not make much of a difference to most hobbyists. And, like most things in life, you do tend to get what you pay for, so even a $6,500 can earn its price tag for the right customer. But, I think the more pertinent question that first has to be answered is, who is a professional photographer?

Since aesthetics are highly subjective, trying to call someone a pro or not based on talent is somewhat of a fool’s errand. After all, lots of people are amazing photographers without being pro photographers because they choose instead to make their living as dentists, or lawyers, or factory workers. Simply having a “pro body” can’t qualify you as a professional. Otherwise, all you would have to do to become a professional photographer would be to save up enough cash to buy an expensive camera. That may impress your photo friends, but I think we can all agree that you need to accomplish a bit more than being good at spending money to be a professional photographer.

Personally, I choose to go by the one unavoidable judge and jury, the IRS. For tax purposes, you are generally judged to be a professional in a given field if you make over 50% of your income from providing those services. The numbers may vary depending on your principality, but the basic equation, in my opinion, for being a professional photographer is whether or not you are able to establish a photography business upon which you can make a living. There is obviously some wiggle room in that equation as everyone’s situation is different, but I’ll use that as a baseline for our discussion, because I think it’s an important thing to consider when discussing whether or not a camera you are considering purchasing is “pro” level or not.

I’ll give you an example. When I was first starting out, the only camera I could afford was a Nikon D200. Though not too shabby at the time it was released, the 10.2 MP it provided would hardly be considered a “pro-level” photography body. Yet, it is the camera I used to start my business and generate an income.

Likewise, many wedding photographers shoot with cameras as the Z 6II mentioned in my earlier comparison. They need multiple bodies at an affordable price point that can do a lot of different things on a wedding day. But they don’t necessarily need to be able to shoot at the same ridiculously high frame rates that might be an absolute necessity to another photographer who might, for example, be tasked with capturing images of an NFL game and thus genuinely need a camera like the D6. So, both photographers are making the right choice for their subject matter and section of the profession. But, would you say that the wedding photographer who shoots multiple weddings each week isn’t a professional photographer because they aren’t carrying a “pro” body? Of course not.

This discussion may sound ridiculous. Partly because it is. But I do still remember those days early on when photography was still more of a hobby than a legitimate avenue to pay my mortgage. At that point, when you are still not exactly clear on how those professional photographers that you admire actually make their money or get their assignments, it’s tempting to say things to yourself like: “Well, if only I had a more expensive camera, then I could shoot images like that.” Or you might even offer yourself the greater delusion that clients actually hire photographers based on the gear they own rather than based on their creativity, complete suite of skills they bring to the table, and ability to help their clients reach their own objectives.

The simple fact of the matter is that your level of professionalism and your value as a photographer are not defined by the camera in your bag. It’s defined by the artistic vision that you bring to the process and the solutions you can provide.

Of course, as I said earlier, there are definitely differences between cameras at different price points. The more relevant question to ask yourself, however, is whether or not those prices apply to you. As a case in point, I recently borrowed a Nikon D5 and a 500mm f/4 E FL ED VR lens from Nikon Professional Services. While I’ve been, by legal standards, a professional photographer for going on two decades now, I have never owned one of the “pro body” style Nikon bodies like the D4, D5, or D6 with the built-in grip. My work is in commercial advertising, so those cameras never had the resolution I needed for the majority of my jobs. And their biggest selling point, the ability to shoot at ridiculously high frame rates, was not something that I really ever required for my job. So, there was never really any reason for me to buy one since models like the D850 or medium format systems have always been better suited to my needs.

But, of course, that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t curious. What was all the hype about? Was it really worth that price tag? When Nikon recently announced that they were in the development of a Z 9 flagship mirrorless camera that would borrow from the D6 body type with the built-in vertical grip and be similarly built for speed, I wanted to see for myself what it was like to shoot with a bigger body.

Of course, the immediate answer to that question was heavy. Very heavy. It was incredibly heavy carrying around the D5 and 500mm f/4 combination. Of course, it’s supposed to be. That’s not the type of thing people purchase with an intention of walking around doing street photography. It’s really a combination more geared towards sideline sports shooters or wildlife photographers who will be mounting the combination to the top of a tripod. I had chosen to get the combo on loan because, on the weekends, I enjoy doing a little bird photography. I am decidedly not a professional wildlife photographer, mind you. So, I make no claims as to be any good at it. But I enjoy it as a stress relief from my actual photography work, so I figured I would treat myself to some high-level equipment for a weekend out to have a little fun.

Speaking of fun, I realize that I lead with a serious discussion of how one chooses a pro body based on their own needs as a professional, but I will say that shooting with the D5 was insanely fun. Though I don’t need all those frames per second for my professional work, I couldn’t help but smile at the sound of the camera rattling off frames at the speed of a machine gun without breaking a sweat. I’m fairly certain that a great many of the shots I took with the D5 were simply taken so that I could hear that loud and rather satisfyingly thunderous clap of the D5 shutter when you take a picture. I know all the logical reasons why someone would want to use a silent shutter. But there is just something about the ratta-tat-tat of the D5 that makes you feel alive when shooting with it.

The build quality of the “pro body” is also immediately apparent. A lot of cameras claim to be weather resistant. But the apparent and redundant weather sealing all around the D5 was enough to convince me that you really could work with it under almost any weather conditions without having the slightest of concerns that it wouldn’t be able to handle the elements.  

The body itself is built like a brick, which I say in the most complimentary way possible. Let’s just say that if someone broke into your house and all you had to defend yourself was a baseball bat and this camera, I think you’d have pretty good odds at being able to knock out the intruder with either one. The advantage of using the D5 would be that you could continue to rattle off a multitude of uninterrupted frames during the process.

A “pro-level” camera also comes with all the bells and whistles specific to the tasks required by those who shoot with it. Things like built-in LAN connections which enable news photographers to quickly upload images to the newsroom or other end users are the type of thing that an architectural photographer, for example, would have no need for. But for people who do need this type of feature, this level of camera is covered in such functional considerations.

In short, a “pro body” does and should provide the features that are necessary for its end users to perform their job at the highest level through both foreseen and unforeseen circumstances. It’s the kind of camera you take with you into a war zone when you know you’re not going to have a lot of chances to get “the” shot and you need your gear to keep working flawlessly no matter what.

Now, do you need that level of camera for what you like to shoot? Well, that’s a question only you can answer. What is easy to proclaim however is that what defines a professional photographer is not that they are using what a marketing department has declared a “professional camera,” but rather he or she’s the ability to generate work at a professional level and generate business putting those skills to use. So, the real definition of a “professional camera” is not defined by price tags or preset specifications, but rather whether or not it has the features you need to provide your clients with the assets they need and can help you generate the income to sustain yourself and your career.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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the person behind the camera ....

There are no professional cameras, but cameras for professionals!!!

I agree its the operator. However, I think the one feature that defines a professional camera is 2 card slots. It can not be considered as professional if you do not have redundancy. It doesn't mean you can't get professional results with any camera.


Are Leica digital rangefinders not professional? What about the Nikon Z6/Z7? Or the Nikon D700 in its time, which was indeed considered a truly professional level camera. Or the Fujifilm X-T1 or X-Pro1 at their time? Leica Q2 Monochrom?

A professional camera isn't really a thing. It isn't defined by who uses it, since many professionals also use "non-pro" cameras (e.g. compacts like Leica Q2, X100V, Ricoh GR).

The only reason we call cameras "professional," "prosumer," "enthusiast," "entry level" is because it's a simple and universally understandable way to categorize them in terms of price point, feature set, capabilities in various departments, build quality, etc.

gotta be honest with you, I have no idea what that means.

I know who he is and what the words bespoke and charcoal mean, but no idea what bespoke charcoal is. Or why it's related to this. Please tell me though!

Ahhh gotcha.

Yes, I agree entirely. Interestingly, what I focus the most on with cameras is how they work for me - how they feel in the hand, do the controls work for the stuff I do, is it comfortable to carry for hours - and of course things like lens selection e.g. Sony would win out over just about everyone in that regard - I don't shoot Sony though, but it's still a consideration.

Haptics are one reason I returned the X-T4 I bought. I love the idea of the Fuji cameras, I love their lenses, I love their film simulations, great menu.... but the shutter speed/ISO dial stuff doesn't work for me in a digital camera. Having the ability to set custom shooting modes (like C1, C2, C3 on the mode dial) is important to me. You can't do that with most of the Fuji APS-C cameras. You can with the GFX 100S for example, because it has a normal PASM dial.

Also the X-T4 wasn't comfortable. Too little grip (and yet it's even a bigger grip than the X-T3!) making it painful with anything other than a small lens. The shutter button is flush on top, which is not comfortable nor good for stability.... the list goes on.

Beyond that kind of stuff, yes, people are way too concerned with the tech specs. Unless it's missing a feature you really need (e.g. IBIS or phase detection for good tracking or certain video specs), just about any brand will have half a dozen cameras for you.

People also overvalue resolution, dynamic range, and high ISO performance - 99.9% of people who obsess over that on the internet wouldn't ever use it to its potential. Pretty much any camera these days will have more than enough DR and high ISO capability.

Matt - If you read my comment, I said you can get professional results with any camera. It is the digital age and I cant imagine in common practice people are asking for film to be shot at their weddings or events, and I am 99% sure that the hipsters that asked you to do so would also ask you to scan them for them... you know for their IG page... lol I have been shooting professionally since the 80's. My point is about the camera body. It has to be tough and have 2 card slots. You can get professional level photos from a Canon Rebel or your Lecia but I would never shoot a wedding or event with it. Maybe as a third camera. It is an interesting topic.

So wedding/event photography is the only photography that's professional is what you're saying.

Sure man. You're right. Have fun!

Having started my professional career 24 years ago shooting a combination of medium format Mamiya bodies and a 4x5" camera which only held one single sheet of film at a time, I'd heartily disagree that a camera's "professionalism" is dictated by the number of card slots.

That's because it's the only thing you had at the time. Today, we have the luxury of 2 card slots just in case. Card failure is rare, but it happened to me, so now, my camera has to have 2 slots. Imagine you're shooting a one off event with virtually no chance of repeating the event. Let's say you're at the alter and the bride and groom do that big kiss at the end of the ceremony. You get to your computer and your one card is phhhhhtttttt. It's going to be a fun conversation when you tell the bride that there was an oops and you missed the big moment.

The client isn't going to care that it was a card failure. She's going to head to the internet and let a lot of people know that you screwed up. And the review won't say a word about a card failure. Had you had two cards, you have a happy bride and a good review. But, that's just me.

Yes, you can take very professional shots with a Canon R or a Nikon Z7. But, when your livelihood and reputation depend on you fulfilling your contract, why not have every bit of insurance that you will fulfill that contract?

I think what you write rather underscores the whole point of this article: what makes a camera a "pro" level body depends on the needs of the users of that camera, if it satisfies those needs -- and if that user earns their main income with that camera.

Obviously in your case, your need is such that you need 2 card slots and there's no arguing that.

Another photographer might make their living shooting landscapes and can deal with a broken card on occasion and go out and shoot again another day. The failure might still be painful, but won't break their reputation.

Someone else might shoot tethered in a studio 99% of the time and not care about the number of card slots at all, they use no cards that could break, only USB cables.

Dual card slots is a feature of many bodies used by pro photographers for good reason, but not necessarily the defining feature of a "pro body" for _all_ pro photographers.

That's my takeaway the point of this article.

(That said, I'm a hobbyist shooter myself so take that into account when valuing my words. ;) )

Can't argue your points. I look at it from the event kind of shooter, especially the one off type. The last event I shot was a huge birthday party for a founding member of an engineering firm. He turned 80 and many of the guests were from out of town. It's the type of event that isn't going to be repeated.

As far as my card failure, it was an SD card, however, it happened to be in a 5DIII that also had the CF card slot filled. I didn't lose any data, but it made me think about what would have happened had I not done my due diligence.

I haven't experienced card failure nor file corruption in-camera since I began formatting the card every time I put it in the camera. Never delete a file in-camera, and you won't have to worry about file fragmentation (which is what leads to almost all card corruption).

I shoot somewhere between 100, 000-150,000 photos each year. It's been more than 16 years since the last time I had a corrupt file on a card.

And even that one time 16 years ago that a file did get corrupt, I only lost that one single file. Everything I had shot previously on the card was just fine. I swapped out the CF card for a new one, and continued shooting the wedding.

The next day I did some research on file corruption, realized that disc fragmentation was believing culprit, and I changed my practices. Only shoot on a freshly formatted card, to never use the delete button in camera.

Nearly 2 million photos later... I'm fairly confident in the technique.

That's just buggy code in the camera firmware -- one hopes that this is fixed now in stable camera platforms.

But there's also corruption due to card failure which can happen due to wear and tear on the flash-memory, after many write-cycles. Fragmentation could still make this worse due to forcing more writes, and at least some kinds of flash memory also have more write-fatigue when the disk or card is nearly full.

Corruption due to card failure will affect many more files than just a single file since it's similar to a group of bad sectors on a harddisk, and potentially makes all files on the card unreadable all at once.

I'm not arguing that you should stop formatting your cards in camera, this is probably still good practice (although I don't do it myself).

Every time you format a flash memory card, the card's controller maps out detected bad sectors and replaces them with reserve memory. The controller also assigns memory addresses to different hardware resources in order to do wear leveling. It works incredibly well.

Thanks, this is something which I was not aware of!

Means I should also start formatting my cards from time to time!

I know a lot of photographers that have never had any sort of card failure. It is rare, that's for sure. But, why take a chance when there's a way to double your insurance that if that day does come, there was backup?

I know plenty of photographers who've never had a card failure.... it mostly boils down to taking care of your equipment.

Just like I said...I know a lot of photographers that have never had a card failure.

I guess some photographers treat their equipment as if it's the cousin of a ball peen hammer. For those people, I suppose it's to be expected. I treat my equipment like a newborn.

While I won't dismiss the consideration out of hand, I do think it misguided to draw such a distinct line based on this one consideration. If you look at my websites and my client list (including Fortune 500 companies) spanning 20 years of work, I think any fair-minded person would agree I'm a legitimate pro. Even so, I have done much (perhaps half) of my work with one-slot camera bodies. I've never lost an image. And, I DO have redundancy - mainly by shooting with multiple bodies. If any one, or even two, of my cards failed, I'd still have enough images to meet the client's needs. Dual slots are not the be-all and end-all of professionalism.

Not everyone getting paid for their work shoots unrepeatable events. In fact, many of the top earners in the industry don't shoot events. They do commercial and product photography, often with tethered cameras that need zero memory cards.

I guess you never shot film....

A pro build camera takes a real beating in all sorts of weather and temperature variants and can take a real abuse.The features are a bonus.I am not a pro but I buy used hi end cameras and shoot in all weather conditions, not caring or worrying what I subject them to. As for your old D200 all I can say that camera was beast .Take a look at what James Balog did with a number of these cameras in his Extreme Ice Survey.

You know it when you see it. There's no defining feature. I think the strongest indicator might be when a camera is no longer available in-store at Best Buy. I'm dead serious. They only sell consumer level stuff, so that's a great clue a camera isn't pro. If you want a real camera you need to go to a camera store.

I'm not gatekeeping here, if you want to shoot a wedding with an a6000 go ahead. Just my personal observations..

Are you dead serious that Sony Alpha 1 or Canon R5 are not professional cameras? Both are sold at Best Buy and both are as professional as it gets. If you shoot with 10 year old brick of the camera then you don't make enough money at photography trade. Good successful tradesman always uses best tools for a job.


The a1 isn't being sold at best buy. It has an online listing at best buy, which has never been active once. You cannot buy an a1, period. The same goes for the R5. Has there ever been one sold in an actual retail store? Nope. You have to go online. They will ship it to the store for pickup, one might even be available in the back as BB stages inventory around the country, but you'll never find one walking in, on display, ready to go.

Do you guys actually know why this is? Best Buy puts all its cameras out on display. They're played with, the cap is left off, the cameras get ruined from use. Above a certain price point, the number of cameras they sell vs. the price of the display they have to ruin isn't worth it anymore.

Well there it is. The most bizarre comment I have ever read on this site.

Look at this one available to pick up today at my local Best buy. What a garbage camera.


You are not a professional Photographer if you do not have the latest and the greatest Camera and Lenses.
Preferably a Phase One.

Me: Shoot Professionally with a Canon 70D.
And EOS 1000Fn for those whose wants film Look with actual film.

A professional camera is a camera that makes its living from being a camera.

Wait, wrong article.

A pro camera is one with pro support... My CPS support has been outstanding. Camera and lens repairs in under 24h. Things will always go wrong, what matter is what is done about it...

I owed a successful photography business for 30 years? Three full time photographers plus me? Equipment wad always a cost benefit calculation, that is how you stay in business.

There are no "pro" cameras. There are only pro photographers and the cameras they use to make images their clients are happy to pay for. Sometimes that's a Lomo, an Instax, a D7000, or a Better Light. A "pro" camera would be a camera that gets paid. I have yet to hear of a camera cashing a check.

I'm an event photographer. From 2003 to 2012 I shot mainly with Canon EOS 1D and 1Ds MkI, MkII and MkIII bodies. Then, with the availability of similar image quality from much smaller, lighter and cheaper cameras, from 2012 until 2019 I shot exclusively with Micro Four Thirds (MFT). Today, I shoot MFT alongside Sony a7[x]. My Panasonic GX7s were hardly what technophiles would call "pro" bodies, but I shot with three of them, each with primes mounted, and cranked out many tens of thousands of images that made scores of corporate clients happy enough to hire me over and over again. My client list includes eTrade, Colgate-Palmolive, Pepsi, the American Bar Association, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, and many more.

[appended to previous post]

While I agree with the idea that the person behind the camera decides if the images will look professional I still feel that a professional camera is one that is made to handle a lot of work, solid build quality, fast AF for sports photographers, fast card write speeds, decent buffer, weather-proofing, longer 'expected' shutter life, twin card slots for back-up. I think these are things that a working photographer looks for and thereby defines a "professional" camera. If you're making a living from your photography all these things add up to more peace of mind. Of course the same photographer could produce professional results from an entry level camera during his spare time but for an important shoot it would be silly not to have a "professional" camera.

"I still feel that a professional camera"...
There is no such thing as a "professional camera". The phrase is simply marketing-speak denoting such a broad range of characteristics as to make it virtually meaningless to the actual pro seeking to solve actual problems. The phrase exists almost entirely to up-sell amateurs. Just look at how the word "pro" is used to market everything from mobile phones to masking tape. There are only cameras that pros use. And pros use pretty much everything.
"I think these are things that a working photographer looks for"...
SOME pros may look for SOME of these things. Or not. It depends entirely on the kind of work they're doing, and pros do a HUGE range of work.

A camera that is more solidly built, can handle rain, fast frame rates, fast AF etc. is definitely more professional than an entry level camera.

No, it's not more "professional". It still can't cash a check. It's just...more solidly built, can handle rain...blah blah blah. I don't know why folks want a shorthand phrase that means nothing instead of an accurate description that can be matched to actual needs.

I highly doubt anyone actually believes there are clients hiring people basing on their gear rather than their portfolio. Why not software then? 'Oh, he doesn't like Photoshop's subscription model and uses Photoworks instead, how could he call himself a photographer!' lol
Of course, there are more and less sophisticated examples of equipment but it's up to photographers whether they are able to use the most of their gear's power.

In fact, there ARE lots of folks who believe this and who feel compelled to buy more than they need in order to be taken seriously. I encounter them regularly on photo-related forums. I generally try to disabuse them of this misconception, but it still lingers out there, particularly among aspiring pros. We can thank marketing departments for this.

Cheap shot downvote rather than a reasoned reply. Klassy.

I was at a restaurant couple of weeks ago and as I was taking pictures of my wife for her birthday, the waiter kindly came over and explained that the restaurant charges a fee of $600 for taking pictures with a professional camera.... I was shooting with a Canon Rebel T5i....I wanted to fight it but i realized it would be pointless.

To the waiter, "What is a professional camera"?

I take pictures, I write stuff, I sometimes do sound or lighting design. I do none very well but I enjoy doing them.

About 60% of my income is writing stuff, 39% taking pictures and 1% sound and lighting. I'd fail the IRS test but still make above average from just taking pictures.

I make my yearly picture taking money with a D850 and D700 in a studio. When my son and I went to Kenya and Tanzania we each invested in D5's. I don't think I've made a dime off anything taken w/ my professional D5 in the three years I've owned and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The single most valuable photo I've ever taken was when I borrowed (well, actually grabbed - along with her arm) my wife's Canon P&S. The ROI on that $200 camera purchase is proving pretty good though last I checked that photo is 13,458,355th on the list of greatest picture ROI's in history.

It's fascinating that the two movies with the greatest ROI in history are 'Deep Throat' and 'Facing The Giants'.

Cameras aren't professional. People are professional. I see plenty of people making money while using a D850, 5div, Z6, A7iii...

A D6 or 1DX mark whatever is great for particular use cases. If you're an agency photographer at the Olympics, you need fast AF and frame rate, excellent metering and the ability to send images in real time over a network to the back room. Last time I read a writeup on how they were working ther Olympics, those images were 3 mp JPGs. They needed minimal editing and could be on the wires in under 60 seconds. That speed was much more important than resolution.

I think the auther make the mistake of thinking that it is the photographer that determine if a camera is pro or not. That is not the case. It is the manufacture that make that decision when making the camera.

In the case of Nikon, thier pro cameras are (as others here have stated) cameras build to take a beating, to be used in all kinds of weather and with lots of features and with batteries to last days of shooting.
Nikon also have entry level cameras, build of plastic with plastic mounts, but they are cheap.
They also build advanced cameras for the enthusiast. Full of features and much better build, - almost as good as the pro cameras but lack the toughness.
We also have the midt range which is a scaled down version of the advanced cameras with less features and with more plastic parts in them.

Can a professional photographer use an entry level camera in his daily business? Sure, but that don't make the camera any more professional. It just makes it his or her choice to use that camera.

I don't know how other manufactures categorise thier lineup of cameras, but general the consensus is features and build quality and price goes hand in hand in making a pro camera. Not the photographer.

You can do professional photography services of some kind with a smartphone... All dependson clients.. Professional camera is a term of the past used only for marketing