Through a matter of circumstance, I found myself working with multiple camera systems to fulfill a variety of assignments over the last month. Here are a few thoughts on why I chose each system and what I learned from the process.
Much of the discussion on this site, and, in fact, in all the photo universe, is about finding the “best” camera currently on the market. Debates spark up in online comment sections. Heated discussions ensue about why one brand is superior to another and why one camera model is the only camera you will ever need when shooting everything from the runway to the solar system.
Often lost in this discussion is the simple fact that cameras, like other tools, are purpose-built machines. Just like you wouldn’t use a saw to drill a hole, or buy a Ferrari for daily bumper to bumper commuting, expecting any camera to be one size fits all neither makes much sense nor makes for a good investment.
Never was this driven home to me than in the last four weeks where I have found myself using ten different camera bodies comprising six different brands all in service of providing my clients with the assets they need to market their products.
A quick primer for those who haven’t heard me ramble on about this before. For most of my career, I have been a Nikonian. My current A camera is Nikon D850, having gradually worked my way there over the years through multiple camera bodies. I also love the Fuji X system for it’s design and often find myself using my Fuji X-T3 or X-T2 in pretty much all situations not requiring a 46MP full frame sensor. I also own a Canon EOS C200 which serves as the A camera for motion projects. I’ll get into the specifics later, but that’s our starting point.
Now, some of the more mathematically astute among you may be counting and realize that that is far less than ten camera bodies. And this is where the story begins.
The objective of being a professional photographer is not to have fun with cameras. The objective is to serve your client. Therefore, every decision you make from lighting to camera choice is primarily driven by the results your clients need to achieve.
In the last four weeks, I’ve been tasked with providing a variety of assets from still galleries (produced both in studio and on location), short motion films, animated GIFs, interviews, behind the scenes footage, and even found a way to work in a handful of test shoots. The final assets would be used in everything from in-store displays, to global magazines, to book jackets, to Instagram and websites, to projection in a 7,000-seat amphitheater.
It was a busy month. And expecting one camera to do it all would be sort of like expecting LeBron James to win every game one versus five. Instead, it takes a village. A full team of players with individual strengths to go the distance. Here is how the separation of duties broke down.
Ironically, my base camera, the Nikon D850, got the least playing time. Not because it’s not amazing. But rather, because I needed something with a very specific skill set. My largest production of the month would be using the still images from their campaign for wall-sized in-store displays. And while you can sometimes get away with a lower resolution on an actual billboard, one that’s only going to be seen from a speeding car very far away, large in-store displays are where supreme resolution really comes into play. People will be close enough to touch the resulting prints and see every detail up close. Maximum resolution and detail is a basic requirement.
These are the situations where I opt for medium format. As those of you who shoot medium format can likely attest, medium format images simply produce an amount of detail that is simply unmatched by even the sharpest full frame images. It’s not that they are superior photographs exactly. It’s just that when you get the files into Capture One and start zooming in, the ability to go to the molecular level and still see every fiber of fabric is really something to behold. Especially for companies needing to market clothing. So, for that series I rented (or more specifically hired a digital tech that came with) a Hasselblad H4X system with a Phase One digital back.
In addition to the stills, I also was tasked with producing short films. Here is where my Canon C200 would get a chance to play. It would provide the image the client needed and more importantly, had the build quality and features that allowed me to build the system up to scale the production. Adding things like a Teradek Bolt 500 wireless transmitters so that the client could review progress in real-time from video village is a major plus. Like shooting stills tethered to Capture One, it is important to get the clients feedback on set, rather than just shoot and hope they will like the results later. I would also use the C200 to shoot a series of interviews, plugging my shotgun mic directly into the camera’s XLR ports and being able to manipulate levels easily with the tactile dials. As we would be moving quickly, the C200’s built in neutral density filters were a massive help when needing to shoot outside under the constantly shifting sun while retaining a narrow depth of field.
Speaking of shooting quickly, as I was having to constantly change between stills and motion, taking time to fiddle with gear was not high on my agenda. So, in addition to using my C200 as the main camera, I also mounted my Fuji X-T3 to a DJI Ronin-M and had it on standby for times when I wanted smooth tracking shots. While it’s not as rugged as the C200, the X-T3 video performance is terrific and seamlessly cut into the final product without any noticeable change in quality.
While on the topic of Fuji, I also had two other Fuji’s on the job. I needed to deliver a behind the scenes video to the client. I also always like to have behind the scenes stills, as you never know when these will come in handy. To accomplish this, I handed my X-T2 to one assistant to shoot video and my older X100S to my other assistant to capture BTS stills. The X100S may only be 16 MP, but for images that would likely only live online, this is more than enough.
A week after that commercial assignment, I was set to shoot an editorial assignment for a well known publication. Being spoiled by my time with the Hasselblad, I wanted to experience that again, although, in truth, medium format is not a requirement for shooting an editorial. But I was able to get a deal through my digitech and ended up shooting the job primarily on the Hasselblad H5X with a Phase One back. But, this is where my Nikon D850 also made its first appearance of the month off the bench. While medium format cameras are legendary for their resolving power, they are decidedly less known for their speed. Wanting to go above and beyond, I knew I wanted to deliver a series of animated GIFs to the photo editor as well. You can either create GIFs from video or from a burst of stills. And quite simply, medium format doesn’t do burst mode. My Nikon D850, however, is capable of cranking out 7 frames per second, more than enough to create a cool animation to run alongside the article.
Staying in editorial, the D850 got a starting nod later in the month on a celebrity portrait session when asked to create an artist portrait for a book jacket. When needing to create your best work in limited time frames with demanding subjects in unfamiliar locations, you want to go with the tool you are most comfortable with. And, as a longtime Nikonian, this was the easiest selection of the month.
I also had the great fortune of getting to shoot three separate in-studio campaigns for another major activewear brand. One of the many reasons I love working with this particular client is that they have their own studio with their own equipment. So while I have to fly to get there, I don’t have to bring anything with me except a change of clothes. They are, however, largely a Canon shop (Canon 5DS and Canon 5D Mark IV). So, whenever I shoot for them, I end up needing to quickly translate the layout of my Nikon buttons (which at this point is second nature) and start speaking fluent Canonese. It’s hardly a major shift, but on more than one occasion, I will need to ask my assistant or digital tech how to change certain settings. Or better yet, sheepishly hand them the camera to have them far more efficiently scan through the menu.
And those are just the assignments. I’ll spare you more rambling about the personal projects I’ve been working on (mostly on the Fuji X-T3) or the plethora of iPhone snapshots, but getting a chance to use so many different systems over the last month has really driven home a few basic truths.
It’s not the camera that makes an image, it’s the photographer. Cameras are just tools, and there is no such thing as one perfect camera for every scenario. You should choose the right tool for your specific needs. And, no matter what camera you’re shooting with, whether it costs $15,000 or $1,500, creating a great photograph comes down to your creativity, your ability to work with subjects, and your ability to master a basic understanding of the exposure triangle.
So, for those of you out there who may be thinking that you can’t create something great because you can’t afford the latest and greatest camera on the market, take heart in knowing that there is no such thing as one perfect camera. Just take whatever you do have, activate your creativity, and go out and create something beautiful.