Big Camera Syndrome and Clients

I have a friend who manages a camera store and the question he is most often asked is “which camera takes the best pictures?”  The only viable answer to this is “any” simply because the picture will generally look fairly similar irrespective of the camera, given the good standards of most modern equipment. A big expensive camera will instead offer additional features such as weather sealing, ruggedness, a rapid frame rate and high-speed focus, and often enhanced ability in very low light. Those are rarely attributes which are relevant to the casual hobbyist and according to the friend I just mentioned it’s not uncommon for a novice to make an extravagant purchase only to return to the store and say “this camera doesn’t take very good pictures”. At the expense of labouring a very well worn point, photographic excellence is directly related to an individual’s technical skillset, creative vision, and experience. Photography is rather like being very good at golf or tennis – it takes a number of years, quite a bit of tuition, and endless practice before one starts to reach competency.

With growing professional interest in the latest crop of compact mirrorless camera systems there have been several debates about whether or not paying clients will express concern if their chosen photographer isn’t using “the big stuff”. There’s no doubt at all that most of the public at large do still believe that the camera creates the beautiful images that they are paying for when they enlist a pro. That statement won’t be lost on many of us, since it suggests that the only real requirements to becoming a pro shooter are an expensive camera and lenses. If that were the case we would all be happily doing this for a living yet each year thousands of hopefuls will try and sadly fail. After all, it would be a little strange if I could cut and tailor a business suit simply by virtue of the fact I own some good shears and a well specc’d sewing machine. The thing is that a camera, no matter how fancy and expensive, is firstly just a box with an aperture, shutter, and an ISO/ASA switch. It can only record what the photographer lights, composes, and directs. In cost terms the latest technology enables us to shoot at higher speeds if we need to, and to shoot in wet and dusty conditions, and to shoot in lower light that we have in previous years. Those are generally the features which determine whether one camera will be more expensive than another. But those things will not make you a photographer.

Large or small, we choose our cameras according to the kind of work we do. Sports photographers will invest in a rugged weather proofed camera body capable of high frame rates and rapid buffering, whereas a wedding or portrait photographer will favour decent lowlight capability. But these cameras are extremely heavy and cumbersome, as are the rugged professional grade lenses we must fit to them. The consequences, over time, can be injury to the photographer and fatigue. I know so many photographers, just like me, who suffer RSI and joint injuries to the hands, fingers, wrists, back and neck. These can be career limiting problems unless we address them, and thankfully good-quality cameras and lenses are now available at a much smaller size (though not necessarily at a smaller price point). Sensor technology is such that they can record good detail and accurate colours in the same way that their larger counterparts can (in fact they often have the same sensors) and some are weather sealed such as the Olympus OMD EM-5. And lenses to fit these smaller systems are in many cases superlative, often matching the huge lenses we’ve been putting on our DSLR cameras (I’m referencing Fujifilm’s X lenses and the latest Micro 4/3 fast primes and zooms). This means that more and more professional photographers are now turning to much smaller camera systems to greatly ease the physical burden which can at times make our work utterly miserable. I for one am cheering these new advances and I have currently invested in top of the range small systems to add to my professional kitbag.

But some photographers are concerned that their clients will think they’re using inferior cameras which are not up to the job. That is not the case nowadays and the leading contenders in pro led mirrorless systems include the Fujifilm XP1, the Fujifilm XE1 and the Olympus OMD EM-5. Others will no doubt follow. How do we deal with “big camera syndrome and clients”? I think it’s a case of reassuring such clients that it’s the skills and experience of their photographer which matters, and the photographer is always the best judge when it comes to choosing appropriate tools for the task in hand. And that is key – your kit, large or small, must be the right kit for the job. When I undertake portrait work a fast camera is rarely necessary and I will choose my equipment based on good image quality, decent low light ability, and my choice of fine grade optics. When fast action, animals, or wildlife is the subject I will almost always use a highly specc’d DSLR with a fast frame rate and accurate tracking focus. In other words, when I take my car to the garage it wouldn’t occur to me to insist on knowing the brand of the equipment used to fix it, what matters to me is the judgement of the mechanic and his ability to perform his work efficiently and to a high standard. Providing his spanners and wrenches are up to the task I have little interest in how big they are. If your clients have ever seen or handled a 35mm camera from years back they will immediately see that it is the same size (or a little smaller) than the mirrorless cameras that many professionals are now adopting. There has been a trend in the modern DSLR market to produce bodies which have become bigger and heavier with each incarnation – which is daft.

Show your clients your images – I’ve won top industry awards using equipment which would make some people laugh and I have enormous prints on my wall taken with what many would consider to be very basic cameras. Generally speaking amateurs and hobbyists will want the latest and often biggest cameras available whereas established confident professionals choose their equipment based on specific performance parameters and ergonomics – real-world results are what matter rather than obsessive pixel peeping. What matters is the quality of the end result and the level of professional service that you can offer your customers. That is what will, and should, form the basis of your reputation and referral stream. Stop worrying about how big yours is versus the next guy – to quote a cliche it’s how you use it that matters.

For the many occasions when I no longer need to use my DSLR kit, my small system of choice is as follows:

Olympus OMD EM1 and OMD EM5 with Leica Summilux 25mm f1.4, 45mm f1.8, 35-100 f2.8
Wolves in sheep’s clothing bearing little resemblance to previous Micro 4/3 cameras. The image quality of the OMD rivals or even exceeds that of many current APS-C sensor DSLR bodies, particularly in low light (I also love my EPL5 for similar reasons). The lens options available are stunning. This cameras handle much like a DSLR with fast accurate focussing.

See further perspectives regarding the switch to mirrorless systems:
Small Camera Big Picture

In the “For Photographers” category (accessed via the top menu bar) you’ll find plenty of images from the OMD and informal lens reviews.

Shooting the OMD and 5dMkIII side by side: Nature Photography Field Tests

 

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  • Simon peckham - December 3, 2012 - 8:18 pm

    Great piece on an important subject. I agree its a syndrome that will become more and more prominent. I am about to trading in my Nikon D300s and a whole bunch of lens for a Fuji Xe1. Why …. Because I have owned a Fuji X 100 for the last year and its been a revelation. The image quality is what I have been searching for for me personal tastes. The X pro 1 is now out of date and I almost never use the optical viewing on the X100. So I am daring to take the plunge and convince my existing and new customers. All is well look at the quality and remember the old days of huge DSLRs in years gone by. Wish me luck :-)

  • Lindsay - December 3, 2012 - 8:27 pm

    Hi Simon, lovely to hear from you and thank you for commenting. The lack of weight is wonderful and being able to comfortably shoot for as long as I want to has transformed how I feel at the end of a long working day. I too have an X100, which I love. I’m not sure that you will immediately notice a difference in image quality if you move up to the XE1, but I would say that in terms of ISO you will have about an extra stop when shooting JPEG. Just be aware that the autofocus speed has not really been improved, despite what was promised, and even with the new zoom lens the XE1 is really quite slow and this could be a frustration at times. It is not really a step up from the XP1. I am a big fan of the optical viewfinder on the X100 and I would gladly have paid more for this feature to have been included on the XE1 (I didn’t invest in an XP1 since it is a little too large). I will be holding back a couple of our DSLRs because there are situations when they will be the best tools. But yes, remind your customers that they are hiring you for your professionalism and your quality imagery, not the size of your cameras!

  • Samuel - December 6, 2012 - 3:33 pm

    Spare a thought for the poor old amateurs — I’ll have to take my big, heavy Slik tripod with me now if I want to look like a pro!

    I was recently comparing my X-E1 with my old Minolta XD7 and there isn’t much difference in size. Yet, in its day, Lindsay, it was commonly used among professionals. We’re so used now to seeing pros brandishing a couple of big black cameras and huge lenses. Times they are a-changing…

    I enjoyed reading your post.

  • Lindsay - December 6, 2012 - 3:44 pm

    Hi Samuel, indeed it is interesting how things are changing, but old attitudes die hard. I was at a local event a few months ago and there was an overwhelming number of snappers who were strung with DSLRs (or sometimes two) – how their backs held up I’ll never know. Anyway, I had a Fuji X camera with me. One of the big-camera gents came over and told me that if I wanted any tips on how to take pictures he would make himself available. Whilst we chatted, I noticed his cameras were set to Auto, and he didn’t seem to take many photographs throughout the morning. I always think of him whenever I have a nice small kitbag with me! I too started out on ‘small’ film cameras (I will not admit when) and it feels good to have a similar form factor in my hands again.

  • Kevin - December 25, 2012 - 7:00 pm

    Good stuff Lindsay. I’m a designer/photographer of too many years(!) and I’ve decided to ease myself into a smaller system with the XE-1, running side-by-side with my DSLR, until I’m confident that the compact can handle paid work, all on it’s own.

    For instance, I’m not prepared to risk an entire wedding on the XE-1… yet. Having said that, I’m a two primes (35/85) and two bodies man, so I don’t think the transition will prove too difficult. It might take the 24-70 / 70-200 ‘brigade’ a little longer to make this sort of change.

    From a client perspective – and I’ve commissioned and art directed dozens of photographers – they don’t care about your gear. Period.

    It’s only photographers with little self-confidence (and perhaps too little ability) that fret about such things.

  • Lindsay - December 25, 2012 - 7:13 pm

    Hi Kevin, lovely to hear from you and great to get your perspective on an area which many pros are currently grappling with. I think you’re very wise to keep a DSLR in the bag, I do that too since some situations are best served by a faster focussing body. I feel we also need RAW support for X Trans before larger numbers of wedding photographers will feel confident enough to jump ship (though I find there is tremendous latitude on the Fuji X series JPEGs).

  • Jason - December 27, 2012 - 3:17 pm

    That’s a nice leather case for the OMD!!!
    May I know what case is that?

  • Lindsay - December 27, 2012 - 4:11 pm

    Jason, it’s the Ciesta case – they’re on e-bay, there are now quite a lot of leather case options for the OMD, including Kenji, Gariz etc.

  • Dave - January 10, 2013 - 5:59 am

    I just picked up the OMD, with the idea of getting rid of my Canon 5D MKII because of all the weight associated with it, especially for travel! I’m having a hard time getting used to the EVF and split second where I don’t see my subject after taking a photo. I think I’ll get used to it though…

  • Eric - April 10, 2013 - 1:26 am

    Thanks for the post Lindsay. I’m in the same boat. I’m going from a 2 FF body setup to a m4/3 setup. I started selling my equipment (one of my 5D + a couple of lenses) but I’m still holding on my 5DII and some lenses (14 f/2.8, 35 f/1.4, 50 f/1.4 and 70-200 f/2.8) for this year wedding season. I’m not ready to ditch all this at the beginning of the season but I will try to go 2nd or 3rd shoot a wedding with only the OM-D, E-PM2 and the nice m4/3 primes I have to see how it goes. If all is well, next year, I’ll probably work with only micro 4/3. I now have shot some commercial gigs and some portraits/newborns with the OM-D and the clients never mentioned anything about the size of the camera. They know what I’m capable of since they hired me for the job so I guess they simply don’t care about the tools I’m using.
    It’s really nice to see other pros going the “light” way too. If you want to check my first 4 months with the OM-D, here’s a link to it: http://blog.ericcote.net/2013/01/quatre-mois-avec-lolympus-om-d/ . Feel free to remove it if you want though, I don’t want to promote myself on your blog.

  • Lindsay - April 10, 2013 - 12:18 pm

    Hi Eric, it’s great to hear from a fellow professional who has successfully adopted the OMD system. I enjoyed your article – your photography is beautiful. I feel that the OMD has helped me to become more creative, mostly because I can take it on trips where my DSLR system would be far too heavy and cumbersome, and of course I no longer get tired now that I have a lightweight camera. I find the Micro 4/3 lenses inspiring too, I’m blown away by the quality (I’m loving the 35-100 for portraiture). Do stay in touch and I’ll look forward to following your work.

  • Stephen Burke - August 5, 2013 - 11:48 am

    Hi Lindsay

    I’ve enjoyed reading your pieces on the Olympus OMD EM-5, and the Fujifilm XE-1, they have steered me towards buying the former. I have one question of a very non-technical nature, silver or black, which do you think looks best?

  • Lindsay - August 5, 2013 - 1:21 pm

    I’m terrible at making choices Stephen. I like the retro look so I went for the silver, and I told myself that when I’d saved up for a second OMD I’d get a black one. The camera looks great in either colour, it looks a bit more old fashioned in the silver and a bit sharper and more modern in the black. I’m probably not being much help!

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