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 compact system of choice is as follows:
Olympus OMD EM-5 with Leica Summilux 25mm f1.4, 45mm f1.8, 35-100 f2.8
A real wolf 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. The lens options available are stunning. This camera handles 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