8.28.2009

Cameras, Lenses and Other Voodoo.



Eddie_Wilson_1, originally uploaded by kirkinaustin.
This is a photograph of Eddie Wilson. He's the owner of a famous restaurant/music scene called Threadgill's. When I eat chicken fried steak I eat it there. Mr. Wilson is a revered fixture in the Austin music scene and the Austin restaurant scene and he was a perfect candidate for inclusion in the play, Keeping Austin Weird, by David Steakley. (The play was performed to rave reviews at Zachary Scott Theater a few years ago.)

I can't remember what lens I shot this with or what camera. I'm sure you can find it in the exif info but I didn't check it before I uploaded it. I could have shot this with a Leaf AFi7s or a Canonet QL17 and it wouldn't have made much of a difference. Why? We shot it in the studio under controlled conditions. The ISO was probably set to it's lowest setting. The lighting was tested and tested. The lens was carefully protected from flare. The light came from Profoto flash units. And the real kicker, the image was separated and used in a press printed brochure at about 5 by 8 inches.

If you do the math you'd see that any camera since the Nikon D1x could handle this image with aplomb. With a bit of trial and error it could probably be done with a Canon G10.

I'm as guilty as the next guy of chasing the latest and greatest cameras. At least I was until the recession hit and I sat down and got all accountant-y with myself.

Then I decided to work with cameras that were ideally suited for a new age. I'd love to be a very high end advertising photographer but I'm not. I do a lot of corporate work and a lot of public relations photography. A bunch of portraits for B to B and a fair amount of studio work for design studios and regional ad agencies.

Most of my output these days ends up on the web. Or in smaller direct mail pieces that are cheaper to mail. I haven't shot a double truck spread in a magazine for a long time. But my work is consistent and we're able to pay the bills and even sock a little away for the kid's college and a subsistence retirement.

So why do many of my peers feel the need to run out and buy the latest and greatest cameras. Just last year they were singing the praises of the Canon 5D. And clients were loving the files. The paper they printed on hasn't changed since then. The print sizes haven't changed since then and the art directors haven't suddenly become unhappy with files they raved about last year so why have so many abandoned the 5D for the 5D mk2?

I think that the bleeding edge upgraders are constantly looking for a magic bullet that will differentiate their work from everyone else's. But what no one seems to get is that the majority are moving in lock step to each new generation of camera. In a sense, based solely on cameras acquired, photographers are commoditizing themselves in the eyes of clients.

What do I mean? Well, they are making the power of the camera part of their "sell" or their "pitch" to clients. In a sense they are giving credit to the camera for their photography. As they give more power to the camera they are subliminally telling the client two things: 1. Some of the magic power resides in the camera. That means for shots that are like the one above, shot on white and requiring no special skills or effects, just about anyone with the magic camera will turn out nice work. And 2. That creativity behind the camera is no longer important as long as the magic camera can generate a big file with high quality. Everything else can be fixed by the magic elves in post production.

If you poll working pros you'll probably find that most are working either with a Canon 5d mk2 or a Nikon 700. The Canon users have the megapixels and the Nikon users have a body that does good auto focus, good high ISO and the best flash on the market.

But coming back to the majority of non-sports uses none of those parameters is particularly important. Most studio and corporate shooters are locked down on tripods and lighting stuff because clients perceive the lighting to be a point of magic that separate pros from the guy in the IT cubicle with a similar camera. So really, does the camera matter at all?

I contend that it really doesn't. Once we hit 8 to 10 megapixels we hit the sweet spot for 98% of the images we produce. I won't argue that a 24 megapixel sensor doesn't resolve more but if you map out those pixels you'll find that you can only print about 6 inches longer on a side than a camera with 12 megapixels, given a 300 dpi resolution.

I buy it if you say you need the extra bang for printing huge and that all of your clients want huge prints. But that's not my market and when I talk to other commercial photographers I find that isn't really their market either.

This may sound a bit wacky but I'd rather have a great set of lights and lighting modifiers and try to do all my jobs with a Canon G10 than have a fortune invested in quickly depreciating uber cameras and no cash in my wallet.

I think I hear a lot of people telling themselves that it's time to step off the upgrade escalator. But it may just be me talking to myself.

And the picture of Eddie Wilson worked for my client because we got an expression that is "classic" Eddie, and he has antlers and an armadillo on his hat. I don't think anyone cares what camera i used.