Professional Photographers - What might they want from the current options?

CAMERAS AND LENSES

So what influences the choices a professional would make? Well first and foremost for me, reliability with no surprises. Shooting on assignment, no matter where it might be and what it involves, is difficult enough without having to worry about your gear. Whether in the studio surrounded by clients, in a war zone, halfway up a mountain or just strolling through the park looking for pictures, all a professional photographers energies and concentration need to be focused on creating images that fulfil the brief and mean they get to make a living. And to a large extent in terms of gear, for many of my colleagues that means tried and tested and predominantly Nikon and Canon DSLR's. And while it's true that the only cameras that have ever 'broken' on me are Nikon and Canon DSLR's, the overwhelming feeling amongst pro's still is that these are 'go to' cameras.

I'm in a different position in that I have the time to test gear to see how it works for me and for the most part in a non-pressured environment. But a busy press or portrait photographer may not have that luxury, so they just use what they always have. And if it has worked for them year in year out, why change? Certainly there isn't much difference in image quality these days and there are a range of cameras that can deliver the goods. Some differences in low light performance and speed of operation yes, but few clients will have any problem with 16MP+ files from decent cameras these days, so the latest and greatest(?) high MP gear is not necessarily what's required. The ability to deliver images as required with no hitches being far more important.

The mirrorless manufacturers have been dipping their toes in this market recently. The Panasonic GH4, Olympus E-M1, the Sony FE cameras, Fuji X-T1 and the newly announced Samsung NX1 are obviously targeted at a high level enthusiast / aspiring amateur / semi pro / pro user profile. Certainly they have many takers and more and more professionals are seeing the benefits of such cameras in their work situations, particularly those who have added video to their offer. But this is not without issues. Olympus and Fuji both have poor battery life in their cameras and users have to plan ahead and take lots of spares. At least Sony cameras have a % readout for remaining battery life. I know I always go on about this but it is very important. Poor battery life and the lack of accurate battery life info. can lead to missed shots. And for wedding, social, event, news, sports photographers etc. that is just unacceptable. For example a couple of days ago I realised that I hadn't charged my Nikon Df battery for weeks. In fact it's never moved off three bars. With no constantly running live view, no EVF and only 16MP files to deal with, it doesn't actually consume a lot of power. Another reason why many pro's still choose DSLR's.

Diversion - Just moving away from the point temporarily - You might be forgiven for thinking that mirrorless cameras are taking over. Certainly the photographic internet spends a lot of time chattering about them. But I work in some of the UK's prime tourist spots and I still see very few people using anything other than phones and small compact cameras or DSLR's. In fact by far the most popular cameras I see are the lower end Nikon and Canon DSLR's with kit zoom lenses. Now I'm prepared to concede that this might just be where I am most of the time, But this has been my experience all over the UK, cities, countryside, holiday times, weekdays, weekends, old, young, men and women, if it's not a phone it's a DSLR. So who buys all the mirrorless camera? Well I certainly have no idea. It can't just be certain parts of the world that like them, surely. In addition to this I read a lot about pro's and mirrorless cameras, but that's not what I see. Maybe that's why the articles about these professional 'road to damascus' conversions get featured by various internet sites, because there really aren't that many of them.

In terms of lenses, a pro's choice depends on what they are shooting. There seems to be a belief that many pro's don't move far from 24-70mm and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses (35mm 'equivalents') but to be honest every pro I know agrees with me that the 24-70mm f/2.8 lens in particular is neither wide enough, long enough or fast enough. Many still like primes and tend to use what they are used to and what works. But mostly it's a very wide choice. Like many others I write about 'pro-spec' lenses and it's a useful shorthand description, but no more than that.

How about issues like AF speed, camera layout, menu options and all the other things that camera manufacturers like to impress us with? Again I've never encountered anyone who buys one camera over another because its AF is a couple of milliseconds faster or has a couple of options another camera doesn't have. For the most part it's still a question of what is comfortable to use. One photographer I know continues to use one particular brand and model despite the fact that it's somewhat long in the tooth now, because of the simple fact that he's used to it and literally hasn't got the time to get used to something else. The 'problem' of being an in-demand photographer!! 

Professional support, does that make a difference? Well again that depends on what you shoot. I knew a Formula One photographer who continued to use Canon, even though he didn't particularly want to, because Canon set up a mobile repair and hire centre at every circuit. If a camera or lens breaks they lend you another one free of charge apparently and all cameras (Canon that is!) can have their sensors cleaned for free overnight. So quite an enticing package to keep photographers with Canon. However a lot of photographers will never use it. Travel photographers might not be inclined to drive halfway across the country they are in to get to their nearest repair centre for example and 'professional support' is no good for a wedding photographers whose camera breaks halfway through the ceremony. So it's useful for some, not for others. I've certainly never felt the need, but then my work situation is somewhat less pressured than many.

WORKFLOW ISSUES

Workflow is a somewhat unromantic phrase for what is after all an artistic endeavour. But digital being digital, it is important in getting the images edited and where they should be in as painless a manner as possible. And this means computers and software. It used to be the case that many photographers used Macs, partly influenced by the fact that the repro house / publishing industry used them and there was a consistency all through the chain. However with around 50% of all images now published electronically and the improvement in PC's that is no longer the case. 

The faster your machine, the higher the spec. and the more RAM you have installed, the quicker you can get the images ready for sale and there are now a lot of options. I use my MacBook Pro exclusively for editing these days and it handles what I need to do with (mostly) few problems. 'Professional Software' is still very much Adobe dominated. Again because this ensures a consistency along the workflow chain. And while neither Photoshop or Lightroom is perfect, they do tend to be faster than many of the other options. The much publicised Fuji X problems with Adobe software might make it seem a problem for many pro's, but then many of the people I read about who have switched to Fuji, shoot weddings or portraits, both of which actually benefit (in terms of keeping clients happy) from the slightly softer renditions that come from the OOC jpgs. and Adobe raw conversion. 

I know very few pro's who use the native software packages that come with the cameras, apart from a few die hard Nikon and Canon users who for reasons best known to themselves actually like Nikon Capture and Canon Digital Photo Professional. Again the reason for this I suspect is mostly historical. They know how these apps. work and how to get what they want from them. Plus learning a new programme takes time and the busier and more successful you are, the less time you have to explore new options.

THE CLOUD

A lot is made these days of cameras wi-fi capabilities, cloud storage and all of these supposedly useful technological advances for photographers. But as far as I'm concerned, as someone who shoots a LOT of pictures and makes his living from selling them, in it's current state this part of digital photographic technology isn't really much use.

My pictures are my living. They are what earns me the money to live. My cameras and lenses are just a way of creating them. So my images are precious. They need to be looked after, stored safely and I need to be able to access them. And I have 100's of thousands of them. What I don't need is some half baked storage solution that keeps a few low-res jpgs. somewhere on a bank of servers somewhere in the world. Somewhere!! And that is pretty much what the 'Cloud' offers us. Plus not every body has fibre optic broadband for quick access.

My own 'cloud' consists of cupboards full of hard drives with all my digital and digitised images backed up several times. Oh and around 500,000 transparencies and negatives stored in crates. So just exactly how do I get this lot into the 'Cloud' and be able to access them 24/7/365 quickly and reliably? The answer of course is I don't or more accurately can't. 

Now I've got cloud accounts. Google Drive, One Drive, iCloud and Dropbox, but I mainly use them to transfer images between my computer and iPad. Organising them is a pain, access (without the aforementioned fibre optic broadband) is slow and more to the point just exactly where are they? Who knows. Plus I've used those network / cloud hard drives but they are also unreliable and have non-robust software that means access is intermittent and what sounds like a good idea creates more trouble than it's worth.

None of this remote / connectivity tech. has, from what I see, really developed in a meaningful way for the professional working environment as yet. As far as I'm aware only the Samsung NX Galaxy has 3G/4G connectivity straight from the camera, so for everything else another device has to be involved to send images via the internet. And lots of manufacturers claims about this wireless connectivity is just complete BS. It's nowhere near 100% reliable yet and I know no pro photographer who is prepared to rely on it. In fact some of these apps. are pretty dreadful. Yes some are decent and useful, but many aren't.

Now it may be different in other countries but the UK is still very poor in terms of high-speed broadband rollout. We have to rely on BT who run the network and who seem much more interested in targeting areas who might take out movie streaming subscriptions, rather than doing what they should be doing, which is helping us all to connect easier and grow the national economy rather than BT's. (And yes there is a story there which I might write up one day!!) But the current system certainly isn't without it's problems and for me this is an infrastructure investment that governments should make, because ultimately it boosts economic productivity. But since our current government is mostly interested in making their pals and themselves richer, I don't hold out much hope.

SUMMING UP

Professional photographers tend to be like any other creative group, they will always be inclined to go their own way. But usually when they have established a secure (or at least as secure as it can be in todays economic circumstances) career and they can experiment and try some other options. What I see is that those who are just starting out tendin to be the most conservative and go for the tried and tested options. And in terms of cameras that probably means Nikon and Canon DSLR's. Apple-Mac computers and Photoshop. And despite my flirtation with lots of mirrorless options, if I got back into commercial photography again tomorrow that's probably what I'd use. Though I'm sure, as I always used to do, I'd have a few smaller lighter mirrorless options tucked away to try things out with. 

Now this article is going to offer no advice or make any suggestions as to what to use. If anyone out there has aspirations to earn part or all of their living from photography then it's a good idea to sample a range of views, look at what other photographers use etc. Though it is important to remember that many of the best know photographers have 'relationships' with camera companies that might be influencing their views. That 'relationship' may involve backup and the supplying of equipment that the rest of us can't count on. There is also, unfortunately a lot of corporate 'shilling' going on, whereby supposed independent views are in fact bought and paid for by a specific company. So if you are researching what to go out and buy, do keep your wits about you.

Ultimately the decision as to what to use is down to what gets the job done. Personally I like things as simple as possible. That way I don't encounter the unexpected and don't have to cope with my gear seemingly taking things into it's own own hands. A piece of advice I am prepared to give is that whatever gear you choose to use, make sure you know how to get it to do what you want. A paid job or self-financed trip to shoot sellable images doesn't need to be sabotaged by making unwise decisions as to what settings to use and what lens to select.

I've been at pains to point out that for myself and all of the other professional photographers I've known and met, a degree of predictability is important in the interaction with what we use to create pictures. Making a living from photography is a full-time job and should be treated as such. It's not something you can 'dabble' with because like any creative endeavour, it's a combination of artistic imagination, craftsmanship and the ability to control, rather than be controlled, by your tools. And if you manage to get that equation right, to a large extent it probably doesn't matter what you use.

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There is an interesting article on the BBC website HERE, which deals with many of the issues above.

Many Thanks

David Taylor-Hughes