What’s in a good camera?

Better cameras do take better pictures, but not necessarily for the reasons you think

It’s common for photographers to hear some sort of variation of the following response when people view their work: “That’s a beautiful picture…you must have a really great camera!” Though not meant with ill intent, it’s never flattering to an artist when suggested that the quality of their work is only a result of the quality of their tools.

If this were most articles, this would be the point where the writer replies with something snarky like “Delicious meal, you must have a great stove!” in order to prove a point. But despite it’s truth, even the old “it’s the photographer, not the camera” statement is a narrow-minded cliche in itself and there’s more to it than even that. (And then there’s the entire subject of lenses mattering more, but we’re focused on the camera body in this article.)

The camera I use

I do have a decent camera in the Canon 5D Mark III. My first experience with one was at a former workplace where a 5DIII camera body often sat lonely and unused on the shelf. I’d drop in on the weekends to borrow it, always returning it immediately so it appeared it never left. It was a cheap (as in free) way of getting the 5D experience without renting one from the camera stores at nearly a Franklin a day.

Had a good thing going until another bozo coworker borrowed EVERYTHING at once including all the bodies and lenses (no single job needs THAT much gear) without returning them, likely gathering dust in their own office. Someone eventually noticed the missing gear and demanded it’s return, and everything got locked up with the IT guy with a checkout list and the convenience was lost.

So eventually I bought a 5DIII of my very own. It was a hit to the credit card, but I’m happy to say that the camera has long been paid off and I have never regretted my purchase. I love this camera and there is some sentimental attachment as we’ve been through a lot of adventures together, with both myself and the camera having the scars to show for it.

I’m not a avid upgrader, I tend to buy better products off the bat and use them longer. I still use an iPad 2, I only upgraded from an iPhone 4 last year, my DLP television is nearly ten years old, my laptop was just retired after eight years, my desktop monitor is eight years old and my Mac Pro is five and counting.  Likewise, as the 5DIII is a well-rounded camera that does almost everything I want, so long as it holds up I can easily see myself continuing to use it for many years to come. (I know a photographer who still uses the decade-old original 5D to this day).

But if you think that you’ll put money down on a professional camera, push the shutter and automatically have award-winning, quality images far beyond your starter camera, you just might be in for a rude awakening.

Differences

As I test drove my work’s 5DIII, for the sake of comparison I brought in my T3i Rebel and put both up against each other. I used both with the same settings and lenses in a controlled studio environment, and honestly…without pixel peeping there was very little difference between the photos.

The 5DIII’s photos were maybe more vivid, sharper and certainly had more megapixels and dynamic range, but realistically few non-photographers would be able to discern such things and only nerds care about scientific specs. The quality was more of a testimony for the glass and lighting I used than anything else. In fact, I’d confidently say that a lot of my best images taken with the 5DIII could have also been accomplished on my old Rebel or even my 30-year-old EOS 620 film camera.

And yet, if it were THAT simple the professionals would all be carrying around Rebels, right? So just what do you get with higher end cameras?

Low light performance

Action shot with camera, 1/640 at f/2.8, ISO 6400

1/640 at f/2.8, ISO 6400

Full frame cameras like the 5DIII offer terrific ISO performance in low light situations, making it possible to shoot in darker conditions when aperture or shutter speed can’t be compromised. Typically raising the ISO comes at a price: more noise and grain in the image. Higher end cameras are getting better all the time at producing cleaner results and retaining print quality at high ISO speeds, while consumer cameras at the same settings might only be acceptable for Facebook or Instagram.

So take handheld shots at night or dim interiors with confidence. But let’s be realistic: even then you might probably still be using a tripod for longer exposures to get the best possible quality. So we haven’t necessarily justified a better sensor just yet.

But what of other types of situations? Indoor shows, plays, concerts and sporting events are all good examples of events where tripods and flashes aren’t allowed, making for extremely challenging lighting conditions unless your camera and lens are up to the task. It’s not unusual to pan around the crowd and see the confused faces of folks fiddling with an entry level camera and a kit lens.

Sports in particular also demands a much faster shutter speed than normal in order to capture the action, and even with my fastest lens it’s not unusual for me to shoot as high as ISO 6400-12800 in order to buy indoor shutter speeds upward of 1/640 and higher.

Burst speed and focus systems

As I stated, sports games move at a quick pace and cameras that can fire off multiple frames at once and keep their focus locked on the action are obvious benefits. The 5DIII caps out at 6 frames per second which is not as fast as other cameras, but acceptable and I can still get great action shots with it. Better Canon DSLR performers for sports or wildlife include the 7D Mark II (10fps) and the prestigious 1D-X (12-14fps).

The focus system on the 5DIII (also shared by the 7DII and 1D-X) is highly sophisticated, offering 60+ focus points and customizable use cases for scenarios like staying locked on a single player even when a referee steps out in front. Besides sports, other action photography that benefits from such systems is wildlife and nature where birds and animals are highly sporadic and unpredictable.

It takes a little time to learn the system and tweak things just how you want them, but well worth it in the end. If you’re not buying these cameras to take advantage of their respective focus systems, then it’s possible you’re wasting your money on the wrong purchases.

Appearances matter

A local photographer once suggested that the boon of high end camera is that it allows a professional to look the part, and he has a point. Dressing the part to make a positive impression is something we all do, whether it’s for interviews with employers, meetings with clients, or romantic dates. People may not be able to explain technical differences between cameras, but I do think they’re perceptive about what an occasional hobbyist might carry versus what a professional is seen with. In other words, it changes perceptions: this is certainly helpful with gaining the confidence of potential clients.

Even when I’m just shooting for fun, I’ve often been asked by curious strangers which newspaper or media outlet I belong with. Sometimes being mistaken for someone in an “official” capacity works to your advantage: you might be given more freedom to shoot around your location versus others who might be shooed away. Courteous folks or those intimidated by your gear may inadvertently try and assist you by ducking or getting out of the way of shots.

But this can also work AGAINST you as well, big gear attracts attention. Bored rent-a-cops may buzz around you like moths to lights (“You have a permit for that?”). Individuals in public places might be suspicious or paranoid of you (again, quoting the mythical “permit” if approached) despite ignoring the amount of folks snapping away with camera phones. And speaking of camera phones, you’ll also immediately become the first person in the area people will turn to when they need a snapshot of themselves taken. (“You look like you know what you’re doing.”)

But wait, there’s more

Higher end cameras tend to be weather-sealed, making it possible to work in harsh environments. I’ve shot in the rain and snow with mine, but weather sealing isn’t always foolproof as the marketing materials would have you believe so I always take precautions to better protect my camera.

Other benefits commonly seen in these cameras are LCDs on top to make adjusting exposure easier, more customizable and quick access controls, and dual memory card slots that write to both cards and offers redundancy and insurance against corruption in critical moments like a wedding.

 

Get the best you can afford

Ultimately even if great pictures boils down to the skills of the photographer and not the cost of the camera, good cameras are always a benefit to your workflow and not a detriment. The right way to think about the value of higher end bodies is that they can enable an able photographer to get results in conditions that would be difficult or impossible otherwise with lesser gear. If you’re serious about your photography, spending a little more on gear that just exceeds your needs rather than the bare minimum might be sound in the long-term as you’ll have a camera that will grow right along with you.

Patrick Shannon

About Patrick Shannon

A creative professional, photographer and design+technology advocate based in St. Louis, I have worked with a number of businesses, agencies and clients on design, production and marketing for everyday brands. In my spare time, I enjoy woodworking and am still attempting to build a life-sized replica of Optimus Prime out of wood.