Is photographic equipment important?
by Nigel Cooper
A lot of people say ‘It’s the photographer that makes the picture, not the equipment,’ which is true, kind of. Although the photographer is definitely the most important part of the picture-taking process, you can’t discard the importance of good quality equipment.
I’ve been a professional photographer for more years than I care to remember, but due to my work in the photographic retail and rental sectors I’ve also had more experience than most when it comes to photographic equipment so I have a deep understanding and extensive knowledgebase regarding equipment and the bearing it has not only on the final image, but on the photographer also.
I studied photography at college in London and before this I devoured truckloads of books on photography, photographic techniques and lighting, but I’ve also attained knowledge that is deeper, and wider, than most when it comes to the equipment side of photography.
Before setting up and running my own commercial photographic studio in north London I worked for a couple of photographic retail outlets when I was 20 – Campkins Camera Centre on Finchley Road, London (since closed down) and Jessops photographic on Frognal Parade, Finchley Road, London (also since closed down), back then Jessops were quite good and actually sold high end professional photographic equipment, these days they are more for tourists looking to buy a compact camera or an emergency SD card. I spent a year a piece at these two high street photographic retail outlets working as a salesman and photographic equipment consultant.
During my two years in photographic retail I got lots of hands-on experience with all the latest photographic equipment: cameras, lenses, flashguns, lighting equipment, tripods, etc. I also used to take equipment (usually from the used or part exchange stock) home on loan for the weekend too. Because of this I gained extensive knowledge of pretty much all the equipment that was on offer at the time and I soon learned that there were many differences between the various makes and models and the quality (or lack of in some instances) they produced, especially regarding lenses.
Having loaned hundreds of pieces of photographic equipment during those two years I learned all about the various camera and lens manufacturers and which produced stunning images and which produced lacklustre images, which were reliable and which where unreliable, which were built like tanks and which had questionable build quality. Back then (late 80s) some quality cameras of note were: Nikon F3, FA, FM2, FE2, Canon F1, A1, AE-1, Leica R5, Hasselblad 500cm, Mamiya RB and RZ67 and the Sinar P2. However, when Minolta brought out their first AF series (7000) of 35mm film cameras the build quality was questionable with many flimsy plastic components. As for reliability, the Hasselblad 500cm medium format camera proved to be rock solid, while the Bronica ETRS 645 proved to be a nightmare in the reliability department. While I was working at Jessops, on average, one in every three Bronica ETRS models sold would be returned within a few weeks with some issue or another.
Some of the sharpest lenses were made by Nikon, Canon, Leitz, Zeiss. I got to loan pretty much all of them over many a weekend and I soon discovered that some were razor sharp while others were a little on the soft side, even the same lens model by the same manufacturer. Occasionally, even Carl Zeiss would produce a slightly soft Planar T-star lens. One of my customers returned a Zeiss Planar 85mm lens, along with a 10x10 black and white print out of a brick wall. With his magnifying glass he showed me a little section amongst the brickwork that was out of focus, not much, just a few bricks among hundreds, claiming the lens had a ‘soft spot’. I had replaced the lens for him with a brand new one and he returned a week later with a new photograph that was free of soft spots. It was rare with Carl Zeiss, but it did happen. To this day I personally carry out such tests at various focal lengths and apertures and examine the final results, only in Capture One, or Photoshop, not a printed photo.
As well as spending two years in photographic retail I also spent a year working for The Flash Centre (Elinchrom photographic studio flash equipment UK importer) in their hire department, where I was in charge of hiring out various pieces of photographic studio flash equipment to professional London-based photographers: strobe flash heads, power packs, soft boxes, boom stands, reflectors and other pieces of studio flash equipment.
Like before, I used to loan truck loads of Elinchrom studio flash equipment at the weekend and got to know every piece of equipment, down to every detail. Back then Elinchrom were hardly the most reliable brand of studio strobe equipment. The two electrical engineers – who worked on the premises in a small workshop room just down the corridor – worked flat out repairing blown flash heads, burned out power packs and lord knows what else. One of them told me it was like trying to stop a sinking ship with gaping great holes in it. Back in the late 80s and early 90s the most reliable brand of studio strobe equipment were Bowens and Broncolor. I had a good contact at Bowens so I also used to loan their equipment too. I found Bowens equipment to be rock solid in build quality and they were ultra reliable too, unlike the Elinchrom gear that I used to hire out on a daily basis to all those London photographers, which were always blowing up or catching fire. For some reason, the fuses seemed to elude the Elinchrom heads in which they were fitted, the electrical current passing right through the fuse as if it were not there, often resulting in the head catching fire and engulfing a soft box into a ball of fire in the process.
While working for Campkins, Jessops and The Flash Centre, I met many professional photographers, some high profile, and I got to visit them in their studios and even assist some of them and learn from them. I would advise them on equipment (and often loan gear for them to try) and they would give me many professional tips and advice, the kind of things a photographer would only ever learn by way of this ‘apprentice-type’ work experience and it gave me photographic insights that I would never have picked up otherwise. This was the icing on my college study cake.
I also met and served some famous people who had a keen interest in photography: actor Bob Hoskins, Police guitarist Andy Summers and DJ Dave Lea Travis. Naturally they all owned and used very expensive camera equipment. Hoskins owned Leica and Nikon cameras and lenses. Andy Summers owned Leica cameras and lenses (lots of them), as did Dave Lea Travis.
Because of this vast retail and rental sector experience it helped me decide on my own equipment, which, back then, was a Nikon F3 and a Hasselblad 500cm with various Nikkor and Carl Zeiss lenses. Back then all the ‘Fleet Street’ London press photographers used to use Nikon F3 cameras, with a few using the Canon F1, while studio and wedding photographers favoured the Hasselblad 500cm medium format camera. Although I worked for The Flash Centre, I decided to buy Bowens studio flash equipment for my own use, due to its superior build quality and reliability.
I remember when the first auto focus film cameras came out (and how darn slow they were) as well as the first generation of full-frame digital cameras. I also remember when Canon upset their user base by switching from their older FD lens mount system (introduced in 1971) to the newer – and slightly larger – EF lens mount, which replaced the FD mount in 1987. The newer EF mount has a larger camera-opening diameter of 54 mm, compared to the smaller 48mm of the FD mount that it replaced. Although this bold move upset many Canon users, Canon did this for many reasons, one of which was to make the lens mount opening on the camera wider, which would allow Canon to make better quality and faster lenses as they could now use larger and wider optics in their lenses. Nikon, on the other hand, have stuck with their old F-mount (introduced back in 1959), which has a smaller diameter of just 44mm, this is the same lens mount that Nikon use today on their full-frame digital SLR cameras, only modified with electronics to operate the various auto and focusing systems.
It’s for this reason that, today, Canon can manufacture faster lenses, such as a 50mm f1.2, (Nikon’s 50mm lens is f1.4), or the 85mm f1.2 (Nikon’s is 85mm is f1.4). It’s for this reason, and a few others, that these days I shoot on high-end full-frame Canon EOS cameras, such as the EOS 5D MK4 coupled with Canon’s professional ‘L’ series lenses.
Canon’s full-frame EOS cameras are used by more professional photojournalists’ than any other, and for good reason: build quality, reliability and image quality. A recent (2019) survey showed that 46.4% of images taken by photojournalists around the world were shot on the Canon EOS 5D MK3 and MK4 cameras while 36.6 were shot on Nikon cameras. Just 10.5% were shot with Fujifilm cameras, 2.6% were shot on Sony and Leica cameras.
Personally, I evolved with the times and found myself moving over from film cameras to full-frame digital models and over the years digital models have got much better in just about every way. Going from 3 megapixel models to around 30 megapixels with superior image sensors and many other image-quality improving factors too. Because I come from a film photography background I have a more ‘considered’ shooting approach to the younger photographers who were born into the digital world, many of whom have a ‘spray and pray’ attitude to photography because they know that they can fire off a thousand shots onto a single memory card. Back in the days of film you wouldn’t dare shoot with such a carefree approach, the cost of film, developing and printing alone would have cost a fortune. Today I see wedding photographers offering up a thousand edited images as part of the package. Back in the days of film the bride would receive an album with between 24 and 40 images in it, but boy would they fine images indeed.
So, is equipment important, you bet it is. As a professional photographer it’s vital to have equipment that is well built, reliable and, above all, produce stunning quality and tack sharp images with excellent – and accurate – colour reproduction and dynamic range.
I chose to own and use Canon full-frame equipment and their professional L series lenses because they are well built, reliable and they produce incredible images – accurately and faithfully. What’s more, they are made in Japan, where the factory production line and production of their cameras and lenses is carried out under much finer tolerances than some other makes/models. Because of this, the reliability is also much higher. Majority of Canon’s DSLR cameras are still made in Japan today (at time of writing in September 2019) such as the EOS 5D MK4, 6D, 90D, 80D, to name a few. Nikon, on the other hand, have started shifting their manufacturing to Taiwan. The Nikon D800 (semi-pro model) was made in Japan, but when the D810, and later D850, replacement models came out they were made in Taiwan. Today, the only camera Nikon make in Japan is their flagship professional full-frame D5 model, coming in at £5,399. I know the D5 is an amazing camera that produces incredible images and it’s built like a brick and super reliable. The same can’t be said for some of their other semi-professional models. For example, the Nikon D800 had a die-cast aluminium chassis with an aluminium lens mount screwed onto it i.e. metal to metal with metal screws holding it all in place – nice and solid and not going anywhere. However, the later Nikon (made in Taiwan) D810 and D850 models have a polycarbonate mirror box and the aluminium lens-mounting ring is actually screwed into a plastic housing with ‘self tapping’ screws – hmmm. This means if a large heavy lens, such as a 300mm f2.8 is attached to the D850 and it gets knocked against a table or something as it swings from your shoulder it might not bode well. I’ve seen images online of lenses breaking off the camera body, taking the lens mount with it. This would never happen on the Canon models I’ve mentioned above, or Nikon’s own professional D5 model, but it irks me that Nikon charge £2,700 (body only) for a camera that mounts a metal lens mount to a plastic body with self tapping screws, for me, this is totally unacceptable.
To sum up, photographic equipment is important, very important, because, as a professional photographer, you need your equipment that is reliable, well built, and to produce images that are sharp and true and faithful to the original scene, be it a landscape shot or a studio family portrait. As a professional Cambridge wedding photographer I need my camera equipment be totally reliable and to meet these stringent requirements. The same goes for the other photographic work I undertake, be it a family portrait, commercial shoot, corporate shoot, editorial or covering a news story for a local newspaper.
I’ve also found that with high-end professional-grade equipment, it’s better thought out in regards to the design – both physical, button and switch layout and the menus – and it just works and does not get in the way of the artistic process of creating a great picture. Yes, a bad workman will often blame his tools, but there’s nothing worse than working with inferior equipment that just can’t do the job, even if the photographer can.