What Constitutes Professional Gear

Lately I’ve been spending some time looking at camera gear reviews to get a better handle on what is currently available. I had to smile when I glanced at some of the reader comments on various photography sites. The debate on what constitutes professional gear seems to be one of those pointless exercises that never seems to end. Many folks seem to get downright glandular about the subject and attack each other’s opinion with some fervor.

If reader comments are to be believed, unless a camera is a high end, ultra megapixel, full frame body, the camera is sub-par and isn’t fit for ‘professional use’.

So what constitutes professional gear? Sure, it could be one of those ultra megapixel, full frame bodies. Or it could be something completely different.  The point is ‘professional gear’ is whatever a particular photographer uses to do work for their clients and get paid for it. Cameras are their image making tools. Nothing more… nothing less.

I remember reading an interesting article in the spring of 2011 written by Bob Krist regarding the camera gear he was using at that time. For those of you who may not be familiar with Bob Krist, he is a highly celebrated travel photographer with an amazing body of work that has spanned many decades.

Even back in 2011 “professional camera gear” was defined by the internet crowd as being full frame cameras and corresponding lenses.

What was Bob Krist using back then to create his spectacular photographs? A pair of Nikon D7000 cameras with a selection of pretty common lenses. Those included a Nikkor DX 35mm f/1.8 prime, a Nikkor DX 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom, a Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom, and a Tokina DX 11-16mm f/2.8 wide angle zoom. I’m sure all of that gear would have been put down by internet trolls as not being fit for professional use as it was ‘only consumer grade’. Bob obviously had a different opinion.

There has been a large number of new cameras announced over the past year. Full frame appears to be the rage, along with some new medium format cameras. No doubt some of these cameras will provide new, and useful capabilities for many of you.

If you want to keep your emotions in check when you begin the camera buying process don’t worry about what constitutes professional gear. Instead, focus in on your specific needs. Consider creating a camera buying decision matrix. This exercise will help you identify your ‘must have’ and ‘nice to have’ camera capabilities. It can serve as a useful tool to help wade through all of the details and commentary on cameras, regardless of the make and model.

As discussed in a previous article, keep your sights set on those cameras that provide you with meaningful differences that are truly worth some of your hard earned money. Only consider those cameras that meet your ‘must have’ criteria, as well as some of your highest rated ‘nice-to-have’ capabilities.

Read reviews with a degree of skepticism. Many of them simply focus on differences in the specifications of various cameras. I’ve read some reviews lately that drone on and on about very small and petty differences between camera specifications. Incredibly some of these so-called reviews don’t even have any real-world sample images captured by the reviewer. I regard these ‘reviews’ as little more than click-bait.

If you are in the market for a new camera, look for reviews that provide good, hands-on observations about actually using the camera gear. Reviews that include good quality sample images also provide value.

The images in some reviews are so poor they would do an injustice to any camera. My rule of thumb is that if a reviewer doesn’t have the skill to create well composed images for their review, their camera assessment is of little value to me.

Another rule of thumb is to discount reviews that make a big deal out of the obvious. An example would be that images from an APS-C cropped sensor camera  had more noise at high ISOs than did those captured with a full frame camera.  If an obvious fact like this is a revelation to you… you probably shouldn’t be spending money on a new camera anyway.

When it comes to camera gear, buyer’s remorse is painful and expensive. Some advanced planning and logical research can reduce the risk.

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14 thoughts on “What Constitutes Professional Gear”

  1. What makes for me a pro camera?
    The easyst to use. I mean a not so menu driven camera. When I need to switch between spot or matrix metering I prefer a dedicated control, not going to a menu and change it and a shot lost, the same for exposure compensation and so on. From a theorical point of view for a static subjet it is not important, but for changing shooting situations where you need to capture the moment as fast as you can, having dedicated controls could make the difference. But it is my biased point of view.

    1. Thanks for adding to the discussion Nestor! As your comment points out, being able to change camera settings very quickly by using external body controls can be a critical factor.

      Tom

  2. when I actually worked for a living a similar debate was held

    In our world you used klein and milwaukee tools…period
    some fraction of that choice was peer pressure, but ultimately it was knowing that your tool was going to work every time and not get you maimed or killed

    whether it is photo gear or the mechanic’s wrench mentioned above, it seems to me that you choose the tool that does the job

    the overwhelming majority of supporting art I have had published was taken with a pentax q or a Fuji x30…excellent dof and close-up capabilities with no real effort on my part…good tools but hardly considered “pro” gear

    just my quick thoughts anyway

    1. Thanks for adding to the discussion Craig! I relate strongly with your comment “it seems to me that you choose the tool that does the job”. At the end of the day that is all that really matters.

      Tom

  3. Hi Tom,

    55 years ago when I started as a pro photographer, full frame 35 mm at any price was just not good enough for most purposes. I’m in my 70s now but still keep my hand in with real estate work mostly. My outfit of choice for this purpose is the consumer grade Nikon J5 and 6.7-13 1 Nikkor on a tripod. The camera has a handy flip up screen and the lens is a jewel. For this work the 1 inch sensor is perfect. As you said ” how important having more depth-of-field can be”.

    If anyone can suggest a possible replacement that would work as well, I would love to hear about it.

    Richard

    1. Thanks for adding to the discussion Richard! I would agree that the 1 Nikon 6.7-13mm is a real gem of a lens. Unless you look at a 1″ sensor bridge camera, your next most likely format would be M4/3 in terms of getting more depth of field.

      Tom

  4. Hi Tom
    This is everlasting theme in various fora. Sometimes, I ask myself, how much is it just talking about something one likes (baseball, football, politics, etc.) but knows, he will not do it. Some bloggers are maybe not that neutral as they think or pretend to be and write about things which generate clicks, etc., some of them even do not allow real discussion about a subject they brought up.
    I have heard, some Indian chief said: Paper burns. Internet is anonymous and one can write what one wants, he even does not need to burn it afterwards. ?
    One has to be honest with himself. I like biggest format possible. It is better. How much better? Does the difference count? As long as I can carry the beast, ok. Right now I am hiking, so MF comes only occasionally with me, when I am not going far…
    Keep well, Robert

    1. Hi Robert,

      I think all of this really comes down to the specific needs of individual photographers. What may be perfect for one person, may not be a good solution for the next. All that really matters is our ability to create what we see in our minds with whatever gear we are using. Arbitrary labels like ‘professional camera’ are of no consequence at all.

      Something that I have always found odd is how many people tend to focus on a feature that a camera doesn’t have, or what a particular camera is not that well suited to do. A more productive approach is to concentrate on what can be accomplished with a particular camera. There has never been a perfect camera made and there never will be. Every camera comes with some kind of trade-off. They key is to find and use gear that provides the most capabilities to suit our needs, with trade-offs that we are willing to accept.

      Tom

  5. Great article. If the results please the client what does it matter what equipment was used.

    Only photographers are concerned about gear!

    Do we worry about a mechanic or electrician using a certain make of spanner / screwdriver etc?

  6. Tom,

    Once again, you hit the nail square on the head.

    When I sold off my full frame Nikon body and lenses, I got into repartees with buyers, some of whom will insist that the clear badge a photographer has “made it” is or has “arrived” is finally making the “full-frame” transition. No amount of reasoning, it seems, can convince them otherwise, nor is my position of being the seller LOL makes the moment an opportunity to correct a mis-impression. I’m familiar with Bob Krist’s body of work and I think, he best exemplifies what we say in the local parlance loosely as “it’s not the arrow, it’s the Indian that matters.” No Hasselblad, Nikon D5, Canon 1DX or Fuji GFX camera can turn a novice into an expert overnight, or a bad composition into a spectacular image. But judging from the name-calling and verbal jousts on the internet, it seems a lot of people got fixated on the technology (100mp! wider, more incredible dynamic range! can focus down to -5ev)

    When I transitioned back into APS-C (mirrorless this time around), I resolved to carve a different, simpler path myself. A far smaller body I can hike around with, plus prime lenses to discipline me in ways that the zoom lenses spoiled me, it seems, rotten.

    Oggie
    http://www.lagalog.com

    1. Hi Oggie,

      I agree that there seems to be a real fixation with sensor size. So many people seem enthralled with the notion of having a shallow depth of field, rather than also understanding how important having more depth-of-field can be. On a personal basis I can’t ever see me having the need to go back to a full frame camera.

      Folks seem to get caught up in technology and thinking that more is better… more pixels… more dynamic range etc. as your comment points out. That is taking a perspective that the important thing is “what something is”. I look at it from a capability and functionality standpoint in terms of what a camera can produce. “What it does” is far more important to me tham “what it is”… but that’s just my two cents worth.

      Tom

      1. Hi Tom and Oggie
        For me, as a lover of big format, shallow DOF is not my goal. Sometimes, it is a nuisance. For landscapes I do, I can stack, but not always. My subjects are often not moving and in such cases it is doable (tripod has to be carried ☹️). What is important though, is dynamic range. I do not like HDR and likes, for me it gets unnatural very quickly. Having good dynamic range right now – with snow and nearly black trees and snow – is important. I have tried Nikon 1 with the wide zoom, but it was simply not quite as good as FF or MF.
        But when it is windy, I take a smaller format with me. Wind changes the situation a lot.
        Shallow DOF in itself: As I see it, having everything sharp is not always natural to the eye of the viewer. Normally we do not see the whole scene sharp and in its entity all at once. There are instances when a little blur in the background is agreeable and on the other hand there are situations when not…
        The trouble is, one has to decide before the hike what to pack and weather does not care about my plans…

        1. Hi Robert,

          Thanks for adding additional perspectives to the discussion! I certainly agree that photographing with a full frame sensor camera provides more dynamic range and colour depth. That difference can be very important to many photographers, regardless of the depth-of-field that they want in their images. When used at identical ISO values a larger sensor camera will always win out when it comes to dynamic range and colour depth. Your comment serves to highlight the importance of selecting camera gear that best meets the specific needs of an individual photographer.

          Just for fun I went in to the DxO camera sensor database to have a look at the test scores of the Nikon D800 and the Nikon 1 J5. I’ve owned both of these cameras and can attest to the fact the dynamic range and colour depth of the D800 is far superior to that of the J5. At manufacturer stated ISO-200 the D800 has a dynamic range of 13.65 EV compared to the J5’s of 11.84 EV. According to DxO a difference of 0.5 EV is needed to begin to be visible, so the D800 wins hands down.

          Tom

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