Debating which camera brand is best is a sure way to create a lively discussion among photographers. It’s easy to endlessly discuss specs and online reviews, and to think that the latest model will give us some missing edge. But what about when you really put images to the test with prints?
As fine art printmaker, I’ve had the chance to do just that, looking at an endless stream of prints from photographers of all experience levels and types of equipment. And I’ve come to the conclusion that for most people, what brand you use doesn’t really matter.
I’m not saying that there aren’t differences between brands. Lens selection, user interface, all these things lead to preferences that matter to the individual. And when you are pushing the extremes, like high ISO work, or speciality niches, you’ll find that some camera can do what you want and other can’t. But when looking at prints from the typical 24 MP camera setup, from a typical photographer, the brand camera they used is not immediately apparent to me. This was a bit of a shocking realization for me because I think it’s hard wired in that some cameras are better than others, and that thinking usually validates the brand we choose to buy.
This is a complete flip from the days of film, where the sensor (film) had a tremendous impact on the final product, and created legions of loyal fans for one brand of color film or another. Even today different films have unique looks and feels hardwired into them that give them a unique fingerprint.
I don’t see this same “fingerprint” from digital sensors in most situations. When photographing with typical ISOs of typical landscape subjects, camera brand is just not something that’s stood out to me on first look when viewing prints.
So if camera brand is not the most visible difference between photographs, what is? Here’s my top 5 ways to make a visible difference in your photographs.
Lens quality affects your photo more than any other factor. When looking at prints, the difference between a high grade Prime lens versus a typical prime or zoom is significant. Both the sharpness and the color rendition are improved, which adds to the sense of realism.
Shooting with high grade Primes will make a difference. Zoom lenses can never be as good as a well designed Prime.
Average Primes and zoom lenses typically have a sweet spot of sharpness in the middle of the frame, with resolution (sharpness) falling off near the edges. High quality lenses are designed to better maintain sharpness across the full frame. You can see this to some degree by looking at the MTF curves for a lens. A typical high quality Prime will cost you in the range of $900 or more. But the difference in quality is significant, and is a key part of getting the most out of your sensor at any megapixel resolution. Adding even one excellent prime lens to your bag will make a major difference in the quality of photograph you can produce. Sharp lenses always stand out when I’m printing customer work.
2. Newish Pro Body
With film, everyone could use the same quality “image sensor” at the same price, regardless the cost of their camera. Digital changed all of that. The more expensive the camera you buy, the better the sensor and features, and the better file they make. The camera’s age or generation also makes a difference. The pro cameras from ten years ago are not as good as those shipping now. Moving up from a consumer-grade camera to a “pro” body costing $1,000 or more made within the last 4-5 years will typically give you better image quality. The rare exception I’ve found is Sony. They seem to not pull their punches with their A series cameras as much as they could. Even the bottom end a5000 gives a superb file at 100 ISO in my experience using it as an every day carry camera.
How you process your files can degrade the quality of even the best camera and lenses. Photos processed to produce subtle highlights, shadows, and contrast like Ansel Adams is known for will tend to show the best a camera can do, while HDR and excessive slider moves in Lightroom or other software will obliterate the subtle highlights and shadows a high-end camera is capable of producing. Well processed files make prints that stand out from the average.
4. Excellent Exposure, Focus, Aperture, Shutter Speed
Well exposed photos, with the subject in focus, using adequate depth of field, without camera shake or motion blur, stand out from photos that didn’t consider these controls. Own every decision in making a photograph and the results will speak for themselves.
What brand of brush did Van Gogh use asked no one ever! It’s not the brush, it’s how he used it. Ansel Adams said “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” Our tools are never more important than our vision. Sharper lenses won’t make a boring photograph more interesting. The experience to know what you want to say clearly is the hardest part of photography. You can’t order it online. You have to make photographs and practice the craft to attain it. When you combine vision with great tools, the results can be breathtaking.
A photograph is the sum of all it’s parts. If you already have a decent camera body, adding a really sharp lens or two and good processing may be all you need to take your photography to the next level as you continue to increase your vision.
If you’ve been asked this about your photos, you are not alone. It’s a common question people have because for most of the history of photography, there has been an assumed veracity attached to the medium. While I think that illusion has been largely shattered, the question still remains, and in the realm of landscape and wildlife photography, there are still expectations of a sort of truthfulness. It is still a career ender to manipulate news photos, and for scientific publications as well as many magazines like National Geographic, there are still strict rules regarding what can, and can’t, be done to a photograph.
But at it’s simplest, when a viewer is before a landscape photograph and asks this question, I think what they are trying to connect with is the experience. They want to know “Is this something that really happened? Is this something I could see with my eye? Or is this a ‘trick’ of processing?” I use landscapes as an example because I think this genre is particularly linked to this question. People are drawn to nature in part because of it’s realness. There is a desire for authentic experiences, and therefore, photographs that capture that authenticity.
I was taking about this the other day with a friend who texted a passage from Looking at Ansel Adams by Andrea Stillman where Ansel describes his making of “Monolith, the Face of Half Dome”
“I felt I had accomplished something, but did not realize its significance until I had developed the plate that evening. I had achieved my first true visualization! I had been able to realize a desired image: not the way the subject appeared in reality, but how it felt to me and how it must appear in the finished print. The sky had actually been a light, slightly hazy blue and the sunlit areas of Half Dome were moderately dark gray in value. The red filter dramatically darkened the sky and the shadows of the great cliff.”
For my friend, saying “I don’t try to capture what I see, but what I felt” is a way for him to answer the numerous times he’s asked “did you enhance this?!?!” when showing his work.
I agree with that statement, as it is what I seek to do in my own photography, but I think it warrants further discussion. And as much as I wanted to discuss it further with him over beer and tacos at our local taqueria hangout spot, writing about it will have to suffice.
I find I have very different lines for acceptability in the changes I make to a B&W photo versus a color photo. In B&W, I do not feel constrained at all because it is naturally abstracted from reality once color is removed. Large changes in tonality and contrast can be applied without the viewer noticing that something was done, because we don’t see in black and white.
However, we do see in color. We know what things are supposed to look like, and we have a lifetime of experiences built up to inform us. Because of that, in my photographs, I feel there needs to be a certain relationship to reality to be believable, or at least be beautiful.
Software can be our enemy here. Oversaturated colors or strange hues are just a slider adjustment away. Anyone can make fluorescent green aspen leaves or a sunset so colorful it never could happen. Having the trained eye to use those sliders to make a natural result takes study, time, and patience. It’s so easy to get seduced by the "wow" factor of rich saturated colors, which often denies the inherent beauty of the subject as it really is.
Like most things, loud is easy, but subtlety is hard. It’s true of any art from music to cooking, to craft beer. Making a IPA that is so bitter it makes you cringe is easier than making a beer with complexity and subtle notes of all the ingredients. That subtlety and complexity is my goal in making a color print because it’s the integrity of the subject and the experience it created that most interests me. My color photographs are capturing experiences, things seen that I want to re-experience and enjoy over and over.
I think that also speaks to the why of the question. When people ask “did you manipulate this?”, they are really asking “can I actually see this, or is the wow you are creating in me a falsehood?” It’s speaking to their personal connection to nature, to the world around them. The question is a very human reaction, a desire for truthfulness. They would never ask that of a Bierstadt painting of Yosemite, because they understand it’s a painting. But a photograph brings along with it a certain expectation of capturing reality, and that pre-programed viewer expectation is something that the photographer always has to consider and deal with in their photo. I feel that departure from reality needs to be done in such a clear artistic style that the question becomes moot.
So much more could be said, which makes great conversation over beer & tacos, or in the comments below. What is your take on “Is it real?”
What does specular highlight mean? Or how about local contrast, d-max, pixel value, or paper white? Do you just nod along when people use these terms? Be honest now!
Photography is full of terms that are completely foreign outside of the medium, but are a necessary part of talking about it. I've compiled a brief glossary of terms that I use frequently and I thought could use a little definition. So I've created an Articles section of my website and added a Glossary with some of my most commonly used terms.
Some of these are technical, and others are terms in common use among professional photographers and photo printmakers, but all of them bring necessary insight and understanding to the medium.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means, and is mostly meant to define things that will help understand my articles and workshops. Most of these words and concepts are worthy of in-depth study; a more complete understanding of the what, when, why, and how will grow your skill and abilities. So treat this as a study guide as there will be a test every time you click the shutter, move a slider, or click print!
Want to add a word? Or have something explained? Ask in the comments and let's discuss!
Photographer, teacher, and fine art printmaker Rich Seiling works to push the limits of printing technology to create beautiful Museum quality photographic prints for his clients and himself.