What is a "Professional" Camera?

Manufacturers of digital cameras sell multiple product lines, each targeting a particular corner of the market. These can be divided into consumer, prosumer or professional categories. The most obvious initial difference lies in cost.

A point-and-shoot camera with its built-in lens can be significantly less expensive than a camera system that allows you to swap lenses and use accessories such as a removable flash unit. Most people (including many photographers) would argue that a professional system costing several thousands of dollars is unquestionably "better" than a  $300 camera. But what does "better" really mean?

A professional camera, at the most basic level, is a camera used by a photographer to earn a living. Major camera makers would have you believe that you need this year's camera model and painfully expensive, pro-grade lenses to produce quality work. So it might surprise you to learn that there are skilled photographers today using entry-level, "obsolete" cameras to create salable works of art.

Cultivating an eye for composition, paying attention to how light interacts with the subject, and skillful post-processing all matter more than the camera. For proof of that, see this article about a woman who creates fantastic images using an old point-and-shoot Canon! There are many stories about people using older gear to make amazing photos, including many who still shoot, or have returned to using, film cameras. See here and here, for proof.

Professional photographers know how to work within limitations, and will even use those shortcomings to their creative advantage. Unconventional and beautiful portraits have been created using 50mm or shorter lenses that are not typically regarded as suitable for the purpose. In my own experience, some of my most compelling work has been made using inexpensive, "toy" film cameras. Cheap, plastic cameras like the humble Holga or the mysterious but marvelous Debonair may look like mere toys. In my hands, they are professional cameras.

Some cameras are admittedly less suited for specific uses than more technically advanced cameras. I love shooting with my Debonair, but I'm not going to grab it to shoot a soccer game. Its fixed shutter speed and wide lens wouldn't work well to capture action on the field. It's simply not the right tool for the job. Sometimes you really do need a long lens, increased low light sensitivity, super fast shutters and other features found on more expensive cameras.

Professional DSLRs generally feature more physical dials and buttons for adjusting exposure than cheaper consumer models that require diving into menus to access the same settings. This ease of making rapid changes is important to professionals who need to make many adjustments over the course of shooting a wedding, for example, adjusting to changing lighting and the desired effect for each photo. While they could make do with an entry-level DSLR in a pinch, it would be less convenient than using a "pro" camera. It's important to note here that image quality isn't at issue.

The end product, the photograph, is vastly more important than the tools used to create it. Print an 8x10 from a pro and consumer camera, place them side by side, and almost nobody will be able to tell which camera made which photo. Megapixels don't play as big a role as people suppose: an 8x10 print of a photo made from my old Nikon D40 (6 MP) will produce the same pleasing results as the same size print from a modern 24 MP camera. The advantages of having many more megapixels are normally not apparent until you print at sizes that most people never use.

Now that mirrorless cameras have been adopted by many photographers, I don't run into much criticism of my Fujifilm digital cameras. On occasion, however, I've had people turn up their noses because they don't think my gear looks as professional as a Nikon or Canon DSLR. (Sometimes the brand name "Fujifilm" leads people to mistakenly confuse them for a vintage film camera.) In short, it's not what many people visualize when they think about professional gear.

My first mirrorless digital camera still serves me well in professional use, despite not being marketed as pro gear.

I chose my current system for a variety of reasons, after months of careful research, and I know from regular practice exactly how these cameras will perform in my hands. I can achieve the same photographic results with my cameras that I would using a much bulkier camera.

Mirrorless cameras come with the normal ratio of benefits to drawbacks, just like every camera system ever made. If there were a universally agreed-upon perfect camera system, the other makes and models would quickly be out of business as photographers flocked en masse to buy into it. As much as photographers tend to be fanboys or fangirls of our chosen system, in the final analysis all cameras are just boxes with holes in them that gather light. It's up to the operator to make something memorable with them.

People sometimes ask me what kind of camera they should buy. The answer is that it really depends. It depends on how much money you have to spend, how much complexity you can adjust to using, what features are most critical to you, personal aesthetics, your physical tolerance for gear of varying weights, and the kinds of stuff you plan to photograph. I can tell you that my camera suits my style and feels like an extension of my arm and my eyes. Not everyone has the exact same needs.

In the end, every camera I own - from $20 thrift store buys to my latest Fujifilm X-T2 - is, or at least has the potential to be, a professional camera. If a client is looking to hire me, it's because they like the work I've done. The camera I bring to their special event is only a small part of the equation.


Assign Yourself a Photo Project

Participants in the Knoxville Zombie Walk (2010).

If you're a shutterbug like me, sometimes you need to get out and take some photographs of something... anything! It can be fun to just walk around a familiar area - solo or with friends - shooting whatever catches your eye. 

Spend enough time photographing random sights in any given location, though, and you'll inevitably wind up with multiple photos of the same buildings, signs and landscapes. In my case, I have hundreds or even thousands of photos from downtown Knoxville. It's a scenic city, and there are lots of interesting things to see. But eventually it starts to feel old, even as the photographic "itch" remains. Not everyone can simply hop on a plane or drive cross country to seek out exciting, new vistas. So what can you do if traveling to new places isn't feasible when your inner artist wants to roam? You could ignore the impulse to create, and waste an afternoon looking at funny photos of cats on Facebook - but there are better options!

The answer to your conundrum might be a photo assignment. That's right: You can give yourself an assignment to do something deliberate and specific with your photography. Your assignment might be something you complete in a single afternoon, or it could be a long-term project spanning a year or more. The best thing about an assignment is that it forces you to look at things through a particular set of constraints - and constraints can make all the difference for sparking creativity.

Downtown Knoxville. I shot this on a plastic toy "Debonair" camera while on a self-directed assignment. My theme? "Up" - basically pointing the camera at anything above me.

Some examples of assignments that people have completed include photographing objects that are a particular color or shape. Your subject might be a theme involving the use of reflections (as in glass windows or puddles of water), or texture (light raking rough surfaces in the early morning or late afternoon). If you're the outgoing type, some photographers make a project of photographing strangers - either as candid street photography or directly asking people to stop and take their portrait. Lousy weather? How about some macro photography on the kitchen table? Ask your friends if they'd be willing to model for you, and practice lighting techniques with a lamp and a $1 white foam board. These are just a few ideas, but you may be able to think of many more on your own that suit your interests and personality. If you're looking for more ideas, take a look here or here.

If you can't think of a specific project idea that appeals to you, a related idea is to seek out festivals and events in your area via Google. Most communities have some version of an events calendar online. In east Tennessee, the best time of year for festivals is typically summer and fall. Grab a favorite camera with a single lens (more lenses will just slow you down), and head out to photograph the festivities. Your local farmers' market is packed with people, produce and other goods. If there's a "Zombie Walk" or comic book convention in your area, you'll have no trouble getting spontaneous photos as participants are usually eager to show off their costumes.

I work these events as if I were on a paid job assignment, and people sometimes assume I am. Whatever assignment you decide upon, tackle your project as though you're a staff photographer for a newspaper. Just because you're not working for pay doesn't mean your assignment is any less important. Look at every detail as something that others might not see apart from your efforts to document it. Things you normally take for granted as boring fixtures that "everyone" has seen aren't boring to someone on the other side of the globe or across the country. You might be surprised at how the world around you looks from the fresh outlook that an assignment provides.

Shooting Expired Film

In the not-so-distant past, people were conservative about taking photos. It cost money to buy and then process film, and almost nobody took random photos of their everyday meals. As a result, when Mom took the camera out for some Christmas photos, there was often a partially exposed roll of film inside it, containing forgotten photos of birthdays or graduations from months before. Chances are that you've occasionally run across some old, forgotten film in a drawer or a box of a relative's personal effects. So what do you do with that old film - exposed or not - when you happen across it?

Film is a perishable item, with expiration dates typically a year or two out from when you purchase it. But did you know that expiration dates for film don't work like expiration dates for a jug of milk? You probably don't want to drink that milk beyond a few days from the "Sell by" date. A whiff of expired milk quickly tells you this isn't something you want to put in your mouth! Not so with film.

Photo taken on a roll of Kodak T-Max that had expired 14 years earlier. To my knowledge, it hadn't been kept in cold storage, yet the photos came out just fine with normal exposure.

When it comes to film, how quickly it goes "bad" depends on the conditions in which it's been stored and the type of film it is. Sometimes it's luck of the draw, but often the results are surprisingly good. If the film has been subject to high temperatures in long-term storage, the results are likely to be very grainy with significant color shifts toward red, but you'll most likely still get pictures.

Professional and serious amateur photographers alike often store their unused film refrigerated, or even frozen, in order to maintain freshness and extend its useful life. But even film stored at normal room temperature can give excellent results far beyond the expiration date.

In general, black & white films keep the longest under normal conditions. You can find many examples on Flickr of photos shot on black & white film that are 30, 40 - even 50 years past expiration - often with little or no visible degradation in quality. Color film, on the other hand, will typically start to degrade within a few years of expiration date, but you can sometimes get usable photos from even very old color film.

This was shot on an old roll of Kodacolor II film found with a camera my grandfather had owned. It expired in 1977. I was unsure if the film had been exposed, so I only exposed half the roll (it turned out to be all unexposed), when I took this photo in 2011. While it clearly suffered from the passage of time, I was able to make some usable photos 34 years after the film expired! This is a photo of the construction site for our new church building. (The swirly, concentric rings - aka "Newton's Rings" - are artifacts of scanning, not a flaw in the negative itself.)

Some kinds of film tend to store poorly and generally don't keep as well. Very high speed (ISO 1600 and up) and specialty infrared films tend to degrade faster due to radiation - something even cold storage can't prevent. Also, older integral films (Polaroid) rely on pods of chemistry that burst as the picture goes through the camera's processing mechanism. You can often find expired film for these cameras on places like eBay, but be aware that success with these films is becoming increasingly unlikely as the chemistry pods dry up due to age. Personally, I would avoid expired instant film and buy fresh, instead.


Photo taken on my plastic toy Debonair camera: Slide film expired by 11 years, cross-processed. Cross-processing creates its own unique color shifts above and beyond what an expired film otherwise exhibits.

I sometimes get asked by people if they can still get old, exposed rolls of film developed. Unless the film has been stored in excessive heat or otherwise badly abused, you can usually recover images from those old rolls. If it's black & white, it's a near certainty the images will be decent! It's hard to put a price on old family photos, so I'd always suggest you give it a try. There are labs that specialize in rescuing old film, and some don't charge anything if the photos don't come out, so your risk is limited to postage. I have no experience with them, but here's an example of one such lab. If you want to try a local lab, be sure to take it to a pro shop; 1-hour lab chain stores aren't equipped to handle expired film.

What if you run across unexposed (unused) old film in a kitchen drawer of storage closet and want to try using it to take new photos? There's a lot of discussion about exposing old film in various online forums, so it's probably a good idea to Google your specific film. Generally, if it's black & white, I'd recommend just shooting it at the rated "box speed" (ISO 100, etc). In the case of color film, you may want to try shooting it at half the box speed; if it's ISO 100 speed film, for example, set your camera to ISO 50. If you want to read a discussion about compensating for old film, you can start here. If you don't want to mess with these adjustments, just stick it in your camera and shoot at the rated speed - it's not an exact science! In either case, be sure to let your lab know what you are doing so they can adjust their processing accordingly.

I wouldn't suggest using long expired film for any critical purpose. But there's no reason not to use it for novelty and creative effect. What do you really have to lose for trying? There are actually many people who routinely shoot expired film on purpose, and sometimes the results are quite beautiful. In the case of exposed film found among the belongings of family members, if there's a chance it contains irreplaceable memories, I'd send it in today and possibly revisit a moment that hasn't been seen by anyone since someone pressed that shutter button!