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.


Which Digital Camera Should I Buy?

It's the sort of question that lights up the eyes of salespeople and makes professional photographers twitch: "Which digital camera should I buy?"

Let me make a couple of points up front that should be obvious: (1) While I keep up with many trends in the wider photography world, my personal experience is limited, and (2) I am unquestionably biased in my recommendations. So take specific model suggestions with a grain of salt; the major players all sell roughly comparable models at various price points, and you can take fine photos with any brand of camera.  Don't let anyone try to tell you that brand X will make you a better photographer. As the famed photographer Ansel Adams said decades ago: “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.”

With those caveats, I'll offer some considerations for the person who is looking for a camera that can offer more creative control and capabilities than their smartphone can deliver. Usually, when people ask for camera recommendations they have a budget limit in mind. (If you're rich, skip this part.) If your budget is under $300, your options are limited and I'd suggest sticking with your smartphone; you're not going to get an appreciably better photo with a camera in this price range. A cheap point-and-shoot camera offers a few advantages, but frequently not enough to justify the cost. (If you're looking for an optical zoom and a more powerful built-in flash, then you might actually benefit from a sub $300 camera.)

If you can spend in the $300-400 range and up, your options are much better. Even if you have the means to spend a lot more money, I'd recommend that you consider a more basic camera kit until you have a better idea what kinds of features you really need. With a few high-end exceptions*, you'll be better served by a camera that will accept interchangeable lenses. These cameras usually come with a basic "kit" zoom lens that are more than adequate for everyday use. If you shop carefully, you can find some good deals on refurbished gear at great prices - like a Nikon D3100 with an 18-55mm lens for $349 at the time of this writing. That's more than enough camera to take professional quality photos. Nikon's 18-55mm kit lens is quite good and surprisingly versatile.

As your skills improve, you can add lenses that match your shooting style. As any pro photographer will tell you, your most important investment is lenses. Even the best digital cameras today will start to look ancient beyond 5 years as technology progresses. But a quality lens will last you through multiple camera bodies. So if you need to scrimp, buy the cheapest body a manufacturer offers and save up for better lenses.

Prize-winning photo I shot in 2011, using an entry-level, 6 MP Nikon D40 camera that debuted in late 2006, using the kit 18-55mm zoom lens. The same photo shot on a higher-end camera would look pretty much the same at normal print sizes.

Don't be suckered into the megapixels arms race! As Ken Rockwell demonstrates, megapixels are not the most important spec in a camera. Even a 5+ year old DSLR can take photos that beat any smartphone in image quality under normal circumstances. Among other factors, dedicated cameras generally have much larger image sensors. What do you get if you cram more pixels into a tiny sensor? A lot of pixels on a tiny sensor! For making beautiful 8x10" prints, a dedicated 6 MP camera is all you need. More megapixels do allow you to make much larger prints, and you can also make bigger enlargements from cropped images. Today you're not likely to find a new camera that features less than 16 MP, so don't worry about megapixels. Megapixels simply aren't a measurement of quality - only resolution. Of course there are advantages to newer and higher-end cameras, but megapixels are not the chief among them.

I've owned a number of digital cameras, including a Nikon D40 and a Nikon D7000. Both my DSLRs served me well, and would have continued to do so if I'd stayed within the Nikon fold. About a year ago, however, I decided I wanted to change up my gear and go a different direction. I spent considerable time researching mirrorless (also know as ILC - interchangeable lens) cameras. These are high-end cameras that produce photos rivaling the quality of conventional DSLRs. The main difference is that they don't use a mirror like a conventional DSLR for composing photos. Consequently, they are generally much smaller and lighter, and - to the delight of many professionals - are less conspicuous in public. Another advantage of the mirrorless cameras is that you can often buy inexpensive adapters that will let you use vintage lenses on them. I can use my 30+ year old Konica lenses in this way, with excellent results.

California sea lions shot using a Fujifilm X-E2 and a 40-year old Konica Hexanon 135mm telephoto lens (with adapter). Konica lenses love mirrorless cameras!

Mirrorless cameras do have a few disadvantages compared to DSLRs. Their smaller size can take some time to adjust to, although this is a minor adaptation. Due to their smaller batteries, battery life is measured in the hundreds, not thousands of shots like my former Nikon D7000. Newer cameras are improving on this limitation, but fortunately spare batteries are cheap and widely available. The biggest drawback for mirrorless cameras relates to slightly slower focus speeds in some models (the actual difference is increasingly negligible), and fewer frames per second. Wildlife and sports photographers are probably still better served by a DSLR. For most any other purpose, mirrorless cameras are functionally equivalent to their bigger brethren.

There are a variety of options within the mirrorless camp, and this is not a comprehensive review of them. I decided upon the Fujifilm X-E2 mirrorless camera, which at the time made the most economic sense for me. The Fujifilm X series digital cameras offer the advantage of a using an APS-C (half-frame) sensor - the same sensor in the Nikon D7000 and many other "prosumer" level cameras, with some special Fujifilm features. Fujifilm's XF lenses, even their entry-level "kit" 18-55mm zoom, are widely recognized as exceptional in quality. The primary disadvantage of going with Fujifilm is that there are relatively fewer lenses to choose from, and only a few lenses made by third-party manufacturers.

From the various photography forums and podcasts I follow, it appears that mirrorless cameras are gaining significant traction in the market, whereas DSLRs sales and innovation have mostly stagnated. Some of the most exciting developments are coming not from Nikon or Canon, but from manufacturers like Sony, Panasonic, Olympus and other manufacturers of micro four thirds cameras. These are mirrorless cameras that offer many advantages in common with the Fujifilm X series, with the added benefit that a vast selection of lenses (interchangeable among brands) are available.

I almost bought a micro four thirds Panasonic Lumix camera, as it has some useful features and has garnered numerous positive reviews. Ultimately, I decided against going with micro four thirds out of concerns that the smaller image sensor used in micro four thirds cameras might not provide the performance I required - especially under low-light conditions. My concerns may or may not have been well-founded in that respect, but I'm definitely happy with my camera choice. When I decide to splurge for an upgraded body, the X-E2 will become my backup body, and my current lenses will work on either body.

*If you're looking to buy a good camera that uses a built-in lens, Fujifilm makes some great consumer cameras that are worth checking out; two of these are the Fujifilm X30 ($599), and the Fujifilm X100T ($1299). Both are only available for pre-order at the time of this writing, but early reviews suggest they are every bit as stellar as their predecessors. The X30 is a compact zoom, whereas the X100T is a fixed lens camera that's going to be very popular among professional and street photographers. If you don't care about having the very latest features, the X100S is predictably being discounted by retailers. The X30 does have a smaller sensor, whereas the X100T has the latest iteration of same excellent sensor as other cameras in Fujifilm's high-end models.