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 specialty niches, you’ll find that some camera can do what you want and others can’t.
But when looking at prints from the typical 24-megapixel 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 are 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 $800 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 the 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 of 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 everyday 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.
About the author: Rich Seiling is a master printmaker, photographer, and teacher who has worked with thousands of photographers to produce prints for museums and galleries. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Visit his website to see his photos and online workshops.