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DIGITAL CAMERA INVESTMENT:
A MATTER OF VALUES

People generally love cool advances in technology, and professional photographers are no exception. The latest, greatest digital camera is always six months away from being released, and is almost always an intriguing lure to WPJA members and other pros working at the forefront of their craft. They’re looking for gear that will enhance their creative options while increasing convenience and value.

But there are always serious considerations in any gear strategy, especially in an age where digital technology moves at lightning speed, and today’s cutting edge tool is tomorrow’s paperweight. How does a wedding photojournalist keep up with technology? What factors play into making a decision to upgrade? How much of a financial hit is absorbed when trying to off-load two or three-year-old digital cameras…and does that really matter?

We decided to check in with a few of our recent award winners to get their views on evaluating and managing their digital camera investments, as well as what they’d like to see in their next “must have” purchase.

WHY UPGRADE? KEY TECHNICAL CONSIDERATIONS

As you would expect among top professionals, WPJA members are discriminating customers when it comes to evaluating camera upgrades. As documentary-style shooters who work in all kinds of non-studio settings and conditions, resolution and low-light performance tend to be their key technical considerations.

Sarah Bastille is a WPJA medallion winner who started her business in 2003 with two Fuji S2s as her primary cameras. She upgraded to a Nikon D2X in 2005, relegating S2s as backups due to their limitations. “The D2x addressed a lot of things I was frustrated with,” she says, “such as the slow low-light focusing speed of the S2.” She feels that her D2X excels at such situations, as reflected in her recent contest-winning photo, the result of some downtime during the reception while guests were eating dinner. “I was looking around the room for interesting details,” she says. “The coffee cups were set up by candles, and I saw the heart patterns cast by the candlelight.”

Singapore-based Kelvin Koh, who now uses a Canon 5D, with his older Canon 20D as backup, was also looking at several factors when he upgraded. “The 5D’s control layout was very similar to the 20D,” he notes. “That was a plus point but I would have to admit that the main draw was the fact that it was a full-frame camera at a reasonably lower price than the 1 series.” Like Bastille, he was also looking for a camera that would perform in low light. “I was also very impressed with its noise control. I love shooting with ambient light, so naturally that is important.”

Photograph by Kelvin Koh, Singapore of bride and friends getting ready

Photo by Kelvin Koh

Koh certainly got the exposure capability he was seeking in his recent WPJA contest-winning shot of a bride and her friends getting ready on opposite sides of a wall before the ceremony. “Personally, I love the whole fly-on-the-wall thing,” Koh explains. “As a photographer, I sometimes try and offer viewers a perspective they may not have thought of. The scene is serene and it’s a nice quiet moment.”

Award winner Brett Butterstein comes from a newspaper background, and his two Canon 5Ds are the first non-professional camera body that he’s owned. “I bought it for the full-frame sensor because I use all prime lenses,” he notes. “I feel like the 5D is kind of a new beginning in image quality and affordability. Everything that I had used previously was kind of disappointing in image quality, whereas the 5D, with almost 13 megapixels, is really good.”

Before the 5D, Butterstein used an EOS 1D Mark II, which came from his newspaper days and was significantly heavier. He and Bastille both note that when working long 12-hour days, shooting with lighter weight equipment can make an important difference in comfort. Says Bastille, “You want something sturdy, but I get tired at the end of the night when I’ve been using a 70-200 [lense] a lot.”

Butterstein’s 5Ds came in handy when capturing an award-winning shot after a quick jaunt into the Sangre de Cristo mountains with the bride and groom immediately after their wedding in Santa Fe, NM. “They had just acquired a vintage Mustang, so we just drove up the pass afterward,” he reports. “Just as we were about to finish the formal photos, I jumped into the car and got the shot.”

WHEN TO UPGRADE

So when do you actually make the jump to a new camera? Usually it’s when you start to feel that sense of frustration with your current camera’s capabilities. Our experts all say that they plan to stick with their current models for the time being, but would quickly acquire a new body the minute they saw a real advantage in performance.

“Shooting with the S2 I quickly ran up against frustrations, such as focusing in low light,” says Bastille. “So I went along about a year and a half before I felt that I needed to upgrade, and at this point I’ll probably be using the D2X for the foreseeable future.”

“If Canon was to release a 5D upgrade tomorrow, I’ll probably get two of those immediately and sell these to have the newer camera for next season —and I would take the hit financially for doing that,” claims Butterstein, who notes two significant problems with his current rig: He gets horizontal banding with some of the higher ISOs, and the card-writing speed is too slow for his style of work—a problem he didn’t anticipate when making his last purchase. “I shoot RAW plus small JPEG for all of my files, and will often take upwards of 30 shots in a very short period of time, which quickly fills up the buffer,” he laments.

MONEY CONSIDERATIONS: DEPRECIATING THE INVESTMENT

Of course, quality digital camera bodies are not cheap, and equipment costs overall are a significant factor in business expenses. So how do you handle the upgrade game financially? Our WPJA award-winners all calculate a general depreciation on their equipment, but have varying philosophies on the best use for old cameras. In all cases, they tend to agree that the resale value of a digital camera is insignificant in the larger scheme of things.

“Though I’ve been taking a general depreciation on everything, I don’t plan on getting much money on the back end,” says Bastille. “Once I buy a camera, that’s it. Resale is not part of the equation, though maybe my accountant would yell at me about that!”

So, she has simply given away her older cameras, recently passing along one of her Fuji S2s, a camera that originally was given to her by the photographer she was assisting and training with in 2003. “When she retired this camera, I took it on at the beginning of my career, and now I’ve passed it along to another budding photographer. It’s a good-karma thing,” she says. “What would I have gotten for it used? Maybe $250?”

Butterstein permanently retires and sells all of his older cameras because he believes it is important to have all the same equipment, with the redundancy creating efficiencies in his workflow. He also depreciates in order to squeeze as much value as possible out of the older equipment, though the financial hit is not an issue to him. “I did ‘good enough’ when I sold off the Mark II,” he notes, but says the actual money coming in is not that important. “I do enough business throughout the year to justify any initial investment with my cameras. The quality of the image is what’s of importance to me, not the monetary value of my gear.”

Koh also retires his older cameras, keeping them in the dry cabinet or selling them. He notes that in Singapore it is “reasonably easy” to sell off the gear with little loss, as there is a ready pool of buyers for used equipment. He’s put that to full advantage in trying out new gear. “I bought the Canon 1D Mark II, tried it for a month, didn’t like it and re-sold it at a loss of just about $60,” he notes. “This has also allowed me to try cameras like the Hasselblad Xpan and other more specialized models without worrying that I would make a big loss if they are not suitable.”

RESISTING THE SEDUCTION OF NEW EQUIPMENT

OUR EXPERTS’ WISH LISTS FOR THE “PERFECT” CAMERA

  • Koh: A Canon 1 series camera with the ease of use of the 5D, and little or no noise. Also better ergonomics on the camera body (I have always loved the grip of the Maxxum 7) and weather sealing. It would also be great if the white balance performance could be improved, since it’s just not there for most cameras in ballroom lighting conditions.
  • Bastille: My ideal would include Nikon ergonomics, flash performance, and low-light focusing prowess, with Canon high-ISO performance, and a Fuji sensor— all in a lightweight but sturdy body.
  • Butterstein: Something small in size, similar to the 5D, with a full-frame sensor, somewhere around 20MP, for a really large high-quality image…and with lightning-fast card writing speed!

Most wedding photojournalists keep up with the latest and greatest by following technology trends in the professional forums, as well as by reading magazines. However, our award-winners warn against being too easily seduced by cool new stuff and the accompanying marketing hype, recommending an objective, if not skeptical, approach to any purchasing consideration.

“When it comes to technology, I really have to justify upgrading,” says Bastille. “It has to improve my work in a way that’s useful for my client. If I get all excited about a new camera I hear about, I’ll wait a week. You can talk yourself into a $4,500 camera body that ‘you absolutely need,’ when you really don’t. And a message board can contribute to that when you read statements like ‘it’s completely revolutionized my photography…’”

She says that instead of being swayed by the hype, you have to look at yourself and your way of shooting to consider whether a new camera is going to have the same results for you. “In the end, what makes a difference isn’t the camera, but the person behind it,” she maintains.

“Given what is available, you need to decide if the advancements will help in your work,” Koh advises. “ I believe that if we have the budget for it and if the new technology is significantly better, we should jump on and enjoy the new capabilities.”

— by Michael Roney for the Wedding Photojournalist Association