Is this Camera Professional?

I see so much photographic equipment being described as professional these days that I sometimes wonder of the term has any meaning. When John Downing took the classic picture of a stunned Margaret Thatcher leaving the Imperial hotel in Brighton, England, after the IRA had bombed it, he had been having a drink in the bar. The bomb went off and John couldn’t get to his room to get his ‘proper’ cameras. But he he had a Canon Sureshot, the same as my mum used on holiday, in his pocket.

And it was on the Sureshot that the pic was made.

That makes it a professional camera in my book. Cameras are not professional, people are. An Olympus Pen in Sebastaio Delgado’s hands is a professional camera. A Nikon D4 in my sister’s is not.

Since it’s a while since I’ve been a day to day editorial photographer shooting anything and everything from wars to fashion, I thought I’d ask a friend of mine, Keith Waldegrave what his professional working  kit consists of. He works for one of the UK’s biggest and most successful national publications and never knows from one day to the next what country he will be in let alone what assignments he will be asked to cover.

It follows that his equipment must be up to any photographic task he is likely to be handed but most importantly must be tough, reliable and manageable. Here’s a run-down of Keith’s basic working gear.

Two Nikon D3 bodies with (all Nikkor) lenses 14mm f2.8, 24-70mm f2.8, 80-200mm f2.8, 28-300mm f4.5-5.6, 300mm f2.8 plus Nikkor 1.4 ands 2x converters and two Nikon SB800 flash guns. It is kept in a Tamrac wheelie bag that has a pocket for his laptop, used for editing and sending pix to his London office from wherever he happens to be (photographers don’t go in to the office much in these days of easy mobile sending).

Depending on the job, Keith will often take just one body with the 24-70 f2.8 zoom, flash and extension lead for bounce flash off handy wall or ceilings. That way the gear can be carried in a Lowepro shoulder bag easily.

On a foreign, the two D3 bodies, 2 flashguns, 24-70 and 80-200 or 28-300 are taken depending on the nature of the story  – but not both long zooms. Mobile dongle,  cables, laptop, adaptors and all the paraphernalia and personal stuff are put in the wheelie bag and taken hand baggage Thus, no danger of losing anything to the baggage handlers and no back-ache from hauling all that stuff the absurd distances from check-ins to gate these days. There’s a Lowepro shoulder bag in there too, for working out of the hotel.

Incidental gear is a set of Elinchrom Quad Ranger lights with assorted brollies, Lastolites, soft boxes and so on for important interviews and big buy-ups. Those are used with battery packs to be independent of the mains and for locations where main power isn’t available.

Other bits include a monopod for when the 300mm f2.8 is doubled up to 600mm, car power inverter for charging everything on the move and mains extension lead for when you must have mains power and the socket is too far away – amazing how often that happens!

Oh yes, and tripod and step ladder but they are only taken when necessary.

Looking at Keith’s kit, two things strike me. First, how comprehensive it is. There’s not much that can’t be covered with it. Secondly, how minimal it is. Nothing extraneous there at all.

A newspaper photographer from a hundred year ago will have had very different equipment but he will have applied the same philosophy. Cover the maximum with the minimum. No duplication, nothing in the bag just because you like it or use it occasionally  – and that will need to be removed if you going on a foreign and need to travel light.

The wheelie bag stands ready by your front door or sits in the boot of your car. The phone rings and you are on your way.   It’s just you and your cameras. Everything is charged up and ready to go because putting everything on charge was the first thing you did on getting home from your last job.

As I write that I can feel the heat and bustle of African city, I can hear the sound wall of AC/DC’s guitars at the Rainbow, Finsbury and smell the oil and salt water of a tanker aground in Scotland. And now back to my present day reality.

I’m in a southern French village. I am not about to race off anywhere more exotic than the boulangerie. And yet, beside the front door is my camera bag. In it is are two camera bodies, a Panasonic GH4 and a GM1 as backup. There are 7-14, 12-35 and 35-100  and 100-300mm zooms. A flash gun. Spare batteries. Spare SD card. It’s a professional outfit!

All Micro four Thirds gear, of course, and thus a fraction of the weight of Keith’s Nikons. But Keith may have to produce an image under conditions where an amateur would judge that the result wouldn’t be worth it. Bigger pixels, in this context, are always better. No picture editor will be interested in your back problems while a hungry editor is looking over his shoulder, waiting for his front page picture exclusive to appear (Actually, he won’t be interested even when the editor isn’t looking over his shoulder).

Nonetheless, I have reproduced Keith’s professional working outfit in a different context.

A newsman from the New York Daily Graphic in 1920, Keith in London in 2014, me in 1990 and me in 2014 all have one thing in common. Our camera bags and the reasoning behind their contents. Since I’m in France, I’ll use a French phrase to express my feelings. La plus ca change, la plus c’est la meme chose.

So what is professional equipment? Quite simply, it is not equipment labelled ‘Pro’, it is the equipment professionals actually choose to use. Which leaves me with my MFT gear. Is it professional? Not many professionals in my field use it.  And I’m not really professional now. So no, it’s not.

But I still approach my photography and choose my equipment in a professional manner. Witness my bag by the door. So maybe my MFT equipment is amateur gear chosen by a professional. Does that make it professional gear, then? I don’t know.

More to the point, I don’t care.

PS Keith’s gear (2 bodies, 4 lenses) weighs in at 9.17 kilos or 20.2 lbs or 9 bags of sugar. Mine (2 bodies, 4 lenses) weighs 2.5 kilos, 5½ lbs or 2 bags of sugar. Of course, the performance is different and the comparison not exact.



12 thoughts on “Is this Camera Professional?

  1. Marshall G

    It seems to me that “professional” as it applies to photography equipment is more of a marketing term and/or price-point indicator.

    1. Post author

      Yes, I think that’s exactly right. When I used Nikon cameras, the main reason they were ‘professional’ had nothing to do with performance. Plenty of cameras performed as well. It was ‘professional’ because it was toughly built and Nikon had a professional service which would prepare the camera for use in the desert or the Antarctic, had fast 3 day service and repair time and would lend you equipment for specialized purposes.

  2. Gary

    In my opinion, our MFT kits could easily fit on both amateur and professional criteria. I have no problem printing A4 sized photos from my GX7 with the 14-140mm lens and it is as sharp(or even sharper) than my Canon Rebel T4i with 17-50mm f2.8 lens up to ISO 1600.

    If I am doing serious product photography in the office or making a short YouTube product commercial with my GX7 and Olympus primes, then they are professional. If I am on vacation and taking pictures with my GX7 and 14-140mm, then they are amateur. But even my Olympus E-PL6 with 17mm f2.8 takes very good picture, enough to produce decent product photography pictures and post it on the web and print catalogues out of that little camera.

    I guess our MFT kits are just that versatile, it handles both amateur and professional work perfectly! And the best thing is that the kit is very inconspicuous, people aren’t intimidated by our little cameras and lenses 🙂

    1. Post author

      My MFT cameras produce better image quality than my Nikon film cameras did and media requirements haven’t changed since so it follows that they are good enough for professional use.

      However, when you are up against it and must produce the best possible image under conditions you cannot choose, a FF DSLR is the best bet. Press photographers are constantly faced with that problem by the nature of their job. Where the DSLR comes off less well is as an amateur system. Hawking around a FF camera with 24-70mm f2.8 while out for a stroll is not my idea of fun!

      So, yes, MFT is a great all round versatile system that isn’t yet fully recognised in the professional sphere.

  3. Bob Fairbairn

    Context is EVERYTHNG! I was on vacation this past weekend. My “professional choice” of camera gear was a GX7 and the 20mm 1.7 and my iPhone. Any more than that and I would have been on a photo safari and my wife or I would have been the sherpa! That would not have gone well and I would not have enjoyed the walks and would not have relaxed. I too always have a camera bag at the ready. But if I am out shopping or some other activity that is not going to be photo related I carry my iPhone which has the context of being with me all the time.

    It is interesting to go back through your images and see what you used. I really like the idea of the 14-140 on the GX7 but is is a lot bigger than my 20mm.. Ah G.A.S….


    1. Post author

      Like you I’m mindful of what camera I take out in context. When I’m in France my wife and I like to stroll through the vineyards on the hillside around the village. She’s entirely happy for me to take pictures but it’s no fun for her if I’m forever stopping and framing and all the rest.

      The GX7 is great with the 14-149 but it’s bigger and you can start to faff around getting the framing exact. So I take the GX7 and 17mm Olympus.

  4. George

    David, I discovered your blogs and videos several months ago, and I would like to congratulate you on the quality and style of your posts. I enjoy your easy going, easy to understand style, whether video or written, and as an m4/3 user since almost the beginning panasonic G1 and Olympus EP1, I find your musings and hints extremely valuable.

    I currently have a G5 GX7 and a GM1, I have found your how to set up the camera booklet most helpful, after watching your recent video I am going through the menus to try and sort out focussing. I have never subscribed to the “professional gear” argument, if you earn your living as a photographer, then your gear should be considered professional whatever you use, surely. I am more than happy with what I use, as I am probably around the same vintage as you, weight is an important factor to me, so for me it is a win win situation regards gear and weight. One final thought, why the GH4 and not the GX7 on your trip, do you consider the former the more complete camera, or should I say “professional ”

    Kind regards

    1. Post author

      Thanks, George. I have three cameras now and I seem to have settled into a pattern. In my main bag which I take out when I intend to take pictures I have the GH4 and the GM1. The GH4 because it is does everything and has all the bells and whistles and that nice big viewfinder. The GM1 because it’s a backup and if I’m making a video I need a second camera to video the screen of the GH4 plus it adds hardly any weight. The GX7 is in my bag when I go out generally. I have the 17mm f1.8 and the 45mm f1.8 and with those lenses it seems like a modern take on the Leica with 35 and 90mm lenses. Or, I take it with the 14-140mm zoom.

      When I go through my library on Lightroom, I find that by far my most used combo is the GX7 and 14-140mm. If I could have only one MFT camera, it would be the GX7 because for me it has the best trade-off between size and usability, plus it has the IBIS for the Olympus primes. So, no, I don’t think the GH4 is more professional(!) but I do think it is more complete, especially with the battery grip which makes it handle like a dream camera for me. Basically, If I take that I know that anything MFT can do, I can do. In spite of saying that, I can’t recall any occasion when I’ve had the GX7 and wished I had the GH4,

      An Associated Press photographer friend of mine who now has a desk job with AP wants to get taking pictures again. He tried my GX7 and is buying a pair of them to sling over his shoulder with 17 and 45 lenses. Used to have Leicas!
      I’m delighted to hear you found the book useful. I learned so much from doing those, going through every item one at a time and seeing for myself what they really did.

    1. Post author

      Hi Tim,
      yes, it struck me when I was talking to Keith because he uses a Fuji X something as a carry around camera, a camera that s never labelled ‘professional’ but he gets the occasional publication with it. So it occurred to me that what made the camera professional was the photographer. At a relative’s wedding recently, they had a very good wedding photographer who, while her assistant was setting up the groups, moved around snap[ping away with a little Panasonic GF1. She took some lovely picture with it and I had the same thought again.

      1. Tim Frakes

        I’ve had clients ask me, “What kind of “professional” camera should we buy?” The underlying meaning suggests the purchase a so-called professional camera, will eliminate the need to hire a professional videographer. My response: The price of the kitchen, stove, pots, pans, etc, are cheap. The question is, do you know how to cook?

        1. Post author

          Yes, well we all know that all you need is an expensive camera and just point it in the right direction and press the button. As you say, it’s the same with cooking, just buy the pots and pans and pour stuff in and turn on the heat. I did the same with my guitar. Just bought a nice Martin acoustic and a foot-stall, booked my self a spot in a local bar and played. If only life was like that!

          I heard an old interview with Vladimir Ashkenazy on the radio recently, done at the time he was a concert pianist. He was asked by the interviewer if there was anything that made him angry. He said there was only one thing and that was when someone remarks ‘how lucky he is to be able to play the piano like that’. As he pointed out, he started playing seriously aged 6 and still practiced six to seven hours a day. Luck had nothing to do with it. If only he’s known what those folk asking you about the camera know. He should have just bought a Steinway piano. Job done 🙂


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