The Reality Gap

Chatting to a camera dealer recently, I remarked that it was very important to my business as a freelance to always have the best equipment money could buy. I worked with a lot of very successful and well known people and a surprising number of them were interested in cameras and photography. Everyone knew the names Hasselblad and Nikon, that they were the best and the most expensive. When you opened a silver case with a pair of Hasselblad bodies, 4 lenses, half a dozen backs in there, the cognoscenti among them would ask if they could hold them. It was almost reverential. Hasselblad…they were the best. And if you could afford the best cameras, you must be a pretty damn successful photographer.

Well, up to a point. I used to buy my Hasselblad equipment from a camera shop near Chelsea Town Hall. I happened to see Hasselblad gear in the window one day as I was passing and went in. It turned out that the shop had quite a turnover with the Swedish camera which seemed odd for what was essentially a non-pro dealership. The reason was that the manager had a number of very rich customers, some Saudis amongst them who had the money to buy such cameras on a whim and then, finding them rather awkward and demanding to use, just bring them back and chop them in on something else. One of the main buyers and sellers, though, was Peter Sellers. He was a keen photographer and loved photographic gear. As I, unashamedly, do. He’d buy anything new Hasselblad did, use it for a month or two, get bored and sell it back to the shop.

The manager would call me up when anything tasty came back. For him it was a quick turnaround so the prices were exceptional. So exceptional in fact that after using the Hasselblads for 15 years, I sold them for what I paid for them. What struck me at the time, though, was that anyone who thought I was able to afford such equipment and assumed I must be making lot of money was being misled. I didn’t mind, harmless enough. Impressions do count in business.

So, I wonder what I’d do now? My personal choice of camera would be Micro Four Thirds. There’s nothing that I would be doing that would require more than a G7 Panasonic or an E-M5ll Olympus would do. But I know that I wouldn’t be happy with the impression that such small cameras give. You are being commissioned for a big daily rate and you turn up with small cameras that looks to the client like the sort of thing they might buy for themselves. It wouldn’t work. Either camera in the right hands could produce the required results but that’s only half the point. What about the impact on the client?

Digressing a bit, I once had a very important job for a drinks company. The shoot was in Sussex. I, very greedily went on a freebie to New York for a newspaper 2 days before which would get me back to Gatwick Airport with 2 hours to spare to get to the shoot after going to my office to pick up my cameras. The inevitable happened. The flight was delayed by bad weather. It would arrive at a time that meant I would be an hour late for the shoot. What to do? I could phone the client and say I was ill but then no fee. My brainwave was to phone a friend who owed me a favour. Would he pick up my lights and Hasselblad and bring them down to the airport and meet me? He couldn’t do that but what he could do was put them in the boot of his car, a very handsome Mercedes convertible and leave it in the short term car park. Perfect! I picked it up and it being a warm day, put the hood down.

I arrived at my shoot and they were waiting for me at the door. I stopped the Mercedes, apologised profusely for being late, I had had a quick job in New York but my flight had been delayed. I picked up my case and went inside and unpacked my gear and put it out, ready to use, on the floor. Such an impression had all this made that they seemed almost grateful I had got there at all. New York! The Mercedes! The expensive equipment! (And yes, I did work for them again.)

But the reality was less impressive. The trip was a freebie, the car wasn’t mine and the equipment had all been bought at rock bottom prices. But they didn’t know that. It’s all perception.

So, coming back to my point about Micro Four Thirds cameras, if I was going to use them professionally it would have to be Olympus E-M1, Panasonic GH4 or GX8. They are the biggest, after all. For what I need, the results would be just as good technically with a Panasonic GM5 or an Olympus E-M10 but they are too small. The reality is that I wouldn’t use an MFT at all. I’d use a great big noisy professional Nikon or Canon DSLR with some absurdly big, fast and absurdly expensive lenses. Not for me and not for my client’s work. Jut for his peace of mind.

If the photographer is expensive, his car big and his camera impressive – well you just know he must be good, don’t you?

18 thoughts on “The Reality Gap

    1. Post author

      Hi Ed. No.I didn’t mean him. Well spotted, I meant Sellers as you point out. I’m glad you like the videos and blog. Perhaps I’ll get that Peter Sellars to direct one for me!

  1. Philip

    Hi David,

    I’ve been freelance for two years or so, not making enough for full time, but enough to supplement my hobby whilst at University. Since I started I’ve only ever used M43, I had a Nikon D5100 but the bulk, poor video and impossibly expensive lenses(if you’re trying to get a f2.8 workhorse on any other system than M43 you’ll need a serious investment) put me off completely.

    Do you think that it’s size is going to get a negative response from the client? I’ve had comments from other photographers, but never a client as of yet. Mind you, my main money maker is video on the GH3, and with a battery grip it hardly seems that small until you place next to a DSLR. I only ask for my own insecurity, as I plan on continuing on M43 as go into full time freelancing, I’m even getting a studio ready for portraiture, where I plan to use the GX8 and oly 45 for most of the work. I’d like to be confident I could continue the work on the system I love.

    1. Post author

      Hi Philip – I don’t think you should give a cuss what other photographers think. The GH3 and grip looks like a complicated and expensive camera and that’s what the clients will see. You confirm that when you say that that you have comments from photographers but never clients.

      My chief photographer, a superb photographer called Neil Nevison told me when I started out as an apprentice that I shouldn’t be self-conscious about making a fool of myself for a shot or telling people what to do because 24 hours later they have forgotten the photographer. What they don’t forget is the pictures he took! If your pictures are up to scratch, that’s all a client will want.

      Later on, when you undertake more ambitious work, you may find you need a larger format equipment for specialist lenses, tougher build or a professional service backup. But if you are getting work in today’s competitive climate you are doing something right! I’ve always held that professionally it is your personality and willingness to work that gets the jobs more than anything else, more than the actual photographs very often.

      I was once recommended to a London TV company for stills work by the picture editor of the Daily Mail who was a friend of the company’s PR woman. I asked the PR what he had said about me, hoping he’d recommended me because I was such a great photographer. “Oh, he said you were a grafter”, she told me!

  2. Allan Gould

    A pertinent post that had me thinking. I’ve always used the equipment that I could afford and never really got into the large Nikon or Canon DSLRs. My film cameras were the small Nikon FMs and an assortment of 28mm and 50mm lens with a small Tamron 75-150mm zoom. Used this kit all around Europe but along came more responsibility at work with less time and I turned to video, but after some time with little advance I realised that I never viewed the videos again and the tapes just collected.
    After retirement I got interested in photography again and MFT in particular. I’ve never had a problem with these for imaging as people around have looked at the quality that they produce and ask me to do their imaging when it’s important.
    I understand the perception of someone with the “best and impressive gear” and it’s very valid.
    One lens that I would love you to review is the Panasonic 45-175mm zoom. I’ve used this a lot to shoot at the Australian open and other tennis tournaments with great success and I would like to see your impression verses the Olympus Pro 40-150mm. As an example I posted a few images here:- Not a huge lens but extremely capable.

    1. Post author

      I’ll see if I can get hold of the zoom you suggest. I don’t think there is much, if anything, that I used to do professionally that I couldn’t now do with Micro Four Thirds and the GH4/E-M1/ GX8 would look professional enough. The only things i wouldn’t do would be the studio jobs where the client will often want very large reproduction. For that I’d use medium format, mainly for the ease of producing quality results but also with a bot of client pleasing in mind.

      Luckily, I can now use anything I want – and I’m settled on Micro Four Thirds as the best all round format. Video I enjoy but I’d need another lifetime to learn it all and it really does seem highly technical. For me, the Panasonic set to 25fps/FHD/ 20mbps and everything else at default seems to work well. I’m sure it could be bettered but I just don’t feel the need for it. We’re quite spoilt for choice now compared to the film days, though I think the choice simply bewilders many people. It’s like all the choice in coffee, I sometimes just wish I could just order a coffee and forego all the choice.

  3. Kevin

    David I think you are spot on with this post.
    Last year I sold/traded in all my Canon full frame gear for an OMD 5 mk2 and the 12-40 f2.8 Pro lens.
    One of my regular gigs is to shoot all the functions for the Thai Buddhist temple (for free).
    For what they need I knew I would get almost the same quality form this setup as the Canon.

    I arrived with my now small camera bag and camera/lens combo.
    The looks on the faces were priceless when I pulled out the camera to do the shoot -:)
    and the comments were along the lines of ” how can you make nice photos with that small thing ? ”
    Needless to say they were happy with the uploaded results and I am still shooting for them hehe

    1. Post author

      Interesting because Buddhists are usually open minded and would give you the chance to show what you could do with ‘that little camera’. So many people would have found your pictures less good because they would have made up their minds they would be when they first saw the camera. Now, the Buddhists probably don’t give a thought about the camera size. It’s a good lesson, Kevin. Now you just need to convince the rest of the world of it! I was at my blues club the other night and noted that every man-jack with a camera had a great big DSLR with f/2.8 zooms. I’ve had blinding results with my mfts at 3200 and f/2.8 whih I” bet are just as good. That 12-40 is about the sharpest lens I have – better than any primes I’ve had or have. I wonder how they did that?

  4. Stephen

    Great post David…..look forward to all your postings and videos. Love the tongue in check approach whilst still making great points and giving people pause for thought. Some people will always misunderstand especially when ” pro gear” comes up. I think perception is a very powerful thing and one that is just another tool to help make the customers experience more worthwhile. Obviously the photographer would need to be competent but a pair of D4 ‘s with fast glass helps set the mood!😎
    Having said that using MFT for portraits, at a wedding, christening or reception means that you can interact more closely with the subjects without the barrier of a large dslr. Do the pros out there find they have to charge less the smaller the cameras get? Wouldn’t have thought so. The younger generation don’t seem so hung up on the gear thing so it’s not sending out the wrong message to them but everyone is aware that as someone once said “perception is everything”!! Keep up the great work David.

    1. Post author

      Thanks Stephen. I hate that ‘perception is everything’ but as you say, you have to please the customers. Good point you make about younger people. Smaller cameras are much more normal to them so perhaps the bigger is better attitude will fade away. It’ll take while though. Look at the time it has taken for the Skoda car jokes to fade out!

      Good point about the use of less daunting cameras at weddings etc. A great big DSLR with flash and zoom lens pointed in your direction can make anyone feel self-conscious.

      1. Stephen

        Thanks David, I also don’t like the part perception plays, just that I still notice that it seems important to some people and can trick people into a false reality.
        I have been using MFT cameras now for a year or so and my old canons languish in their cases.
        Am astonished at the results I get from my Olympus Em5 and OMD Em1. I was torn between the OmdEm1 and the Panasonic gh4. I noticed that you seemed to move from the Panasonic to Olympus. Any regrets or things you miss? Personally I have a large investment in Canon speed lights and their flash system and find this is holding me back from completely switching. Am experimenting with the MFT/ flash interactions so who knows.?

        1. Post author

          No, no regrets about the Olympus, though I do prefer Panasonic’s cameras in principle. The 40-150 f/2.8 just ticked so many boxes for me – it took care of all my long lens needs in one piece of glass (well, two including the converter). That’s too long for unstabilized shooting with my shaky hands so I had to get the Olympus. I actually only really use the E-M1 for the big zoom. For everything else I use the GX8. With those two bodies and the GX8 with the 12-40 zoom I’m a happy photographer.

          As a carry around, the GX8 with the small 12-32 and 35-100 pleases me a lot and with the dual stabilization, it’s as steady as the E-M5ll. But the E-M1 is gorgeous and if someone said that was the only camera I could have, I’d be perfectly content.

  5. David Cantor

    Agree about perceptions, sadly my photographic interest hasn’t and probably never will involve the transfer of dosh from someone else’s bank into mine. The micro-four thirds kit does look rather diddy but its surprising how professional an all-black camera can look with a grip and a pokey-out lens hood although it may not convince in a studio situation.

    In olden times, I installed a multi-user computer system with several workstations connected, the processor had a processor of a blistering 5 giga-thingies but it worked for a number of years. Nowadays, the average tablet probably has many more giga-thingies under the hood. Perhaps small can be enough as well as beautiful if it does away with the Hassle? Miniaturisation, bring it on.
    Great post as usual

    David C

    1. Post author

      There’s a pleasure in taking pictures purely for your own taste and enjoyment and you don’t get forced into the corners that you do professionally. It’s like a taxi driver, you expect a proper one to have a reasonably large and clean car. Actually, an old Mini would would do the job. I can’t compare my Micro Four Thirds cameras with my old film stuff but my feeling is that it is of higher quality overall. Certainly music concert shots in poor light are much better than I could ever get pushing Fujichrome to 1600.

      For my photos now, small is definitely beautiful (and especially for the street stuff that you do) but there’s so much competition that you’d have to go FF in my field. I’d definitely try the E-M1 with zoom and hood and gauge the reaction, as you say. No-one would tell from the results, it’s just the reality gap that has to be bridged. Funnily enough, in a way using a small camera for street pix is a reality gap because it looks less intimidatingly professional. That doesn’t mean it isn’t in the hands of a professional, though.

      1. Richard

        Good article, David, if a tad depressing that people still (and always will) judge by appearance over result. I do find that the Olympus Pro lenses get more cred from the ignorant and assumptive than most (large acreage of shiny front-end glass), even though I use them because of their outstanding image quality and versatility. The other thing that confuses the poor dears is that I use a tripod or monopod far less these days (down to the outstanding Oly IBIS) and, when I do, it’s a smaller, lighter package than most (I use Feisol + Sunway heads). About the only thing I really miss with Oly is a comprehensive integrated radio flash system. I’m thinking of 3D-printing a large ‘bling blimp’ for my M43 gear to placate the more superficial elements in society…

        1. Post author

          I love the idea of a ‘bling blimp’, very funny. The awful thing is that it might actually sell. With the Oly, you have the wireless flash system with 4 channels which seem to me pretty versatile. Does that not do the trick for you? It is a bit depressing, the superficiality but I agree, it is human nature and would be hard to change. Just a small observation about bling, a very sharp, very attractive blonde haired Jewish woman who used to work for me had a great way with people who tried to impress her. We came out of the studio one day and another photographer was sitting opposite in a brand new Porsche. As we came out, he leant out of the window with the car phone in his hands (this long predates mobiles when phones in cars were for the rich) and said “if you want to use the phone, you can use my car one”. Cheryl looked over at the car and the phone and said “beautiful car, George”. George preened…Cheryl continued, “was that the only colour they had?”

  6. Christos

    This article is more about money, rather than photography, and how to get more by presenting yourself as something different than what you really are and what you really believe. Nice advise for the younger generations…

    1. Post author

      You’re taking me far too seriously! For a professional photographer, it is as much about money as photography, otherwise you don’t earn and are therefore not a professional. Don’t you know anyone who puts on a show to impress? Has a bigger car than they need? Uses a £2000 camera where a £500 one would be just as effective. A young person coming into photography in my field needs to know that impressions count.

      If I presented my myself as I really am I doubt I’d have got any work at all. In a competitive field you have to compete unless you are arrogant enough to believe that you will get work without bothering. You won’t though. Professional photography is no different from any job – it is a business. A very enjoyable and sometimes satisfying one but a business nonetheless. I try to get a little humour in my writing – I obviously can’t succeed with everyone, so I’m sorry that you don’t like this post. No intention to upset.


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