What makes a "professional" camera?

There appears to be something of an obsession among the blogosphere's photography equipment reviewers with "professional" versus "amateur" equipment. It's remarkable how strong reviewers' opinions can become on this topic. While there is general agreement that \$300 point-and-shoots are consumer gear and \$6000 DSLR bodies are clearly meant for paid sports shooters, anything in between is fair game for arguing: Nikon's own marketing people consider the D300s to be a professional camera, while the D7000 at two-thirds the price is promoted as an amateur model despite being technically superior in many respects.

I think we can find considerable consensus, though, among artists and paid shooters regarding what really constitutes "professional" digital photography gear. What it boils down to is this:

  • If it allows you to override, set and adjust it quickly, and stays out of your way while you're working, it is a professional tool.
  • If it encourages you to show off its features, and tries to keep you out of its way while it decides what to do, it is an amateur gadget.

I will try to summarize some key technical differences that some (or many) professionals would consider important, but keep in mind that the line between these categories is very, very fuzzy:

Feature "Professional" "Amateur"
Exposure controls One-touch setting of exposure program (or shutter, aperture and ISO) without lowering camera from eye.

Hidden in menus, or requires several steps to adjust.

Lacks a fully manual exposure mode.

Metering

Choice of metering programs.

Choice of flash metering methods.

One-touch meter compensation.

Exposure histograms available in playback mode.

Slow or impossible to change meter functions.

Limited control over flash metering.

No way to quantitatively assess exposure in playback mode.

Focus

User-selectable focus points.

Easy to switch between autofocus modes while shooting.

Direct manual focus override.

Autofocus is fraction-of-a-second fast and reliable.

Hard to modify computer's choices.

Direct manual override is finicky or nonexistent.

Autofocus hunts, is slow, or has a hard time locking in tricky conditions.

Build quality

Weather sealed, or at least dust sealed.

Able to take a bit of a beating.

Rain or dust can leak into the camera.

Easily damaged plastic parts.

Lenses

A reasonable selection of fast (f/2.8 or better) prime and zoom lenses is available.

Optical and build quality are good.

Uses a popular lens mount that has been around for a while.

Hard to find lenses at f/2.8 or better.

No prime lenses are available.

Available lenses are shoddily built.

Lens mount is non-standard or changes frequently.

Accessories

Supports an industry standard hot shoe protocol for flash, etc.

Large selection of OEM and third-party flashes, mics, grips and other accessories.

No hot shoe, or non-standard hot shoe.

Limited choice of accessories (either the available selection is small, or the OEM is the only accessory vendor).

Data output

Able to save backup images on a second card.

Able to save raw sensor data if desired.

Only one card.

Cannot save unprocessed raw data.

Extra "features"

Can save and recall complete banks of custom settings.

Few or no superfluous features.

Lots of fancy trick functions (in-camera retouching, "scene" modes).

I've made a point of leaving out several features that keep coming up in online discussions, because they're irrelevant to the question at hand:

  • Cost is not a determining factor. Pro cameras do tend to be costly, but there is also plenty of very pricey amateur gear. Just because it's expensive doesn't necessarily mean that it's meant for one market over the other. And just because it's cheap doesn't mean that pro shooters won't use it.
  • Resolution has been irrelevant for years; the difference between 8 MP and 32 MP is only visible when you do wall-size gallery prints.
  • Sensor size used to be a very important factor; bigger meant professional. Today, there's pro-quality kit available for Micro 4/3, 1.6 crop and full-frame formats. Sensor size is still an important thing to consider, but it doesn't decide the "pro" versus "amateur" question any more.
  • Physical bulk is the distinguishing feature of the Canon 1D and Nikon single-digit series, which are quite clearly meant for pro sports shooters. But there's plenty of very nice pro-targeted equipment at one-half or one-quarter the size of these beasts.

So which category do you choose? Don't worry about it. The distinction really doesn't matter. Try a few different models from a few different makers, and pick the one that best suits your own preferred style and technique. As long as you (and your client) are happy with your photos, nobody else has any legitimate reason to care what you shoot with.

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