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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Then & Now

See how digital has changed the workhorse kits of working pros and what the essential DSLR and lens combinations are today

Over the past decade, film cameras like the Mamiya RZ67, Nikon F6 and Canon EOS Elan 7 have been superseded by powerhouse DSLRs like the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and the Nikon D700.

In the decade since 2001, the world has changed dramatically. Ten years ago, the attacks of 9/11 left an archive of iconic images. For photographers, one image that has special significance was a photo of a camera mangled and caked in dust from the fallen Twin Towers in New York City. It was a Canon EOS D30 that photojournalist Bill Biggert had been using to document the unfolding tragedy when the second tower collapsed on him. Biggert also had a pair of Canon EOS-1 film SLRs, but he had been embracing the capabilities of digital, and the 150-plus photos that were salvaged from the memory card of his D30 tell the tale of that fateful morning. Biggert's film was destroyed, but his digital files endure.

There's a clear trend to pros selecting multitasking DSLRs that can shoot HD video like the Sony A77, Canon EOS 7D and Nikon D7000.
The gear in Biggert's camera bag shows the transition that was underway in 2001: a pair of professional film SLRs and a new mid-level DSLR; rolls of pro film and a CompactFlash card. The story of digital for professionals was in its potential because even as image quality was ramping up to surpass film, the tools themselves—the DSLRs—had too many workarounds to be viable as a pro's only go-to capture device. Either you needed the image quality of a medium-format camera or you needed the immediacy of a 35mm SLR. DSLRs didn't have either in 2001. DSLRs needed to boot up, they had buffers that were quickly overloaded, their power consumption made for multiple battery changes during the course of a shooting day, and while many people debated whether the image quality was approaching 35mm film, it certainly wasn't at the level of medium-format film.

At DPP, we wanted to see how the digital advancements over the last 10 years have changed the gear that pros choose and how pros work. In 2001, the push was for digital cameras and sensors to get up to the same speed and quality levels as film. In an interview with DPP in 2007, Lauren Greenfield described how her adoption of digital was cemented by the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II because it was "the most film-like." That was the benchmark: to be film-like, because that was how a generation of pros were accustomed to working. They were used to seeing the world through the prism of film and film cameras. For these pros, being more film-like wasn't so much a look as it was a way of having a camera operate. When you turn on a film SLR, it's ready to shoot. When you see the moment, the camera won't lag behind. The furious pace of technology brought DSLRs to the film-like level relatively quickly. Most pros don't even remember DSLRs that needed time to boot up or buffers that became overwhelmed by a two-second action sequence.
Lately, I've noticed more often than not that I can start a shoot with this 24-70mm on my camera, and next thing I know, it's four hours later and I've finished the shoot and never switched lenses. That's impressive.
—Survey respondent discussing the Canon EF 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 L USM lens on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR.

Versatile zooms like these from Canon, Nikon and Sigma have taken the place of specialized prime lenses.
If everything had stopped when cameras got to the film benchmark, the answers to our survey wouldn't have been all that interesting. Pros would have the digital equivalent of their last film camera and they would be using the same lenses. Of course, technology didn't stand still, and just being film-like is fading away in the rearview mirror of digital imaging. The generation of DSLRs that Greenfield referred to has been superseded by newer and more advanced models with resolutions that leave 35mm film in the dust and with dramatic new capabilities like HD video.

It's difficult to draw too many definitive conclusions from a survey, but one trend we noticed has been the move from medium-format film to smaller DSLRs. Several pros who had been dedicated Hasselblad 500-series and Mamiya RB- and RZ-series film users indicated that they're now using full-frame and even APS-C DSLRs.


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