When it comes to looking at pictures, the first thing that matters is the picture. Is it any good? Does it trigger a receptor in one’s brain that triggers something else? That’s what good pictures do. They are the smell of freshly mowed grass in the early morning during the third week of August that sets one’s mind to thinking about football.
A picture that can accomplish this gets my attention. If it does that, I might drill a little deeper by thinking about the photographer’s thought process or motivation. I might wonder if I would have done better or worse in the same situation. I also might, depending on the image, try to figure out a technical detail or two. The thing I’ll never do is wonder what camera was used to make the picture.
I bring this up for the obvious reason. A few photographers have taken offense to a statement I made about Sony cameras in an article posted on Bloomberg this week. Unheard of, I know, but it does give me the opportunity to write about something I normally wouldn’t, which is camera gear.
Let me be clear. I don’t care what camera system you use. Nikon, Canon, Sony, Fuji… I just don’t care. Never have, never will. Knock yourself out, I mean literally, for real. Take the freshly mowed grass/football metaphor and run straight into a wall with it, and after you do, don’t tell me it’s actually a simile.
Talking about gear is the kind of stuff that drives me nuts. Sure, there’s a time and a place for it, but my dear photography friends, that time is not “always” and the place is not “everywhere on the entire internet”.
The picture above was used to illustrate the Bloomberg article.
The caption, as it appeared on Bloomberg, is a source of irritation for some. It reads;
“Taken with a Sony Alpha a7R III on July 4, 2018. Images like this from a Montana rodeo would be much more difficult to shoot using DSLR cameras.”
Another source of irritation is with how I’m quoted in the article which reads,
“In the past, these images would have been made by pre-focusing and praying for the best,” said Kenneth Jarecke, who made his name shooting photos during the Gulf War.
Here’s an excerpt from the email I wrote to the journalist in reply to his questions about the mirrorless Sony’s (complete with typos);
“It would have been tough to make the attached image with another system. I used the eyeball tracking feature to focus. The tilt screen on the back of the camera to hold the camera on the ground and under the fence as the bronc came by. The build quality of the a7r 3’s is much better than the a7r 2’s I’m use to. They have a tighter construction that feels more like a sports car (shutter release and response), whereas the older bodies feel like a jeep.
It’s a combination of response and sure focus that helped me make this frame. In the past, I wouldn’t have attempted to follow focus looking at a monitor that was two feet away from my eyes, as a horse, literally stampeding, moved across my frame. The odds of all those things working were long. In the past, this would have been an image like this would have been made by pre-focusing and hoping for the best.”
One can see that the writer of the Bloomberg piece quoted me fairly, but also how some could read it as a slam on other camera systems, or as unbelievable as it may sound, that I might not know what I’m talking about.
Here’s the thing, the image would have been much more difficult to make with a DSLR system.
As I was making this picture, I was watching the subject by using the flipped up monitor on the back of the camera, so the framing and moment to release the shutter was still on me. At ten frames a second, spraying and praying is unlikely to capture the decisive moment, which means you still have to try and pick the right moment. With a mirrorless camera, there’s no blackout on the monitor (from a flipping mirror like you’d have on a DSLR), so it’s easier to see that moment.
(By the way, don’t ever lay down in or near a rodeo arena. I know the dirt looks soft and inviting, but don’t do it. Trust me on this.)
If one can’t get their eyeball into position to see through the viewfinder (which I couldn’t as I was holding the camera on the ground and under the fence), then one is pretty much stuck with pre-focusing and praying, which makes it a long shot indeed.
I used this eye focus feature to lock onto and track the horse when it was about fifty yards away, at which point the beast was still below the horizon line, meaning no separation from the background, and a long throw with a wide angle (35mm) lens. That’s a crazy level of sophistication for a camera to successfully pull off, but it did.
So the caption and quote are accurate.
I started my career shooting with Nikons. When Nikon’s professional services became unresponsive to the needs of professionals, I switched to Canon. A couple of years later Canon released the EOS system (the first autofocus system), and I was one of the first professionals to adopt the system. At that time, Canon didn’t have any good EOS glass, but in some ways the trade off was worth it. The EOS 1 had less moving parts that needed to be protected from sand and dust, so with a little plastic wrap and gaffer’s tape, the system worked well in the desert. When the good EOS glass came along, I never felt it was as good as it could be. The 35mm 1.4 and the 85mm 1.2 were my bread and butter, but it was always kind of an iffy proposition as to whether they’d be sharp or not. Still, I loved them when they mostly delivered. The longer glass I never had a problem with. The zooms I hated.
I shot six or seven Olympics on film. My favorite camera to use then was the Canon F-1, light traveled through the pellicle mirror which meant no mirror flip, and no blackout. It was manual focus and burned film at about fourteen frames a second.
I shot the Torino Olympics on the original Canon 5D’s. They weren’t sports cameras by any stretch. I made the decision on file quality, which was best in class at that time.
At some point (like Nikon before them), Canon’s professional services became unresponsive to my needs, so I shot the Beijing Games on Nikon D3’s. That was an excellent system that I really enjoyed using. It helped me to make the pictures I was hoping to make.
I used Leica M6’s for about ten years. Love the glass, love the size, loved the feel, didn’t love the maintenance.
I shot this book, Husker Game Day, on Canon 1D Mark IV’s, mostly because I had a Canon 600/4, as I liked the Nikon D3’s better.
As a photographer, I try to use the best tools available to me, regardless who makes it. The better the tool, the better I can do my job. Currently, Sony meets and exceeds my needs. They help me to make the pictures that I hope to make, but also the pictures that I shouldn’t be able to (consistently) make.
With Sony, I get a combination of great glass, sensor size, reliable focus, and a fast frame rate that allows me to capture image files that look good on paper, not just a screen, which is the real test for me.
Your mileage results may vary.
Sony doesn’t give me any free equipment, I wish they would, but they don’t. I’m guessing there are two reasons for this. One, I often write things that have a tendency to polarize readers. And two, I honestly don’t care what camera system you use. For me, it’s about the pictures, not the name stamped on the camera, and that’s what photography is about.