What Is a “Pro Camera?”

B. D. Colen
B. D. Colen

There is practically no Internet photo site on which the term is not thrown around, but oddly enough, I have never seen it defined. Yes, I see various cameras labeled “pro cameras,” either by marketers or by owners who want to be thought of as “pros.” But I have not a clue what constitutes a “pro camera.” Is it a laptop tethered, 50MP, autofocus Hasselblad or other medium format camera? Is it a top-of-the-line Nikon or Canon “full-frame” — and what does that mean? DSLR? Is it a Leica digital M that costs upwards of $10k but cannot be taken out on a damp day without risking frying it? Is it a camera that can shoot at 12 frames per second? Or might be all of those and none of them?

I would suggest that the only camera that should be called a pro camera is a camera used by a photographer who either earns a substantial portion of his or her income from photography, or, alternatively, any photographer who produces professional quality work. And that would include any camera used by such photographers. After all, they are “pros,” and so their cameras are “pro cameras.”

I recall reading some years ago that a well-known photographer whose name escapes me at the moment was using Canon Rebel bodies in Iraq, because they were far lighter than the EOS 1 elephants, and they were inexpensive enough so that if they failed, he could just toss them and replace them without having to take out a second mortgage on his home. And the real point, of course, was that mounting good glass, those bodies could do everything he needed them to do; they were “pro cameras.”

Liberia | B. D. Colen
Liberia | B. D. Colen

I also remember that another photographer went to Iraq with a pile of small Olympus fixed lens cameras with swiveling LCD screens. He’d hand two around his neck and when he needed to shoot a sequence, he’d shoot them in sequence. Again, like the Rebel fan, he did it because they were small, light and relatively inexpensive. And they produced images with which he was happy.

When we talk about pro cameras today, we seem to forget that there was a time when 35mm cameras were dismissed as “toys,” when newspaper and magazine photo editors insisted that their photographers shoot with “real” cameras, which then meant Speed Graphics and, in a pinch, Rollei 2 1/4s. 35mm film just couldn’t possibly produce professional quality images, these editors insisted. Sounds familiar?

And keep in mind that when Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Smith and Robert Capa were shooting with Leica and Contax 35mm cameras, the glass was close to atrocious, and the film stocks they were using couldn’t produce images that compare in technical quality to those produced even by some point-and-shoot cameras today. Yet we revere their work, which hangs in the world’s leading museums and sets standards to which today’s professional photographers aspire. Are the images “sharp?” Not if examined at all closely. Is the micro contrast good? The what? You get my point I’m sure.

The reality is that most photographers today, including most professional photographers, do not need all the bells and whistles –- and capability — of the top-of-the-line “pro cameras” produced by the leading camera manufacturers. And neither do most of those for whom photography is an avocation rather than a vocation. My son, who happens to be a leading professional skateboard photographer — yes, there are such things — shoots incredible images without owning a “top-of-the-line” DSLR.

In fact, when he shoots skateboarders suspended in midair performing seemingly impossible maneuvers, he often does so using manual focus rather than autofocus, and he sometime makes the shots with an old film Hasselblad without a motor. How? He’s a pro.

Liberia | B. D. Colen
Liberia | B. D. Colen

I have been teaching documentary photography at MIT for 13 years now, and I shoot professionally. I just came back from two weeks of teaching and shooting in Liberia. Yet since leaving the world of film and my Leica M6s a decade ago, I have not owned a single “pro camera.” I did all my work in Liberia with a Fujifilm X-Pro1, an X100s and an Olympus OMD-EM1 — a Micro Four Thirds camera.

Why? Because all three cameras together meet my needs. Because I could carry all three around my neck and shoulders all day without killing myself. Because they all have great glass. And because they give me terrific image quality that I can easily have printed up to 20×24″ if I want to, and displayed on the Web will compare to anything out there.

You can see a gallery of black-and-white images here — and color ones here. I would suggest that shooting with “pro cameras” would not have improved them, although in a few of them, using the latest generation of Leica aspheric glass might have reduced some of the flare.

The bottom line? The only camera or cameras you need are those cameras that will meet your needs. Yes, if you are shooting for magazines you might well need a digital camera with a sensor the size of the film in what once were considered “toy cameras.”

If you are shooting Olympic diving or ice dancing and need sequences, you may well need a “pro body” to get high speed sequences.

Otherwise? Shoot like a pro, and you will be shooting with a “pro camera” – even if you are using an iPhone.

Liberia | B. D. Colen
Liberia | B. D. Colen

B. D. Colen has been photographing for himself and clients since the early 1960s, with a hiatus of about 26 years when he was a reporter, editor and columnist for the Washington Post and Newsday where he shared a Pulitzer Prize as a medical writer.

His photography has appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, Boston Globe, Newsday, Time Magazine and in numerous corporate publications. Photographs from his project on Boston area subway riders are included in the permanent collection of the Boston Public Library. Colen is the author or co-author of 10 books and teaches documentary photography and science journalism at MIT, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

For more of B. D. Colen’s work visit his website, Tumblr and Twitter pages.

  • Well that’s already seriously serious gear you list here, I bet you’ll find quite some photographers making a living with it. I would take your idea a step further — and not just because I’m about to buy a Canon S120 or the RX100 II.

    Maybe it’s part of their “style,” but there are working photographers out there working with “lesser” gear a.k.a. point-and-shoots.

    Just the other day I had an extensive stroll through a photographer’s paradise, a shopping mall with countless camera shops. Impossible to make a choice! So much tempting gear. The “pro” though doesn’t waver — or as you rightly say: they’ll most likely choose the camera or cameras that will meet their needs.

    The majority however buys the camera or cameras that play tricks with our imagination.

  • Just like exposure, a definition of what is a “PRO” camera is Plastic….

  • The manufacturers always want to equate the tools to being able to do something with them…..

  • There’s the probability of camera marketing messing about with some. We should all be pros by no given the fastest, bestest, enen mor fastest new gear…

  • B. D. Colen

    Nice, Olivier.

  • B. D. Colen

    Or is it the cameras that allow our imaginations to play tricks, Dan?

  • One More Thought

    Great article.

    Cameras are getting to be just like computers and computing devices like smartphones and tablets: they are reaching the point of such advancement that almost all will be fine for what most people want to do.

    In the film era, camera companies didn’t have to update their models so frequently, and feed the marketing machine. Now camera companies are subject to the same rules and expectations of the computer companies in this digital era: always be updating models, and find a way to somehow convince people to keep on buying those updates, even if they are not always needed.

    Thus you have this great emphasis on specs…megapixels, sky high ISO’s, etc. This ironically is at the same time that most photos will be viewed on a computing device screen, either PC or tablet or smartphone, where the picture quality demands are less than for a large print.

    I believe that camera companies might benefit more if instead of fighting over the same pie, they worked to enlarge that pie substantially. Form a consortium that markets to the public the idea of photography as a serious hobby, one that merits more advanced equipment than a smartphone. Get the public to buy into the art and wonder of photography.

  • B. D. Colen

    Actually, there’s nothing all that new about this issue. Certain film camera models were pushed as “pro” models, while others were seen as being for “amateurs” or hobbyists. It’s all about marketing and the needs of photographers.

  • Ray

    My take on what you’re saying is a good pro delivers good files, irrespective of the equipment he’s using. My experience with a good friend and top pro (who makes more money in a few days shooting than many, if not most, pros make in a year) is its pretty irrelevant what camera he has in his hands. From a p&s, to an all-in-one that he’s currently using for causal photography, to a closet full of Hasselblad and Canons, the files he delivers are outstanding.

    This focus on equipment ran its course long ago. If we want better results, its far more likely than not that the variable is ourselves.