13 Nov Documentary Photography Equipment – 2015 update
I first detailed the equipment I use in this post way back in 2012, and another one in 2013 when I made the switch to Canon. I’ve written a couple of times about moving to the Olympus E-M1 system, in blog posts and when sharing full weddings. After over 18 months of using just a mirrorless system, I thought it might be useful to look at my current kit again and what’s proven itself over that time.
One thing that is constant throughout my equipment setup – even back to the original Nikon post in 2012 – is the lens lineup, or more specifically, the focal length selection. The manufacturers have varied with the camera bodies – sometimes proprietary lenses; sometimes third party – but it’s the same four focal lengths that are my continued workhorses: 24, 35, 50, 85mm. With the Olympus system using a smaller Micro 4/3 sensor, the lenses are actually 12, 17, 25 and 45mm, working on a 2x crop basis to give me 24, 34, 50 and 90mm equivalents. Near enough.
I know these focal lengths incredibly well, understanding instinctively which I will need to frame a particular scene or moment. It is true that with practice and experience you start to ‘see’ in focal lengths, and it is something I encourage all photographers to do: learn your lenses. This is just one of the many reasons I prefer prime lenses over zooms as I believe they help to develop a strong sense of composition and framing.
The Olympus lenses are tiny. Well made, light, robust, and optically excellent with little distortion. If I had to state one thing I don’t like so much with them, it might be that they have a neutral character; that is they don’t add any warmth or other lens effects to an image. They are almost clinical in their performance. That’s really not a downside though and I’m nitpicking really.
It could be argued to be a positive, as warmth, contrasts and vignettes can be added in post-production, but at the same time it can be nice to have a bit of character. I’d compare this to how different film stocks affect the look of an image, or how older, classic lenses might impart some sort of visual signature of their own. Which leads me on to my favourite, very special lenses: the Voigtlanders.
Voigtlander is one of the oldest lens manufacturers in the world, and known for high quality optics. Their hyper-fast f/0.95 lenses are not only the fastest lenses available for the Micro 4/3 lens system, but equal the fastest lenses of any camera system currently available – of which there aren’t many (eg. the Leica Noctilux f/0.95 at around £5000 – ouch). Compared to the Olympus lenses, they are hefty beasts; heavyweights that feel like they are hewn from solid blocks of glass and metal. They are completely manual in operation with a mechanical aperture ring, and the smoothest manual focussing action you will find this side of Leica and Zeiss. I love them and am a convert to manual focus.
The following three images are all from the 17.5mm.
I have the 17.5 and 42.5mm lenses giving me 35/85mm equivalence of focal lengths in full frame terms. This overlaps two of the Olympus lenses I have, but with 2-3 stops faster aperture and low-light performance allowing lower ISOs to be used in the camera. More than their light gathering abilities, they produce images with a distinctive look and feel. Shooting wide open (as I often prefer to do) produces some characteristics such as a slight glow or softness, that in the wrong conditions might be overwhelming in an image, and certainly by some viewed as flaws (for example when backlit or with bright light). However, these same traits also produce some of the most stunning images I have produced on any system.
Voigtlander 42.5mm Nokton on the Olympus E-M1
One reason for this is the manual focussing mechanisms allow them to focus incredibly close. Much closer in fact than something like the Canon L lenses would be able to achieve on full frame. Some people will lament Micro Four Thirds for having “no out of focus” character or being unable to achieve the “full frame look”. I’ll state this very clearly: it’s absolute rubbish! With the close focussing of these lenses, you can get even smaller depth of field than those mentioned on full frame. DOF is a product not only of aperture, but subject distance (and focal length). With the crazy fast aperture of f/0.95 and the ridiculously close focussing ability, they can produce a depth of field that is razor thin. Obviously this isn’t suitable for every image all of the time – nothing is – but has served me really well for when I’ve wanted to achieve that “full frame look”.
The other side of this is that the smaller sensors can enable shots with a much greater depth of field if required. For example, shoot at f/4 and for a similar focal length, distance to an equivalent shot with full frame you will have a similar depth of field to f/8 on the second option. That’s really useful in an environment for photojournalism where having more sharp in-focus content is often desirable.
Voigtlander 42.5mm Nokton at f/0.95 on the Olympus E-M1
The Voigtlander lenses have a classic look to their rendering which I flipping love. Warm colours and nice contrast, fantastic flare when shooting into light source (I hate reading that newer lenses have better flare control as personally I love it!). They also have pointed sunstars to die for thanks to their 10 blade iris. Lovely for into the sun portraits and backlit first dances.
Voigtlander 42.5mm Nokton on the Olympus E-M1
A ZOOM LENS? WHAAAAT?
I know – I’m a prime guy and have always stated that. I have no huge affection for zoom lenses and don’t get anywhere near the same satisfaction I do from using primes. Part of that may be the point mentioned earlier about ‘seeing’ in focal lengths. Zooms do add some flexibility in terms of having a range of focal lengths to be used, but at the expense of other considerations, namely size, weight, speed (aperture), and (to a lesser extent with modern lenses) optical quality.
That’s a fine looking combo. A handsome camera is the E-M1.
All that said, I do have a zoom lens in my bag now which gets used for a couple of fairly specific purposes. It is the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO. The reasons I use it are 1) if I only want to be out with one single camera, 2) it’s raining. These reasons are often linked! There are many times I’ve been caught in the rain whilst on jobs and whilst the cameras are waterproof, none of my other lenses are.
It is actually a brilliant lens which is as close to prime performance as I’ve ever seen in a zoom. The sharpness and optical quality compares with all of my other Olympus lenses with that same neutral, low distortion, high performance. For the days I just need to use one camera, or such times I find myself hiking up a mountain in the snow or wading through rivers*, it’s perfect.
* You never know!
The dual Olympus E-M1 setup has been my main rig since the start of the 2014 season. Other than a wedding where I took a borrowed Nikon DSLR just for fun (the DF) and another where I was testing the D750, everything since then has produced with the Olympus setup. I’ve given some running updates on how they perform in various blog posts so I don’t want to go through that ground too much again now. Suffice to say, I think they are fantastic and have slotted into my approach and style perfectly.
iPhone shot of the dream team with Voitglander Nokton f/0.95’s. 17.5mm on the left; 42.5mm on the right.
Size, weight, build quality, robustness, controls, ergonomics, handling, speed, and performance are all superb. It allows me to work fast and be mobile when needed without the weight of two cameras hanging off my shoulders hindering me. The image quality is outstanding but does require a certain understanding of it’s limitations. The same could be said for any imaging system, but it is particularly apparent with these smaller sensor cameras which in certain conditions are a generation of performance (maybe two) behind the bigger full-frame options that they will be compared against. Those conditions are low-light performance, ISO range / ability, and dynamic range.
After two years of use, I’m confident I know how to get the best out of them, and crucially that I will always be able to deliver the expected quality for my clients. If I couldn’t be assured of that, I wouldn’t use them – simple as. After developing persistent shoulder problems in 2013, I had to change my equipment, and if the dual E-M1 setup hadn’t worked I would have gone back to a single DSLR with a zoom (and still a decent prime or two), possibly coupled with just one E-M1. As it is, they’ve proven themselves in the field and never missed a beat.
There is one factor that has been a frustration with the E-M1 – not just to me but for many users worldwide – and that is the lack of basic video options. Some will argue that you buy a stills camera for it’s stills performance and video shouldn’t be a factor. That argument just doesn’t fly anymore. Since the DSLR video revolution a few years back it is an expected feature. DSLRs are incredibly capable machines and their use is now widespread in TV and filmmaking.
I have vocally complained about this in the past but have to give credit to Olympus where it’s due for their ongoing program of rolling out fairly significant functionality changes through firmware updates. It’s an excellent way to maximise the hardware that users are invested into, and also leveraging their own development costs. The fact that 2 years after it’s release, the E-M1 is still a flagship camera receiving major firmware updates is to be applauded. Something other manufacturers should take note of whether it’s Canon or Nikon with their almost-nonexistent changes, or Sony with their habit of replacing highly functional cameras with model updates instead of the firmware.
THE THIRD CAMERA
Olympus E-P5 as taken with the Ricoh GR (JPEG)
I’ve always had a thing about not really liking using my ‘work’ cameras for personal usage. It stems back to when I was using big, unwieldy DSLRs that I didn’t want to schlep everywhere with me whilst doing things with my kids, but there was also an element of trying to separate my personal photography from the thought of work, and often why I’d still shoot film cameras for personal work. Don’t get me wrong, being a professional photographer is a dream career for me, but it’s still nice to think that I can enjoy photography just for me.
With that in mind, I bought myself a third Micro Four Thirds camera that was intended to be the one for family use. I wanted something capable of great results still, that looked good and would be enjoyable to use, so the Olympus PEN E-P5 was purchased for that role. It’s a retro-styled version of the E-M1s little brother (E-M5) and has the same excellent quality, same sensor, similar features etc. It is a beautiful piece of design.
The silver E-P5 was on the team for a while. This is an iPhone grab from when I was at a wedding.
What happened was I started taking it to weddings and leaving the 12mm wide lens on there just to grab some shots whilst using my main cameras with the manual Voigtlanders. It ended up getting more and more use, and became another fixture of my kit bag as the E-M1s. I don’t use it all day at weddings as it’s not so great in low light and having a third camera on my person all day can be a little restrictive, but for the first half of the day it’s always there with me.
It’s a talking point as well, almost to the point of too much really. I like my cameras to be subtle and understated (hence the black gaffer tape on the E-M1s), whereas the E-P5 triggers questions at every single wedding! Looking like an old film camera, it gets interest from lots of people.
THE FOURTH CAMERA…
Whilst all of the Olympus cameras are small and compact compared to traditional DSLRs, they are still something that has to be shouldered or bagged around, so I do have another compact option which is my Ricoh GR. Best described as “the compact for professionals” it is an incredibly well-featured camera with a plethora of controls and mind-boggling configuration options. With hands on controls for all the main functions, it’s easy to understand why it is so popular with enthusiasts and it produces beautiful images in a lot of conditions from it’s APS-C sensor and superb fixed 28mm lens.
Ricoh GR with DSPTCH shoulder strap
I have used it at weddings. I take it along as a backup really, but sometimes having an absolutely silent, completely subtle option that is still able to make high quality images, is a great option to have.
The GR excels at street photography being quiet and unassuming. With the matt black body and minimal markings it is uber stealth. I use the DSPTCH strap to wear it across chest and at my hip, or with a wrist strap from the same people. It’s quick and easy to change. I have the same connectors on my Contax T2 film camera, and can quickly switch between both.
The little Ricoh has ended up being our family camera quite often thanks to it’s compact size, and the excellent automatic modes. That green button option on the dial is handy for these times (such as handing it to the wife or someone else to take a picture).
Planes, Trains, and camera bags
Peli 1510. Hardcore case.
Still the main way I store and transport my kit is with the trusty old Peli case. Man that thing takes a battering. It’s travelled thousands of miles with me to hundreds of weddings; endured being thrown in car boots, aeroplanes, boats; dragged along all sorts of paths; been rained upon, sat upon, stood upon. It’s taken a lot of abuse! Other than a few scratches and scuffs, and a growing selection of stickers from my travels, it’s as good as new still.
Once I arrive at a destination, I gear up with the cameras which are held using Domke Gripper straps, putting the rest of the lenses, batteries, etc into my Domke F-2 bag. I love this bag. It can fit a huge amount in it but I prefer to travel light(ish) and not have it overflowing. It’s built to last – a true photojournalists bag – and is comfortable to carry as well as being waterproof.
For smaller, single camera jobs, personal use or street photography, I have another Domke bag – the F-5XB. Same lovely waxed cotton as the F-2 and really useful in it’s own way.
I’m a natural light photographer – at least during daylight hours. No matter how crappy the light can be in a venue (and venues take note: sometimes your lighting is terrible – no names mentioned), with mixed colour sources, backlighting, etc, etc, I would far rather use what is there than use a flash. It’s not just about drawing attention to myself, or even so much about the interruptions of a flash going off during ceremony or speeches, but more about the fact it is a little fake, and I don’t like that. The images won’t look like anyone remembered it being, which is against the whole documentary ethos.
Where I do use flash is during the first dance and evening party. At this stage, a lot of the time the lights will just be from the band or DJ, so are inherently artificial. As they are effect lights, they are less likely to be usable for images without some supplementary, controlled flash added in. So I do.
Voigtlander 17.5mm Nokton. Those sunstars…
My weapons of choice at this stage are a pair of Yongnuo YN-560III flashes triggered wirelessly from the camera, mounted on Manfrotto Nano lightstands. It’s a flexible system for first dance which allows a combination of backlit, moody silhouette shots, or properly exposed images depending on where I am placed in relation to the lights.
On a second camera I’ll use a direct on-camera flash, usually without any additional modifier. This comes into play for the dancefloor party shots where combined with a dragged (slow) shutter, captures the fun and vibe at this stage really well.
Finally, the essentials that are always in every bag or case are:
- Lens cloths
- Dust blowers
- Spare batteries (LOTS)
- Power pack + USB chargers for batteries in emergencies
- Multi-tool (Gerber – brilliantly useful)
- Gaffer tape
- Flask of iced coffee (summer)
- Scooby snacks to avoid getting hangry
- Lots of water
Documentary Equipment Summary
So there you have it. I don’t think I’ve left anything out so that should be pretty much my entire kit list for a wedding or portrait commission. I don’t use everything at every job, but everything is well used overall.
The mirrorless cameras have been a life-changer for me – no exaggeration. I’ve learnt how to get the best from them, and it still amazes me what those little sensors can produce. The E-M1 is one of the best made, well laid out cameras I’ve ever used and a real joy to work with still.
As for what’s next, well technology has moved on a great deal in the last two years and Sony in particular have been very aggressive in this product space. Their full frame offerings are really interesting with the A7ii, A7Rii and A7s (now version 2 as well) all looking like extremely powerful tools.
I’ve been doing some testing with the A7ii and am impressed with it’s image quality and low light ability. Coupled with legendary Zeiss lenses, they might just be the cameras that fully push the acceptance of mirrorless. I stand by what I’ve said previously regarding the fact that M43 is absolutely viable for professional use, but do think the newer full frame models and huge jumps in technology will appeal to a broader user base.
Make no mistake: these cameras have matured into professional, high quality imaging instruments. For my style of working – subtle, natural, unobtrusive – I can think of no better options currently. They carry a lot of the photojournalism traits of legendary cameras such as the Leica system, and I can think of no greater recommendation for them than that.
As ever, if you have any questions or comments, post them below and I’ll answer. Always interested to hear your thoughts.