When I took over the Chief Editor position at Darkroom & Creative Camera Techniques magazine in 1994, I had the privilege of working alongside my predecessor, the late David Alan Jay, for a month, and we remained friends for years after that. I will always have enormous respect for David Jay (as most people called him); he was deeply knowledgeable, had a strong sense of ethics, and he managed to be both unfailingly polite and also friendly and casual in demeanor. A gentleman, truly.
He told me many things I haven't forgotten, of which this is one: "To fully participate in the life of this magazine," he said, "a photographer needs three things: a view camera, a spot meter, and a densitometer."
To which I immediately thought: well, not any more.
The scientific refinement of large format B&W photography which so engaged David Jay wasn't my bag. But I respected his rigor and the forthrightness of his approach, and I've remained impressed with his willingness and ability to distill the essential kit of his sort of very advanced photographer down to those three devices, all of them rather esoteric even then. If I were on the spot to name similar essentials, I'd say that to fully participate in modern digital photography, a person needs four things: a large-sensor, interchangeable-lens camera, dedicated image-editing software, a computer with a calibrated monitor, and a photo-quality pigment inkjet printer,
More specifically, what would an ideally-equipped photographer use today for digital photography? What would an ideal outfit look like? Here's what I'd say is a solid set of candidates for "the best" in a mainstream high-quality outfit/workflow:
Camera: Tough question, but for the best "all around, all purpose, high quality" camera you couldn't do better than a Canon 5D Mark IV. It's a highly refined, highly evolved high-end camera from the world's largest cameramaker. Its image quality is outstanding, it has the largest system and the best support, and its versatility is nearly endless. It can be used for virtually anything. Alternately, any Canon or Nikon full-frame camera that is "camera-shaped," i.e., not the excessively large and heavy professional models with the built-in battery pack/vertical shutter release. Because the Canon 5D Mark IV is large and not convenient for carrying around all the time, augment it with a Ricoh GR II, the current model in a line that's long been a favorite among serious photographers as a high-quality street photography, grabshot, and note-taking pocket camera that's fun to use.
Image Editor: Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan. Lightroom will help you keep your files organized, and Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) is a great raw converter for Canon files. Concentrate on mastering ACR, where you can get most of your work done. When you need to do more than ACR will do, you can switch to Photoshop.
Although both the default (Lightroom) and the best (Photoshop), many people are not happy with Adobe's decision to move its programs to the Web; it's like the guy who built or sold you your house taking it back so he can rent it to you whether you like the idea or not. So lots of photographers are looking at alternatives now. But there's no leading choice among the many alternatives, and Photoshop is still the bear in the woods, and the "tax" is only $120 a year—which many newcomers find easier to swallow than the former buy-in costs of the stand-alone programs.
Computer and monitor (display): Apple 27" iMac with 5k Retina display. (Note that iMacs might be updated soon.) An outstanding choice for image processing, especially with 16 GB of RAM and a 256- or 512GB SSD and one or two Western Digital WD Elements external drives for storage and backup (Elements is the current name of the original My Passport). Although the Retina screen is a not a true professional graphic arts monitor for professional work, it is ideal for home picture editing and printing.
Monitor calibration: X-Rite i1Display Pro.
Software instruction: Lynda.com. A subscription will pay for itself quickly if you are assiduous with your studies. The videos are short to allow viewing one a day. There are many days; don't be afraid to watch the videos several times.
Lenses: Two, three, or four carefully-chosen, high-quality lenses from the Canon EF, Zeiss ZE, or Sigma Art lines, at least one a prime and no more than two of them zooms. Most photographers have too many lenses because lens acquisition overlaps with their "gear hobby" or "testing hobby." For making pictures, it's generally better to have fewer lenses that you know better. The classic photojournalist's kit consists of four lenses, the first either 20mm or 24mm, the second either 35mm or 50mm, the third either 85mm, 90mm, 100mm, or 105mm, and the fourth either a 180mm or 200mm or an 80–200mm ƒ/2.8 zoom. Alternates include the "classic trio" of moderate wide, normal, and short tele; or a basic two lens kit of wide-normal and short tele; or a two-zoom kit; or an "nested" kit with one zoom along with a fast prime or tiny pancake lens that the zoom overlaps, for instance a 24–70mm ƒ/2.8L II along with an STM 40mm pancake for "making the camera smaller." Choose lenses bases on what you do, or what you want to do.
Printer: Epson P800. The "apex" product from the leader in inkjet printing, the P800 is large enough to give you most of the advantages of a large printer, and small enough to give you most of the advantages of a small printer. The quality of Epson's latest printers is absolutely outstanding, and the permanence of P800 prints on excellent archival papers exceeds almost all other color photographic processes in history.
UPDATE: Printer management software: ColorByte ImagePrint 10. [This was added after the post first went up.]
Paper: For proofing, editing purposes, and preliminary work, Epson Ultra Premium Photo Paper Luster, and for finished fine prints, Canson Platine Fibre Rag. Epson UPPPL is an almost perfectly neutral RC-based paper that dries instantly and stays very flat, and isn't excessively expensive. Canson's range of inkjet printing papers is ne plus ultra (get a Canson Infinity Discovery Pack to see, feel, and try them all), and Platine is a superb paper for both B&W and color photographs that has no bad habits, excellent quality control, and a rich, beautiful surface.
UPDATE: Multiple readers in a position to know have suggested that Canson Baryta Photographique is a better "ideal" choice than Platine.
Print boxes: For finished fine prints, Archival Methods Onyx Portfolio Boxes, which are fully archival, museum-style clamshell boxes ideal for both storage and occasional presentation; and, for work prints, Print File Clamshell Metal Edge Boxes.
Tripod, tripod head, and flash: Only if you know you need them.
Bag: You're on your own.
Of course, opinions about any one of these products will differ, and in many cases there are not just dozens but hundreds of options. (I use almost none of the above, for example.) Also, one choice may affect another; for instance, if you settle on the Fujifilm X-T2 as your ideal camera, you will want UHS-II cards, which the Fuji supports. With several of the named products, for instance inkjet papers, part of the pleasure is experimentation, and artistic choice comes into play. And finally, this post will not be for everyone—most of the TOP Commentariat are experts or near-experts themselves, to whom other people turn for advice, and they aren't looking for advice themselves. (They'd rather argue!)
But to maximize both versatility and very high quality at the same time, this equipment would be tough to beat.
Original contents copyright 2017 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Chris Wentz: "An unusually pedantic post."
John Camp: "A valuable column, IMHO. I know what you're saying about Canon, but you could have replaced the Canon with a FF Nikon, and probably could have gone down to Micro 4/3 or APS-C sensors, since the P800 only handles up to 22-inch paper, and, with a nice margin, the smaller-sensor output will do fine.
"I was thinking about your post a few days ago about the best all-around camera, and one issue that's impossible to get around is personal preference: Canons, for some reason, leave me puzzled, but I can pick up any Nikon and be happy within a couple of minutes. Just what I grew up with; I kind of understand how Nikon thinks. I'm sure many Canon users have the same reaction when picking up a Nikon.
"I also kind of think that many photographers aren't generalists, and so a more specific set would work better for them. For example, I like to take street pictures that the subjects might object to. I would not want to use a big Nikon or Canon for that, with a huge 70–ƒ/2.8 zoom. But a Panasonic GX8 with an equivalent ƒ/2.8 zoom with that fully-flexible back screen allows me to sit on a bench or a wall, rest the camera on my thigh and take pictures sideways, one arm draped over much of the camera.
"Maybe you've got a whole set of possible camera/printing outfits here: street, studio, landscape, travel, etc."
Judith Wallerius: "You hit the camera gear part right on the nose. This is my view as I am sitting here, reading your article:
"I'm currently off to visit family for a few days. Work stays at home, but going completely without camera is just not an option. But due to train travel I didn't want to bring the whole shop, either. Lens-wise, I own a variation of what you described as making sense, but the 24–70mm is huge, not to mention heavy. So I stuck on the 40mm pancake...to 'make the camera smaller' (and successfully fit it in an already full suitcase). And I left the flash at home…because I knew I wouldn't really need it.
"What you see is the smallest a ready-to-shoot 5D Mark-anything can go, a far cry from the usual big bag full of options and accessories, yet complete in its own right. I took some pictures of my 89-year old grandpa earlier, and I love that I had the option to do so. Being able to make the camera smaller is awesome."
Joe: "Great list! though of course I must offer some alternatives. My favorite glossy/semigloss/luster paper used to be Museo Silver Rag, but its inconsistent quality led me to experiment, and I've settled on the newish Moab Juniper Baryta Rag 305, which looks amazing, is less expensive than the Canson Platine and has the additional benefit of a terrific reverse-side texture for signing in pencil.
"And for bags, I'm hooked on the Domke canvas bags. I hate the thick, stiff plastic bags by most makers. The Domkes wear nicely and conform to the side of my body over time. I own three but my day-to-day bag is the F3 Super which holds my DSLR with lens and a spare lens, with pockets for accessories (or earmuffs in the winter)."
hugh crawford: "When I read the title I thought it was going to be about why all NYC photographers wear black."
Mark Roberts: "There now appears to be a viable alternative to Photoshop: Affinity Photo. It's $49.95—and not just per year. I've bought a copy myself, mainly as a protest to Adobe's policies, and it's very good."
s.wolters: "The Canon 5D is indeed a camera that a lot of professionals use. A quick scan among ten photographers (five women, five men) that I worked with in the past and who I see or follow regularly resulted in a five out of ten score for the 5D. Not always the latest model though. Two of them are shooting a 5D exclusively. One uses bigger Canon models as well. Two use it as a back up—one to a Horseman field camera and the other to a Mamiya 7.
"And the other five? One uses Nikon and is likely even sponsored by them. Two are using Wista field cameras and one a Horseman field backed up by a Mamiya 7 and a the original Fujifilm X100. And last but not least is the guy who only shoots Tri-X on an old Leica M6.
"These ten might not represent a the average of the professional market; they are all shooting documentary projects or art photography that is sold by galleries. (So no paparazzi, sports, forensic, wedding, fashion, product photographers or whatever). But all are reasonably well known and make their living with photography. I know that the Leica guy does his own printing the classical way and only two others have an advanced printing set up. The majority outsource their printing and have a very basic setup themselves. Some hardly know what’s going on and if they need some replacement they mainly consult their colleagues. Most of them are really conservative and do not update their gear all the time with the latest models. No Olympus E-M1 Mark II with a 25mm ƒ/1.2 M.Zuiko Pro in sight.
"Comparing it to cars: have you ever seen a professional driver in an Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio?"
Mike replies: Driving with a professional driver is totally terrifying by all accounts. Not only do they drive faster than you, they drive twice as fast as you think is possible. I plan to experience that like I experience mountain climbing—from the comfort of my reading chair!
Steve Snyder: "By the way, many library systems let you use Lynda for free. I was shocked at the amount of technical instruction, including Photoshop and Lightroom videos. I am in King County near Seattle, Washington, and I can get all of Lynda for free."
Terry Farnell: "Having read that list, I'm so glad I just have a view camera, a spot meter and an enlarger!"
Mike replies: That last item was a densitometer, but okay.