Category Archives: photography

The size of the equipment

This article isn’t about words. Sorry! I couldn’t come up with a word-based excuse for it. It’s about cameras, but it’s about something you don’t need to be an insider to appreciate. Because it’s about the size of the equipment, and how much it means to some people.

Recently, the photo news site PetaPixel published an article about Donald Trump’s presidential portrait. They weren’t focusing on how the picture looked – though there are things that could be said about that. They were talking about the equipment used to take the picture. You can get this information from the digital file. The camera records it and anyone with the right software can see for themselves.

The thing that seemed amusing at first look was that the camera used is one that was released in 2007 and is no longer being made. It’s out of date in its technical specs. Why not use the latest, greatest equipment? If you’re the Donald?

A thing that caught my attention was that it was shot at a comparatively high ISO (allows for faster shutter speeds but sacrifices some image quality, especially in older cameras), even though it was shot with a wide aperture (which itself allows for higher speeds). Why do that?

But I know the answer to both questions: If you’re the Donald, it’s gotta be huge. It’s gotta look impressive. And the camera he was shot with was huge. Huge. And, even more important, the lens he was shot with was HUGE. Big and impressive and professional-looking. (I recently had some things to say about “professional“…)

The camera was a Canon EOS 1DS Mark III. See it on DPReview: It’s 15 cm by 16 cm (about 6 inches by 6.5 inches, the size of a dinner plate but thicker) and weighs 3 pounds even before you put a lens on it. It’s not up to current professional standards: 21 megapixels and top ISO of 1600. I have a camera sitting on my desk that’s the size of my (admittedly large) hand that blows it out of the water (and costs a lot less). But my camera is not impressive looking. The Canon EOS 1DS Mark III is exactly what the average non-photographer thinks of when thinking of a pro photographer’s equipment.

And then there’s that lens. If you think the camera is huge… I mean, no, it’s not the hugest lens you can get. But anything huger is not really appropriate for a portrait photo. See it on DPReview: It’s 20 cm long (that’s 8 inches), and it weighs more than three and a quarter pounds. Altogether, the equipment used to shoot Donald Trump’s presidential portrait weighed more than 6 pounds and was (once you add the body thickness to the lens length) almost a foot long.

And when you’re shooting with a rig like that, you need to shoot at a high shutter speed to make sure you don’t have motion blur – if you’re not using a tripod (as you should!) or the subject won’t stand still. In this case, the shutter speed was 1/320 of a second, which isn’t all that high – apparently the photographer didn’t have a full studio lighting setup, but I doubt that he/she was a currently working professional photographer, given the old equipment – but it’s enough to compensate for shaky hands or a moving subject.

So there it is. The reason for the rig (and the shutter speed and ISO) is that Donald got someone – maybe a friend or family member? – with a big, impressive-looking camera to shoot his picture, but whoever did it was not a studio pro and did not use studio lights or, probably, a tripod. Possibly it was a retired paparazzo. Maybe the camera was Donald’s own. Given that he’s using an old unsecure smartphone to tweet with, and given that his idea of quality is my idea of fugxury, that seems plausible.

Just by the way, PetaPixel also gave the info on the cameras used to shoot Barack Obama’s official portraits. Both were shot using Canon 5D bodies, which are slightly smaller cameras that still produce similar image quality to the 1D. (They’re still bigger than my Sony a7ii or a Leica, but they’re very versatile and are preferred by many professionals.) The photographer, Pete Souza, used the model that was most current at the time: the Mark II and then the Mark III. He shot the portraits at 1/125 of a second at much smaller apertures (for greater depth of field) but at low ISO for good quality, which means he was using proper professional lighting. Oh, and the lenses? Both comparatively “long” focal lengths – 105mm first, then 85mm, which is a standard portrait length – but much smaller than the lens used for the Donald. The one used in 2012 was only 3.3 inches long. But I really don’t think Obama felt he had anything to prove with the choice of photo equipment. He just let his official photographer use what was best according to his expertise.