Is brand important?

A student asks me this via email:

Hi Michael, hope you are well. I wanted to send this email as I enjoyed the class you taught and enjoy reading your blogs!

As an amateur photographer the very first camera I started out with was a 35mm Minolta. Hence the reason I purchased my digital Sony, as my lenses were compatible.  I’ve have been building my equipment around “Sony” but have come to so many roadblocks.

I’m not sure if you remember me but I had to borrow your camera in class because I did not have a Nikon or Canon which was compatible to your remote flash. I would love to attend your workshops but I have no knowledge of Nikon or Canon. There has also been some part time job opportunities that I could not apply for because they preferred Nikon or Canon.

So therefore my question is…should I trade in all the Sony equipment and begin with Nikon or Canon? If so, which brand and model would you recommend?

Currently I have the Sony A700 model with 3 lenses (16-105, 50, 70-200macro).

Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated!  (Can’t wait to attend one of workshops, need more help with lighting theory).

Great question, and one that occurs regularly.

And a tough question, too. And it is one to which the answer, as so often in life, is “it depends”.

Let’s go through the various aspects to this choice.

  1. Technology. The A700 is a great camera. In general, though, there is little difference in quality between brands. Sure, Canon and Nikon, as market leaders, have larger R&D budgets, but in the end, all cameras end up with the same features. Differences are minimal. Do not discount Sony, they want to be number two soon, and who knows. If Canon has benefits (very extensive lens selection) and Nikon has advantages (low ISO), Sony also has advantages (available Zeiss lenses). Where Canon has drawbacks, so does Nikon and so does Sony (ask me if I like the Sony proprietary flash socket, or if I like Sony’s menu navigation). All cameras have aperture, shutter and ISO settings, so in the end, technology is not the decisive factor – either way. More important than “what brand is this camera” is “how modern is this camera”. They all get better every year.
  2. Backward Compatibility. Clearly a big one: if you have many thousands of dollars in one equipment maker’s hardware (say, Minolta lenses, which work on Sony cameras, since Sony bought Minolta) that is a factor to be taken into account.
  3. Market. Now we come to a biggie. The market leaders, Canon and Nikon, have a huge advantage over others, since the pro photography pretty much is Nikon and Canon. You have seen it yourself: if you cannot operate Nikon or Canon, many people do not want to know you. This is unjustified – but “it is what it is”.
  4. Peripherals. From available third-party lenses to Pocketwizards, all peripherals are available for Canon and Nikon. So that too can be, for pro shooters, a benefit of switching.
  5. Knowledge, Support, Expertise. An offshoot of the previous point. Books. Courses. Technical support. “Hey guys, my flash just died: anyone have one I can use?”. “Guys, who knows how I turn on this custom feature on my camera?” – Availability of used gear on Craigslist. Reviews on the magazines and online (like my blog). All these are easy if you use Nikon or Canon.

So what would I advise you?

If you are considering a switch for technical reasons, I would say “wait”. I have shot with Olympus, Panasonic, Asahi Pentax: Nikon, Canon, and I teach all others: all cameras are great. The camera is not the important thing, the lens is – and the photographer.

But since you want to be a pro shooter who has already run into roadblocks, I would seriously consider the switch.

To what? Canon or Nikon is a personal choice. What feels better?

Then you choose the level: for you I would say

  • Starter level (Rebel, or 3000/5000) – avoid. These cameras need more pro features
  • Mid-level: 60D or D90, say: great options.
  • Basic pro: 5D, 7D, D300s, etc: great options.
  • Pro: 1D, 1Ds or D3 etc: overkill, I would say, at this point, and in general, overkill for most users (but that said: I use a 1D as well as a 1Ds).

My advice: Check out When you have a particular camera in mind, ask me about that one. Ask your friends and ask other photographers.

I hope that helps.

7D or 60D?

My friend and student Ed asked (and this is the abbreviated version, his question was more nuanced): “should I buy a Canon 60D or a 7D to replace my Digital Rebel”?

Because this type of question comes up often – one camera versus another one, and use the difference for lenses – like “a D90 plus a lens versus a D300 without one” – I thought I would share my answer here. It may give you some ideas as to the factors that affect a difficult choice like this.

These are both great cameras. They both have the same sensor and the same video.

The 7D does not have the cool articulating mirror, true, but it has other advantages that made me buy one:

  • The 7D has a titanium body (60D is plastic)
  • Weatherproofing.
  • A much better, entirely new focusing system.
  • Better controls (e.g. a switch for video/live view selection; more controls accessible via a switch rather than a menu).
  • More customization options
  • Better viewfinder (100%)
  • More settings in video (e.g. the option to use Av mode)
  • Faster: Two processors rather than the 60D’s one means that you get 8 frames per second when shooting sport. That’s FAST!

Clearly, there is no good or bad – both good. But

  • If you want a sturdier, weatherproofed camera with the latest focus system (more points is good: you will only use one, but you have more to choose from for that one, in a bigger area), and if you shoot sports, then the 7D for sure.
  • But since lenses are more important than cameras for the image quality, if quality is important and the other factors are less so, then go for a cheaper camera and better lenses.

As said: either is good.  But I hope this brief discussion shows there is no clear winner in these things, since the factors that go into your decision are multifaceted and complicated.

Dragging the shutter

A quick note for you today (and this is the kind of thing my students learn at length in my advanced courses, like the one tomorrow in Mono – there’s still some space).

Every had your camera react unpredictably when using flash? Yeah, I thought so. You flash and then the shutter stays open for a second and it’s all a blur. Or you flash and the background is dark black.


When you shoot indoors, say, and use your flash, your camera behaves differently in different modes – and this behaviour varies per camera.

Aperture mode (A/Av):

  • Canon: the shutter will be as slow as needed to expose the background too (caution: this may lead to very long shutter speeds if ambient light is low).
  • Nikon: the shutter is restricted to 1/60th of a second or faster (this can be set).  But… if you also engage “SLOW” mode, the shutter will be as slow as needed to expose the background too (caution: this may lead to very long shutter speeds if ambient light is low).

Program mode (P):

  • Canon: the shutter is restricted to 1/60th of a second or faster.
  • Nikon: the shutter is restricted to 1/60th of a second or faster (this can be set).  But… if you also engage “SLOW” mode, the shutter will be as slow as needed to expose the background too (caution: this may lead to very long shutter speeds if ambient light is low). .


  • Canon is simple: Av = long shutter speeds, P = 1/60th or faster.
  • On Nikon cameras, both modes are restricted to 1/60 or faster normally, but either mode can be freed from this by using the “SLOW” setting.

So what is the best mode when using flash indoors?

Ah, that would be Manual. That way the camera does exactly what you want. But we will get to this again another day.

TIP: if you want to try Manual indoors flash, start at 400 ISO, 1/30th second, f/4. And bounce your flash off the ceiling/wall behind you.

What is in my bag?

I am often asked “what is in that Domke bag of yours”?

Here. Too much, many would say…:

Photo Bag by Michael Willems

Photo Bag by Michael Willems

The bag is a Domke bag, and it contains:

  • Two lenses (Which ones? That varies per shoot).
  • A speedlight (Canon 580-EX II).
  • My off-camera flash cable.
  • My point-and-shoot camera (a Panasonic Lumix GF-1 Micro Four Thirds camera).
  • The indispensable Hoodman Hood Loupe (Get one. Now.)
  • Memory cards… always carry spares.
  • Fong Lightsphere – for safe shooting when I need safety rather than creativity.
  • Honl Photo reflectors/gobos.
  • A Honl gel set in a Honl roll.
  • My iPad .. plus, just in case, its charger.
  • Spare batteries for every camera and for flash. Never travel without spare batteries.
  • Lens caps for the lenses that are on the camera. I do not use them on the cameras I am using.
  • Cloths, plastic bags, headache and stomach acid pills.
  • Note pad, pens, comb, small brush, business cards.

And an important note: no camera. That is (or more accurately, those are!) over my shoulder.

Dodo Lenses?

A student from the other day asks:

My son & I really enjoyed the course with you last night.  I do find myself a bit puzzled though about one particular matter when it comes to future investment.  I’m thinking about updating my 10D and then purchase another lens, yet you’re not the first person to praise their “Micro Four Thirds” camera – especially given the quality and additional lens options.  I’m wondering if this is going to be like the cherry-wood entertainment center I purchased years ago when wide screen tv’s were just on the way… but this entertainment center was not built for it.  Today, it’s still a beautiful piece of furniture, but it’s admittedly been sidelined since it’s unable to accommodate modern TV shapes.

What do you think? If this is the way of the future… perhaps my EF lenses may go the way of the dinosaur?

Good question: and yes, I d love the Panasonic Lumix I recently bought, and yes, it can produce work as good as the SLRs. So are we dumping those and going to Micro Four Thirds?

No – not at the expense of SLRs. SLR cameras will always be here. Why? Why lug about a heavy camera when a small camera can be as good? For reasons like these:

  • The availability of a much wider range of lenses.
  • The ability to shoot more quickly (ten frames a second on my 1D, 8 on the 7D).
  • Waterproofing
  • Focusing systems that do not rely on the sensor
  • The ability to use a viewfinder that shows “the real thing”
  • More buttons – yes, that is a good thing. Few menus needed. To change exposure, ISO, metering mode, white balance, and a host of other things, on my SLR I can press one button. On smaller cameras I often need to enter menu systems, which can be convoluted.
  • Micro Four Thirds is so special because it uses a biiig sensor: but it’s still not quite as big as a crop SLR’s sensor (and not nearly as big as a full size sensor). And sensor size matters greatly: lower noise, and more restricted depth-of-field possibilities.

Those reasons show why SLRs will be at the forefont of camera development for many more years.

Now, one thing you may want to do is use EF rather than EF-S lenses. More cameras are being released as full-sized snesors, and an EF lens can fit on any Canon camera, while an EF-S lens can only fit o the crop sensor camera.

EF lenses, then, provide great future proofing. You can go ahead and buy and not fear that five or ten years down the road, your lens will be worthless and (worse), useless..