Posted by Michael Blann on June 18, 2018
I’m not generally one to have ‘camera conversations’ but you can imagine that I’m often asked about the equipment and cameras I use. Here are a few of my thoughts on the subject and the cameras I own...
When buying cameras, I’ve never dwelled on getting too technical but have always gone along with the premise of “reassuringly expensive” which, rightly or wrongly, has served me well so far. Over the years I’ve owned marque brands such as Leica, Canon, Linhof, Mamiya, Hasselblad and Phase One and what I’ve found is that all cameras have their strengths and weaknesses and that no one camera can do all jobs.
I’ve now whittled my collection down to: Canon 35mm, Leica 35mm Rangefinder and a Phase One Medium Format Digital. Gone are my film cameras with the exception of my Linhof Technikarden (5×4 plate camera), which sadly resides in a Peli case where it’s been unused for several years. It’s destined for eBay soon!
Technology has largely killed off film as a practical platform for commercial photographers due to it being prohibitively expensive and slow — clients now expect to see images immediately so for the majority of shoots I connect directly into a laptop where I can make adjustments to the images as we go along.
– Here’s my thought’s on why I own and use these three cameras –
Canon 5d MK4
I’ve used Canons for many years now, upgrading as new MK’s come out. They are my go to camera for so many jobs due to their versatility – whether it’s sports, portraiture, location or studio work. The operating ISO range is fantastic (100-6400) and some of the prime lenses such as the 85mm, F/1.2 are really sharp with beautiful bokeh when used wide open. The zoom lenses also come into their own with their ability to lock on and track a moving object through their multiple focusing points and image stabilizer – ideal for sports and wildlife photography.
However… I will never love the Canon for the simple reason that it feels average (which I know is unfair) but I have no emotional attachment to this camera, it’s a workhorse. Invariably I use this camera with zoom lenses when I need to work quickly and when there’s not enough time to swap to prime lenses. This style of shooting makes me feel lazy despite the fact that it produces great, consistent results. My real bug-bear is its weight. The 35mm camera was invented as a nimble, portable solution to the large medium format cameras, but much like cars, they have grown bigger and more cumbersome over the years. With a long zoom attached, the 5D is now the same weight as a medium format camera which is why I would never take it out on a walk for pleasure. This brings me on to…
A camera I love. Its understated design and its honorary place in reportage photography (most notably Magnum) is the antithesis of the Canon – it’s what an Aston Martin is to an AudiRS8. The Audi will probably out perform its counterpart but you have a love affair with an Aston Martin. My first Leica M6 was as much a camera as it was a piece of jewelry to me. It’s the one camera which gets a little nod of respect from those few in the know but is equally ignored by the majority due to it’s quirky aesthetic design which appears dated to the untrained eye. That doesn’t take anything away from it as an amazing piece of engineering and a camera in its own right. The lenses are considered the finest in the world and will fit neatly in a trouser pocket – no need for a bag unlike the Canon. The camera body is small and compact but solid due to its metal construction. It’s German engineering at its finest which comes with a hefty price tag – an M9 with two lenses will set you back £12K ($16K).
But in truth, I will probably never use it for a commercial job as it will be out performed in most situations by my other cameras. The file size is a little small and the ISO range is only good for daytime shooting. This camera is the preserve of family outings and holidays where I can shoot freely with the lens wide open in good light. I have documented my family growing up with this camera and the resulting images have a beautiful timeless quality that I haven’t seen replicated by any modern Japanese cameras. It’s the sort of camera that is handed down as a family heirloom.
Phase One XF, IQ 250 Digital Back
The crème de la crème of all my cameras due to its size, cost and quality. This is a medium format digital camera with an interchangeable digital back, which produces 50mb files in their RAW state. At £60k for camera and lenses it’s the sort of purchase that is financed much like a car and upgraded and replaced again after 3 years. It’s also the sort of purchase that is painfully felt when your assistant leaves the box containing your camera behind in the street on the other side of Venice (I did get the camera back eventually after an anxious wait).
Affordability tends to be restricted to successful professionals shooting high-end advertising work and artists who want the best possible files for large format prints. I bought my camera for both my commercial work and the Mountains project where the subject and scale of the work required the finest detail and fidelity. People wrongly assume more pixels mean better files but it’s more about the way a digital sensor can interpret and render a scene without incurring issues of digital artifacts, noise, banding, etc… It’s something this camera does so well, capturing the subtle nuances in milky skies and the darkest shadows, something which is especially important if images are to be reproduced as large prints or billboards.
But what I love about this type of camera is that it suits my style of working which is methodical and considered. My intention is to produce one definitive shot where the composition is tight and perhaps a little classical. Certainly the nearly square 3×4 aspect ratio of the files is more akin to a painter’s canvas, an aesthetic I find pleasing. The working process is similar to an artist setting up his easel, canvas and brushes but for me it’s a tripod, camera, lenses and laptop.
As you can see I have a very different emotional attachment to all these cameras but like any tool they have a specific use defined by the task in hand. Knowing when to set emotions aside and use the right tool for the job is half the battle.
My teens were spent exploring the south coast on a push-bike with dreams of riding the Tour De France one day. After a year racing as an elite for a team in Australia (and my dream over) I headed home to get my education back on track with a place doing art (printmaking and illustration to be precise) at Kingston University.
It was here I took my first “proper” pictures in Sofia, Bulgaria, which impressed the examiner enough to give me a degree and got my book in front of Eamonn McCabe at the Guardian who gave me the encouragement to keep going.
I spent the next few years cutting my teeth as a studio manager in various advertising agencies whilst immersing myself in my newly found passion for photography. Eventually, buoyed up by a healthy economy, I took the handful of pictures I had and created my first portfolio, which launched me into a new career as a professional photographer. No sooner had I made the leap, Getty Images offered me the role as their “London Creative Photographer”. You could say right place, right time. I spent the next 6 years roaming the world and photographing everything their creative needs dreamt up, learning and perfecting the craft along the way.
Eventually the drive for self-expression and autonomy won out and I decided to find my own voice again. After setting up a studio in West London and with a new portfolio and ideas about the type of things I wanted to photograph, I started to build a new client base.
And now? I’m working for some of the best agencies and brands in the world shooting advertising campaigns and helping companies see their ideas come to life…
…and yes, I’m still riding my bike and dreaming about riding the Tour.
Originally posted on the blog of Michael Blann