Should Amateur Photographers Compare Their Results To Pros’?
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Recently I had a discussion with a friend who was discouraged because his own photographs from MotoGP at Silverstone, 2014, didn’t look like mine. We had spent some time together in a pub, eating and drinking while I worked on the day’s images on my laptop. Sitting next to me, he was able to see my Lightroom catalog as I first finished keywording the day’s images, then started selecting those I would process and send out to my web customers.
The main thing he noticed about my images compared to his own for the same day of racing was that more of mine were in focus. The environment was the same, at least as far as weather, light conditions, etc. But in my collection there was a larger percentage of images he would keep rather than throw away.
He’d been wondering how much my pro gear contributed to this and if somehow finding budget to improve his equipment would give him results closer to mine. (As I recall he’d been using a Canon 100-400mm L lens and a Canon 7D body.) He also asked how much of a difference my credentialed access to the track made. (I should point out that our discussion was only about trackside images, since he did not have any way to make photographs in pit lane.) He asked how discouraged he should be, and how fair a comparison it was to hold his images from the weekend up to mine.
I doubt he’s the only avid amateur who has wondered about this, so I thought I would write here some of the points I made in that discussion. If the topic rings a bell with you, I’m going to assume that you are not a pro photographer, but that you are a serious amateur. By that I mean you show up to a motor sports event with the best gear you can come up with and give the day or weekend your best effort. You honestly try to take the best photos you can in the situation.
Based on those assumptions, here are some observations which may interest you.
The access and the gear both make a difference in the quality of the images. Being closer to the subject on track helps because the larger the subject in the frame, the more data about it is being recorded for that image. If the subject (bike or car) is too far away, the image in that area will only ever be so sharp, can only display so much detail because there are only so many pixels representing the subject. Also, the farther the subject from the camera, the more opportunity there is for disturbances in the air to distort the image quality. This is particularly troublesome on warm days. But even on cool days, when the air is calm and you’d otherwise expect images to be very sharp, a great distance between the camera and the subject can suffer from disturbed air.
The access usually (but not always) means avoiding fences and other obstructions. While there are tricks for working around fences, not having to deal with them at all is an advantage. The access also allows for a greater variety of perspectives on the track action, and thus a greater chance to find an interesting spot and photograph it from a complementary perspective. Often, when behind a fence, you just can’t get a good view of the action.
As for gear, if a $6,000 camera were no better than a $2,000 camera, we’d be stupid to pay for the $6,000 one, right? Same with a $9,000 lens compared to a $1,500 lens, and certainly to a $300 lens.
But like many things electronic, the price/performance curve is one that sees price increasing dramatically at the far end where quality rises on a shallower curve. I.e., that final bit of performance costs a lot more than does the first, much larger portion.
Years ago I met a very successful and skilled (qualities that do not always go hand in hand) car racing shooter who had a unique approach to camera bodies. Instead of investing in the top of the Canon line every few years, he bought two new copies of whatever the current pro-sumer body was at the time. He used those for a year, sold them on ebay, and at the start of the next season purchased two of the latest model of middle range bodies.
I was surprised to see someone with so many high profile customers not using Canon’s flagship bodies. He said they were a waste of money. The mid-range bodies he preferred were better than the pro bodies he’d used five years ago, so he should be able to do at least as well now as he had then. And since they were much cheaper to purchase, they paid for themselves right away. If one of them had a serious problem, he just bought a new copy, which saved him the down time of waiting for and the costs of repairing more expensive equipment.
So in light of my earlier comment, maybe we are stupid for paying $6,000 for a body instead of $2,000. Personally, I like having that last bit of extra performance, but whether it’s my ego wanting that or an actual business requirement, that’s a bit difficult to say. There are certainly instances where the abilities of the more expensive camera can pull of a shot the cheaper one can’t. But most of the time, for cars, anyway, this is something to consider.
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