This article is part of our Gear Guides. We try to continually updates each article as new cameras are released, but if you feel like we’ve missed something, please comment below!
The world of fashion and commercial photography is very diverse. Unlike some other genres of photography, your camera gear and lighting requirements can be as simple as a camera and natural light, or it can be as complicated as a high-caliber production shoot complete with multiple strobe lights and a high-end camera tethered to a computer.
In this first part of our gear guide, we will start by going over the different cameras and lenses typically used for fashion or commercial photography.
NOTE: While the camera and lens choice are important, in fashion and commercial photography the lighting, the production (model, hair, makeup, wardrobe, etc), and even the retouching quality can make a bigger difference between an ordinary image and a spectacular one.
Factors to Consider
There are several factors that will determine your camera-buying decision. The first is the sensor size. There are three main categories of camera system based on the sensor size: Cropped sensor, full-frame sensor, and medium format sensor. Image quality is important when it comes to fashion and commercial photography and usually the larger sensor can produce better image quality.
At the same time, the gap in image quality between each sensor class has shrunk considerably. This is especially true when shooting at low ISO. Depth of field is also more shallow with larger sensors. A full-frame DSLR like the Nikon D800 will have shallower depth of field compared to a Nikon D7100, and a medium format camera will have an even shallower depth of field compared to that D800.
Now in regards to lens selection, while Nikon and Canon offer the largest collection, there are really only a few lenses that matters in fashion and commercial photography, and as long as your system has set of those lenses, you’re golden. We will go over the types of lenses you generally need for fashion and commercial photography.
Additionally, your shooting and lighting style will play a big part in what kind of camera system that you would want to get. If you shoot primarily in natural/ambient light, an APS-C or full frame DSLR will be the way to go, especially if you have to start pushing up the ISO. If you are shooting with strobe lights, you can shoot base ISO all day long, and even a micro 4/3 camera can provide you with excellent images.
As for medium format camera, it is at its best when you are shooting at base ISO setting and below ISO400. So typically, you want to stick with strobe lighting as much as possible if you plan to shoot with medium format.
Finally, a couple of other factors to consider is whether you shoot tether and whether having professional support services are important to you. In both cases, Canon and Nikon have the best support system for professionals and the majority of their modern DSLRs can tether to a computer. The higher end Sony SLTs like the Sony A99 can tether to Lightroom, but not Capture One.
Cameras for under $1,500
Although the Canon 7D is technically Canon’s flagship ASP-C DSLR, that DSLR is due for a replacement. In comparison, the new Canon 70D is not only lower in price, but it has a newer 20MP sensor and DIGIC 5 processor compared to the 7D’s older 18MP sensor and DIGIC 4 processor.
The best new feature of the 70D is its new “Dual Pixel CMOS AF.” This on-chip phase detect design utilizes two separate photodiodes within every single pixel that can read phase-detect autofocus independently from each other. This can help get better AF especially for areas farther away from the center of the frame. So while the 7D is not bad, if you can stretch your budget by a few hundred dollars, the 70D gets our recommendation.
The Nikon D7100 sports the latest generation 24MP sensor and AF system. Just like the Canon 70D, the D7100 features a 1/250 sec X-sync speed that lets you underexpose the ambient environment when shooting strobes outside. Unlike the Canon 7D, the D7100 also houses two SD-card slots, which is a feature a lot of professionals may appreciate. It is also Nikon’s first APS-C DSLR that does not have a optical low-pass filter (OLPF). This means that just like the Nikon D800e, it should have a higher resolving power than comparable filtered 24MP APS-C sensors. Of course, the trade-off is that while the D7100 may be able to pick up even finer details and texture on fabric, there is a higher chance for moire and false color to show up. We did review the D7100 and found that the likelihood of having moire show up is no greater than any other 24MP cameras.
Although the Olympus OM-D and the Panasonic GH3 shares the same Sony sensor, the OM-D is slightly tuned for better stills image quality and color rendition, and it is also cheaper. So if you are not planning to shoot video, the OM-D is the better buy. Additionally, it has the highly-acclaimed 5-axis in-body stabilization system (IBIS) that can stabilize any lenses attached to it, including adapted lenses. Although its image quality falls just below the Canon 70D and Nikon D7100, its small size and superb 75mm f/1.8 and 45mm f/1.8 prime lenses makes it a compelling choice if you want an all-around lens that you can carry to more places and have with you more often. Sure, there are mirrorless systems with better image quality such as the Fuji X-trans cameras, but you run into other compromise such as limited lens selection.
Cameras for under $3,500
Canon 5D mark II | Canon 5D mark III
There is a reason that the Canon 5D mkII and its successor, the 5D mkIII, is the most popular full-frame DSLR today. There is a certain “Canon color” that many touts renders a better skintone color than the Nikon equivalent. The look of the full-frame coupled by the excellent 85mm f/1.2L and 100mm f/2.8L macro primes make the Canon 5D one of the workhorse of the industry. The mark III further improves upon the mark II in practically every way, especially in AF. But that does not mean that the mark II is obsolete. Plenty of working professionals are still using the mark II as their primary or backup camera.
Nikon D800 | Nikon D800e
Over in the Nikon corner is the 800-lbs resolution gorilla known as the D800. With a medium-format worthy 36.3MP resolution sensor, the D800 has enough resolving power to print double page spreads all day for magazines, along with other large format prints. All this resolution also means that if your art director/client wants to a detail crop shot of an accessories from an image that was shot wider, you can still provide a high-quality image. Furthermore, according to DxoMark, the D800 has the widest dynamic range of any digital camera today, including medium format cameras. And Nikkor lenses are no slouch, either. We will go more in depth about the Canon and Nikon lenses in the next article.
Canon 6D | Nikon D600
Although it may be strange to lump these two DSLRs together, for shooting fashion and commercial, they are essentially the “affordable” alternative to full-frame DSLR. The D600 with its Sony-derived sensor holds an edge in resolution and the number of AF points, while the Canon 6D will be better for higher ISO use and video/hybrid applications. Nevertheless, if you are looking to jump into the full-frame arena and do not want to break the bank, then you really can’t go wrong with either the Canon 6D or the Nikon D600. The money you save can be used towards the lenses instead. Be sure to read our review of the Nikon D600 and the Canon 6D.
The Sony A99 DSLT is different from traditional DSLRs because it uses a semi-translucent mirror instead of a flip-up mirror and has an electronic viewfinder (EVF) rather than an optical viewfinder. The benefits of an EVF is that it lets you see exactly what the camera is seeing in real time in regards to exposure and white balance. The sensor is the same sensor that can be found in the Nikon D600 and also have a very high image quality and latitude. The last major benefit of the A99 over its competitors is the SteadyCam in-body stabilization that allows it to stabilize any lenses attached to it. In our review, the A99 did very well and scored high marks.
Cameras Over $3,500
Medium Format Cameras
You may think that while it’s nice to have a section for medium format cameras, for 99% of photographers, the stratospheric cost of ownership will place these image quality behemoths out of reach. Luckily, you may be able to find used medium format cameras like the Hasselblad H2D with a 22MP-40MP digital back for under $7,000.
When going from a full-frame DSLR to a medium format camera you will notice a difference in sharpness because of the lack of an optical low-pass filter, better color gradation and skin tonality from the 16-bit color sensor, more nuances in the deep shadow , better micro-contrast, and that “medium format” look.
That being said, there are caveats that you should know when you jump into the medium format arena. Everything will be slower. Focusing is going to be a challenge since the AF points are severely limited to the very center of the viewfinder, and because the DOF is a lot more shallow than a full-frame DSLR, focusing and recomposing can lead to a misfocused shot.
Another thing to note is that there are various sizes of medium format sensors as well. The smaller 44mmx33mm “cropped medium format” sensors found in the lower end Phase One P40+, Phase One IQ140, and Hasselblad 40MP digital backs are only about 20% larger than a full-frame DSLR’s sensor.
Medium format works best when tethered to a computer because you can see the images right away and you can focus check as well as see the images look. Just be sure to have a large enough storage space for all of those massive image files.
Finally, medium format cameras use CCD sensors instead of the CMOS sensors commonly found in DSLRs. While they provide arguably better image quality, that quality rapidly drops as you start to venture in ISO400 and above. Therefore, you do have to take precaution when shooting in natural and ambient lighting.
Phase One System
The Phase One system is one of the major leaders in medium format photography and has a healthy professional support network. The system also offers the advantage of very high-resolution up to 80MP sensor. Additionally, the camera body can use both focal plane lenses and the Schneider-Kreuznach designed leaf shutter lenses that allow flash sync of up to 1/1600sec. The other huge advantage is the relatively open back system that allows these bodies to accept over 50 various digital backs and 80 different lenses from multiple brands. Finally, the IQ1 and IQ2 digital backs have a high-resolution 3.2″ touch screen display and both USB3.0 and Firewire 800 for high speed tethering.
Hasselblad is other major medium format photography company. Other than the older H1/H2 cameras and the H4X camera, the current H-cameras are closed system cameras, which means that only Hasselblad digital backs can be used with the camera body. The system is generally less expensive compared to Phase One’s, but the H-cameras only has a maximum of 1/800 shutter speed and sync speed. The Hasselblad digital backs tops off at 60MP with the H4D-60.
One of the best features of Hasselblad’s cameras from the H4D and H5D is the True Focus AF ability which measures the yaw and pitch that you make when you focus and recompose to compensate the change in depth of field. This helps to ensure a greater number of properly focused shots.
Stay Tuned for Part II: Lenses
Now that we covered the camera bodies for fashion and commercial photography, stay tuned for the next article when we talk about lenses. Part three will cover lighting and grip. Be sure to comment below!