There's Something For Everyone
Pro Vs. Amateur 35mm Cameras

Anyone who reads the ads in photo magazines even occasionally, will be well aware of the 35mm cameras designated as "professional." Just about every manufacturer offers at least one and generally prices it far above its "amateur" counterparts. These models hold a lot of appeal even to photo enthusiasts on a very tight budget because of a simple theory: that they'll be able to make better photographs--images that truly achieve professional caliber--if they acquire a "pro" designated camera.

Considering the well-specified 35mm SLR models in the more affordable range, that theory is probably a fallacy. (Shutterbug's 1999 Photography Buyer's Guide provides full specifications on all current models, useful for comparison purposes.) Even so, the "pro" cameras do offer advantages as well as features that may justify the substantially higher price. As a commercial stock photographer, I do own two of the SLRs listed in our chart. And every other professional photographer I have interviewed also owns at least one of those models, or a previous (discontinued) version. The reasons should become obvious as you review the summary of professional features.

Superior Quality. Although there is no industry standard, most camera manufacturers intend their professional SLRs to function for years, without the need for major repairs. They employ the finest mechanical and electronic components and assemble them with extreme precision. Cameras of this type are then pretested for 100,000 or more cycles--and often in extreme temperatures--to ensure long-term operation without the need for major repairs. Conversely, an entry-level camera may be expected to function for 50,000 exposures in "normal" weather, still more than adequate for the vast majority of owners.

Metal Body. When a camera is a professional tool, it must withstand high level abuse, particularly shock. A photographer who is paid to come back with the image does not have time for coddling equipment so durability becomes essential. At one time, professional cameras were completely made of metal components. Some manufacturers still make all-metal die-cast bodies, but several have switched to hybrid construction: at least some parts are made of fiberglass reinforced polycarbonate. Unlike lower-priced models, all "pro" cameras include far more metal components, especially for parts such as the reflex mirror box, tripod mount, top plate, etc.

The hybrid bodies are every bit as rugged, with a particular advantage: a polycarbonate shell--or thick rubber coating--over a metal chassis is more dent resistant. A part may shatter if dropped onto concrete, but the internal mechanisms will generally continue to operate. More importantly, a polycarbonate shell is unlikely to crack or dent with minor impacts so it withstands common types of pro level abuse that left the 1960's era cameras covered with dents.

Moisture Resistance. An amateur photographer can decide when he or she will shoot, avoiding inclement weather, dust storms, and water spray. When you're on assignment, however, you do not have this luxury. Consequently, most "pro" bodies are well sealed (with gaskets and other precautions) against moisture and dust. No, they're not waterproof but most will withstand a light rain, extreme humidity, snow, or light spray. Saltwater however, still poses a serious risk for any camera, although models with polycarbonate exteriors may be less vulnerable.

An Accurate View. Professional photographers prefer a viewfinder that offers 100 percent area coverage, so they can see exactly what will be recorded on film. The "pro" SLRs meet this demand or come close while more affordable cameras offer 85 to 92 percent area coverage. Some photographers may prefer the latter because a slide mount covers roughly 8 percent of the image area while many labs crop 11 percent of a negative. When shooting with a "pro" camera, you may need to leave extra space around the subject unless you prefer unmounted slides or patronize a lab that will print 100 percent of the negative.

Effective Focusing. Although few professional photographers use autofocus constantly, some do appreciate this capability when recording action or any rapidly changing situation. But they do demand a system that is highly reliable, so "pro" cameras generally include the manufacturer's latest and most successful technology. High-speed continuous "predictive" or "tracking" focus and multi-point focus detection sensors are standard equipment in today's pro-grade AF cameras. Naturally, every model allows the photographer to select a single focus detection sensor, too, for pinpoint control. Photographers who prefer manual focus exclusively are not ignored in this high tech era; several "pro" models are still available featuring an ultra-bright finder and contrasty screen for maximum ease of focusing.

High-Speed Motor Drive. While a 1 or 2 frame per second (fps) film advance is quite adequate for photo hobbyists, professional photographers expect higher speed. Whether the motor drive is built-in or provided with an accessory, a 5 fps advance rate is generally the minimum expected by those who frequently shoot a series of frames. High-speed rewind --essential for action and news photography especially--is a bonus with this type of equipment. Some cameras offer a much higher rate while others are more conservative; the latter seem to satisfy many professional photographers.

Full Exposure Control. Some professionals told me that they always use a camera's manual mode while others frequently use accessory, handheld light meters. None-theless, even the purists will switch to a semiautomatic mode for street shooting or other situations when the light is changing rapidly. Naturally, they expect a full complement of metering patterns and overrides such as autoexposure bracketing and exposure compensation. With the latest high tech models they get even more options, as indicated in our chart. Granted, many of the same features are available in mid to higher priced "amateur" cameras, too, but the "pro" models usually include at least a few extras for greater exposure control.

Other Essentials. Several other features are just about standard on "pro" cameras, as our chart indicates. The following are the most noteworthy:
· Reflex mirror lockup to ensure maximum sharpness in high magnification photography. By raising the mirror before the exposure is made, internal vibrations are reduced. Some cameras' mirror action is nearly vibration free, so these generally do not include a pre-lock facility. As well, this function is of little interest to some professional photographers: those who shoot primarily with wide angle lenses or frequently shoot sports or other moving subjects. Be-cause the mirror blacks out the viewfinder when it is raised, the photographer can no longer see the subject, making mirror lockup impractical for many situations. (The EOS-1N RS has a fixed transparent reflex mirror and the Leica M6 rangefinder does not employ a mirror; hence, neither of these models include this function.)

· Depth of field preview that enables the photographer to visually assess the zone of apparent sharpness at various f/stops. This feature is becoming common on mid-priced cameras, too. Because depth of field is a significant consideration in many types of photography, few professionals would be satisfied with a SLR that did not incorporate this function.

· A PC cord socket that allows the use of non-dedicated flash units off-camera (or attached to a studio flash system) in a non-TTL mode. Frankly, many professional photographers working outside a studio ignore this amenity because of a more recent alternative: the TTL connecting cable system available for most SLR cameras. By extending full TTL flash control (and other automation) from the camera's hot shoe to one or more dedicated flash units, off-camera flash photography becomes more effective. Nonetheless, some professionals still demand a PC cord socket so this facility is standard on all "pro" (and some other high-end) cameras.

· An all-glass prism vs. the new plastic penta-mirror assembly. The latter is made with angled mirrors to achieve the same results as a true prism, and is far lighter, more compact, and affordable. Hence it is an ideal choice for the entry-level to mid-priced cameras but the penta-prism remains standard on cameras intended for professionals and serious enthusiasts for several reasons: greater viewfinder brightness, higher percentage of area coverage, and long-term durability. In truth, the best penta-mirror systems today are excellent; they do provide a bright finder especially when coupled with a high tech Fresnel matte viewing screen.

· A full line of system accessories. Regardless of their specialties, professionals expect to find all the options they could ever need in the manufacturer's catalog. Do note however that many of these accessories also fit some of the high-end "amateur" cameras and that some manufacturers offer far more accessories than others. In any event, the following is but a brief sampling of "pro" accessories: interchangeable viewing screens designed for more convenient focusing or more effective composition; right angle finders for ground level photography; diopter correction eyepiece; various remote control accessories (cords and cordless systems); fast flash synch speeds for outdoor photography; bellows attachments, copy stands, or focusing rails for high magnification work; data backs for interval timing control and other functions.

Conclusion. Not specifically labeled as "professional" by Leica, the M6 rangefinder is a strictly manual model that includes very few of the amenities found on the SLRs in our chart. And yet, it is included because the M6 is used frequently by photojournalists, including some National Geo-graphic photographers. The reasons are obvious: simplicity of operation; extreme reliability; compact size; virtually silent operation; minimal delay during shutter release; no viewfinder blackout; ease of focusing even in low light; superb build quality; and exceptional optics.

The other cameras included in our chart are designated as "professional" by the manufacturers. I did remove a few from the list because they did not live up to the high standards set by the more recent offerings of the same brand. In truth, some professional photographers occasionally use cameras that are now obsolete (e.g., the Nikon N8008s) or models primarily intended for photo enthusiasts (e.g., the Canon EOS A2). This fact may confirm the adage "the camera does not make the photographer" but true professional equipment does offer benefits as we have seen. Use it with professional techniques, a creative eye, and an appreciation for the many problem-solving capabilities and you should expect to make excellent images for years to come.

NOTE: For a full list of specifications for these "pro" cameras and all other models, review the more comprehensive charts in the 1999 Shutterbug Photography Buyer's Guide.