The photographic divide between art and tech is a curious thing. In my experience writing about the field, I’ve found that when photographers gather to discuss the medium’s connection to technical or scientific concerns, shoptalk is ubiquitous, and chatter about gear flows from the lips. Yet when photographers are immersed in more of an arts-oriented environment, responses to questions about material tools become somewhat vague and ephemeral. Such was my challenge at the opening of this year’s Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD) Photography Show, where I surveyed attendees and exhibitors for their opinions and preferences regarding photo and tech gear. Despite some perplexed looks over the fact that I wanted to talk about tools, rather than the beautiful art on display, some enlightening trends floated to the surface.
Above photograph © Rania Matar, Ciearra, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 2018
The most intriguing response to the favorite gear question came from Brooklyn-based visual artist Anne Arden McDonald, who was exhibiting her camera-less photograms with Candela Gallery. McDonald uses light and chemistry to produce abstract images on photographic paper much in the same way a painter would create from a blank canvas. In some of her works, she employs a wide variety of flashlights to paint with light; to provide the exposure for different kinds of photograms.
The light she employs most often is the Maglite XL-200 LED Flashlight Tac Pack, which features variable outputs from 172 to 14 lumens, and a choice of beam from spot to flood, among other functions. “The ability to change the size of the beam is handy, it gives me more flexibility,” McDonald notes.
And when she needs added precision, McDonald uses the Streamlight LED Stylus Flashlight. With a maximum output of 11 Lumens, this diminutive pocket light offers the choice of either momentary or constant illumination. “The momentary option is important to me,” she says. “It gives me a consistent amount of light for an exposure with each click. At 8 to 11 Lumens, depending on battery strength, it’s a perfect amount of light for photo paper. My nickname for it is ‘snood’ as I’ve built a little hood for it.”
Aside from McDonald, most of the respondents we surveyed named a trusty camera as their favorite piece of gear. Nikon and Fujifilm were the brands mentioned most often, followed closely by Leica. Legendary music photographer Lynn Goldsmith named her trusty Nikon D5 as a favorite, while also noting, “I’m about to start working with the Nikon Z 6 mirrorless. There are lots of mirrorless cameras out there,” she adds, “but the NIKKOR lenses are what it’s all about.”
Fine art photographer Kat Kiernan, who has an extended range of influence as editor of Don’t Take Pictures magazine, and director of the Boston’s Panopticon Gallery, is partial to her Nikon D800, “But I’m looking to go smaller, and I’d like to try out something mirrorless,” she admits.
New York-based photographer Lothar Troeller has a fondness for his Nikon D800E in certain situations, but also favors a Pentax 645D. “I use the two cameras for completely different things,” he says. “My Nikon 800E is great at night, and for documentary purposes, and I use the Pentax 645D when I want to work slowly.”
Commercial photographer and conceptual artist Stefen Chow, who was visiting from Beijing, named his Nikon D850 as a favorite, as did New York-area photographer Sharon Draghi, whose image from her environmental portrait series “See Me,” was on view as part of a group exhibition in a project space organized by ASMP New York.
Stephen Perloff, publisher of the Photo Review and the Photograph Collector called his Nikon D7000, a current favorite, with the caveat that “The Leica CL mirrorless digital camera is my all-time favorite.”
The analog Leica M6 was named as a favorite tool by David Carol, photographer and co-founder of Peanut Press books, as well as photographers Susan May Tell and David Lubarsky, both featured in the ASMP New York exhibition. Says May Tell, “Without the Leica I’m not a photographer,” to which Lubarsky adds, “I would sleep with my Leica M6! But do I use it these days? Not much, as my commercial work requires using DSLRs, specifically my Nikon D4s bodies, and AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lenses.”
Photographer and photo archivist Grayson Dantzic also reveres the Leica brand, but names his FUJIFILM X100F digital camera as his favorite, saying, “It’s an everyday camera with extraordinary abilities, and it comes as close as possible to the Leica M3.”
Other FUJIFILM cameras received praise from music photographer Janette Beckman, whose current favorite is the FUJIFILM XT-2. “I love FUJIFILM cameras,” she raves. “I also have the XT-1, and recently bought the FUJIFILM XT-3 for a photo shoot in London.” Photographer / publisher Kris Graves appreciates the medium format files of the FUJIFILM GFX, while Julie Grahame of the Yousuf Karsh Archive and the aCurator blog enjoys using the FUJIFILM InStax Mini 9 Instant Film Camera (Smokey White) for celebrations. “I love the size and quality of the prints and have been able to leave behind fun photos at lots of parties,” she notes.
Three photographers from the ASMP New York exhibition are dedicated to the Canon brand. Fine art photographer Martine Fougeron and ASMP NY president Tom Donley both value the Canon 5D, while industrial photographer Stephen Mallon’s favorite piece of gear is his Canon EF-S 10-22 mm f/3.5-4.5 superwide lens.
Boston-area photographer Rania Matar, whose work from the projects She and A Girl and Her Room drew crowds to the Robert Klein gallery booth, prefers shooting with the analog camera she started with years ago, a Mamiya 7 II 6x7 format rangefinder, over digital. "I love that it slows my process down, that I don't see the images as I shoot, and that I have to put down the camera to change film every 10 photos,” she explains. “It’s like pressing a reset button every time. I also love the process of making contact sheets and discovering the work with some distance from the time the images were made. It’s another moment in my process that is almost as exciting as when the image was made."
Most Recent Purchase
New York photographer Lissa Rivera, whose series The Silence of Spaces was featured in ClampArt’s project space, gave the same answer about her favorite piece of gear and most recent purchase, noting the following about her Pentax 645Z medium format DSLR, “The tonal range of the RAW files is quite impressive. I shoot with natural light only, so it is great to be able to pull out so much detail,” she adds. “Many people assume I’m using film and artificial lighting.”
Other responses to the most recent purchase question varied widely, ranging from camera gear to computers to digital imaging accessories. Vintage analog gear proved popular with two respondents: the aforementioned Kat Keirnan, and photojournalist Erica Price, who both named the Polaroid 250 Land Camera as their most recent purchase. “It’s a poor man’s Polaroid,” Price remarked, while Kiernan explained, “I don’t see color very well, so the Polaroid is good, because I don’t have to color correct.”
After winning a coveted Guggenheim fellowship last year, Rania Matar purchased a Hasselblad Flextight X1 medium format scanner (now discontinued). She explains, “I really needed to make high-res scans of my film negatives and decided to use some of the funds from my fellowship to make this purchase. I searched all over, and was glad to find a used model at B&H.”
Several photographers recently added to their camera collection or, as David Carol notes, “I bought a Canon 6D for my son.” As a commercial photographer specializing in executive portraits, David Lubarsky likes to have a backup, so his most recent purchase was a used Nikon D4s, “Because I didn’t want to buy another Nikon D5,” he admits.
Documentarian Susan May Tell recently added to her mirrorless arsenal with the purchase of a Sony DSC-RX100 V. “It’s so convenient,” she says.
Three other respondents outfitted their favorite cameras with a recent lens purchase. Kris Graves recently purchased a FUJIFILM GF 120 mm f/4 macro lens for the favorite camera we mentioned earlier, saying, “It’s one of the sharpest lenses around, and produces excellent color and clarity.”
Industrial and fine art photographer Stephen Mallon recently purchased a Sandisk 128GB Extreme PRO UHS-II SDXC memory card to shoot video with a Panasonic Lumix GH5 that he was trying out on loan. “I’m loving this camera for video, and the interface is very similar to Canon’s,” he says. “The interface on the Sony a7R III felt too foreign when I tried it.”
Digital storage also had a significant presence as a recent purchase. Stephen Perloff, Martine Fougeron and Sharon Draghi all reinforced their data infrastructure with new hard drives. Draghi opted for an Other World Computing Mercury on the Go 1TB drive, saying “I find it fast and reliable for storing my photo files and Lightroom catalogues.” Perloff went with a Seagate 4TB Backup Plus External Hard Drive, while Fougeron invested in an Oyen Digital Mobius 5-Bay Thunderbolt™ hard drive, which she calls “a small, compact, and nicely designed unit.”
Can’t Live Without
Computer gear factored heavily as tools that photographers found indispensable to their work. Kris Graves can’t live without his Dell XPS 15 9570, with an i9 processor, saying, “I can get the peak Dell for half the price of an Apple. I’m not a Mac person,” he notes, “so it’s the same computer to me.”
Corporate portrait photographer David Lubarsky has an attachment to monitors. Since he maintains a Manhattan studio space but lives in Fairfield, Connecticut, Lubarsky’s purchase of two 24" Eizo ColorEdge monitors has changed his commuting life. “They are identically calibrated and powered by my 15" MacBook Pro,” he says. “I keep one monitor in my Flatiron District studio and one at home in Fairfield, so I can work on post-production projects from home on the days when I’m not booked for any corporate shoots, meetings, equipment prepping or studio related errands.”
Stephen Mallon can’t live without his Gitzo carbon fiber tripod. “I’m a better photographer when I have a tripod,” he says. “Using it makes me stay in one place, and I’m less neurotic about the frame.”
Julie Grahame considers her Wacom Intuos Creative Pen Tablet to be a work horse she can’t live without. “I am genuinely shocked to see photographers not use them,” she says. “I don’t really do much retouching, but I still use my tablet all day, every day. I believe it saves my forearm,” she adds, “and I find it easier than swishing my finger around on a trackpad.”
Respondents Sharon Draghi and Susan May Tell mentioned everyday carry items as tools that are indispensable to their life and work. Draghi is never without a Sandisk 32GB Flash Drive. “I store jpegs on it, which was indispensable when I was in photo school,” she says.
May Tell always carries three extra camera batteries and an extra SanDisk Extreme PRO 64GB memory card when shooting with her Sony RX100 V. “There are memory cards with greater capacity, which would be cheaper than buying two of the smaller capacity,” she points out. “But I am a firm believer in not putting all my eggs in one basket. Although it’s never happened, it could happen that a card goes bad, and I would never forgive myself to have all my images on that card. Having spare batteries and memory cards is liberating,” she adds, “knowing I can photograph anything I want for as long as I want, because my tools are there to support me.”
When it comes to support, Grayson Dantzic had nothing but praise for what he referred to as his most valuable purchase, “The SquareTrade Protection Plan I purchased with my camera. There was a problem with the camera, and I was able to get it repaired at no cost to me,” he states.
Regarding choice of a mobile phone, the AIPAD attendees I spoke with had a definite preference for the iPhone over other brands. Out of the 22 people I spoke with, 17 were current iPhone users. While only one respondent still used the iPhone 5s, there was a fairly even split among newer models. Four respondents still carry an iPhone 6 or 6s, two prefer the smaller form factor of the iPhone SE, two use the iPhone 7 or 7s, three use the iPhone 8, and five use the phone’s most recent iteration, iPhone X.
Three respondents opt to carry Samsung Galaxy 8, 9 or ST smartphones, and one respondent, Lothar Troeller, recently switched from a Samsung to a Huawei. He notes, “I got a special deal on it at B&H, which was a lot cheaper than my Samsung, unlocked and with no contract.”
The other mobile phone brand that sparked some attention is the Google Pixel. Kris Graves recently switched to the Pixel 3 64GB smartphone from an older Samsung Note 8 64GB. “I’ve only had it for two weeks,” he says, “but it’s smaller, less expensive and it has a better camera.”
And, while Stephen Mallon currently has an iPhone 6S, he’s debating about whether to switch to the Pixel. “My email and calendar both run off Google, and I also use Google Docs,” he says. So, I no longer have an allegiance to Apple.”