A few days ago, Goodies Issue 11 was published. I’ve been a fan of this magazine for a while. I first became aware of Goodies when they started shooting a few models that I’ve worked with. As stuff about Goodies started showing up in my feed, I couldn’t help but notice that their photography was stunning. I bought a couple of issues and was further impressed by the quality of the printed magazine. I mean, it’s just beautiful; it’s thick, high quality, beautifully designed, and filled with gorgeous nude photography and interesting articles.
What it doesn’t have, though, is ads.
I try to promote models I’ve worked with when I have an opportunity. So, when I noticed Goodies had shot Becca and Soukey, I started promoting the magazine on my social media accounts. At some point, I guess the Goodies people noticed, and that led to some conversations with Alen, their ridiculously talented head photographer. Over time, those conversations led to discussions with the rest of the Goodies team, and those conversations eventually resulted in me getting an incredible opportunity: to shoot a pictorial for Issue 11.
They gave me a lot of freedom when it came to choosing a model, location, and theme, though I obviously had to work within certain parameters to keep with the magazine’s look and feel. There were a whole bunch of models who came to mind for the shoot, but I had to rule many out for various reasons. Working with the editor and creative director, I eventually whittled the list down to just two names: Lia and Zöe.
Since I had last worked with her, Lia had moved down to Los Angeles, so that actually left me, in reality, with a list of just one. I had been wanting to work with Zöe again ever since I first shot with her about a year earlier, so I was super excited with how it worked out. After some more discussions with the editorial team, I set up a shoot with Zoe.
We shot on April 25, 2022 in a treehouse, of all places. The shoot went great… and then I spent the next five months anxiously awaiting publication of the issue*. And now it’s… finally… out!
Goodies is based out of Orange County (just South of LA), and in a happy set of circumstances, I introduced Lia to Alen, and that led to both Lia and Zöe being featured in Issue 11.
I’m still a little bit in shock that such an amazing magazine chose to publish my work. Check the issue out. I think you’ll be as impressed with Goodies as I am.
Note: There are actually two Zöes in Issue 11. I shot the one with no last name listed.
* As I’m writing this, I still haven’t actually seen the issue. My copy should be here any day. 🤞
Last night, I took down my old site and redirected https://lamarche.photography to point here. I soft-launched this new website several weeks back, and everything seems to be working pretty well. I’ve made multiple sales on the store with no major hiccups, and I spent some time increasing the security of the site after noticing a bunch of failed attempts to log in as me. I feel pretty good about where this site is now, so it seemed like the right time to launch.
I’ll be working over the next few months to bring more and more of my photo archives into downloadable image packs and finding more shots to sell as prints. I’m also going to be on the lookout for new, affordable merchandise I can offer.
I’m also starting to plan some new shoots, so I’ll hopefully have some brand new content to post before too long. Plus, around the end of the month, I should finally be able to show you some pictures from that shoot in April and explain why I couldn’t share them earlier.
Thanks so much for checking out the new site. I’m always open to feedback and suggestions for new content and can’t wait to bring you more of my work!
In my original outline for this series of posts, I had intended to dive right into talking about light and lighting equipment and then finding models. After some recent conversations with some other photographers, I realized there’s another subject I want to tackle first, which are some of the the mental challenges around doing creative photography.
Anyone Can Shoot
Photography is at an interesting place right now. For most of the time that it has existed, there has been a huge difference in quality between the pictures that a professional photographer could take, and what most people using consumer equipment could take. The combination of knowledge and experience combined with much more sophisticated equipment meant there was a huge value in hiring a professional for most types of photography. Film was far less forgiving than modern digital cameras, and there was plenty of work for photographers with some domain knowledge, good equipment, and a decent eye.
It’s actually still true that there’s a difference in quality between the images an experienced photographer with professional gear can produce and the images an amateur using consumer gear can create, but it’s far less of a difference than it once was. That, combined with the just massive amount of pictures being taken and posted to social media has led to a de-valuing of technical photography skills. And that’s not actually a bad thing, unless you want to gatekeep. Also, please don’t.
Our reality today is that anyone with a relatively recent mobile phone can capture good quality images (and movies), and they can do it by just taking their phone out, pointing it at something, and tapping a button. The most sophisticated phones even give good results in ridiculously bad lighting situations that would have been virtually impossible to shoot in the film days, and even the editing tools on phones have gotten fairly sophisticated. The built-in editing tools on today’s phones can do a lot more than early version of Photoshop could.
Are the photographs taken today by an experienced photographer with professional gear better than a phone shot of the same thing taken by an amateur? Most of the time, probably. But for many people, for many types of photographs, they won’t be enough better to justify the expense of hiring a photographer. As sensor technology and computational photography algorithms continue to get better, the difference will only shrink.
That means, as a photographer, technical skills are less valuable than they’ve ever been, and if you want to establish yourself, you need to focus on more than that. Nobody cares if you know what the inverse square property of light is or how an ƒ-stop is calculated. They care that your pictures stand out.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn the technical skills. It just means that they’re no longer enough. Honestly, some of the most memorable and exciting pictures I’ve seen recently, were created by people who probably have far less technical knowledge about photography than I do, but they know enough to create their vision and in doing so, they produce images that stand out from the constant stream of photos that barrage us on social media.
With many types of art, it’s easy to see when you’re making progress. You can look at a recent piece you’ve created and compare it to one you created in the past, and see your progress. Because computers today remove so much of the mental overhead of getting a properly exposed image, even brand new photographer can get really great photos. The difference between an experienced photographer and an amateur one isn’t so much the quality of any individual photograph as it is their consistency and the percentage of their shots that are good.
Even in my earliest shoots — some of which, I readily admit were not great — there are good shots. My more recent shoots have a much higher percentage of good shots and the good shots are overall better. But… comparing the best shot from a shoot five years ago to the best shot from my most recent shoot doesn’t give a true measure of my improvement over the years. When I look at all the raw images from both shoots, it becomes much clearer to me that I actually have made tremendous progress. That’s easy to miss that when you’re only looking at individual photos.
The technical aspects of photography are fairly easy to judge. Even an inexperienced eye can see when a photo is not properly exposed, has a color cast, or is out of focus. The problem is, sometimes technical aspects need to take a back seat to what you’re trying to achieve. You might, for example, miss focus or overexpose intentionally to say something, or color grade to evoke a specific emotional response. You also might do one of those things just because you think it looks good, without any particular reason or justification.
And then there’s what Bob Ross called the “happy accidents” – where you got something wrong unintentionally, but it looks good or better communicates what you were trying to say than it would have without that mistake. Nobody else knows it wasn’t intentional, but you sure do, and that will color your opinion of it.
This inherent subjectivity can make it hard to be confident in your work, but without confidence, it’s easy to lose motivation and without motivation, you’ll shoot less and improve more slowly.
One of the oddest phenomena when it comes to judging your own work is that your perception of it changes over time. There are two basic reasons for this:
As you shoot and edit more images, your eye improves, and you become a harsher critic of your own work. Often, your eye improves faster than your skill as a photographer, which can make it feel like you’re not improving, or even getting worse, at times.
As more time passes, your memories of the actual shoot and your interactions with the model fade, and they color your perception of the images less, meaning you’re able to view them more objectively.
I’m always excited to share images after a shoot and often post at least one image the day of the shoot. But honestly, one of the best things I do (sometimes) is to sit on the images for a while. I feel like my judgment becomes clearer after some time has passed, and I’m better able to evaluate whether the images are good or not.
In software development and other similar technical disciplines, you’ll often hear about something called “imposter syndrome”, which is where someone doubts their own ability or even feels like a fraud because they perceive that others around them are better, smarter, and struggle less than they do with the complex tasks those jobs require. It’s usually not true, but it is something a lot of people feel when working in those fields.
In all honesty, I’ve struggled more with imposter syndrome with my photography than I have with technical disciplines because of the inherent subjectivity. There are no benchmarks or tests you can run to tell you that an image is good. Often the images I like the best are less popular on social media than ones I think are only so-so. When somebody says something nice about one of my images, I sometimes have trouble accepting that it’s offered sincerely because I often feel like my images don’t live up to their compliment.
Given how hard it is to judge your work, how do you stay motivated when you start doubting yourself? First of all, some amount of self-doubt and self-criticism is valuable. You need to learn to see things in your images that can be improved if you’re going to improve as photographer. Overconfidence and arrogance can be just as big of a problem as being too hard on yourself. There’s no silver bullet here, but there are some things you can do when you start doubting yourself.
Avoid Black and White Thinking
First, realize that something can be good — even great — yet still have room for improvement. Just because your composition can be improved, doesn’t mean you composed the image badly. Just because your lighting can be improved, doesn’t mean your lighting is bad. This is true for all aspects of photography.
If you can’t get out of the trap of thinking that your images are either great, or else they’re trash, you’re really going to struggle. You need to embrace the fact that not only is image quality a spectrum, it’s a different spectrum for each viewer. Almost nobody will judge your image the same way you do. Nobody else knows what went into creating it. Nobody else knows the challenges you faced. Nobody else knows what you were trying to say unless you tell them, and often you won’t have a chance to tell them (and they might not listen even if you do).
Do it Because You Enjoy it
With any creative pursuit, if you don’t love the act of creation, it will significantly limit your ability to improve. You need to love photography, not the idea of being a photographer or the adoration of followers. If there’s any one factor I could point to that can predict whether somebody will become a really good photographer, it’s whether they love planning shoots, shooting, and editing their images more than they love the serotonin hit from getting likes and compliments on social media.
I know this one seems obvious, but it requires some serious self-honesty. Kudos and compliments from others are nice, but they’re not going to be enough to stay motivated if you don’t truly love both the creative process and the images you create. With model photography, that also means you need to love interacting with your models.
And by “interacting”, I don’t mean “being in the same room as them when they’re naked”. Who doesn’t enjoy being in a room with a naked person they find attractive? I certainly do. But, if that’s the primary (or only) thing you love about photography, you’re destined for mediocrity. At best, and there are better, cheaper ways to do that.
Honestly, one of my biggest red flags when it comes to other photographers (and I see it more often than I’d like), is when I hear photographer’s bad-mouth models, or make comments like “you know how models are”. I do know how models are. They’re creative, interesting, amazing, often unconventional people who enrich my life. They’re a large part of why I keep doing this. They’re people who enable what I do and contribute to the creative process. They’re also individuals with feelings and other stresses and priorities in their lives besides shooting with me. Don’t stereotype the models you work with. View them as fully-fledged individuals. Treat them as equals in the creative process. Interact with them respectfully, and think hard before you say anything negative about a model to another model or another photographer.
Find Your People
As you develop a following on social media, it’s likely that most people you’re reaching after a while won’t be photographers and models. This is especially true if you’re shooting nude or erotic images. Followers are awesome, but you also need to surround yourself with photographers, models, and other types of creative people, preferably ones who encourage you and help you get better. Those are the people who understand your struggles. Those are the people who can help you when you’re stuck or who can offer a second opinion when you don’t trust your own.
On the other side of that, you should also give back by being that positive peer that helps other photographers — especially less experienced ones — reach their potential. Think about criticism before you say it. Don’t only focus on the negative. Phrase things so they don’t sound like an insult. Help others see the good things in their work as well as the things that can be improved. Encourage them and like their posts even if you see obvious problems with them, because at some point, those problems might not have been obvious to you.
Offer criticism using private channels if you can, and only if you know they want it. Offer compliments on public channels. Help people feel good about what they’re doing, because nobody benefits when we chase people away from the things we love. Many of us have a tendency to view everything as a competition, but you shouldn’t treat photography or other creative pursuits that way. Another photographer can be amazing and that’s completely orthogonal to your abilities. You can both be great and you can both help each other be better if you’re not focused on being “better” than them.
If you can find an in-person meetup group to join or find some local photographers to hang out with occasionally, consider doing it. Having peers both in real life and online can be tremendously helpful.
Ignore the Hate
For all the good things about social media, there are downsides to it. One of those, is that there are people who seem to get off from insulting or hating other people’s creative output. I’ve never understood why people do this, but it’s an undeniable fact of the internet. It even has a name: the online disinhibition effect, also known as the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.
As soon as your following on a social media platform goes much beyond your friends, family, and peers, you will inevitably get negative comments from these internet fuckwads. Rarely, these comments are useful critiques just phrased badly or insensitively, but more often than not, they’re made only to put you down and make the fuckwad feel better about themselves.
You will be tempted to respond to defend yourself and to “set the record straight”. That’s usually the worst possible idea. The more you interact with a troll, the more engagement you create, and the more people who will see their negative comments. Doing so also gives them a chance to make more disparaging comments as they respond to your comments. Those type of people almost will almost always try and get the last word in, creating a downward spiral for you.
Arguing with someone who’s not arguing in good faith is always a bad idea. Delete the comment, block the follower, and move on with your life. Spend your online time interacting with people who value you and your work, not with those who delight in knocking you down.
I’m making this sound easy. It most certainly is not. There are few feelings worse than somebody delightfully shitting on something you invested time, energy, and passion into creating. The most effective troll comments feel like a gut punch and it’s hard not to let them get to you.
As I stated near the beginning of the article, there are no silver bullets. The human brain is complex and not alway as rational as we like to think. You will doubt yourself. Others may too. You will get frustrated. You might, at times, convince yourself that you’re not good. You will, at least, feel like you’re not getting better fast enough sometimes.
Try and remind yourself that it’s a process, and remember that you enjoy the process. Creating is what’s important. The output is a bonus. Take breaks if you need to. If you get overwhelmed, get offline and put your camera away for a week. You won’t forget anything in that time, and the internet won’t forget you.
And don’t expect too much of yourself. Really finding your creative voice and mastering the technical skills of photography both take time.
Let’s talk about a somewhat obscure bit of US Law that you might not be familiar with, but if you’re involved with creating any kind of NSFW content, you should be very aware of it. It’s a law that establishes recordkeeping requirements for creators of adult content. It was designed (in theory) to prevent sexual imagery of children from getting produced or sold.
The law is called the “Child Protection and Obscenity Enforcement Act”, 18 USC §2257 and dates back to the 1980s. Like many US Laws, the law itself is actually pretty vague; Congress left it up to the executive branch to promulgate detailed regulations to actually implement the law. This is a common approach to certain types of legislation because the executive branch can move more quickly and respond to changing circumstances faster than Congress can (though, in this case, they haven’t). The implementing regulations for 18 USC §2257 can be found at 28 CFR Part 75.
This law—though at least partially well-intentioned—is deeply problematic for a number of reasons and—as I’ll discuss—it may be impossible for many content creators to fully comply with the law at all, or at least without sacrificing their personal safety.
Important: Since I’m discussing legal stuff here, I need to point out that I am not your attorney, I am no longer a practicing lawyer at all, and the information in this article should not be treated as legal advice. If you are a content creator concerned about your liability under the laws I’m discussing, I would suggest talking with an Attorney. If you can’t afford one, consider reaching out to your local Legal Aid Society.
If you’re creating “visual depictions of actual sexually explicit content” in the US (or plan to distribute such works to the US), this law creates certain documentation requirements you must follow. Failing to comply with these requirements can result in a fine and up to five years of prison time per violation and up to 10 years (with a minimum of 2) if you’ve been previously convicted under the same law. Those penalties apply per published image for which you don’t have the required documentation, so the stakes are high here.
Now, you might be thinking, “I don’t shoot sexually explicit content, just nudes, so I’m okay”, but “actual sexually explicit content” is a term of art defined by the law and it doesn’t mean what a rational reader might assume it means. You can be on the hook even if you’re shooting content that’s not actually sexually explicit.
Isn’t legal terminology great? 🙄
In photography forums and on social media, you’ll sometimes encounter people claiming that 18 USC §2257 has been ruled unconstitutional and does not need to be followed any more. That is absolutely not the case. One Circuit Court of Appeals did rule the recordkeeping requirements unconstitutional, but in an en banc re-hearing, that decision was reversed, and the case was never granted certiorari by the Supreme Court, meaning the statute, under current law, should be considered valid and enforceable. Until or unless one of these challenges makes it all the way to the Supreme Court and is successful, you would be foolish to disregard the record-keeping requirements unless you’re ready and willing to be a legal test case.
When You Need to Follow USC §2257
Technically speaking, you don’t need to follow the §2257 record-keeping requirements for straightforward art or figure nude shoots. Non-sexual nudity is constitutionally protected speech and 18 USC §2257 never even actually mentions the word “nudity”. That being said, some photographers choose to create the required records even for straightforward, non-sexual nude images just to be safe.
So when is §2257 actually required?
When you’re creating depictions of “actually sexually explicit content”, which is defined in 18 USC §2256, as follows:
sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex;
sadistic or masochistic abuse; or
lascivious exhibition of the anus, genitals, or pubic area of any person;
Now, at first glance, this seems pretty straightforward. It is not.
For starters, there’s a contradiction between §2256 and §2257 (which incorporates 2256 by reference). §2256 says “actual or simulated”, but §2257 specifies “actual sexually explicit”. This means the status of simulated sexual activity is unclear.
Unfortunately, the enabling regulations double-down on the inclusion of simulated content by including the following paragraph:
(o)Simulated sexually explicit conduct means conduct engaged in by performers that is depicted in a manner that would cause a reasonable viewer to believe that the performers engaged in actual sexually explicit conduct, even if they did not in fact do so. It does not mean sexually explicit conduct that is merely suggested.
So, basically, if you simulate it believably enough, it’s covered.
Let’s go back to the specific acts outlined above, #1 and #3 are pretty much what you would expect when you hear the term “sexually explicit”. If you’re photographing people having sex or masturbating, you need to follow the §2257 requirements. No surprise there, but there is a bit of nuance you might have missed. The definitions do not require penetration, only “contact”¹.
I’ll skip #2. Bestiality is illegal in every state except Wyoming, New Mexico, and West Virginia and really doesn’t warrant further discussion. I hope.
The last two items on the list are not so straightforward.
Sadistic or Masochistic Abuse
“Sadistic or masochistic abuse” is an extremely vague description. A plain-language interpretation would seem to indicate that even fully clothed bondage-themed shoots require keeping §2257 records. If your shoot will include any BDSM or S&M content, it’s probably worth your time to create the records, though I suspect light or fully clothed bondage images are unlikely to ever result in prosecution. If you’re creating more explicit BDSM imagery, you should create the records to be safe.
Lascivious Exhibition Clause
Finally, we have the “lascivious exhibition” clause that extends the documentation requirements to any imagery featuring “lascivious exhibition of the anus, genitals, or pubic area”. This is the part of the law that really throws a monkey wrench into everything. We know that nudity in art, in and of itself, is Constitutionally protected expression, but at what point, does nudity become “lascivious”, and does “lasciviousness” actually cause its Constitutional protections to disappear²?
The OED definition of lascivious is “feeling or revealing an overt sexual interest or desire”, which doesn’t provide any clarity at all, because it describes a wholly subjective thing. The inclusion of “pubic area” in addition to genitals and anus means images don’t even need to be that explicit for this clause to apply. Arguably, an image of a model suggestively pulling down their bikini bottom to reveal nothing more than a bit of their upper mons pubis, could be interpreted as a “lascivious exhibition” of “the pubic area”. It probably wouldn’t be, but it could the way the law is written (though that interpretation would almost certainly give grounds for a Constitutional challenge).
The huge gray area created by this clause is why many photographers and content creators opt to follow §2257 even when shooting non-sexual nudity. It’s not that hard to imagine why someone might prefer filling out a little extra paperwork to facing potential jail time in a federal penitentiary.
I wish I could give you more concrete guidance about where the line of lascivity is, but the law is vague and the meaning has never been clarified by an appeals court as ar as I can tell.
Up until recently, I would have argued that it’s highly likely that the entire “lascivious exhibition” clause would fail a Constitutional challenge. Unfortunately, we now have an extremely conservative and ideologically-driven Supreme Court, and I don’t have any confidence that they would respect precedent (or even rule rationally) on this issue.
If I had to guess how this would be interpreted, it almost certaintly applies to close-up images of genitals, especially images that include an erect penis, a vagina with labia spread or pulled apart, or of the anus with butt cheeks pulled apart. It’s not impossible, however, that much tamer depictions, such as Hustler-style open-leg nudes, or even less explicit types of nudes where genitals are visible could fall under this vague clause.
When in doubt, it’s safer to comply… if you can.
Roles Under §2257
Before we get into how to comply with this law, let’s talk about the “roles” that come into play, because the requirements under the law apply to people based on their role or roles relative to the shoot:
Producer: The person paying to create the images and who is legally responsible for making sure the record-keeping requirements are met.
Talent (or sometimes Model or Actor): This is any person who will appear on camera during scenes containing “actually sexually explicit” conduct. All talent must provide government-issued photo identification that is not expired and shows that they are at least eighteen years old. The way it’s worded, this requirement applies even if they are not directly involved in sexually explicit activity.
Document Checker: This is the person who inspects the talent’s identification to ensure they are a legal adult, that the identification is not expired, and has not been been tampered with or altered.
Crew / Photographer / Director: The people behind the camera involved with the technical details of actually producing the images or video.
Custodian of Record: The person, designated by the Producer, who is responsible for keeping the records and making them available to the Attorney General if they are requested.
In many cases, the photographer or content creator will also be the Document Checker, the Custodian of Record, and the Producer. On larger productions, these roles are more often filled by several different people. A Producer, for example, might hire a photographer and/or video crew, and designate their attorney or an employee to be the Custodian of Records. A photographer’s assistant or production assistant will often be responsible for checking and taking a copy of the identification documents.
Complying with §2257
The records that you MUST keep to be compliant with §2257 are:
An unsworn statement³ under penalty of perjury signed by all on-screen talent that declares the following:
they are over the age of 18
they have disclosed their full and correct legal name
they have disclosed all other names that they have ever been known by
they have produced a legal form of government identification
they have not provided any false or misleading information
each of the identification documents they provided were lawfully obtained by them and have not been forged or altered
A copy of the identification documents the model provided, including at least one that is government-issued, unexpired, and contains a photograph. The copy may be digital, photographic, or photostatic.
You can download an empty form for creating the unsworn statement here.
These documents should be kept separate and apart from your model release and any other contracts or agreements. 18 USC §2257 gives the U.S. Attorney General the right to access these documents without a warrant, so it’s best to keep them separate from your other business records; combining them means that the government must be granted access to the entirety of the combined documents upon request and without a warrant.
In addition, if the document checker and custodian of records are not the same person, it’s a good idea to have your document checker create an unsworn statement under penalty of perjury or affidavit stating that they personally checked the identification, the model was of legal age, and there were no signs of tampering or alteration of the documents they checked. This is not required by §2257, but if at some point in the future, the document checker can’t be reached, having that document will mean you can still provide admissible proof that the ID verification happened and was compliant with the law.
The final requirement under §2257 is that when the producer publishes the “actual sexually explicit” material, they must “affix” a statement “to every copy” that identifies who the Custodian of Record is, including a street address which can’t be a post office box. If you’ve ever watched any professionally produced porn created in the last thirty years, you’ve probably noticed the wall of legal text at the beginning or end.
Publishing to Social Media
Compliance with §2257 is tricky if you’re primarily publishing to social media or other websites that you don’t fully control. The law was designed back in the days of porn primarily being produced and sold on physical media through traditional distribution channels. The regulations had their last substantive update in the early days of the web before social media took off. As a result, it’s nearly impossible to comply with the letter of the law when posting to social media because the regulations require that “every copy” have the Custodian of Records information “affixed” to it. Good luck fitting all that into 240 characters.
Additionally, the requirement that a physical address be provided for the Custodian of Records is problematic for small and individual creators who don’t have a separate business address or an attorney. This is especially true for women creators, many of whom already receive a lot of hateful and inappropriate messages simply because they choose to publish images of themselves online. For most content creators, including their physical address on their content would mean putting their physical safety in jeopardy, which is an unfair thing for the law to require.
Applicability to Self-Published Content
18 USC §2257 was written back in the 1980s in response to a handful of specific, high-profile situations, including the career of then-underage porn star Traci Lords⁴. The law was also written in an age when porn was distributed on physical media like VCR tape and distribution was handled by a small number of increasingly large production and distribution companies. It’s very obvious that none of the people involved with drafting this law were imagining a day when millions of people would be self-publishing adult content on a daily basis.
Although the enabling regulations were significantly revised and clarified in 1995, they have been largely unchanged since then other than small clarifications in 2005 and 2008. There have been zero substantive changes to the regulations since the advent of OnlyFans or Twitter, and the regulations, as written, are impractical or impossible for most small-scale content producers who distribute through social media to comply with.
So, where does that leave the individual content creator distributing images and videos online? In a bit of a pickle, honestly.
It is virtually impossible to comply with the regulations if you’re self-publishing explicit content either using a site like OnlyFans, or on forms of social media that allow explicit content like Twitter, Mastodon, or PixelFed (a federated Instagram-clone that allows nudity and explicit content).
As an individual content creator publishing images of just yourself, you are technically a “Producer” under this law, but there’s a weird catch-22 at play, in that if you are actually underage, you’d be tried as a minor. Also, checking your own ID and signing your own unsworn statement seems kinda silly since you know your age and it’s relatively trivial for you to prove it if it ever becomes an issue. This is clearly not the situation the law was intending to address and I would hope that a federal prosecutor wouldn’t ever bother going after an individual content creator for posting images of themselves… but they would appear to have the authority to do so if they wished.
Where things get even more problematic is if you’re collaborating with other content-creators. In those situations, you definitely are a “Producer” under this law and technically are on the hook for the required documentation.
The Current State of Things
In short, the situation sucks. The law was designed to create accountability under a publishing model that largely doesn’t exist any more and the regulations haven’t been updated to reflect the modern reality of the home-grown porn creation. For many content creators, the law can’t actually be complied with when publishing to the most common platforms because the wording of the regulations is hopelessly out of date.
The good news is, there are so many individual content creators now that it’s very unlikely that federal prosecutors would waste their limited resources going after them except in truly egregious situations. “Unlikely” is not “impossible”, though, and even outside of §2257, publishing content that includes underage people is a very serious offense that can be prosecuted either Federally or at the state level and can potentially result in having to register as a sex offender… even if you had a good faith belief that all the people involved were adults.
Even though you may not be able to fully comply the letter of the law, at very least you do need to be making absolutely sure that everybody involved is a legal adult and keeping records that proves it.
Until and unless the implementing regulations are revised, individual adult content creators are in a bit of a no-win situation and the only saving grace is that there are so many adult content creators now that the chances of any individual creator being asked for documentation or charged under this law is pretty miniscule.
Curiously, #1 does not specifically list hand-genital contact, meaning one reasonable intepretation is that even though someone touching their own genitals is specifically covered because of #3, touching somebody else’s genitals is not covered by the law at all. I would not expect that interpretation to be very successful in court, however.
Technically speaking, a work must be “obscene”, not just “lascivious”, for it to lose First Amendment protection. However, since this law just requires records to be kept and does not actually prohibit production of the images, there may not be a Constitutional issue as a result.
An “unsworn statement” or “unsworn declaration” is a legal document similar, in some ways, to an affidavit, but is not made under oath. The document also doesn’t have have to be notarized or witnessed, but it is still made under penalty of perjury, which means that it is a crime to lie on it. These declarations are admissable as evidence in court in certain situations, such as when they are required by law or regulation, as is the case here, or when the person who made the declaration has died or is otherwise unavailable to appear in court.
The ironic, but not unusual thing, is that this law would not have prevented the Traci Lords situation at all. She had convincing fake ID which was checked by several of the production companies that hired her. In the Traci Lords situation, all this law would have done is provide legal cover for the big porn production companies as long as they had documented the fact that they did, in fact, check her ID, but it would have done absolutely nothing to stop her underage porn from being produced in the first place.
A few decades back, I worked in magazine production. That was back when digital tools were just starting to displace traditional paste-up techniques. Even though digital tools were shaking up the publishing industry, much of the process back then was still using old technology. You’d run film, and then make plates from the film, and then go do a press check before they started printing to make sure everything looked right. Even if you calibrated your monitors, it often took a few tries to get everything looking right.
Digital presses were just starting to become a thing when I was in that field, but back then, they were basically glorified laser printers. There were better technologies being developed, but they weren’t widely available yet and the on-demand technology tht was widely available just couldn’t match the quality or finish of traditional printing. Unfortunately, traditional printing methods have a significant up-front cost, which meant it usually wasn’t practical for small print runs, let alone individual one-offs.
Given that my knowledge of the field was was more than two decades out of date, I assumed that on-demand printing had become cheaper and higher quality, but I just didn’t know.
I have a few projects rattling around the old brain that are only practical if on-demand printing has achieved the same level of quality as traditional offset printing, so I threw together a 48-page “magazine” using a bunch of my outdoor nude images and printed it using Blurb to see where things are.
It arrived today.
The first impression from the packaging was very positive. The custom cardboard sleeve kept the magazine in great shape. The turnaround was also quick: This arrived exactly one week after I ordered it, and less than two weeks from when I decided to create it.
I have no plans to sell this, but if I were going to, I’d only have to make a few minor tweaks to a handful of images. Probably not more than five of them need adjustments, and those only need very minor tweaks… which is kind of crazy to me, since I’m comparing it to press-checks I would go to back in the 90s. Despite always sending out to service bureaus for proofs multiple times, we almost always had to re-do at least a few of the plates.
To have the images be so close to what was on my screen with so little work is just mind blowing to me.
It’s amazing to me that one person spending a few hours on a couple of evenings can produce something of this quality. My cost to produce this, including shipping, was about ten bucks. The quality of the paper and the printing are excellent. The only issues are things I could easily fix by tweaking my images or my Affinity Publisher file.
Here’s a short video where I flip through the pages.
I posted this picture of Rose to social media recently and got a few questions about how it was accomplished. This seemed like a better venue to discuss it than trying to cover it using a bunch of tweets or Instagram posts.
The reflection in the shot is provided by highly reflective mylar foil designed for grow-houses and hydroponics. I taped it down on the floor in front of the model. There are many options for doing reflections, including plexiglass, water, and actual mirrors, but I didn’t want a perfect reflection. The flexible mylar provided exactly the amount of softness and subtle distortion I was looking for without the potential mess or problems of using water in the studio.
This is what the studio looked like when we were shooting:
The overhead softbox is the key light in this setup. I metered it for ISO 200 at ƒ8 then underexposed slightly by shooting at ƒ9. The strip lights shine on the model from behind and provide separation from the background and were also metered at ƒ8. There’s a fourth light in this setup that isn’t visible in the shot above.
The fourth was a gelled strobe with a 5″ zoom reflector that I pointed down at the foil, angled so it threw blue water-like caustic reflections onto the model. You can see those reflections on the model’s torso, left arm, and right leg.
Most of this shot was achieved in-camera, but I did do a little bit of post work to get to the final image. The strip lights and their reflections were in-frame, so I Photoshopped those out to give myself some breathing room around the model. I didn’t want to crop in too tightly, but also didn’t want the strip lights in the shot.
There was also a slightly noticeable seam where the two pieces of foil came together, which I removed in Photoshop, and I cropped it in just a little bit to bring it to a 4:5 aspect ratio. Here’s what the image looked like coming out of the camera.
I’ve long been fascinated by the pin-up calendars from the 1950s and 1960s. For reasons I don’t pretend to understand, they were one of the only socially tolerated — if not exactly socially acceptable — outlets for nude imagery in the US at that time. The most famous calendar girl model, of course, was Marilyn Monroe, who had posed for one of the calendar companies before she became famous.
Here are some examples of calendars from that era:
Calendar companies would custom print a company’s name and information on calendars that they could give away as promotional items. Most of the companies had a substantial catalog of images to choose from, with both nude and non-nude images. There were also many styles, but the most popular featured a single image with tear-off calendar sheets at the bottom. The popularity was probably due to the fact that it would have been fairly cheap to produce.
There were even some companies that produced nude calendars that came with an acetate sheet on them with a drawn-on bathing suit that could then be peeled off to reveal the nude image beneath. I assume this was to get around some kind of censorship law or to make the calendars more socially acceptable when delivered. I suppose it could have also added to the percieved naughtiness of the calendar, though.
Recently, I decided it would be fun to do an homage to the calendars from this era. I’m not sure why the idea took me all of a sudden. A week into the new year is really not the ideal time for starting a calendar project, but… once it occurred to me, it just seemed like a good quarantine project.
My original thought was to set up a shoot specifically to create images in the style of some of the old calendars, but almost on accident, I stumbled across a series of photos in my library that already had the right feel:
Other than her tattoos, this shot of Juno could easily be from the 1950s or 1960s. The pose, her haircut, everything felt pretty on the nose with almost a Bunny Yeager feel to it. This was a perfect picture for prototyping the idea and saved me the expense of setting up a new shoot, at least for now.
Designing the Calendar
I didn’t want to exactly mimic any of the existing calendars, but rather create a modern calendar reminiscent of and inspired by those older ones. My main inspirations for the calendar portion were the Walt’s 505 Club and Denver Supply Company, Inc. calendars in the gallery above. I opted not to use the graphics honoring historical figures, though, and stick with just numbers to keep them less cluttered feeling.
I worked in Affinity Publisher to create my first design prototype. For this first version, there were no tear-off sheets and it was intended to simply show what the final calendar would look like.
For the calendar numbers and month names, I used Bodoni 72, which appears to be what the the Walt’s 505 Club calendar uses. For the rest of the text, I opted for Helvetica Neue. It’s anachronistic, since that font didn’t exist until the early 1980s, but I tried both Helvetica and Helvetica Neue and just thought it looked better with Helvetia Neue. As I said earlier, I’m not trying to exactly replicate those historical calendars.
The calendars from that era I’ve found come in a few different sizes. The most common size for the tear-off style of calendar seems to be 12″ x 19″, which works out well, because my photo printer maxes out at 13″ x 19″ borderless. That means I can print full page and then just trim a half inch off of each side.
I went with a two month calendar layout and played around with a lot of different design and font options until I landed on this, which feels sufficiently reminiscient of classic pinup calendars for me.
The one common element of the original calendars that I’m missing is the promotional text. I tried a few options, but I just like the simplicity of not having it. I also don’t have anything I really need to promote right now. While I do occasionally take paying gigs, photography is mostly a creative outlet for me and not something I’m trying to make a living off at the moment.
From Prototype to Calendar
Once I was happy with the design, the next step was to actually turn it into a physical calendar with tear-off sheets. I removed the calendar content from my digital prototype, and turned it into the calendar backboard. I replaced the calendar with a little promotional text. This text will never be visible unless somebody rips off the last month, but if they do, they’ll know how to contact me to find out if I’m doing another calendar for next year.
I moved the calendar content to a separate 4″ x 12″ document and then laid out all the months of 2021. I included all US federal holidays (in red), as well as many other major holidays. Space in this format is tight, so I couldn’t include every holiday, but I tried to include the major ones from the major religions. I did boot Columbus Day in favor of Indigeneous Peoples’ Day (they’re the same day), because I only had room for one and, well… fuck Columbus.
Unfortunately, the decision to go with a two-up layout means I can’t print them on normal letter size paper and had to order a ream of legal size paper for the project.
Laying out a calendar is a surprisingly tedious task. 😬
Once all the digital files were created and proofed, it was time to create the first calender to see if it works. There’s two parts here: the backboard, which I printed on my photo printer, and the calendar sheets, which I printed on my color laser printer.
Printing the Backboard
For the first calendar, I went with the best paper stock I had handy: Canon Platinum Pro N (Glossy). This is shinier and higher quality than the historical calendars that inspired the project, but will result in a nice image. I might order a matte or satin paper if I decide to make more, but this works and looks pretty good.
Printing the Calendar Pages
The individual calendar sheets are printed on a premium legal-sized office paper on a color laser printer. There are six pages total (two months per page). These will be cut out and stapled to the backboard to create the calendar.
Trimming the Calendar Pages
Unfortunately, I don’t have a guillotine cutter, so I used the best thing do I have: a Dahl professional heavy duty rotary cutter. It generally worked well, but was tough to be as precise as I needed while keeping the pages together.
Trimming the Back Board
I also used the Dahl to cut the backer board. That was an easier cut, since I didn’t have to keep multiple sheets together.
Assembling the Calendar
The final step is stapling the calendar sheets to the backer board. I used a cheap saddle-stich stapler to attach the sheets.
And once assembled, we have our calendar:
With any kind of project like this, the first one you make is going to be imperfect, and this wasn’t an exception. Still, I’m really pleased with how it came out. Although there are some minor issues, I wouldn’t be embarrassed to hang this first one on the wall.
If I decide to make any more, there are a few changes I’ll make. My margins are a bit too small in a few places. The rotary cutter did a nice job, but it’s not as precise as a good guillotine cutter, and I lost a little bit of my margins to the overprint required for borderless printing. Some cutting guides on the calendar printouts will also help during assembly.
All-in-all, though, I’m quite happy with the result!
If you’re really into photography, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve at least thought about selling prints, and if you’ve thought about selling prints, you’ve probably given some though to creating limited editions. It’s also possible you went no further than just thinking about it, because the idea can seem daunting and, unfortunately, it’s hard to find good information about it.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t, though.
Let’s go down the rabbit hole of photographic editions and see how they work.
Open vs. Limited Edition
When you decide to sell a print, the first thing you need to decide is whether you’re going to issue the print as an open edition or a limited edition. If you already sell prints, and haven’t explicitly put a limit on how many you’ll create, you’ve decided to issue an open edition of those images, whether you realized it or not. With an open edition, you can make and sell as many prints as you want, and there are really no formalities required. You’re just making and selling a product, as many as the market will bear.
You can issue a formal open edition that has traits more commonly associated with limited editions—such as a signature or a certificate of authenticity—just with no limit on how many you can produce, however the bulk of open editions are informal editions without any of that.
With limited edition prints, on the other hand, you’re making a promise to your buyers that you will create, at most, a specific number of prints of that image. This limit creates the potential for scarcity, which may allow you to charge a higher price for in-demand prints and may cause the price of those print to appreciate over time. There’s no guarantee, of course. Limited editions aren’t magic. There has to be a market for the image that’s greater than the size of the edition for it to have any impact at all.
There are certain customs and formalities that are generally followed when issuing a limited edition. Some of these originate from law, but mostly they are customs that have evolved out of earlier reproduction techniques like woodcuts and vinyl cuts. Each print in a limited edition is typically signed by the artist and numbered. It’s also common to take steps to ensure that prospective buyers have a way to authenticate the print, such as by issuing a certificate of authenticity with contact information backed by good records about the production of the edition and about the sales of edition prints.
Choosing an Edition Type
It’s common for photographers without a lot of name recognition to assume there’s no value in issuing a limited edition because they may never exhaust (or, in other words, sell out) even a small edition¹. That’s an understandable way of looking at it, but here’s another way: A limited edition can end up being a huge gift to your early supporters. You may not ever become well known, but you might, and if you work at it, you will definitely be more known in the future than you are today.
It’s completely possible that your early limited edition prints could end up appreciating in value, and that’s a nice “thank you” to the people who supported you early on. Also, remember, once you’ve sold copies of a print outside of a limited edition, you generally won’t be able to create a limited edition of that image², so you may also want to identify the images you’ll want to issue as a limited edition, even if you’re not ready to actually issue it yet. Knowing which ones you might want to use can help you avoid accidentally losing the ability to publish a limited edition of that image later.
On the other hand, you don’t want to issue every print as a limited edition unless you’re famous or there’s a large demand for your work for some other reason. Limited editions are more work for you and only have the potential to increase a print’s value if there’s substantial demand.
For most photographers, you should only do limited editions for those images that you really like, are really proud of, or think are particularly sellable. Otherwise, you’re creating extra work for yourself without getting any real benefit from it.
Determine an Edition Size
When you do decide to issue a limited edition, the very next decision you need to make is the size of the edition. The larger the edition, the less potential scarcity, so the smaller the potential impact on the price… but the more prints you can sell.
Editions in older reproduction techniques, such as woodcuts, vinyls cuts, and lithographs, were often done in very large sizes—hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of prints—because they were essentially the mass production techniques of the day. Early photographic editions were typically smaller than that, but still usually involved at least a few dozen or a few hundred prints. The more recent trend in photography has been toward much smaller editions, with 10 and 25 being very common edition sizes these days.
While the edition size is a personal choice you have to make, the general guidance I would give is to try not to create an edition that’s larger than the number of prints you think you can sell during your lifetime. The ideal situation is to publish editions that are smaller than the number of people potentially interested in buying it. If there are fewer potential buyers than inventory (aka the edition size), having a limit creates no actual scarcity, and you won’t get a higher price than you could’ve gotten doing an open edition.
Of course, there’s guesswork involved so you won’t always nail the edition size, which is okay. Over time, you’ll get a better feel for demand.
You can create an edition size of one. These types of “editions” are usually called “one offs” or “uniques” and are labeled 1/1.
If you’re going to create multiple size prints of the same image, the number of each size should be decided right up front and set in stone before you create any edition prints of any size. If you don’t do that, you’re giving yourself a loophole to expand the size of the edition after you’ve sold prints, and that’s not really fair to your buyers.
I not only decide all of the size before making any edition prints, I also include all editions of the same print on the certificate of authenticity (which I’ll talk about later), like this:
Edition Prints & Proofs
One of the oddities of limited editions, inherited from older, mechanical reproduction techniques, is that an edition may contain additional prints beyond the numbered member prints. Typically, each print in an edition is numbered (usually, but not necessarily, based on the order they were created), and once the whole edition is done, no more prints may be created. However, there can be other prints called proofs, usually printed as part of the creation process, that do not have to be destroyed.
There are several types of proofs that are allowed to exist without violating the edition limit, however, you generally should not sell proofs of your own prints. The types of proofs that you can create include:
Artist Proof: Before printing an edition, you typically need to create some number of test (or proof) prints to get your print settings dialed in. The final proof is referred to as the “Artist Proof” (or sometimes “Artist’s Proof”), and is not numbered. Instead of being numbered (e.g. 1/10), the final proof is marked “AP” (or, less frequently, “PA”, “E.A”, or “E. d’A”). Typically, the artist or printer will keep this proof. Artist proofs shouldn’t enter circulation until the artist dies or something unusual happens (such as the artist declaring bankruptcy). When artist proofs do enter circulation, they often sell at a premium over the regular edition prints.
H’ors de Commerce Proof: Another type of acceptable proof is the h’ors de commerce print. Translated from the French, it means “not for sale”. It was a common practice with many types of print editions, for the artist to mark a small number of prints “HC”, usually to be given as thank you gifts to their publisher, printer, patron, model, or others involved with the production of the images.
Printer’s Proof: This type of print, usually marked “PP” or less often “BAT” (which stands for “bon à tirer”, which is French for “good to print”) is not usually part of limited editions of photographs, but conceivably could in the case of a very large edition printed by a third party lab or printer. Printer’s proofs are used like artist proofs when there are multiple printers or press operators, each needing a signed-off print to compare their output against. Sometimes printer’s proofs are marked the same as artist proofs (“AP”) if they were actually created by the original artist. Printer’s proofs are typically kept by the printer or publisher.
It is perfectly acceptable to keep your artist’s proof and also to create a small number of HC proofs to give as gifts to the people who helped you create your edition. Giving an HC print to your model, assistant, or printer, is fine. On the other hand, you should never sell proofs or use them as a way to extend an edition after exhausting it.
I would also discourage you from creating a large number of proofs when creating small editions. If you issue an edition of 10, you shouldn’t also have 10 HC proofs in circulation. My personal rule of thumb is to limit HC proofs to no more than 20% of the edition size, or 3, whichever is higher. Because I do my own printing, I only ever create one artist proof, which is the last proof I make before starting to produce the edition, and that one stays with me.
Mounting Edition Prints
While prints in a limited edition don’t have to be mounted, it’s pretty standard practice to do so. Usually they’re sold with a simple white mat with archival properties. Above a certain price point, prints are usually mounted in museum-grade rag board. For more information on mounting your prints, you can read this post.
Signature and Edition Marks
Limited edition prints are almost always signed and contain “edition marks”, which give information about the print, such as the edition size, and which print in the edition this is. The signature and edition marks usually go in one of three places: on the front of the print, usually (but not always) below the image, on the reverse side of the print, or on the mat. Edition marks should be done by hand, by the photographer, and should be written in pencil or an acid-free, archival pen such as a Pigma Micron by Sakura.
Where you put your edition marks is mostly a matter of personal preference. Historically, the back of the print was the most common place for edition marks on photographs. More recently, putting them on the front of the print (which has been common for other types of printing for a long time) is becoming more common with photographs, probably because it allows the signature and print information to be visible when framed.
You should only put edition marks on the mat rather than on the print if you flush mount your prints. Flush mounts are semi-permanent, so marks on the mat will usually stay with the print. The other main type of mount—the hinge mount—is designed to make it easy to take the print out, so edition marks on the mat would generally be a bad choice if you use a hinge mount. For more information on flush and hinge mounting, try this post.
There is no required order or location when it comes to edition marks, but if you plan to put them on the front, it’s common practice to put them in the margin below the print, with the print number and edition size on the left and the signature on the right. You can also put the print’s title in the center if you wish.
These conventions about where to sign and put edition marks are just that – conventions. Although it’s often a good idea to stick with conventions unless you have a reason not to, you can put the edition marks anywhere you want. For my first two limited edition prints, I put the title on the left next to the edition number. I didn’t learn that the center was the customary location until later.
Certificates of Authenticity
Nearly all limited edition prints come with a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist. A lot of artists have a negative reaction at first to the idea of a issuing a certificate of authenticity. This may come from the fact that a lot of cheap, mass-produced products use certificates of authenticity as a marketing gimmick, but they really are a good idea for any kind of hand-created art, including limited edition photographs. Having a signed document that accompanies the print and includes your contact information means that anyone who obtains this print or is trying to authenticate this print, will know how to reach you.
There are really very few specific requirements when it comes to certificates of authenticity. If you do a quick web search, you’ll see there’s a lot of variety in how they look and what information they contain.
The only real requirements is the image name (if there is one), the edition size, the print number, your contact information, and a signature. Some artists include some kind of statement about the edition or the print or a thumbnail of the image to make it easier to match the certificate up to its print, but I’ve seen many certificates that do neither.
Another thing that’s not required, but many photographers do, is take steps to make it harder to counterfeit your image, for example, by including a serial number on a tamper-proof holographic sticker on the print and/or certificate.
I put a holographic sticker both on the certificate of authenticity and the back of the print itself. I also record the number of the sticker from the print on the certificate of authenticity and keep a spreadsheet that lists both numbers for every limited edition print I’ve made.
It has also become somewhat common to include information about the paper, dyes, or process used to create the print. This re-assures the buyer that they are getting an archival-quality print and that information can also be used to further authenticate the print.
A lot of photographers just type up a certificate in a word processor, then print it, and sign it. And really, that’s all you need. You don’t need to make a fancy certificates or go to great lengths to prevent counterfeiting. Unless you’re quite famous, the chances of someone actually counterfeiting your work is very slim. Despite that, there is still marketing value to creating an aesthetically pleasing, harder-to-counterfeit certificate and it’s not really that much extra work.
Anybody can create a “certificate of authenticity”, so you need to back yours up with good record keeping and a way for people to contact you. There are services that will handle this for you and provide a web page people can use to authenticate your work. I don’t create enough limited edition prints to justify paying for a service like that, so I just keep good digital records (redundantly backed up!) and provide my e-mail address and phone number on the certificate for people to use if they want to authenticate the print. Because I haven’t used any of these third-party services, I’m not comfortable recommending one, though I can definitely see the value for someone who produces a lot of prints.
In case you’re wondering, I’m not currently set up to sell my limited edition prints online. You can see my limited edition prints in the image below. If you’re interested in buying one (or prints of any of my other images, for that matter), drop me an e-mail.
Even some famous historical photographers have limited editions that are not exhausted. Nobody bats 1.000, so that possibility really shouldn’t discourage you from doing a limited edition.
There definitely are ways you can ethically do a limited edition of an image that was previously issued as part of an open edition. One way would be to track down each of the owners of the open edition prints. If you can account for all of the images and can retroactively make them part of the edition, or swap the open edition prints for a limited edition replacement, then you can ethically move forward with selling that print as a limited edition.
Once you’ve settled on a camera body, the next must-have purchase before you can get started shooting is a lens. There’s a lot to know about lenses, so buckle up and I’ll try and make some sense out of it for you.
Lenses come in a wide variety of “focal lengths”, which is an indication of the field of view that you can capture with the lens. Focal length is specified in millimeters, and is a measure of the distance between the lens and the image sensor or film plate when the subject is in focus.
Lower focal lengths are referred to as “wide angle” lenses because they let you take pictures that includes more of a scene, while high numbers are called “telephoto”, and let you take clear pictures of things that are some distance away. A lens that has a greater focal length than wide angle but less than telephoto is considered a “normal” or “standard” lens, since they are (roughly) equivalent to the field of view of the human eye.
The actual field of view for a lens is determined by both its focal length and the size of the sensor or film frame it’s being used with, which means that a 50mm lens on a full frame camera gives a different field of view than a 50mm lens on a crop sensor camera which gives a different field of view than a 50mm lens on a medium format camera.
The following table gives the approximate ranges of focal distances for wide angle and telephoto lenses for several common sensor sizes.
>= 65 mm
Full Frame / 35mm
Medium Format (645)
Medium Format (Hasselblad)
To keep things simple, I’m going to express focal lengths in “full-frame equivalents” in rest of this post. If I refer to a “50mm” lens, I mean “50mm on a full frame camera or an equivalent lens on another body, such as a 38mm lens on an APS-H camera (1.7 crop factor), or 29mm lens on an APS-C camera (1.3 crop factor)”.
Prime vs. Zoom
There are two types of lenses available: prime and zoom. A prime lens has a single, fixed focal length, like 50mm, or 85mm. With prime lenses, if you want to include more or less of the scene in your image, you have to physically move further from or closer to your subject. The other type of lens is the zoom lens, which covers a selectable range of focal lengths such as 24-70mm, or 70-200mm. Zoom lenses give you a lot more options to frame your photo without having to physically move to a new location.
Traditional logic said that prime lenses are higher quality and that zoom lenses are a compromise for convenience, with the trade-off being that the images aren’t as sharp and are more prone to various forms of distortion. That traditional logic doesn’t really have much value these days, however. The majority of lenses made and sold now are zoom lenses because we reached a point several years ago where the image quality from a good zoom lenses became virtually indistinguishable from that of prime lenses.
If that’s true, you might be wondering why prime lenses are still made. The primary reason is that prime lenses are less expensive for comparable quality and focal distance, especially for “fast” lenses with an ƒ rating of 2.8 or less. While a professional grade 24-70mm ƒ2.8 lens might run you upwards of $1600, you can get a professional-grade 50mm ƒ1.8 lens for about $150.
A “faster” lens has a lower ƒ-rating and handles low light situations better.
Consumer vs. Professional
The cost of a lens is influenced by many factors, including the focal length and ƒ-rating, but the biggest impact on the price of a lens is the distinction between lenses targeted at consumers, and those targeted for professional use. There’s also a group of lenses that fall in between the two that are sometimes referred to as “prosumer” lenses.
Most professional-grade lenses are designed for full-frame or medium-format bodies, while nearly all consumer lenses are built for smaller “crop” sensor bodies. As smaller sensors have gotten better, we’ve started to see more professional quality glass being made for crop-sensor bodies, but it’s still pretty uncommon to find consumer-grade lenses made for full-frame and medium-format bodies, so if you opt for a larger sensor, expect to pay more (probably considerably more) for your lenses.
To give an example of just how much of a difference in price you can expect to see between consumer and professional lenses, let’s look at a common workhorse, “normal” zoom lens that runs from slightly wide angle to slightly telephoto, such as a 24-70mm or 24-85mm lens.
Note: the field of view on an 18-55mm APS-C lens is roughly equivalent to 24-70mm with a full frame lens
Here is a selection of DSLR lenses, all from the same manufacturer (Nikon), all with roughly the same focal length. The range of prices and features you see here is similar to other manufacturers’ lens lineups for both DSLR and mirrorless cameras:
AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm ƒ2.8 ED VR
Full Frame (FX)
AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm ƒ2.8 ED
Full Frame (FX)
AF-S Nikkor 24-85mm ƒ2.8-4 IF
Full Frame (FX)
AF-S Nikkor 24-85mm ƒ3.5-4.5G ED VR
Full Frame (FX)
AF-P DX Nikkor 18-55mm ƒ2.5-5.6G VR
AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor ED 18-55mm ƒ3.5-5.6G
AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 18-55mm ƒ/3.5-5.6G ED II
That’s a pretty substantial range of prices for lenses with about the same basic field of view and functionality! The most expensive lens on the list is 17 times more expensive than the least.
If you’re looking to get started on a budget, the lower prices of the consumer lenses are going to be really appealing. The most expensive lens in the list for a crop sensor is $249.95, about a tenth of the price of the most expensive. Going back to my previous post in this series, crop sensor cameras aren’t just less expensive when initially buying the body. The lenses and some of the other accessories are also considerably less expensive, meaning you can often get a lot more bang for your buck with a crop-sensor camera, but your lens selection is going to be more limited, and most of the available lenses will be consumer grade.
You’re probably wondering what you’re going to miss out on if you buy less expensive consumer-grade lenses.
The main differences between professional and consumer lenses are as follows:
Construction & Repairability: Professional lenses are designed for full-time working photographers, so they’re made to take a beating and keep on working. They feature metal structural components and high-quality ground glass lens elements. Treated well, these lenses will work literally for decades. Consumer lenses, on the other hand, use more plastic components and lower-end consumer lenses may use polycarbonate lens elements rather than glass. Professional lenses are often repairable, but with consumer lenses, it’s usually more cost-effective to replace a lens if it breaks or gets damaged.
Optics: Consumer lenses are more likely to use plastic or lower quality glass for the optical elements, whereas professional lenses almost always use high-grade ground glass lenses that use extra-low dispersion glass. This means professional lenses will tend to be sharper across all ƒ-stop values, but the difference will be most noticeable in low light situations where the aperture is wide open. Professional lenses also are also far less likely to suffer noticeably from problems such as chromatic aberration, ghosting, and flaring.
Aperture: In large part because they use better optical components, professional lenses tend to be “faster” lenses with a lower ƒ-stop rating, meaning they let in more light and allow you to get better pictures with less light. If you look at the chart above, all the professional grade lenses have a fixed ƒ-rating of 2.8, meaning they can shoot at that value at all focal lengths. The prosumer lenses have ƒ-ratings that come in a range, meaning the camera’s ƒ-rating increases as you zoom out to longer focal lengths. The consumer lenses also give their ƒ-rating as a range, and a larger range at that, meaning as you zoom out, your lens becomes “slower”, and requires even more light to get good shots.
Weather Resistance: The higher quality construction often means that professional lenses can handle significantly harsher weather conditions without experiencing problems like condensation on the internal lens elements. It should be noted, however, that just because a lens is professional grade, does not mean it is weather proof or water proof, and you should take precautions to protect your gear whenever you shoot in inclement weather..
Size & Weight: This is something I didn’t realize before I bought my first professional grade lens, but professional lenses—especially zoom lenses—are much bigger and much heavier than comparable consumer lenses. The cheapest lens in the chart above weighs 7.4 oz, is 2.4 inches in diameter, and 2.9 inches long. The most expensive lens in the list is 38.4 oz, 3.4 inches in diameter, and 6 inches long. That means the most expensive lens is literally five times as heavy and over twice as long as the cheapest, despite having nearly identical focal lengths. The size difference is so dramatic that a lot of professional photographers will buy less expensive “vacation lenses” or “walking-around lenses” so they have something lighter and smaller to use in situations where they don’t need professional-grade glass.
Are these benefits worth the much higher price? That depends on your needs and your budget. For most working professionals and many serious enthusiasts who can afford them, the answer is a resounding yes. While they are expensive, they tend to last a long time. Often, you can use them for years on different camera bodies, with the lens retaining significant resale value even after years of use. If you ever have to shoot in difficult lighting situations, the lower ƒ-rating and better optics are really valuable, and if you ever shoot in tough weather conditions, it’s nice not having to worry quite as much about whether your equipment will survive and your pictures will come out well.
The fact that consumer lenses are “slower” than professional lenses is far less of an issue than it used to be in the film and early digital days where a few ƒ-stops could be the difference between being able to get a good shot and not. With a modern digital camera, you can often compensate for those few extra ƒ-stops by simply adjusting your camera’s ISO rating. You will degrade the quality of your images a bit, but increasing ISO by one or two stops won’t usually be noticeable unless you blow up your photos super large, and you can often compensate for some of that quality loss using a variety of post processing techniques.
You can get amazing images with consumer or prosumer equipment (or, hell, even your phone), so if you’re shooting for yourself, it’s really a matter of how much you’re willing and able to spend and whether you’ll ever be shooting in conditions where the benefits of a professional lens will even matter. In bright daylight, or in a studio with strobes, you’ll barely notice a difference, and if your intention isn’t to shoot professionally, the additional cost of professional gear may very well not be worth it for you, even if you can afford it.
Just like with camera bodies, you can get used gear at a lower price than new, sometimes substantially less. A lot of people get into photography, and then don’t find time for it and end up selling their equipment. Other times, people decide to switch systems, upgrade their gear, or just find that they don’t use certain lenses very often.
As with camera bodies, I wouldn’t generally recommend buying used consumer-grade lenses, but professional lenses and some prosumer lenses are built solidly enough that buying used can be a great option, just make sure you get to test the lens before buying it to make sure there are no scratches or other problems with the optics. Unlike camera bodies, the age of the lens really doesn’t matter all that much as long as the lens has been cared for and maintained and has the right mount for your camera body. An older lens with good optics and no damage to the focus or zoom mechanisms will take just as good pictures as a new lens.
First vs. Third Party
Every camera manufacturer produces (or partners with another company to produce), a line of lenses for their cameras. These “first party” lenses are not the only option. There are companies out there, such as Sigma, Zeiss, and Tamron, that produce lenses for other manufacturer’s cameras.
First party lenses are typically very high quality, and they’re often the only lenses that people look at. However, when buying lenses from your camera’s manufacturer, you usually pay at least some premium. Third party lenses come in a wide variety of price points and quality, so you have to be careful when comparing lenses from different manufacturers, but it is often possible to get a comparable quality lens for less money by going with a third party option.
To give an example, the Sigma ART 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 lens is very highly regarded as a fast, sharp professional lens, in the same ballpark in terms of image and build quality as the AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm ƒ2.8 ED lens from the list above. The Nikkor lens has an MSRP of $1,599.95 with a street price of around $1,450, while the Sigma has an MSRP of $1,299.00 and a street price of about $1,000, which amounts to about a 1/3 savings.
Which Lens or Lenses to Buy
So… the $64 question: which lens or lenses should you buy?
Among photographers I’ve met, there seems to be two schools of thought when it comes to buying lenses. One school of thought is that every lens has a use, and you should buy all the lenses your budget can handle as you have a need for them. The other school of thought says that zoom lenses have gotten so good, there really are only three lenses most photographers will ever need: a good ultrawide-angle zoom, like a 14-24mm, a “normal” zoom, such as a 24-70mm, and a telephoto zoom, such as a 70-200mm.
If you’re not shooting large groups of people, architectural interiors, or landscape panoramas, I would even argue that the ultrawide-angle zoom is only rarely necessary.
Personally, I subscribe to the “most photographers only need a few lenses” school of thought. But… I also think that having a few high quality prime lenses in addition, can be a great investment. Probably 60% of what I shoot is with a 24-70mm lens, with maybe another 30% being shot with a 70-200mm. The remaining 10% are shot with a prime lens like a 50mm ƒ1.4, (aka the “nifty fifty”) or an 85mm ƒ/1.8 (sometimes called a “portrait prime”). Using a fast prime lens allows you to shoot below ƒ2.0, which can make it easier to achieve a desirable effect for portraits and head shots called “bokeh”.
I’ll talk about bokeh in great detail in a later post, but you don’t have to have a super fast prime lens to get a nice bokeh effect. You do need either a fast normal or wide angle lens, or a moderately fast telephoto lens, however, so if you can’t afford a fast zoom like a 24-70mm ƒ/2.8, then a fast 50mm or 85mm prime lens can be a great, and relatively inexpensive option for shooting portraits.
For shooting nudes, you’ll only need an ultra wide-angle lens if you’re going be shooting nudes as a small part of a larger scene, where your subject just one part of the overall landscape, or to shoot full body images in cramped spaces. For most photographer, an ultra wide is not a good choice for a first lens.
Similarly, while telephoto lenses can yield lovely portraits, they make it difficult to shoot in many common situations. Even in a good size studio, it may not be possible to shoot full length photos using a telephoto lens.
Most of the time, if you’ll be focusing on one person, or a few people, and maybe not even shooting full body shots, the best choice for a first lens is going to be either a zoom lens that includes the “normal” range such as a 24-70mm or 24-85mm, or a standard prime lens like a 50mm or 85mm.
The single most important piece of gear you need to get started with nude photography—or any type of photography, for that matter—is a camera. You must have some device capable of recording an image. Though there are many other items that most photographers would consider “essential”, the reality is, pretty much everything else beyond the camera (and a lens) is optional.
If you already own a camera, start with what you already have unless you know, with certainty, that it isn’t sufficient for your needs. After you’ve done a handful of shoots with the gear you own, you’ll have a much better idea about what you need and will be better equipped to decide what, if anything, you should buy.
If you don’t have a camera, but you do have a recent, high-end mobile phone, you actually have a good enough camera for doing available-light photography, though you may find models skeptical about working with a “photographer” whose only gear is their phone. That won’t be an issue if your first models are yourself, a spouse, significant other, or friends, however.
Buying a Camera
At some point, if you get serious, you’ll probably want to buy a better camera. Choosing what camera model to buy is a very subjective and personal decision and the most important factor in determining what camera to buy will most likely be how much money you have to spend.
Getting the very best camera on the market does you no good if the purchase doesn’t leave you enough money to buy lenses and accessories, pay for models, or cover your rent and other living expenses. The “very best” camera on the market is also likely to be overkill for your needs. High-end “flagship” camera models can run $4k, $6k, $8k, $10k or even much more. These models have features that really target professional photographers who are shooting every day and which really aren’t worth paying money for, for most hobbyists.
So, before you do anything else, figure out how much you can realistically afford to invest in a camera system, keeping in mind that you’ll need at least one lens in addition to a camera body (unless you buy a camera with an integrated lens, which I generally don’t recommend). You’ll also need at least one storage card (SF, CF, etc.) to store the pictures you take.
Most photographers will steer you away from what are called “kit lenses”– which are the lenses that are sold together with a camera body as a package. Kits often also include other accessories that you probably don’t already have if you’re buying your first serious camera: things like blower bulbs, lint-free cleaning cloths, storage cards, filters, a flash, a camera bag, or a remote camera trigger. Although there are exceptions, kit lenses tend to not be very good, so most serious photographers prefer to buy their body and lenses separately. I take a more muted view on this. While I buy bodies and lenses separately, I recognize that a kit can often be a great choice for someone just getting started who’se on a budget. While a kit lens will rarely be great, if you’re going to be shooting mostly outside at high ƒ-stops, you can get really good results with them.
We’ll talk about what ƒ-stops are more in later posts, but a “high” ƒ-stop means the aperture of your lens is closed down very small so it lets less light in. When you shoot outside during the day under a cloudless sky, you can easily shoot at ƒ16 or higher. At these high ƒ-stop ratings, the difference between a really good lens and a “just okay” lens won’t be very noticeable at all. If you’re planning to primarily shoot outdoors to start, a good camera body with a kit lens might be the best option in your price range, just realize that you’ll probably want to buy a better lens (or lenses) at some point in the future as you gain more experience and become more demanding.
Digital vs. Film
For most working professional photographers, the digital vs. film debate was settled long ago and—spoiler alert—digital won. That being said, film is very much alive and has been seeing quite a resurgence of late. A lot of photographers are once again enjoying the challenges of shooting film.
Honestly, anything that motivates you to shoot is good, so for many people, film is good. But… I’m going to put a stake in the ground and say: if you’re just getting started, start with digital.
Digital photography borrows most of its terminology and paradigms from film cameras, so most of the skills you’ll learn using a digital camera will transfer directly over to film. But, digital is much more forgiving, so you’ll likely find it far less frustrating. Once you’ve got a good grasp on the fundamentals of photography, switching to film will be much easier and less painful than trying to learn the fundamentals of photography at the same time that you’re learning the nuances of film.
Interchangeable vs. Integrated Lens
If you buy a camera with an integrated lens, you will be limited to the focal length and apertures of that lens. I’ll discuss when and why you might use different lenses in future posts, but getting a body that uses interchangeable lenses will give you a lot more flexibility and freedom to grow as a photographer. Even if you only plan to buy a single lens at first, choosing an interchangeable lens body will give you the option to grow your collection of lenses (aka “glass”) over time.
Additionally, good glass treated well, will likely outlive your camera body (several camera bodies, in fact), meaning you can buy the latest, greatest, newest body in the future without having to re-invest in new lenses, as long as you stay with the same vendor and system type (e.g. Nikon FX or Canon EF-S³). If you buy a camera with an integrated lens, when you outgrow it, you have to replace everything.
One choice you have to make when buying your first camera is what size sensorwill my camera have? The size of the sensor is one of the primary factors in the cost of a digital camera, with smaller sensors generally costing less, but also having comparably lower image quality. A larger sensor typically give images that are sharper, have a greater dynamic range, and contain less noise. Larger sensors also tend to have better low light performance.
But… sensor technology has been advancing at a breakneck pace over the last decade, so a larger but older sensor will often be inferior to a newer small one.
Here are the names of common sensor sizes you’ll often see thrown around, in descending order of size:
Medium Format Sensor (e.g. 43.8 x 32.8mm, 53.4 x 40mm): Generally only found in very expensive, high-end professional cameras, these are the largest sensors you’ll find in mass-produced cameras. The name “medium format” comes from the film days, when 2¼ roll film was called “medium format” because it was larger than 35mm, but smaller than traditional plate cameras that used 4×5 or 8×10 sheets of film or glass. Medium format sensors are nearly (but in most cases, not quite) as large as a traditional 2¼ medium format film frame. Today, the name “medium format” is used to describe a handful of different size sensors that are larger than a traditional 35mm negative.
Full Frame (35mm x 24mm): The most common sensor size used in professional-grade digital cameras, this sensor is almost exactly the same size as a 35mm negative. Since the earliest professional digital cameras were built from 35mm SLRs, the traits of other sensors are often specified relative to this one.
APS-H (≈29mm by ≈19mm): A slightly smaller sensor used in a lot of “prosumer” and enthusiast DSLRs, there are several slightly different versions of this sensor with slightly different sizes. Sensors of this size (and the next size down: APS-C) are often referred to as “crop sensors” because many of the bodies with these types of sensors can use lenses designed for full frame cameras, but the sensors only capture a portion of the image from the lens, resulting in the image being cropped. APS-H has a crop factor, compared to full frame cameras, of 1.3.
APS-C (23.6mm by 15.8mm): A little bit smaller sensor used in many smaller consumer DSLRs, this sensor has a crop factor of 1.7.
Micro 4/3 (17.3mm by 13mm): About a quarter the size of a full frame sensor, this size sensor is used in many mirrorless cameras, especially smaller, consumer-targeted ones.
CX (13.2mm by 8mm): A sensor used primarily in higher-end point and shoot cameras.
Small Sensors: There are a whole bunch of even smaller sensors whose sizes are generally given as a fraction of one inch on the long edge. Some of the small sensor sizes you may see are: 1/1.7, 1/2.5, 1/2.3, 2/3, 1/3.2, 1/1.2, and 1/1.8. These small sensors are primarily used in consumer cameras, webcams, security cameras, and mobile phones.
While larger sensors are generally “better” than smaller sensors, going with a less-than-full-frame sensor is one of the best ways to keep your costs down when buying your first camera. Full frame cameras are mostly targeted at working professionals and very experienced hobbyists, so they tend to have the most cutting-edge features. As a result, they cost quite a lot, with very few current-generation full-frame camera bodies starting at under $2000.
When shooting under bright daylight, or with studio strobes, many of the benefits of a larger sensor are far less evident, and the cost savings from a camera with a smaller sensor can be significant. At the time I’m writing this, there are some very capable crop-sensor cameras available for under $500.
The reality is, modern camera sensors are amazing pieces of technology and they’re only going to keep getting better. You can great results with any modern sensor and the benefits of a full frame or medium format sensor more often than not will be lost on someone who is just getting started.
In most respects, once you’ve selected your camera body, you don’t really have to worry about the size of the sensor any more. There is, however, one thing you need to know about cameras with different sized sensors: the lens focal lengths are different, and often the length specified is “full frame equivalent”.
What that means, is the stated focal length isn’t necessarily the focal length for your camera. A 50mm lens on a full frame camera does not give the same field of view as a 50mm lens on an APS-H camera. The “full frame equivalent” focal length for a camera with an APS-H sensor is roughly 38mm. To calculate that, divide the full frame focal length by the crop factor of the sensor you’re converting to. APS-H has a crop factor of about 1.3, so if we divide 50 by 1.3, we get 38.46. Since focal lengths usually only come in whole number values, we round down to 38mm, and that tells us that a 38mm lens on an APS-H camera will have roughly the same field of view as a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera.
Must Have Features
When you start researching cameras, you might get a little overwhelmed by all the available models and features. Sometimes, two models from the same manufacturer will seem so similar, thatit’s hard to even understand why they both exist. There are a few absolute must-have features you should look for, though.
ISO a measure of the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO, the less light you’ll need to get a correctly-exposed picture, but the trade off is a lower quality final image. The term is a holdover from the film days, when different film stock had different sensitivity to light and you would pick your film based on the lighting situation you were planning to photograph. Nowadays, it’s rare for cameras not to have an adjustable ISO, though some consumer cameras and most phone cameras hide this setting away and adjust the ISO automatically by default. If you’re going to get seriously into photography, you need to be able to control the ISO, and it’s best if the controls to change ISO are easily accessible while shooting. You don’t want to miss the perfect shot because you had to take the camera away from your eye to adjust ISO.
Many consumer-targeted cameras either don’t have a fully manual mode, or are designed in such a way that using full manual mode is difficult. You want to make sure that the camera you’re looking at has full manual mode, and that shutter speed and aperture are easy to change without taking your eye away from the viewfinder.
The three settings I’ve mentioned – aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, make up what photographers call the “exposure triangle”, because they are the three values that primarily affect whether your image is properly exposed. Being able to adjust all three of these settings without taking your eye away from the viewfinder will make your life so much easier when shooting.
I’ll talk about the exposure triangle in great detail in a future post.
Hot Shoe and/or PC Sync Socket
Many models of camera, regardless of style, will have a hot shoe, which is the little metal doohicky on the top of the camera body that you can use to attach an external flash. That hot shoe is also used to trigger studio strobes using wireless transmitters. As you start looking at more expensive “prosumer” and professional models, you’ll also start to see something called a PC sync socket somewhere on the camera body, which is used to trigger studio strobes with a hard wire. Most cameras with a PC sync socket will also have a hot shoe, though there are some high-end medium format cameras that have a PC sync socket, but no hot shoe.
Even if you think you only want to shoot with natural or existing light, getting a camera with at least one of these two items is a good idea, because you may reach a point where the limitations of natural light start to frustrate you. Fortunately, most prosumer and pro cameras have both, and even the majority of consumer cameras at least have a hot shoe.
Raw File Support
Internally, all digital cameras use a “raw” file format that represents the image data exactly as it was recorded by the sensor. Cameras are capable of converting that raw file format into a standard image format such as JPEG, and some cameras default to this behavior and hide the raw file from you. Most serious photographers keep and edit only the raw file, which functions sort of like a digital negative, giving you a lot more latitude to make adjustments to your image without losing image quality.
A Camera that Fits You
One “feature” that rarely gets talked about when purchasing a camera is a really important one: how the camera feels in your hand, and whether the controls on the camera make sense and are easy for you to use. If you get serious about photography, you will spend a lot of time holding your camera. If it doesn’t feel good to you or the control placement doesn’t feel natural, then it’s not a good camera for you, no matter how nice the specs are³.
In general, it’s not a good idea to buy a camera you haven’t had a chance to hold in your hand. There are times when you can break this rule–such as when moving to an upgraded version of the same camera you already have—but generally speaking, you don’t want to buy a camera unless you know it feels good in your hand, isn’t too light or heavy, and has controls that make sense for you.
Digital cameras these days come primarily in two different styles that use different internal mechanisms: DSLR and mirrorless.
DSLR stands for digital single-lens reflex, and is a style of digital camera that evolved out of film-based SLR (single lens reflex) cameras. In all single-lens reflex cameras, the image is reflected up to the viewfinder using a mirror and a pentaprism, so when you look into the viewfinder, you’re seeing the actual image that will be recorded when you press the shutter button. Prior to the SLR, when you looked through the viewfinder of a camera, you were usually seeing an approximation of what would be recorded on film, not the actual image through the same lens.
When you press the shutter button to take a picture with a DSLR, the mirror that bounces the image up to the rangefinder very quickly moves out of the way to allow the image to pass through to the shutter and onto the sensor.
Until recently, nearly all professional and prosumer digital cameras were DSLRs. While the mirror-and-pentaprism combination was revolutionary in the days of film, today, they are largely an artifact of the past because digital cameras can pull the image directly from the sensor and display that in the viewfinder or camera screen with just a few wires. The mirror mechanism adds quite a bit of size and weight to the camera and adds a potential mechanical point of failure. It also limits the speed at which pictures can be taken. Even the highest-end professional DSLRs can’t exceed about 14 frames per second because of the time required to physically move the mirror out of the way and then back down.
Several camera manufacturers started replacing the mirror and pentaprism mechanism in their cameras with a simpler system that pulls the image directly from the camera sensor and displays on an LED screen in the viewfinder,. By removing the large physical mirror mechanism that redirects the light away from the camera sensor, and the pentaprism that directs the image to your eye, mirrorless cameras can pack identical functionality into a smaller, lighter package that’s less prone to mechanical failure, or into a camera the same size that has much longer battery life.
The earliest commercial mirrorless cameras—such as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1—used a micro 4/3 sensor and were primarily designed to compete with consumer DSLRs. It didn’t take long for the advantages of mirrorless to become obvious, however, and many more manufacturers started designing mirrorless cameras across all price and feature points. Eventually even Canon and Nikon—the two big dogs in the DSLR market—started releasing mirrorless bodies.
You may see the term “digital rangefinder” used for some types of cameras. A digital rangefinder is really just a mirrorless camera. Back in the days of film, a rangefinder was a type of camera where you looked through a device (also) called a rangefinder, which used one of a variety of mechanisms to approximate the view through the camera’s lens. The best-known brand of traditional rangefinder cameras is Leica.
While there have been a few digital cameras released that were true mechanical rangefinders, such as the Pixii A1112, the vast majority of so-called “digital rangefinders” produced today use a digital viewfinder that displays the image directly from the camera sensor. That means they are really just mirrorless cameras that have been styled to look like classic rangefinders.
One option to consider, if you’re interested in buying professional or prosumer gear, but just don’t have the budget for it, is buying a camera body used. I wouldn’t generally opt for buying a camera that’s more than four or five years old, but a lot of people do upgrade their equipment pretty regularly, and professional grade equipment is built to last, so if you can find someone who is unloading professional gear that’s just a few years old, you can often get a great deal. It’s better to buy local, as there are a lot of scams out there. Many camera shops will also have used gear for sale. It’ll usually be a bit more expensive than buying directly from a consumer, but will usually have been cleaned and may have some kind of warranty.
If you’re considering buying used, see if the seller will let you take a few pictures with it. If they won’t, that’s a red flag. Among the pictures you should take, is one that’s just of a clean white sheet of paper, which will allow you to see if there are any problems, such as dust on the sensor or dead pixels.
Choosing Between Mirrorless and DSLR
We are clearly in a period of transitions, and mirrorless is the future. That being said, the DSLR is far from dead. While mirrorless cameras have several clear advantages, DSLRs have been around longer and are far more mature systems with larger ecosystems. The current Canon and Nikon lens systems, for example, have been made for decades, because they evolved from the lens systems used in 35mm film SLR cameras. There are literally dozens (maybe hundreds) of different lenses (from multiple manufacturers) that can be used with these cameras. Sony’s e-mount system (probably the largest mirrorless ecosystem at the time of writing), has about two dozen lenses… if you count adapters and converters.
There are also a lot of photographers who already have large investments in their DSLR system. While there are adapters that allow you to use some DSLR lenses and accessories on some mirrorless cameras, they are imperfect, and often require you to give up certain advantages of moving to mirrorless, such as faster focusing. That means a lot of photographers have a disincentive to move to mirrorless.
Although this is starting to change, traditionally, the ergonomics and control layout on mirrorless cameras have been inferior to those on DSLRs, which kind of makes sense, since modern DSLRs are literally the result of over fifty years of design evolution⁴. Mirrorless cameras have been around about fifteen years, but took off less than a decade ago.
If you’re just starting today and are not already invested in any specific system, I would almost certainly steer you toward mirrorless systems, since they are clearly the future of photography. That being said, one of my two main cameras is a DLSR and probably will for quite some time. While I love my mirrorless body, I have more glass for my DSLR and the downsides of DSLRs are rarely an issue for me. I honestly like the heft and feel of a larger camera in my hand and, in fact, my mirrorless Z9 is actually bigger and heavier than than my D850 DSLR. With the battery pack on the DSLR, they’re nearly identical.
There is no one right answer to the question, “which camera should I buy”. All the major manufacturers (and several minor manufacturers) make capable cameras across a wide price and feature range. A camera purchase is a highly personal decision, so your best best is to try out the cameras you’re interested in before buying anything. That way, you can be sure it works for you. We’ve honestly reached a point where you can get great results with the majority of digital cameras on the market, including less-expensive consumer-targeted cameras, so you need to figure out what features are important to you and what your budget is, then let that guide your purchasing decision.
1- When shooting with the sun, consider shooting during the first or last hour of sunlight. Because the sun passes through so much more atmosphere, it is a softer, warmer light that’s generally more flattering than the harsh, direct sunlight you get in the middle of the day. Photographer’s refer to the first hour of sunlight after the sun rises and the last hour before it sets as the “golden hour”, because the light is so flattering.
2- Lenses designed for crop sensor and full-frame cameras often use the same mount and are, technically speaking, interchangeable, but generally, you want to stick with the correct lens type for your body to avoid missing part of the image or getting vignetting.
3- My father, my wife, and I all have cameras bodies with similar capabilities. My father shoots Canon, I shoot Nikon, and my wife shoots Sony. All three are great cameras, and the only significant difference between them is the layout of the controls and the shape of the body. Don’t worry about what camera other people use; find what works for you.
4- The earliest DSLRs were actually built using film SLR bodies.