Equipment Grades Defined
Equipment | Film
We review equipment within the context of it's intended market. Lenses and cameras aren't necessarily good or bad, better or best.
A Quantary 70-300 zoom can be had for $160 on sale, A Tamron 70-300 for around $190, the Nikon 80-200 (2.8) can be had for around $1,000, while another Nikon 80-200 (AFS 2.8) costs a whopping $1,500*. How can this be when they all cover the same zoom range? The cheapest lens even covers a larger range.
The difference lies in the person the lens is targeted for, the quality of the optics, and how much punishment the equipment can take and still keep going. Our loosely defined guidelines divide equipment into junk, consumer quality, advanced amateur, and pro categories. We draw parallels to cars to help make the point for those new to photography. Keep in mind that it's not unusual for equipment to straddle two of these categories.
JUNK - The name speaks for itself. It's not particularly well built or reliable, and in some cases it's terrible, but it finds a following because it's cheap. Occasionally people fall in love with something because it's junk. The popularity of a particular Russian camera comes to mind. It's so bad that when you take a picture you never know what's going to show up on the film. Some people find this fascinating. Go figure.
This equipment is kind of like an old beat up car. It may get you there most of the time, but it won't do the job particularly well, or with any style or grace.
Consumer Grade - Want a nice step up in quality from your point and shoot camera? Something that will take nice 8x10s that you can hang on the wall? Light weight, easy to carry, easy to learn, and easy on the wallet. Welcome to the consumer camera world. More cameras are sold in this category than in any other because these cameras are designed to fit the needs of most people (consumers). Consumer cameras are great tools for folks who want to take good quality pictures but who don't necessarily want to be photographers.
These cameras and lenses are the family cars of the world. Reliable and dependable, they're what you find in most garages (and camera bags).
Advanced Amateur - Faster, heavier, more rugged, and more capable then consumer grade equipment. These cameras and lenses are designed for photographers who are serious about their photography but don't necessarily make their living doing it. At the upper end of this category are bodies and lenses capable of consistently producing professional quality images. Want to make prints 11x14 or larger? You'll definitely see a difference with this group; a difference that is often noticeable in smaller prints as well. But there is a steeper learning curve to consistently get that quality and this gear is priced higher - sometimes significantly higher then consumer grade equipment. This stuff is so good that pros often use this range of equipment as backups for their more expensive gear.
These cameras and lenses are the 4x4 pickups of the camera world. More powerful and able to take more abuse then the average family sedan, they'll work hard without complaint for years and don't mind when the going gets a little rough.
Pro Gear - When pros go out they have to come back with the image every time - no excuses, no re-trys. A pro camera and lens has to work in 130(F) degree heat, minus 60(F) degree cold, dust storms in the Sahara, constant water exposure in the rain forest, and then be able to withstand getting run over by a 300lb guy on the sidelines of an NFL game. These cameras are built heavy and tough. Metal shock resistant frames, multiple gaskets to seal everything, and they are torture tested for all of the above mentioned conditions and more. Beyond all that their mechanisms and optics must be the fastest and highest quality in the world. Gear that let's the photographer down doesn't last in the pro world.
There are no compromises in lens design either. No sacrifices are made to keep down weight or cost. Speed is a priority. Pros have to use slow fine grained films so their lenses have to be as fast as possible. The only thing that matters is the quality of the image. As a result pro level telephoto lenses are huge, and heavy enough to club a charging water buffalo. Only the most dedicated amateur would be willing to carry a pro setup around on their vacation. All of this ruggedness and sophistication comes at a price. Professional equipment is expensive, and worth every penny to the folks who make their living using it.
These cameras and lenses are the tanks of camera world; big heavy and powerful. No matter how bad the conditions and no matter how much punishment you heap on them, they'll just keep on going through conditions where lesser equipment would break down. But this invincibility comes at a steep price in dollars, size and weight.
These differing grades of equipment have evolved because they make sense. The person buying the $160 Quantary is no more a customer for the $1,500 Nikon then the Nikon buyer would be for the Quantary. So we put each piece in it's proper context and evaluate it accordingly.
Just as there various grades of equipment there are various grades of film. The person taking snapshots at an after work party isn't concerned about critical color accuracy and isn't willing to pay for it. But the photographer shooting for a fashion magazine needs to know that the color of the model's dress will be the same in roll fifteen as it was in roll one - and they are willing to pay for it. Here are the basic differences among films.
Store Brand - Store brand films are made by the larger film manufacturers and repackaged with the stores' name. They are generally older film designs which means that they are lower quality and in some cases they may not be held to the same quality control standards. Store brands are best suited for point and shoot cameras, or experimenting with your equipment where the finest grain and most accurate colors aren't required.
Consumer - These are the latest emulsions using the finest grain and richest color technologies currently available. They are not typically refrigerated for display and have a relatively long shelf life. Often consumer films have a professional equivalent such as Kodak EliteChrome ExtraColor and EktaChrome VS. While there is some variation in types of consumer films (ex. saturated vs. neutral color balance), the majority of consumer films have a general purpose orientation.
Professional - Professional films are held to tighter standards, have a shorter shelf life because they are released after the film has "aged" to a uniform standard, and are usually refrigerated both before and after sale to slow further aging. This is all done in the name of consistency. Pros need to know that colors will not vary between rolls during a shoot. Many pros also do their own rigorous testing to determine a film's performance before they ever shoot it on an assignment. Location shoots can cost thousands of dollars, so they need to know that a film's performance will not vary from batch to batch. Ensuring this consistency has a cost and pro slide films tend to be more expensive then their consumer counterparts. There also tends to be more variety among professional films with a number of films formulated to meet the needs of specific types of shooting or specific industries.
*based on average street prices when this was written.
text and photography copyright © 2001 Vivid Light Publishing