Pro DSLRs, Pro Photographers

Amadou Diallo | Pro Photography | Published Mar 12, 2013

Nikon D4, Nikkor 35mm F1.4 AIS (exposure not recorded). Lighting: Profoto Pro-7b power pack and heads with 5-foot Octa softbox (camera right) and silver umbrella (camera left). John Lok/The Seattle Times.

The Canon EOS 1D X and Nikon D4 offer all of us tantalizing looks at the top of the technology ladder for pro cameras. Yet there's no denying that these DSLRs are developed primarily to serve the unique needs and demands of working professionals such as photojournalists. For them, features like durability, intuitive ergonomics and lightning fast performance are non-negotiable requirements that can mean the difference between getting published and being out of work.

With this in mind, we recently sat down with two Seattle Times staff photographers to get their take on what it's like to use these cameras on a daily basis. Dean Rutz, a longtime Canon shooter has been using the EOS 1D X since its launch. John Lok has shot professionally with the Nikon D3s in addition to the Canon gear issued by the Times. At our request, he agreed to spend a few weeks using the Nikon D4 for many of his daily assignments. 

Canon EOS 1D XEF 400mm F2.8L IS USM ISO 800, 1/1000 @F2.8. Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times.

In this interview, both photographers give us their take on Canon and Nikon's latest pro bodies, providing a wide-ranging and inside look at what it's like to earn a living covering breaking news in a major US city with the most expensive and highest performing DSLRs on the market.

What was your introduction to photography and photojournalism?

Dean Rutz: My father worked at the Chicago Tribune his whole life. He was an executive at the newspaper and was reading through two or three papers at the kitchen table every morning, so newspapers were something I always paid attention to. Because of that, my interest in photography was always related to photojournalism. I first got published in newspapers at 14 years old. I was shooting high school sports for the local papers. There was a huge appetite for that, so they were hiring stringers all the time at $25 for a picture of anything!

Canon EOS 1D XEF 50mm F1.4 USM ISO 2000, 1/1000 @F2.8. Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times.

I was actually a photo editor at the Seattle Times for 10 years. I was also shooting for the paper when the need arose, but in 1992 I covered the Barcelona Olympics and I became really enamored with the spectacle of sport. It was then that I committed myself almost full-time to sports photography, while still working as a photo editor. After 1998 I left the desk and went back to full-time shooting.

John Lok: I had a business undergraduate degree and was doing social work when I was younger. I only discovered photography when I was about 28. It happened when I spent a weekend up at a cousin's house in Canada. Photography was something he did as a hobby. We went to a local park and I started taking pictures with his gear, of pretty generic stuff like flowers and ducks. Later we got the pictures back from the one hour photo lab and...I can't really explain it but I just fell in love. Something about the photography process and the gear just lit a fire in me.

Nikon D4, Nikkor 35mm F1.4 AIS, ISO 1000, 1/800 @F2.
John Lok/The Seattle Times.
Nikon D3SAF-S Nikkor 60mm F2.8 Macro, ISO 200, 1/100 @F3. John Lok/The Seattle Times.

I got back home to Seattle and looked into how I could become a photographer. I looked for schools that offered programs in photojournalism and ended up quitting my job and attending Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky. A month before graduation I got a position as a three year resident photographer at the Seattle Times. Just a year after that I was hired on as a full time staff member. That was ten years ago.

Canon EOS 1D Mark II, EF 70-200 F2.8L IS USM ISO 250, 1/8000 @F2.8. John Lok/The Seattle Times.

As working pros, what are your top requirements for a camera?

JL: I can't have any lag in shutter response or AF performance. I need the shooting rate to be as fast as possible. I need 1080p video. I need a solidly built body that won't break if I knock it on something. And of course the body has to be part of a very extensive system of lenses and accessories. Nikon and Canon are unrivaled there.

DR: Like John, my first priority is the responsiveness of the shutter. When you press the button, it's gotta go! There was a little delay on the 1D Mark III but on the 1D X when you press the button it fires. That is a big deal in sports.

 Nikon D3S, AF-S Nikkor 600mm F4 VR, ISO 2000, 1/1600 @F4. John Lok/The Seattle Times.

Image quality is big. On the 1D X I can crop an image without a real loss in quality. That's huge in sports because I don't know anybody who can publish uncropped files all the time (laughs). Fast write speed to the cards is also important. We saw big delays in the 1D Mark III and earlier models. The 7D was a great improvement especially after the firmware update. But the 1D X, with three processors is so much faster that I shoot all raw, all the time on my sports assignments. I can underexpose a little bit and don't have to worry about weird color balance when shooting in arenas.

And two card slots let me archive JPEGs for crisis situations where I have to use my iPad or iPhone to transmit images.

Has the ability to shoot video with a DSLR changed your roles as photojournalists?

JL: Yes. Now we are being asked to come back with video clips for breaking news and even longer form stories to accompany the stills and the words. I don't have to shoot tons of video but I do it fairly frequently. 

DR: It's a little different in sports because the federations have taken control over their images. The NFL is a classic example. You can post only 45 seconds of video online. That's all you get. And that's for the first 24 hours after the game. Then you have to pull it down for like 10 hours. So its just not worth it for sports assignments.

Nikon D3S, AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8G VR II + TC-14E II 1.4x teleconverter, ISO 400, 1/50 @F29. John Lok/The Seattle Times.

Click here for page 2 of our Pro DSLRs, Pro Photographers article...

What advantages does the Nikon D4 offer over the D3S?

JL: The D4 is extremely light. That's considerable because I carry cameras on my shoulder for hours on end. The image quality is fantastic, but to be honest it's not significantly different from the D3S or even the 1D X. That's not what would sell me on one of these cameras over the other. I do love the Nikon glass and their color rendition.

I've been impressed with the D4's AF speed and accuracy. In my work I need for that first shot to be in focus because that might be the only chance I get to capture a moment. As a photojournalist it's unethical for me to ask someone to redo something. So I need it to be in focus when I hit it the first time.

Nikon D4, AF-S Nikkor 85mm F1.8G, ISO 220, 1/6400 @F1.8. John Lok/The Seattle Times.

Is there anything the Nikon D3s offered that you wish the D4 had?

JL: Nothing! The D4 is a wonderful camera for all the metro assignments I've used it on.

If you could change one feature or performance aspect of the D4 what would it be?

JL: Ergonomics. Now I've shot with Canon cameras for a long time. And for me the Canons feel like an extension of my hand. On the D4 the position of the rear AF button feels a little off when shooting in horizontal orientation. And in the vertical shooting position I feel like there's not enough of the texturized grip element for my hand. But this is personal and if I had started my career shooting Nikon I'd probably feel differently. But the D4 does shoot at a slower frame rate than the 1D X. 

Canon EOS 1D XEF 70-200mm F2.8L USM ISO 400, 1/1000 @F2.8. Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times.

What advantages does the Canon EOS 1D X offer over the 1D Mark III?

DR: In your hand, the 1D X is an entirely better build from top to bottom. I like the contours of the 1D X, how it feels in the hand. I think the weight is better balanced than the Mark III. The rear 1D X 's AF button is a bit larger so your thumb finds it naturally. There's nothing about the Mark III that I like better than the 1D X. The color rendition of the 1D X is better, with more pleasing saturation and the ISO sensitivity matches that of the 7D which makes it much easier when I have to use both cameras on an assignment.

If you could change one feature or performance aspect of the 1DX what would it be?

DR: I actually don't know that I'd have any obvious changes I'd make to the 1D X.

Canon EOS 1D XEF 70-200mm F2.8L USM ISO 4000, 1/1000 @F2.8. Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times.

Talk about how you use the cameras' AF systems. There are a lot of options to configure on both cameras.

DR: It's complicated because there are so many options. The 1D X has numbered Case settings but I've talked to guys at the (London) Olympics and SI (Sports Illustrated) shooters and there's no agreement among us as to which setting works best.

As for focus points it used to be that the center AF point was the most reliable and I'm not sure that's still true. But I still stick with the central cluster of AF points simply because with the full frame finder your eye is so much to the middle that it's actually a big jump to go to the outside. I'm not seeing the outside focus points as well as on the previous cameras.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF 15mm F2.8 Fisheye ISO 1600, 1/800 @F4.5. John Lok/The Seattle Times.

JL: When I first got it I obviously spent time tweaking the AF settings on the D4 to my liking. It doesn't have the Case settings like on the 1D X but I find I can get the same effect on the D4. It just takes a little more time to configure.

What was your take on the infamous AF issues with the 1DS III. Did Canon adequately address the issue with their firmware updates? Is the 1D X an improvement?

DR: I thought the firmware updates to the 1D Mark III were a big improvement and I was happy with it, until I started using the 1D X. The 1D X is vastly superior to anything the Mark III does.

What's the pressure like when covering breaking news and sporting events?

DR: Shooting sports there's incredible pressure. Especially when it comes to the Olympics. you're competing against hundreds of other photographers at the same venues. You're trying to get your images into print when you know that your editors are seeing every other available source for the same event. But it's a wonderful challenge.

Here's another example: Two seasons ago the University of Washington men's basketball team won on a buzzer beater with two seconds left on the clock and almost before I could even look at the back of my camera I'm getting text messages from the office saying, 'Did you get that?'

JL: I don't consider it pressure in the sense that I worry about it. I've grown to revel in it. I perform better when the pressure's on. Part of why I love photojournalism so much is that you have to be self-reliant. I'm the problem-solver, the negotiator to get access to places. No one is telling me how to get that picture. It's up to me. I really enjoy knowing that people are relying on my work. I enjoy the responsibility to really come through; not just to give them (my editors) a picture but to really kill it.

Behind the shot

Dean Rutz gives us the back story from one of his most satisfying shots from the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In discussing the pressure of vying for a special shot among the best sports photographers from around the world, Dean shares the important role that personal relationships with the athletes can play.

DR: I'm fortunate in that Washington state produces a number of Olympic athletes. These are athletes that I have known and covered for years, so I have a relationship with them. My favorite example of this is when Megan Jendrick (nee Quann) won the gold in Sydney in the 100m breaststroke.

This shot of Megan Jendrick immediately following her gold medal ceremony in the 2000 Olympics was possible because Dean had known and covered her for years before the Olympics. Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times.

After her gold medal ceremony there's the usual clamor of photographers. Everybody wants the shot of the kiss of the medal. Well, I stepped way off to the side of that group because I kind of knew what Megan would do. She was so excited when she got her medal and when she saw me, mine was the first familiar face she spotted and she ran over to me, so I was able to get a nice tight shot of her showing me her medal without being part of the gaggle of photographers, all because I had a relationship with the athlete. That was very special to me and shows that you can compete against thousands of other photographers if you know your subject.

What photographers do you draw inspiration from?

JL: I've become known for my portrait work so I really admire magazine portrait photographers like Norman Jean Roy, Annie Leibovitz, Dan Winters and also Damon Winter from the New York Times. I like fashion photographers as well, like Steven Klein and Mario Testino.

Canon EOS 1D XEF 16-35mm F2.8L USM ISO 400, 1/100 @F20. Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times.

DR: Growing up, Neal Leifer was a huge influence. Everything he did was iconic. Looking at his body of work, his photographs are benchmarks in time that are drawn on by everybody who refers to that time. Walter Iooss Jr. is a classic SI photographer. Heinz Kluetmeier is one of those guys who was able to create onsite and plan ahead to capture great sports moments.

Click here for page 3 of our Pro DSLRs, Pro Photographers article...

The Seattle Times uses Canon gear. What equipment do you take on a typical shoot?

JL: For metro assignments I go out with two bodies. Over one shoulder I have the 1D X with a 35mm F1.4L. On the other is a 1D Mark III with the 70-200 F2.8L. In my hip pack I have a 50mm F1.4 and an 85mm F1.8.

For sports assignments like NFL games I use the same bodies, but will put a 400mm F2.8 on the 1D X and keep the 70-200 on the 1D 3. I'll bring a Canon 1.4x teleconverter. Then I'll add a third body around my neck, the Canon 7D with the 16-35mm zoom to shoot the things that happen really quick in front of me. Now if I had my druthers I'd shoot with three 1D Xs but that's a budgeting issue at the paper.

Being close to the action, loaded down with three bodies and heavy lenses, means that getting out of the way is not always possible. Here, John Lok could not escape the collision, but did come away unhurt. Photo by George Holland.

DR: For the most part sporting events seem to be a three lens configuration: your short zoom, long zoom and 400 F2.8. You can work around most situations with just those three lenses and three bodies.

For every assignment the pack is different so I have a number of ThinkTank roller bags. For NFL games I bring two 1D X bodies, the 16-35mm F2.8L, 70-200mm F2.8L and 400mm F2.8. I have my MacBook and two Lexar FW 800 card readers that I can daisy chain.

For pro and college basketball, the 400mm F2.8 is replaced by the 300mm F2.8. And I'm adding another body or two, like a 7D with a 16-35mm F2.8L. I'll bring floor plates and a Magic Arm to set up that camera as a remote using PocketWizard transmitters. I don't mount it above the rim like the magazine guys simply because at that height the camera is not serviceable at halftime, which is my first deadline. So I mount lower down on the post where I can get to the camera when I need to, even during a time-out to swap cards, etc. This way I can get my 'under the rim' shots onto the newswire first, whereas for most guys those are the shots they upload last.

Canon EOS 7D, EF 17-35mm F2.8L USM, ISO 1250, 1/1000 @F2.8. Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times.
To get this shot, the camera was mounted on the post beneath the rim and fired remotely.

How do you process/transmit images back to the photo desk?

DR: I mentioned that I shoot Raw and my Raw workflow is as fast as most people's JPEG workflow. One reason is that I bring an external monitor. Venues have a workroom where you have room to set up a 20-inch or larger monitor. We all use laptops but the second screen helps in managing a thousand images on deadline. I can go through thumbnail images faster to make selects.

I use Photo Mechanic to ingest the images and a plugin to go straight to Photoshop. We ftp into a mainframe that assimilates our images into all the photos that come in from wire services. So our editors see and have access to all photographers' images from an event. So speed in transmitting becomes very important as well as IPTC metadata that identifies our work.

Canon EOS 7DEF 24-105mm F4L IS USM ISO 500, 1/320 @F4. Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times.

If I'm transmitting from the field I'm doing it from my iPad. I use a CF card adapter for the iPad to get images onto it. I use the app Photogene to add IPTC metadata, use ftp presets and do basic color corrections. The app can even handle raw files.

Is the Ethernet and add-on wireless connectivity in the latest Canon and Nikon pro bodies a significant feature?

DR: We invested in Canon's WFT wireless transmitters but one of the big problems with this and Ethernet connectivity from the camera is that if you set your IP address for the camera you take your device out of the IP for Internet access. So it actually slows down the ability to acquire and send an image back to the office. This is something we'd like to see Canon address, so you can wirelessly acquire images from the camera and then, without changing any settings send it out over the Internet.

If you could design the perfect camera what would it have?

JL: It would be extremely responsive, have a frame rate even faster than the 1D X and I could shoot with it in a rainstorm!

DR: I want more seamless data transfer to my laptop and the Internet. I'd love to see the ability to import IPTC data into the camera. I'd even like to see an in-camera auto exposure tool that would leverage the raw data and remap black and white points like in Photoshop. Workflow is everything and speed is paramount.

What advice would you to give to aspiring photojournalists?

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF 16-35mm F2.8L, ISO 50, 1/200 @F8. John Lok/The Seattle Times. Lighting setup: Hensel Porty 1200 and EHT 1200 head with Profoto Octa 5-foot softbox.

DR: It's a brutal career now, especially in sports where so many federations and leagues are controlling their images and making it more difficult for people to be credentialed to cover events. But having said that, if you have talent there's absolutely nothing to stop you from being successful if you're motivated, ambitious and really want to succeed!

Start small. There's a tendency among young graduates to want to start at the top by shooting pro sports games. You have such a better opportunity to develop your craft at the high school or college level. You'll have access to athletes who are not jaded and not controlling their own images. You'll have proximity to the action, so you don't need a 400mm lens. Start small and shoot as much as you humanly can. And whenever you get to shoot alongside pros always compare your work against theirs to see where you went wrong. Ask yourself, 'What are they seeing that I didn't see?'

 Nikon D3S, AF-S Nikkor 600mm F4 VR, ISO 2000, 1/1600 @F4. John Lok/The Seattle Times.

JL: My advice is that you really need to want it! As Dean mentioned, being a professional photographer whether its advertising, fashion, architecture, you name it, is a very difficult thing to pull off in this day and age. It just is. With cellphone cameras, everyone and their mom are photographers. Expensive gear is no longer a barrier. The sheer volume of images being produced now means that consumers of images have many more avenues to get them, and many of those options are low cost or even free.

Dean Rutz

Dean Rutz joined the Seattle Times in 1988 as picture editor. Previously he had been a staff photographer at The Washington (DC) Times, and the Palm Beach (FL) Post. He has shot six Olympic Games, the Superbowl, NBA Championships, countless MLB playoff games and more than his share of high school sports.

John Lok

A native of Seattle, John Lok has been a staff photographer at The Seattle Times since 2003. He is a graduate of the photojournalism program at Western Kentucky University. He has interned at the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Ky.), Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Mich.), St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Los Angeles Times. He specializes in portraiture, sports, food and lifestyle imagery. To see more of John Lok's work, visit his online image gallery at the Seattle Times. You can also follow his Twitter feed.

You can view more of Dean and John's work with the Seattle Times photo app.