I am a senior matte painter at Sony Pictures Imageworks in Vancouver and matte painting instructor at Think Tank and Lost Boys Studios. Previously, I have been a senior artist at Method Studios Vancouver, and an emmy-winning co-founder of Atmosphere Visual Effects.

Useful Books
  • The Digital Matte Painting Handbook
    The Digital Matte Painting Handbook
  • Invisible Art: The Legends of Movie Matte Painting
    Invisible Art: The Legends of Movie Matte Painting
  • d'artiste Matte Painting: Digital Artists Master Class
    d'artiste Matte Painting: Digital Artists Master Class
  • d'artiste Matte Painting 2: Digital Artists Master Class
    d'artiste Matte Painting 2: Digital Artists Master Class
  • Perspective Made Easy
    Perspective Made Easy
  • The Photographer's Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos
    The Photographer's Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos
Useful DVDs
  • Techniques of Dusso 1: Introduction to Digital Matte Painting
    Techniques of Dusso 1: Introduction to Digital Matte Painting
  • Techniques of Dusso 2: Digital Matte Painting Fundamentals
    Techniques of Dusso 2: Digital Matte Painting Fundamentals
  • Techniques of Dylan Cole: Introduction to Landscape Matte Painting
    Techniques of Dylan Cole: Introduction to Landscape Matte Painting
  • Techniques of Dylan Cole: Introduction to Cityscape Matte Painting
    Techniques of Dylan Cole: Introduction to Cityscape Matte Painting
  • Techniques of Dylan Cole: Advanced Digital Matte Painting
    Techniques of Dylan Cole: Advanced Digital Matte Painting
  • Color Theory: The Mechanics of Color with Richard Keyes
    Color Theory: The Mechanics of Color with Richard Keyes
« The Matte Painter as Storyteller | Main | Photography for Matte Painters (a quick guide) »

Photography for Matte Painters Part II: Camera Gear

Don't be this guy.Camera gear is a huge topic in itself, and there are a ton of websites out there that will gleefully dissect it in mind-numbing detail. The topic is a veritable black hole; there are legions of internet photographers who have been sucked into it, never to reappear amongst the ranks of actual real-life photographers.

So if you want to fetishize camera gear, go to dpreview.com and knock yourself out. Your credit card company will doubtless thank you for your business and raise your credit limit again, just as mine did. ;-)

But here, I'll limit myself to covering the topic as efficiently as possible so we can move on to more interesting things. This isn't rocket science, so I doubt I'll say much that you haven't read before. But by focussing on the most salient performance criteria, I'll make every effort to leave you with a clear picture of what really matters when it comes time to buy.

So... let's get a couple of things out of the way first.

The vast majority of photographers are not getting the best out of their cameras.

By saying that, I'm not trying to be snotty; it is just a simple statement of fact. There are a multitude of small things you can do to improve the technical quality of your photographs without having to upgrade your camera, and most people don't do half of them. So don't kid yourself that you need to run out and buy that Nikon D810 just yet - you probably don't. You can almost certainly extract a lot more quality out of your existing camera than you realize. So this brings me to Rule #1:

Rule #1: Upgrade the Photographer first, not the camera

Next, it's a painfully obvious point, but Chase Jarvis' aphorism bears repeating:

"The best camera is the one you have with you".

A big, expensive camera that you never take with you is nothing more than a paperweight. Be honest with yourself: how likely you are to lug around a heavy camera? Hence Rule #2:

Rule #2: Get a camera you'll actually bring with you.

I belabour these points not because I don't see the value of high-quality camera equipment; believe me, I do. But it is very, very easy to get sucked into spending an exorbitant amount of money on gear that you don't need and aren't going to use to best advantage. I know this because I've been guilty of it as anyone - one look at my bulging camera bag will confirm that.

Don't take my word for it, though. For a fuller exploration of these issues by a photographer and teacher of vast experience, read Thom Hogan's article Blame the Equipment and take it to heart.

Subsequent posts in this series will hopefully equip you with some of the knowledge necessary to extract more technical quality out of the camera gear that you do have. If you faithfully follow that advice, and perhaps take a course or two at a local photography school, and put it all that into practice on a regular basis, then yes - you may well find yourself in a position where any further significant improvements can only come from purchasing that D810 you've been drooling over. Until then, hold your horses.

Enough said of that, I think.

Camera Types

Which feeds us into the first consideration: what kind of camera is best for you? To answer that, you need to take into consideration your habits as a photographer.

Are you an impulse or opportunistic photographer, who grabs pictures as you stumble across them? Then perhaps you're best off just getting a high quality compact camera that can live in your jacket pocket all the time. Or even just a smartphone with a half-decent camera.

Maybe you're an anally-retentive planner who scouts out locations ahead of time and waits for the perfect conditions to return and get exactly the image you want? Then you might want to consider getting a top-flight SLR and tripod.

Those are two ends of a spectrum, and many people land somewhere in between. The point is to think honestly about what you truly need. You may indeed need more than one camera, and that's fine too - so long as that decision is honestly arrived at!

So there are six general classes of camera a digital matte painter might use: 

  • Cellphone Cameras
  • Compact Cameras
  • Mirrorless interchangeable lens Cameras (e.g. Micro 4/3rds)
  • SLRs
  • Medium Format
  • Large Format

I'll look only at the first four classes, because anyone who'd be seriously considering investing in a digital Medium or Large Format system does not need a blog post like this to tell them what to do!

Compact Cameras

Panasonic DMC-LX5The current generation of digital compacts is of surprisingly high quality - they are certainly capable of production-quality results if used with care. But keep in mind that the margins for error will be significantly less with a compact camera than with larger, higher-quality formats.

Key features you'll want to look out for are: 

  • RAW shooting capability. While not 100% essential, RAW is generally greatly preferable to JPEG. This is arguably even more important in compact cameras than in larger formats because compacts' sensors have a smaller dynamic range and thus benefit from RAW's extra "headroom" from which to recover otherwise-clipped details from the highlights and shadows.
  • Sensible megapixel counts. This is where many people get tripped up. Compact cameras have tiny image sensors, with unbelievably high pixel densities. The higher the pixel density, the smaller each individual sensor site. The smaller the sensor site, the more prone it is to random noise. So beyond a certain point, more megapixels can actually translate into inferior image quality. In the current generation of compacts, the sweet spot appears to be approximately 12MP. Be wary of compact cameras with resolutions higher than this - do your research before buying anything with a suspiciously high resolution.
  • Manual Controls. Few compacts offer truly manual controls, but do try to find one that at least offers Aperture Priority mode.
  • Decent Lens. It's difficult to judge the quality of a lens when playing with a camera in a shop, so you may need to see what the professional reviewers say about a particular model. But in general, shy away from lenses that pack an enormous zoom range into a small package; they compromise image quality too much. Look for lenses with modest to moderate zoom range, and reasonably wide apertures of f2.8 or better. 

Mirrorless cameras

This is a class of camera that, being relatively new on the scene, I have no direct personal experience with. But the reviews are in, and some of the better models appear to be very viable options for those looking for greater quality and flexibility than a compact, but in a more lightweight and compact form factor than SLRs.

Lens selection for mirrorless cameras is still somewhat limited compared to DSLRs, but that's changing rapidly. Lots of manufacturers are jumping on the mirrorless bandwagon, so anything I write now will rapidly go out of date. 

Single Lens Reflexes (SLRs)

For most normal people, the gold standard for outright quality and versatility will be a full-sized digital SLR.

The biggest decision a buyer needs to make up front is what sensor size to settle with. This is an important decision, because it effects so many other things down the line - especially lens choice.

The choices boil down to crop-sensor and full-frame systems.  

  • Crop sensor:
    PROS: smaller lighter bodies and lenses, can extract more range from telephoto lenses due to 1.5x multiplication factor, lighter lenses,  less expensive.
    CONS: smaller viewfinder, usually smaller selection of lenses, usually fewer pro-grade lenses, poorer low-light performance, generally lower-end consumer bodies with less sophisticated feature sets.
  • Full-frame sensor:
    PROS: larger sensor, bigger viewfinder, generally better choice for wide-angle photography, usually wider lens selection, more pro-grade lenses, better low-light performance, generally higher-end bodies with more sophisticated feature sets.
    CONS: larger heavier bodies and lenses, a lot more expensive, don't get as much range out of telephoto lenses.

In general, leaving cost out of the equation, for matte painters I recommend a full-frame sensor camera over a crop-frame sensor. There is generally more quality to be extracted out of the sensor, a greater choice of high-quality lenses, and the generally superior low-light performance of the sensor will prove useful when shooting photographs in darker environments like sound stages.

Having said all that, the differences are not as great as they used to be. Each generation of crop-sensor cameras is closing the quality gap more and more, and I would not consider a recent-model camera to be an inferior choice except for quite specific purposes. Indeed, crop-sensor cameras are a better choice for some people.

The next choice a buyer has to make is what brand of camera to buy. Most of the debate tends to revolve around Nikon vs. Canon, and often takes on the fervour of a Mac vs Windows debate. But other brands are worth considering, most notably Pentax and Sony. 

I will not advocate particularly strongly in favour of any one brand; they are all good pieces of kit capable of creating superb images. I will say this, though: do not base your purchasing decision on the camera bodies. Base it on the overall systems, especially the lenses.

Camera bodies come and go; lenses are forever.

Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration. But not much of one: a good pro-quality lens is an investment in a way that a digital SLR body can never hope to be. Indeed, certain benchmark lenses can end up appreciating in value after they have been discontinued. And even very ordinary lenses can still retain their usefulness for decades after their purchase. I don't think we'll see many of today's digital bodies still being used in 2035...

SLR Lenses

I wish I had an entire post to devote to the topic of lenses, but I promised myself I wouldn't get sucked into an extended series just on gear. So here are a few general rules:

  • Get the best lenses you can reasonably afford. Pro lenses are expensive, but they are much better value in the long run. They produce better images, are more sturdily built, and retain their value much better.
  • Don't feel you have to cover every part of the focal length range. The utility of zoom lenses is overstated - three prime lenses can cover 95% of your needs, so long as you're willing to use your feet to reframe your composition.
  • Don't forget prime lenses. Simple, reliable, lightweight, and of very high optical quality, prime lenses give you a lot of bang for your buck. For matte painters, a useful kit might include a 20mm f2.8, 50mm f1.8 and 105mm f2.8. 
  • Tilt/Shift lenses rock. They are great for shooting architectural photos, but they're very expensive. Wish I had one though.
  • Ultrawide: I have a 16mm fisheye, bought with the idea that it would be useful for grabbing quick HDRI reference panoramas; but to be honest, I almost never use it. It has 180 degree FOV only towards the corners. What IS useful, though, is a crop-sensor 10.5mm fisheye used on a full-frame dslr. Shave the hood off, and you have a true 180 degree field of view in every dimension. Fantastic for efficient capture of 360 degree environments. You need a camera with a really good resolution, though - the Nikon D800/810 cameras are perfect for this.
  • Superwide: in my experience, the useful part of the zoom range starts at about 17mm. If you're looking for a zoom, a good 17-35mm f2.8 or similar will get a lot of use. If you prefer prime lenses, a 20mm f2.8 is fantastic - so useful.
  • Wide: usually denotes the 24-35mm range. Definitely useful, and I have a zoom that covers this range (the aforementioned 17-35mm), but if I was using only prime lenses I probably wouldn't bother with anything in this range if I already had a 20mm lens.
  • Standard: the venerable 50mm f1.8 is usually the cheapest lens in a manufacturer's lineup, but also of the highest optical quality. Simple, light, sharp, and extremely useful in low light, there's not much reason to not get one. If you have a bit more money to splurge, feel free to get an f1.4 for that extra little bit of speed, but it's a minor difference.

Recommended kits:

  • Primes only: get a 20mm f2.8; 50mm f1.4 or f1.8; and 105mm f2.8 Macro.
  • Zooms only: get a 17-35mm f2.8 or f4; and 70-300 f4.5-5.6.
  • Mixed kit: add a 50mm f1.4 or f1.8 to the zoom kit above.

Tripods and Ball Heads

A pretty sweet setup: a Nikon D700, Really Right Stuff panorama rig, and Gitzo tripod.If you aren't using a high quality support system, then you almost certainly aren't getting the best out of your camera.

True, there are plenty of occasions when it's just unrealistic to use a tripod. Who wants to spend a hot summer's day schlepping around Florence with a tripod strapped to your back? But it's important to understand what the tradeoff can be for that mobility: visibly decreased image sharpness.

So as before, I'm going to advocate for pretty expensive, high-quality gear. This doesn't mean that nothing but the best is worth buying; everyone has their own threshold for what they consider to be reasonable value. But I hope to offer you have a "gold standard" against which to make your own informed purchasing decisions. 

Tripod Legs

The Rolls-Royce of tripods: the Gitzo SystematicFrom the engineer's perspective of optimal rigidity, the theoretical ideal is a tripod that is heavy and stiff. But in the real world, heavy tripods simply languish in the trunks of cars. So you really want a tripod that is both light and stiff. This is surprisingly difficult engineering brief to fulfill well; there is a fundamental tension between lightness and stiffness. Which explains why good tripods are so expensive.

Things to consider:

  1. Materials: Carbon Fibre is absolutely the best option, and not just because it's light - it has additional structural properties that help to dampen vibrations. Don't skimp here - avoid aluminum and basalt if you can afford it.
  2. Size: get the largest, sturdiest tripod that you can realistically see yourself carrying around. If you have the money, consider getting a couple of sets of legs: a lightweight set for field use, and a heavier set for use near the car...
  3. Leg sections: more sections allows the tripod to collapse down smaller, but at the expense of rigidity. 3 or 4 sections is usually the sweet spot.
  4. Centre column: generally I'd advise to not bother with a centre column unless you anticipate doing a lot of closeup work such as macro photography. This advice goes double for geared columns. Both involve too many structural compromises. Many tripods with centre columns allow you to remove the column and clamp the plate directly to the leg assembly: this is a good way to go.
  5. Levelling base: this is pretty much essential if you plan on doing any panoramas. You will save yourself endless time and aggravation if you get a good levelling base.

My tripod of choice is the carbon fibre Gitzos. But be warned: Gitzo makes an absolutely dizzying array of tripods. In general, though, I recommend the following:

For lighter field use, get a Mountaineer series Gitzo. The GT2531 (3-section legs) or GT2541 (4-section legs) are a good choice as a lightweight complement to a larger studio tripod. The GT3531 or GT3541, being a little sturdier, are probably the best choice if you can only afford one set of legs.

For studio or near-the-car use, get something like a Gitzo 5541LS. Again, choices abound in the 5000 series, so choose carefully. Pay heed to some of the cool options available for these systematic tripods: they are incredibly flexible in configuration, which is why they are so worth the money. 

I cannot vouch for other brands. I have used a Manfrotto (Bogen in the US) carbon fibre tripod, and it was okay but not great. Really Right Stuff now makes a tripod that I would assume to be of superb quality, given the quality of the rest of their products - but it's even more expensive than equivalent Gitzos. Generally, you get what you pay for. Cheaper tripods will be structurally flawed.


The Rolls-Royce of ballheads: the Really Right Stuff BH-55

Right off the bat, I urge you to avoid any tripod head that is not a ball head. Those three-axis pan and tilt heads? Total crap. I went through three of them (of increasing prices, of course) before I realized that they were for rank amateurs.

Get a high quality ball head, like a Really Right Stuff. I have three of various sizes, including their top of the line BH-55. If you're an engineering geek, they will bring tears of joy to your eyes. 

A critical part of a good ballhead is the quick-release clamp. I urge you to get a ballhead that has the Arca Swiss style of clamp - it provides an absolutely solid structural connection with no slop whatsoever. Really Right Stuff ballheads all have Arca Swiss-style clamps.

Other very reputable brands of ballhead include Arca Swiss themselves, Kirk and Markins. I have not tried any of them myself.


Just because I've recommended a bunch of expensive gear does NOT mean you should run out and buy it. Above all, be honest with yourself about what's actually going to get used! Get the right camera gear for you. And then learn how to use it well!

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