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Gear Doesn’t Matter — Except When It Does

If you follow any part of the photographic blogosphere, you’ve heard folks repeat this mantra over and over and over again: “Gear doesn’t matter.”

The basic premise of that dictum is as follows: making great pictures is about the photographer, not the camera or the lens or any other piece of gear. A good photographer can make a great image with a point-and-shoot that an amateur armed with a Nikon D4 and an 85mm f/1.4 lens can’t match.

I’ve personally repeated the “It’s not the camera that takes the picture” mantra to new photographers myself because I know it to be true, and because it helps allay the fears many photographers have when buying their first DSLR, for example.

I’ve also made some images, like the one shown above of Highway 130 in the San Francisco Bay Area, that I still like. It was taken with a Canon Rebel XTi and an 18–55mm kit lens.

So, yes, at a basic level, you can make great images with very basic gear. For newcomers, especially, this is a good sermon to preach.

The catch

You knew there was going to be one, right?

Before I tell you what that catch is, let me say this again, this time in bold and italic typeface: You don’t need expensive gear to get started in photography. Even a point-and-shoot will work. Use basic gear to learn the basics of photography before you start eyeing big gear.

Ok. Here’s that catch: Gear doesn’t matter – except when it does.

Scott Kelby said it best on episode 46 of his show, The Grid:

This is one that that, boy, you’re gonna hear people get cranked about this, but by gosh, we talk about it privately, and we hear other people talk about it in small groups, but somebody’s gotta talk about it. I know that you’ve heard again and again and again on the web – someone’s gonna type this as soon as I say it – “It’s not about the camera. It’s not about the equipment.”

You know what it is? Here’s the truth. Sometimes, it is about the equipment. Sometimes it is, and nobody wants to say that, because everyone wants to be camera-politically correct… The reality of it is, sometimes it is. If you want a certain look, sometimes you have to buy stuff.

Watch that episode and you’ll see why he says that. For the record, I agree with him.

There are two key reasons why – and when – I think gear matters.

1. When you begin to specialize

When you’re first starting out with photography, you’re exploring the basics. You’re learning about composition and exposure, getting to know your camera and how it performs under various situations.

At this point, when you’re first starting out, it’s not about the gear. Sure, you’ll want some basics, like a modern DSLR or digital rangefinder, but really, even a digital point-and-shoot will help you learn those basics.

But at some point, you’re going to get beyond the basics. And you’re going to start drifting towards a specific genre of photography. That’s when gear is going to matter.

Hummingbird image taken with a 1D Mark IV and a 600mm f/4 lens

Let’s be clear here. You’re not very likely to photograph a hummingbird in the shade without a long lens and a camera that’ll perform well at ISO 1600. You’re not likely to grab a shot of the wide receiver at a football game make the game-winning catch and isolate him from the crowded background, in stadium lighting, without a long lens and a wide-open (think 400mm at f/2.8) aperture.

When you drift towards specific genres, your gear will directly affect your ability to make the images you want to. Long, fast lenses and high-ISO cameras may be necessary for some types of photography, while more megapixels and strobes with short durations may be more appropriate for freezing subjects in mid-motion.

That’s when gear will matter.

2. When you’ve hit a certain level of expertise

There are a lot of jokes that are circulating around on the subject of gear.

One that I’ve heard time and time again goes along these lines: Some hapless dolt gapes at your awesome hummingbird shot and says, “Boy, that’s a great picture! You must have a great camera!”

You get snarky and respond, “Yup. Got it from the same place Michelangelo bought his brushes.”

I guess that’s appropriate to some extent. As I said above, we have to stress the importance of the creator of an image.

But you know what? I betcha Michelangelo did have great brushes. And paints. And whatever else painters use (rulers? palettes?).

There is a reason why painters sometimes obsess over the quality of their brushes, or why great chefs use thousand-dollar knives, pots, and pans. At some point, artists realize that getting great gear makes a difference to their art – not because they couldn’t create something without those top-notch tools, but because top-notch tools make it easier for them to execute their vision.

100% crop of the hummingbird image (scaled down to fit) taken with a 1D Mark IV and a 600mm f/4 lens.

Here’s an example: I photograph birds from time to time. It’s something I’m not great at, but I love doing it. What I really wanted was to capture a hummingbird in flight. I wanted to freeze its wings, to grab a shot of it in mid-motion. I wanted a shot so detailed that you could see tiny feathers on the bird.

In the beginning, I tried using my Rebel XTi and my friend’s 100–400 lens. The hummingbirds, however, kept coming to flowers that were almost perpetually in shade, and my XTi’s high-ISO performance was not doing the trick. I needed to hit ISO 1000+ and it usually fell apart at ISO 400.

It wasn’t till I rented a Canon 1D Mark IV and a 600mm f/4 lens with a gimbal head that I was finally able to get the image you see here. At a 100% crop, you can even see the bird’s tiny feet.

This is when gear mattered.

Conclusion

I do think that when you’re just starting out, gear doesn’t matter. You need the very basics to learn the basics. In fact, if people would append the phrase “when you’re starting out” to “Gear doesn’t matter,” I’d skip this diatribe.

But I’ve heard too many photographers – including some that I seriously respect and admire – repeat the “Gear doesn’t matter” mantra without qualification. I wish someone had explained this to me in my early days – I spent a LOT of time chasing impossible images with my kit lens and nearly gave up on photography a few times.

I’ll leave you with this quote from photographer David DuChemin, who coined the phrase, “Gear is good. Vision is better.” This is from a comment he left on Zack Arias’ blog entry announcing his medium-format switch:

I hate you. Been trying to dodge this reality for a while, and it’s coming closer and closer. I think I’m done with falling off walls for now, so might as well learn a new system. These posts are tough to do because inevitably someone gets in your grill about “the camera doesn’t matter.” And it really doesn’t. Unless you have specific needs, and then it does [emphasis mine]. And if the client even thinks they have the need for larger files, or you happen to love printing gigantic prints, then output matters and the kind of camera you have determines this output.

’Nuff said.


About the author: Sohail Mamdani is a writer and photographer who writes for the gear rental service BorrowLenses. This post was original published on the BorrowLenses blog.


 
  • PunchRockgroin

    People picking up my 1D IV and trying to shoot get images that are out of focus. everyone. That’s of course because I’ve tailored it to my needs and customized the focus button.

    When I got my first 1D II I came from a D30 and 10D. It delivered shitty photos and I was losing my mind till I realized I just sucked at using it, because it was infinitely more complex that the ones I was used to. 

    For the most part I don’t need the speed of the 1D IV, but what I couldn’t live without is the viewfinder, the AF and AF-points and the way it feels in my hand. 

  • Wallerus

    It’s an episode of 12 Angry Men in here haha. Great post, but I think we’ve all said something that was already said. Shouldn’t be out shooting instead?

  • Bujo

    When a potential client doesn’t know
    the difference between professional and amateur, is price point and marketing
    better than any gear you could carry? 

    So how do we educate the clients?

  • Coyote Red

    What I get out of the mantra of “Gear Doesn’t Matter” is equipment doesn’t take the place of technical knowledge or an artful eye.  What matters in art is what makes any art enjoyable to the eye.  Some of the best actors are, well, butt ugly.  It’s the personally they put into the acting, the character, that makes them a joy to watch.

    I’m seeing some really nice images come from camera phones.  Technically, phones cameras are really terrible compared to “real” cameras, but the images are pleasing.  Whether the result was by accident or skill, it doesn’t matter.

    Learning on an old Canon AE-1 and then A-1 when you had to ship out your film for a week turn around made one really slow down and plan shots.  Today, it’s “Click.”  Look at the screen.  “Click.”  Look at the screen.  Adjust. “Click.”  Look at the screen.  While such instant feedback has a virtue there is also a down side–folks simply aren’t thinking about the process.

    It’s like shooting firearms.  I see folks with a Kimber who can’t shot well enough to take advantage of the accuracy of stock Colt 1911.  It’s just wasted money.

    Don’t get me wrong.  Nice equipment has a nice feel in the hand, smooth and pleasurable operation, but it doesn’t get the job done any better than lesser gear for most any who are not elite in the field or for specialized tasks.

  • Michael

    Honestly who cares, you will end up getting what you need to get what you want.  I think even discussing an argument over this ‘Mantra’ is pointless.  Beginners go through what beginners have to do to learn, then intermediate will search new gears, lessons, workshop, and etc trying to achieve what they vision.  Then there’s professionals and artists who will play with certain gear whether is an upgrade or downgrade to again achieve what they vision and want to achieve.  I’m a fine art photographer and in the end if you want to achieve certain type of style or a vision you have to consider certain aspects of gears like filter, tripod, film/digital, and so forth.  Even filters and tripod have tons of options to go for so
    who cares about “Gear Doesn’t Matter” because it doesn’t and it does.  Just keep learning and experimenting and hopefully you will find what you like.  For me I use film medium format with traditional darkroom because it’s what I enjoy the most for now.

  • thehiker

    I am sorry but not ’nuff said ,at one time you could buy a decent camera and lens and only the film changed you could use the camera for years hell they were metal now we have all been sucked into the digital black hole of constant upgrades never enough megapixels  or a better lens that to try to  resolve the better sensor and it will never stop work with what you can afford and I will for one enjoy your work even though you do not have five or ten grand to drop on your tools I have seen so many bad images taken by people who can drop the coin on the equipment besides half of the people with this esoteric gear are just repeating the work of the greats that have gone before with film ,follow your vision work with what you have make and interesting image it does not always have to perfect . 

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/riazhathey Riaz Hathey

    I agree with two things. 1 – Gear does not matter as long as you starting out learning the basics. 2 – GEAR definitely matters when you not achieving what your mind has imagined the image to be. When APERTURE is what you lacking – GEAR MATTERS!!!. Its all about light.

  • Soso

    Luck doesn’t matter, except when it does. Talent doesn’t matter either, except when it does, nor do height, width or light.

  • Dietrich Von Bacon

    Please, Please beginners: buy more expensive gear. It makes it cheaper for everyone else.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.godek Michael Godek

     I know I’m way late on this article…and i didn’t spend the time to read all the other comments…

    I’ll just leave you with, I agree….and the reason I agree is it’s the same mind set as photographers scoffing at rich people who own a 5D b/c they probably don’t know how to use it…..THIS IS THE SAME THING just flipped around.  You can’t scoff at someone for having an amazing camera b/c they “want to take good pictures” then turn around and say “gear doesn’t matter” for someone who actually knows how to use it!

  • Makofoto

    I was using a rented H4D-60 a couple of months ago for an assignment – $50+K security on my Amex card. It was GREAT for what I needed it for. Since then, every other digital file looks crude …  three hundred 180 meg TIFFS sure fill up hard drive space quickly. But in a lot of ways it was crude compared to my Canons. LiveView while tethered to a laptop was 1 frame per second, in B&W!  Hard to check focus like that. (Camera was mounted in a somewhat inaccessible place.) I do a lot of sports photography … certainly not the right tool for action shots. But of course glad that I had the opportunity to use it. Oh, also I lost one day of shooting because the back wouldn’t work properly. I had to get another camera for the following weekend. My shooting then got interrupted because there was another problem requiring a trip back to the store. A total of six trips to SAMY’s to get the job done. The client doesn’t pay for that time, but SAMY’s did give me a nice discount.

  • Makofoto

    So not good for action photography

  • Makofoto

    by the way, http://www.lensrentals.com is a great place to relatively inexpensively try out different gear

  • Shiv
  • itaintrite

    Not bad, for a bridge camera.

    With a large-sensor camera (or faster lens), you could’ve prevented the motion blur in the wings. And cleaner image of course.

    So do gears matter? Not if you’re happy with what you’re using.

  • http://www.adrenaldesign.com/ Joby Elliott

    Spoken like a true….. Person who doesn’t quite understand the meaning of the word “professional.”

    A real professional is *less* likely to rush out and buy the newest and flashiest gear, unless they’re wildly successful and can easily afford it. Churning through spending a bunch of what you take in might be all right for a hobby, but isn’t terribly attractive to somebody doing what they’re doing with the intention of making a living (in other words: a professional).

  • WKYA_Radio

    Wrong. Bring a t3 to a pro photo shoot. What do you think they will ask you about…wtf is up with that gear dude?

  • Daanal

    What really bugs me is when I go out, take some nice pictures, and people go ‘Wow, that must be a nice camera!”. Only when I show them, that you can make good pictures on a supposedly bad camera (iPhone 4), and bad pictures on a good camera (Used stupid settings on my camera – f36, 5 second shutter speed, 12800 ISO), that they go “Wow, you’re good at photography!”. When my parents use my camera, they use Live View (which I dislike because you hold the camera out in front of you, reducing stability), they use Auto, and then they come out with crap photos (compared to mine), and then they ask why. What also really annoys me, is when I’m in my little creative bubble, messing with settings, and they get mad and say, put it on Auto, shut up, and shoot. They paid $1000 for a camera to use Auto? I don’t think so. They paid $1000 for manual controls, not Auto.

  • http://twitter.com/Hitecsoftouch David Dawkins

    So no credit for Stan “The Man” Lee??? I assume the plagiarism is unintentional.

  • Gil Batzri

    What matters is talent. Gear does not create talent or skill, That is what “Gear doesn’t matter” means.

    I regularly see work done with an iPhone that is better then stuff i have shot with my pro gear.

    The person behind the camera is more important then the camera.

    That is what “Gear doesn’t matter” means.

    Not that given an iPhone vs a 1D and 400 f2.8 the gear doesn’t matter. The ability to use the equipment is what makes a photographer. A photographer with an iPhone can do a better job then someone with 10k of equipment.

  • Harald Johnsen

    We have the same thing in music production. It’s an endless, mindless “It’s the chef not the kitchen” choir. I’m not sure why it has to be so hard to understand that it’s the chef AND the kitchen, but apparently it is.

  • Jorge Ramirez

    great article and valid points. Sometimes it might be presentation, for those that make money for photography, people want to know that they have the “credentials” or it looks like they know what they are doing. I don’t know maybe not, im still an amateur learning.