How a Photographer Demonstrated That Gear Does Not Matter Much

How a Photographer Demonstrated That Gear Does Not Matter Much

Barry Harley, an editorial photographer from Northern Virginia, took whatever tools he had at hand to create an image reminiscent of nothing less than Annie Leibovitz's Vanity Fair group portraits. The difference: Harley was using two Yongnuo YN-560 II speedlites and a Canon 5D Mark II whereas Leibovitz usually uses Profoto strobes together with a Hasselblad and Phase One back or a Nikon D810.

Personally, I can say that using speedlites has been a specifically frustrating experience for me. When you are getting accustomed to incorporating artificial light from only using natural light, it can be tempting to look at expensive lighting kits and blame less favorable results on the absence of quality light. "It is not about the gear but about the person behind the camera." This phrase, or various modifications of it, might just be the most used statements among photographers. However, if you are struggling to get the results that you want, it might sometimes be hard to believe. In this case, showing you some visual examples might do the trick.

Barry Harley and his wife Julie were planning a week-long vacation with their friends. Their destination: Duns Castle, a 14th-century burg located one hour to the east of Edinburgh, Scotland. An ancient castle is quite an unusual spot for a vacation, so when Harley decided to create an Annie Leibovitz-inspired group portrait of himself, his wife, and their friends, the memorable backdrop was already guaranteed. His approach was modeled after two articles by Photographer and Fstoppers Writer Clay Cook. One on his own website and one on Fstoppers.

Before he left the U.S., Harley came up with some ideas regarding the concept of the photo such as attire and posing that he then sent out to his travel companions in order to prepare them for the shoot.

After arriving at the castle and taking a look through its interior, the group decided on the location for the photo: the grand entry stairs.

Gear List

Note that this excludes stands and tripods. With this gear list, you are keeping the cost at a little above $1,000. Leibovitz's gear, on the contrary, might range somewhere between $5,000 and $35,000.

How He Did It

Harley secured the camera on a tripod, facing the scene. He then placed individuals and small groups of people in their pre-planned position on the stairs and photographed them, lighting them with the two speedlites that he mounted to a c-stand.

Copyright 2017 | Image by Barry Harley |

Afterwards, he composites the individuals into the background image of the stairs. For more detailed instructions, follow those two articles: "Quite The Composite" and "Lighting Like Leibovitz" by Clay Cook.

Copyright 2017 | Image by Barry Harley |

By no means am I trying to say that gear like the Phase One digital back or other expensive equipment does not have a right to exist. There is definitely room for improvement and sometimes certain projects ask for certain equipment. However, many of the visions out there can be achieved with minimal equipment and without breaking the bank. If you ask me, Harley did an impressive job on this one.

Edit: A reader pointed out that Annie Leibovitz used the Canon 5D Mark II for her Vanity Fair shoot, which demonstrates another facet of why the newest or most expensive gear is not always necessary to create high-quality imagery. In some instances, today's old, lower-tier equipment has been yesterday's pro gear.

Images used with permission of Barry Harley.

Maximilian Benner's picture

Maximilian Benner is a German-born documentarian living in NYC.

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I recently did something like this last week but not with a group but a single person. I squeezed in a photoshoot portrait during some filming in Los Angeles and I knew I didn't have the gear with me that I'm used to using for stills. Instead of speedlights, profoto gear, and a bunch of light modifiers, all I had was a single constant spotlight and 1 Peter Hurley Flex kit panel light. I also did not have an assistant but luckily I did have a boom arm and a sandbag.

I wound up putting my camera on a tripod just as this article suggests. I then setup the Hurley light above my talent and tweaked the light to give the effect I wanted. The problem I faced was above my subject was a HUGE skylight that was letting in TONS of light that I could not underexpose without also killing my Hurley light. The Flex lights are bright but they can't over power sunlight if you place them far away from people.

Anyways, long story short, I was able to take about 20 frames of my subject light pretty well but the lighting wasn't as moody and dark as I would have been able to accomplish with strobes. I then light painted the rest of the scene with the single hard light and composited everything together in post. Basically I took a photo I was kind of ashamed to have taken and turned it into the exact image I had in my head by using techniques like in this article. With a single person, I def could have created the image in my head with strobes but not with hot lights.

Moral of the story, as someone who likes to get my lighting 90% correct in camera, I learned that you can basically create any sort of lighting mood and atmosphere in post if you simply shoot on a tripod and light the scene multiple ways ala Mike Kelley. With a little Photoshop layering and blending, you can easily pull off the same lighting styles that you see in photographs from the world's top photographers.

show it brother. sharing is caring…………..

Thanks for sharing your experience and backing this article up, Patrick!

Yea let's see it dude! The picture.....

Here is a low res image.

I use the same technique that Mike Kelley uses. I also am an Architectural photographer and that technique of layer masking has been very useful.

Yeah, I always joke that Peter Hurley has changed the way I photograph people more than anyone I've ever learned from and Mike Kelley, despite his relatively simple lighting gear, has changed the way I light and composite photos more than anyone I've ever learned from. Together those two guys have pushed my portrait work in a great direction. That isn't meant to undermine any of the other dozens of photographers I've worked with over the years either.

Pre and post-production matter just as much, if not more than the production itself. I mean, if you don't prepare the shoot or even have a good enough concept you're not going to be ready and have a bad shoot. And if you can't edit or don't know what you're doing, you're going to ruin the photo or not bring the photo to it's true potential.

Gear pretty much comes last, unless you need something incredibly specific for the shoot.

Well, I don't want to be a fly in the ointment, but the 5D Mark II is not a point and shoot camera. Grant, it, it doesn't have all the bells and whistles the new cameras today have, but it's not a bad piece of gear to shoot with.

LOL, so right, Reginald. A few years ago, the 5D Mark II was the hottest thing going, and lots of people made livings with it. Shoots the same pictures now that it ever did.

All well and nice, but that girl in the front with her hand resting against her face with her elbow propped up in the middle of the air looks odd.

Which is why, given the option, having the right gear matters. Everything matters. These kinds of articles, while having a legitimate point that gets lost in hyperbole, are like arguing which blade on a pair of scissors is most important. That being said, with static objects, this kind of process is much more practical. I've done it with groups of people (40+ people) but prefer not to.

Hi Patrick, you definitely have a point here. Successful projects are made up of many individual parts whereas each of them is of importance. Focusing too much on one of them, while loosing track of the others will most likely lead to failure. Mostly of the time see people obsessing about cameras or lights, not so much about pre-production, production design or posing. This is the reason why I think that this angle might be the most valuable.

Her elbow is resting on the arm of the chair.

It's resting on the armchair.

Her arm looks normal to me. The oddest arm in the whole image is the black woman with the pink jacket in the top middle part of the photo. It looks super weird to me but from the before and after you can tell that her arm was like that in the original photo. Not sure what is going on there but it looks uncomfortable to me. The girl in the front looks perfect; maybe you just can't see the arm chair her arm is resting on with your monitor.

I agree with you totally. I should have done a better job with that hand.

Thing is it looks like that's just the way it was in real life right? Maybe I'm being nitpicky

Thanks for the article.

Annie used the 5D for the Louis Vuitton campaign. Same diffused umbrella. The only difference in gear is a speedlight vs. a real strobe. Same amount of post processing (lots of it). I don't see any merit in this comparison.

Hi Michael, I checked your statement and made an edit to the article. Thanks for pointing it out!

I don't know that "gear doesn't matter" is a good title for an article about a photo with so much post-processing involved. I'm not knocking compositing or post-processing, but I don't agree that an image created through a process like this one was falls under the "gear doesn't matter" category. Different lighting gear (even just two or three speedlights shooting into a larger umbrella) would have absolutely mattered and meant the difference between shooting lots of frames and compositing them and shooting one frame and dodging and burning or maybe a two-frame composite if the light needed to be moved.

I'm not knocking the image or the process, I'm saying there's too much "shooting for post" in this image for it to fall under "gear doesn't matter" to me. You don't need a full frame camera and an 85 f/1.4 to shoot portraits with subject isolation, for example. You can do that with a crop sensor and a nifty fifty and the final image is not a product of photoshop. That's the kind of thing I think of for "gear doesn't matter."

I once did something similar (thought my results in this case are much less spectacular!) but it was for a mutiplex cinema who wanted a massive staff portrait of all their employees sitting in one of their screens. But the catch was that they had so many staff that all worked different shifts every day that they couldn't all attend at the same time.

I ended up creating a seating plan to make a composite, and shot the staff over 3 various nights, to ensure that everyone could be part of it, I had to make sure my tripod was in exactly the same position each night (I marked the floor with gaffer tape!) and then ticked off on the chart where people had sat, and where I needed people to sit on the next night. And then put it together in Photoshop.

I wish I could have got up higher to shoot down on them, but it would have been much more work and would have made it much more difficult to recreate the exact camera position every night. But this was a few years ago, i'd like to do it again sometime as I think I could do a much better job now. But that's photography for you isn't it...

Wow, This is brilliant.

Shot with Canon 5D ( yes, Grand Dad of all 5D's ). Two Yongnuo YN 560 speedlites with gels. That much simple it was !

It's a matter of how much do you do on set - versus how much you 'fix' in post .... How much is your time worth sitting in front of a computer and Photoshop??

There are line items on my invoices for "Basic Post Production" and "Retouching" so it's worth $95-$130 per hour. I started billing for time i was in front of a computer when I couldn't charge for film and processing anymore. :)

In the olden days spending hours in the darkroom was pretty much part of the job, and no one called it "fixing in post". I would rather do composites using Photoshop as opposed to shooting large format sheet film with in camera masking or combining multiple exposures, which had to be sent out to a lab.

Agreed. I would have love to have the equipment, time, crew and budget to pull this off in camera. As this was a personal project with zero funding, I had to do the best I could without comprising my vision. I was truly looking for memory that my friends and I could share for a lifetime and I believe I achieved that goal.

Very well done. Love the animated gif

Thanks Lee.

The bottom line here to these "gear does not matter" articles is not about what gear can and can not do, but as a photographer, understanding the limitations of your gear and overcoming challenges creatively. This photographer made a great image with what he had, and I think that is what being a good photographer is all about.

Did the same thing a couple of years ago and really liked the effect. But the problem with working with large crowds is that some people move. You really cant go back and redoo the shot so I only do it when working pro bono

Got to love those cheap-ass YNs, great work.

I used same technic for family portrait a year ago to light people and Mike Kelly's technic to light the house. I lit them all apart then composed together in PS. I used Mark II, 24-70 and Einstain strobes, silver dish, leflectors with grids and giant octa for whole scene. I used two speedlights inside small light thumbs. Bts video is here:

Gear does matter but you don't have to have the latest gear to get great results.

Did something similar a few years back, for a wedding group shot. One speed light and had to move quickly. Not quite satisfied with the composition in retrospect, but with the amount of time I thought it was kind of cool. A neat trick to have in your bag :) (could only find a really low res-version of it now)

Group shots are always a pain and idiotically, I forgot that you can always composite...probably because the only time I did, it was a pain in the a$$ to put together.

Now, on that same vein, I have a old photo from a couple of years back that made it into photo of the day here. It was with my 5Dmk2 that I still use for model tests despite reading the other day that it was "ancient..." That, plus the 50mm 1.4, and old Metz Flash in a plastic bag along a metal candlestick to submerge the whole thing and it was triggered by a cable extension to my camera. The ringlight is a 90USD Wallimex/Neewer. And the color is simple plastic wrap for presents.

This is probably one of the last times I used artificial light for work :P

It looked ghetto as hell, but the results were usable.

The title of the article is ridiculous....that's not what this "experiment" shows at all. What this shows, is Leibovitz uses more (or better) gear than she needs for this specific kind of shot.

Not that gear doesn't matter much.

Try to do this with a cardboard disposable camera and a single tungsten bulb, and you find out just how important gear is.

What this photographer has done, is used the SAME gear Annie did....gear from the same "tier" of gear. He succeeded in proving only that Annie's setup is overpowered for the job. They both used race cars, just two different race cars each fast enough to win the race.....he did NOT use a Volkswagon Bug and prove that any car can win the Indy 500.

One of the most misleading, exhaustingly misleading comments in all of photography, is "it's not the camera it's the photographer." Because it tricks people into thinking it's ONE or the OTHER.

Any good photographer will tell you that gear matters. Any good photographer that says it doesn't is lying...sometimes to themselves.

And most of the people that repeat that goofy phrase simply AREN'T good photographers and don't know how to push their gear to a limit that proves that gear matters.

This shot requires a lot of skill.....but the best race car driver in the world still finishes dead last in a Volkswagon Bug.