Most of us are familiar with "the gear trap," the fine line that's crossed when a shooter makes a top priority of continually researching and purchasing newer and better camera equipment. This can be a dangerous money pit. But there are times when your gear must be upgraded, lest you suffer the technical shortcomings of outdated or inadequate equipment.
If you entered a camera store before quarantine hit, you might have waltzed in just meaning to buy an $8 pack of microfiber cloths, only to stumble out the door with several impulse purchases. These could range from small accessories to a shiny new camera body that blew you away with its bells and whistles.
Any of us can catch gadget fever. And convincing people that they need everything "new and improved" has been the goal of advertisers since the beginning of consumer capitalism. This stimulus and behavior fuels our world economy (may it soon recover) and keeps productivity churning along. But when do we cross the line from resourceful expenditure to self-indulgent consumerism? Since the answer varies based upon a shooter's professional demands weighed against resources, this is no easy judgment to make.
To quote the famed fiction writer Chuck Palahniuk:
Are these things really better than the things I already have? Or am I just trained to be dissatisfied with what I have now?
This article is aimed primarily at professionals, since paid photographers have the most to lose by not using pro-level camera gear. It's not meant as elitist. Many hobbyists create essential work, which they enjoy sharing and selling to admiring fans. But the reputations and financial stakes of professionals are necessarily higher.
Since the camera market usually churns out new gear at a breakneck rate (at the moment, not so much), constant upgrades can be tempting for anyone with a camera body or lens model that is several years or even just several months old.
From my experience and what others in my field have noted, those most susceptible to the "gear trap" seem to be those arguably least in need of top-of-the-line equipment: hobbyists. The consensus is that many newcomers eagerly seek out better gear (typically camera bodies) in hopes that the equipment will improve their image quality.
Most of us who have any photography expertise or experience have been asked more than once the shooter's perpetual question: "Which camera should I buy?" The obvious reply is a gentle reminder to focus first on learning the craft of photography. As many famous photographic figures have repeatedly pointed out, one can take good or even amazing images with the most basic camera gear.
This approach — that gear is less essential than the gear handler — has a musical analogy. A master guitarist can pick up a $10 Hello Kitty guitar from Walmart and shred away brilliantly, often to the amazement of everyone listening. "See," an admirer might exclaim. "It's all in the player's talent, not the rig they're playing on!"
But what about the exceptions to this rule?
A Story With a Caution
I'd like to share a story with you. Though it involves a painful mishap, it taught me a valuable lesson and might have one for some of our readers.
Several years ago, I was hired by a large national corporation to photograph their annual conference. I had been specializing in corporate event photography for about two years before this, after receiving a bachelor's degree in photography, then dabbling in weddings and other random shoots. These shoots had been executed with nearly zero hiccups, and I was confident in my ability to capture images in practically any situation.
But there was something I hadn't realized up to this point: the limits imposed by one piece of subpar gear I had been using for years.
My client was running the production of this significant event, from the A/V to the photo and video. He also had a background in photography and, as I found out, a keen eye for visual perfection. After sending him image samples from the first day, I got a call the following morning.
Good morning, Scott. I've looked through your photos. And, to be honest, some of them are just not good, sir.
Of course, this was the last thing I wanted to hear from someone who had paid me well and placed his trust in me. But there was still another day of shooting ahead of us, allowing me to make things right.
Upon meeting the following morning, my client pulled up the images on a laptop and zoomed in on several of the "welcome keynote" shots. The problem was apparent: a moderate lack of image sharpness, relative at least to the pro standard.
This came as a surprise to me. I knew that I hadn't goofed up on shutter speed. Several years of teaching photography workshops had drilled the appropriate low-light settings and reciprocity rules into my brain. I hadn't jolted the camera as I shot, either. Stability has always been important to me, especially when capturing handheld in low-light conditions.
If the problem did not lie in my shooting, where was it coming from? I quickly realized that the lack of sharpness was caused by the lens I was then using. I had been shooting in the back of a 2,000-seat auditorium, zoomed in at 300mm, snapping away on a used off-brand zoom. That lens, I'd always assumed, was good enough. It had passed the scrutiny of dozens of clients, but it only took one keen set of eyes to notice that this gear was not quite good enough, at least under certain conditions.
While discussing with my client his proper criticism of my shots, I did not blame the lens. There was a mutual understanding that the gear I used for the opening ceremony wasn't quite pro-level, but we avoided that awkward conversation. I offered to rent a higher quality lens to capture the sharper images he sought out. The client declined a rental, instead moving my position closer to the stage for a re-shoot of the same speech during the conference's next session. This would fix any aberration or loss of sharpness from zooming (which tends to be an issue only with lower-end zoom lenses).
In the end, we worked together to produce professional images. I was lucky.
What was the first thing I did when the conference ended? I invested in a high-quality, fast Nikon zoom lens, and I never have since run into an issue with sharpness decreasing while zooming. The richness of color and overall picture quality of my current zoom has produced an excellent product for my clients and great value for me.
If you suspect you suffer from "gear acquisition syndrome," you probably do. Likely only a handful of the photographers out there fretting about their gear would benefit from upgrading as often as they do. But those who choose not to update when necessary can risk a lot, especially if they are in the dark on the limitations of their equipment. I was fortunate to come out of my "cheap lens" experience without a bad review or damaged reputation, but not everyone is so lucky.
Which has been the more significant challenge for you: the problem of the "gear trap" or the consequences of sub-par equipment? Please share your opinions and stories in the comment section below.