The Gear Trap Is a Problem, but Cheap Equipment Can Also Limit You

The Gear Trap Is a Problem, but Cheap Equipment Can Also Limit You

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 But there are times when your gear must be upgraded, lest you suffer the technical shortcomings of outdated or inadequate equipment.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.

photography gear on a bellhop cart in a hotel

Though it may appear excessive to an outsider, my interior photography setup is fairly minimal.

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.

a hand holding an iPhone with a downtrending stock chart on its screen

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 sony mirrorless camera body sans lens

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.

Summary

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.

Lead photo by Federico Bottos on Unsplash.

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16 Comments

Timothy Gasper's picture

Nice article sir. Thank you. As for cheap equipment, you are correct, although a good photographer knows how to work with cheap equipment to get the optimal results. Well...it depends on how 'cheap' the equipment is I suppose.

Scott Mason's picture

Thank you for reading and commenting, Timothy. It's true, with enough skills you can mitigate most shortcomings of cheap gear. But there are exceptions, which I feel my story fell into.

Take care!

Ed Sanford's picture

I know that you aimed this at pros. Nevertheless, I have noticed this problem even though a person is not "shooting for hire". In fact, an amateur can have dire consequences with cheap gear. I was on a very costly workshop trip with a seasoned pro to really learn landscape technique. The one thing that I noticed is that several attendees had great cameras but cheap tripods. On one day, we were on a mountain before dawn in a high wind. We had a beautiful scene in front of us. I and several others had high quality RRS tripods and ball mounts. Unfortunately, others had cheap tripods with even some Wally World specials. Because it was low light, a tripod was a necessity. Those tripods were so bad, the shooters couldn't even get a shake free live view image. The rub is that these folks paid good money to go on an amazing trip but could not get a usable image on that morning. I tell people all the time that if you need a new piece of gear (especially for those doing nature and landscape), buy a good tripod because it "could" make your lens better.

Stuart Carver's picture

Whilst i fully agree with your comment, cheap tripods are rubbish... vastly expensive ones are also a complete waste of money in my opinion, there is little to gain from paying £1500 for a Gitzo tripod over say the 3LT Winston at £400, apart from using it to flex in front of other photographers that is, the old 'my lens is bigger than yours' syndrome.

Mike Ditz's picture

I am not sure what the Winston 3LT tripod is but the Gitzo that I bought at least 25 years ago for like $400 is still solid as a rock and after a $110 tune up will go for another 25.
I don't know how much the monster 9 foot Gitzo cost the first owner but it was a great buy many years ago on craigslist for $250.
And to be honest, my monster Gitzo is bigger than most LoL and will probably outlive it's next owner!

Stuart Carver's picture

$400 even back then is palatable.. the price of them now is ridiculous, i can get a half decent car for the same cost.

Ed Sanford's picture

Stuart, with all due respect, your comment is not factual. I have had all manner of tripods in 40 years. I have stood next to photographers with cheap tripods and they couldn't stop them from shaking. Mine was steadfast. This is just empirical fact. When I upgraded to a high quality Bogen in the 1980s, there was a huge improvement in my ability to do critical work. The modern lightweight carbon fiber systems are even better. It's not the cost; it's the quality. There are plenty of used tripods on the market that can fit into the average photographers budget, and offer a vast improvement over cheap junk tripod systems.

Stuart Carver's picture

Im actually agreeing with you though.. im just pointing out you dont need to go for that ultra expensive/rip off market to get the quality.

i have a Slik Pro 724CF with a 3 legged thing ball head and its sturdy as hell, its been through all sorts and still going strong.

Ed Sanford's picture

You don't have to go ultra expensive. However, ask yourself this question. What sense does it make to purchase $10,000 worth of SLR or Mirror-less lenses and bodies and then top it off with a $125.00 tripod? I've seen people actually do that. If I were starting out with one of the new camera systems today, my next purchase after spending upwards of $4,000 for a good lens and body, would be a $1,200 tripod before I would buy another lens. That's just me. In my own case, I purchased a Mamiya RB67 in the 1980s and put it on an inexpensive Velbon Tripod. I was on an incline in the woods and the camera was so heavy that it sheared off the head assembly and that beautiful camera just missed hitting a rock. I immediately went out and purchased a used Bogen 30/30 which was a great tripod for that era. I carried that tripod for nearly 30 years. It was a heavy beast, and I got too old to keep lugging it around. With the DSLR equipment I purchased after going digital, I treated myself to an RRS carbon fiber steel tripod that was super expensive. Nevertheless, it protects the bigger investment that I have in gear. Comprendez Vous?

Mike Ditz's picture

I think that most cameras are are better than most photographers. If you moved your position from the back of the auditorium to a more reasonable position your less than stellar lens may have been ok.

sam dasso's picture

I am hobbyist and I absolutely hate this type of articles. Looking down at hobbyists who have twice as much money in their gear just because you supposed to be a pro. You not a pro if you have to decide if you can afford the best tools. Either you are too cheap or you don't make enough money in your photography business. Either way, you have no right to say that hobbyists are spending too much money because they don't understand that pinhole camera is good enough for them. I buy the best photography equipment I can afford, and can afford a lot because I run successful business and don't have to pinch pennies on my business tools or my hobby. If pro photographer has to think twice before he buys high quality lens, he is in a wrong business.

C H's picture

Exactly this. I am a carpenter; my Canon lineup is more than 42k. I want the best because I can afford it. Why should I limit myself with cheap gear? I want the 2870/2 so I shoot it. I dont want to use a 2x extender, so I bought the 100-400. And maybe I am not a as good or talented as some pro photographer, but if good gear helps you get the shot and make it look professional, why not?

ignacy matuszewski's picture

Well that's really good for you, must say. But when you work as a photographer, you do need to make compromises to get good money out of it, so for most part you're investing mostly on what really matters. In carpentry you can just buy all the festool stuff that is in existance, but most of the time dewalt or makita will do just fine. Over-investment can really harm your business.

Ivan Zalesskiy's picture

I kind of agree with you. Whatever brings you joy is fine. I don't understand this whole thing about "falling into a money pit". If you enjoy buying a new camera and can afford it — go for it. It's your money, spend it how you see fit. If a $10,000 lens makes you happy and you can spend that kind of cash, why not do it.

On the other hand, I can understand that buying the best stuff purely because you expect that it will make you better... Well, that's another story because in most cases it probably won't.

David Pavlich's picture

Yep! If someone has the budget to buy a Phase 1 to take pictures of their cat, who cares? It's their money. My advice to anyone asking is to buy the best gear that your budget allows.

Yves Gagné's picture

I'm not a professional photographer, but a good amator one, at least i hope. I started learning with an entry level Pentax K50. I learned a lot, but i also knew i like to shoot wildlife a bit more. So i moved on to Nikon. So i got myself a cheap 55-300mm to start, to minimize the cost. Afer a few days, i decided to sell it, for almost the same price i had payed, and baught an 100-400mm from another company. I'm pleased with what i have now. In the future i intend to replace the used but fairly good material, by better optics.
Has our eye gets better, it's difficult to level down on a piece of equipment.

Thank you, very formative.