When Photography Gear Matters

When Photography Gear Matters

You might have noticed a common theme in my articles: "the gear doesn’t matter". A lot of people have called me out on this, especially as in my profile picture I’m shooting on a Phase One with Broncolor lights. And yes, you are right, the kit does matter in my line of work, just not always. Sitting on the fence? Maybe. Here’s my explanation:

Durability

Whether your photography is a hobby, job, or somewhere in-between, you are going to want your kit to last. Entry level cameras simply do not take the beating that the high-end cameras do. I am a Canon and Phase shooter, so in my case the Canon 5Ds I own are the perfect balance between price, build quality and usability that I require for my day to day work. I also own a few of them.  Two are for me to shoot with and the third is for Canon repair centre, assistants BTS camera or for running a time-lapse. The same goes for lenses and lights. I tried cheap knock-off style kit and non L lenses, and indeed they work brilliantly and produce great images. But only for so long. I kill them pretty quickly compared to Broncolor and L lenses.

I think it’s important to have some context here though, I shoot on average 4 times a week and these are 8+ hour days either in the studio or on location. Including the time-lapse work I do, I am shooting around 1.5million frames per year, sometimes in the rain, sometimes in blistering heat and often in my dusty studio. My kit takes a real beating and having more expensive cameras actually works out cheaper. I have been running my Canon 5D and 5Dmk2 cameras for about 7 years, and I purchased them used, so they’ve probably had about a decades use altogether, and they still run fine today. I had some cheaper cameras, 450D and 50D style and they wore out a lot faster and with some simple calculations, you can quickly see that on a cost per use basis, they are actually more expensive to run. 

Consistency

Cameras and lenses don’t seem to suffer so much in this area, but lights really do. When I have worked with cheaper lights, I find the white balance and exposures to be all over the place. Again, this doesn’t matter for 90% of people, 90% of the time (I love me some fake stats). However, if you are shooting 500 of something and you need it to all work as a set, the consistency of the light colour and power is really important.  This saves me hours in post-production too.

Quality of Light

Not all light is created equally, the difference between a high-end light and budget eBay special in my opinion has more of an affect on image quality than the camera body will. I have everything from 8ft indirect octaboxes through to cheap eBay shoot through umbrellas and knock off lights to Broncolors; the difference is massive. Comparing this to the Canon 85mm 1.8 V 85mm 1.2, it is far better in my mind to spend the money on lighting if you work with off-camera flash. 

Repairs

Kit does fail, even the highest end pro gear. Buying from a company that offers great repair services around the world, as well as an easily accessible rental service, is vital in my line of work. I probably send 2-3 cameras a year back to Canon, one lens and maybe 4-5 lights for various fixes. Being able to get this done with ease and with the knowledge that I can rent something in the meantime is one of the biggest deciding factors on what I buy. 

Image Quality 

The last point is image quality. This rarely comes down to resolution in todays camera market. Nevertheless, there are certain markers that are important for certain types of jobs. If I am doing product work where colour reproduction is key, or if I am shooting an item that has a very gradual tonal change, I will reach for a medium format camera, if I need to shoot some really low light work then I will jump back to my Canon system and fast prime lenses. There are times when you simply do need a very expensive camera, lens, or light. However, it rarely comes down to image quality for my line of work as even an average priced camera in 2017 is really impressive compared to a top end one in 2000.

What do you think matters the most with photography equipment?

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15 Comments

All of these reasons backing up investing in good gear can be summed up to one : more peace of mind for your workflow. And really it is a HUGE reason to spend more once you get past a certain point in projects frequency and expectations from your clients (and I mean all kinds of expectations except pure image quality: consistency, speed, good mood (which is more difficult when you're fighting your gear), and many others). Otherwise, if it's most of the time for yourself and have all the time in the world, then sure, you can do wonders with cheap or DIY gear. That's basically it.

Scott Choucino's picture

100%. If you have time, no stress or pressure then the expensive gear is rarely worth it, unless you have the ££££ and fancy owning it anyway.

cameramanDop Shanghai Hong Kong's picture

Spending big hurts you once only: at the shop cashier.
Spending cheap hurt you each time you are using your gear and regret not getting bigger.

Vincent Alongi's picture

It can be a 'save now, pay later' situation depending on the scenario.

I'm in the market for a decent prime portrait lens, and the options between Nikon glass and Sigma / Tamron are somewhat significant. At the point where reading the countless reviews is diminishing returns, along with the comment sections for every one of them. While I'd love to pop for a Nikon lens, I'm not a professional where I can justify the premium. That said, I will have to just purchase wisely as to what I really feel I'll need rather than going with blind brand loyalty to Nikon. If I can parlay my work into a steady work (side work, not full time), I can see making different choices down the line. For now, I'll have to hone my skills, work with what I've got and build slowly.

Nonetheless, a reassuring take from Scott. I certainly don't physically tax my gear as he does, not even remotely in the same neighborhood. So I can have confidence in 3rd party brands for the moment- surely professionals are already. Who I am, huh? lol

Adam T's picture

I look at things more like a toolbox, certain saws are better than others.

I find it silly to say it's not the gear, it's all about the gear and sometimes the gear is needed for a dog and pony show for clients. While I can shoot just about the same amazing pic with my standard A7 if I brought that to a product photo section with art directors around, they would seriously question my integrity and might even make a big deal about it.

My rule of thumb is; if you constantly find yourself maxing out the capabilities of your gear and it holds you back from taking jobs or leaping forward in your creativity then you need to upgrade.

romain vernede's picture

you're absolutely right , but how many photographers see their photo equipment as a "prolongation of themself" rather than tools...

Mr Hogwallop's picture

"Most cameras are better than most photographers"

Never in my 30 years of shooting have I considered my integrity being questioned because of the camera I was using. I have shot most formats 35mm, 6x6, 6x7, 6x9, (never 645, that's a waste :) 4x5, 8x10, Panoramic film, DSLR, MFDB and now Sony A7 series.
The only time that I can recall an art director giving a hoot about the camera was the first time the AD had been on a digital not film shoot.
Since I have already been hired by the AD/Client they trust me to git 'er done.
For a "dog and pony show" I have decided setting up a couple C-Stands is enough...

Brian Anderson's picture

"What do you think matters the most with photography equipment?"

The photographer and his or her abilities to pick and use it to its furthest potential :)

Marius Pettersen's picture

Excellent article! I quickly discovered the weaknesses of my older 5DII and 85/1.2L when I was doing a job photographing dogs running through an obstacle course. Can't say that the AF or shutter kept up with the animals. Had to estimate and use manual focus. Got a bunch of decent pictures, but boy was it a hassle.
I've upgraded to the 5DIV now and the performance difference is massive!

Valid points except the "Quality of Light" part. Unless you mean build quality, light is light, I think Lee Morris wrote something about that. Look at comparisons of Godox lights to Profoto lights for reference.

By quality of light, he meant the actual quality of the electromagnetic spectrum. Not all lights which say, “daylight balanced, 5,450K,” are the same. The sun is the closest thing we have to actual full spectrum daylight, (and even the sunlight which hits Earth is missing a few wavelength).

There are different ways to get to white, daylight, at 5,450K, and they all do not have the same wavelength present at the same intensities. Also, what actually constitutes daylight is relative to where on Earth one lives. In the tropics, 5,450K is nowhere near daylight. At 6,500K, we can talk. With multiple lights, it is important that, unless by deliberate artistic license, all lights have the same definition of “daylight”, (or Tugsten, or warm white, or cool white, or whatever), and they all produce precisely the same sets of wavelengths to get to that temperature.

People think that I make my images too cold, and need to warm them up. I think most images I see from other people are too warm and need to be cooled. That is because I am from the tropics. What is normal to me, is not normal to someone raised in Northern England.

Even then, it is not only about Kelvin temperature, but the wavelength present which contribute to that Temperature, and how they are produced. That is, are they continually being emitted simultaneously, or are they being emitted out of phase? That is to say, within a certain time period, all the wavelength are always visible, or the light source first emits light at one end of the spectrum, then the middle, then the other end of the spectrum, but so fast that due to persistence of vision, it appears white.

So, yes, light quality is a thing. Light is not light, depending on what you are doing with it. For most of us, (90% of us, 90% of the time, sort of stats ;-) ), it does not matter, but for some, (maybe 10% of us 10% of the time), it becomes very important, and can make the difference between a great and a terrible session.

Now thats a well laid out explanation and could'nt argue with that. Thanks for your opinion.

Scott Choucino's picture

What Karim said is pretty much 100% of what I think. For a one off photograph, the Godox system is fine, take 500 and the +/- standard deviation of K and then there is flash duration, T scores and all that good stuff that matters once in a blue moon, but when that moon comes around, you need it in your back pocket.

William Howell's picture

Definitely lights and the grip stuff to hold the lights in position. Then lenses, the best you can afford. Next I would say is the camera, if you can’t afford a tough sturdy one like, say the D810, then get a good one used. And finally a fast computer, I don’t like that spinning beachball.

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