Does Expensive Gear Really Make You Better?

It's the age old conundrum isn't it? If only you had better gear you'd take much better photos and be a much better photographer. But is that really true? Let's see what happens when it's put to the test.

"You get what you pay for." That's the line people (and manufacturers) love to peddle when it comes to spending and accruing gear and gadgets, especially in the world of photography. But is it such an axiomatic truth? In this video, Jessica Kobeissi takes her followers and YouTube commenters to task when they suggest that the only reason she can produce consistently good images is because of the expensive setup she uses.

How does she do it? She ditches her $5,000 body and lens combination and goes out and buys a refurbished Canon Rebel T6 with 18-55mm kit lens, as well as the nifty fifty Canon f/1.8, all for under $500. She then takes some indoor and outdoor shots with different compositions and lighting setups and shows you the results. She notes that using the 50mm f/1.8 was much better as the wider aperture let much more light in and reduced the noise that came with having to bump up the ISO on the kit lens. Overall, I think the results show that she did a pretty good job and proved that cheaper gear can still produce great results.

However, one comment she made towards the end confused me. She concluded by saying that you can take great photos with a beginner setup and kit lens, but of course her Canon 5D Mark IV takes better pictures because it costs a few thousand dollars. I contacted Jessica for clarification and she was gracious enough to reply in length. Here's part of what she said:

What I meant at the end is that yes, the quality and performance of a $3,000+ camera will be better, but it doesn't mean the overall photo will be good. Your lighting, composition and editing will not improve because you buy a more expensive camera. It's not the secret to becoming better. Just because you have the most expensive camera doesn't mean your images will be nicely lit and well composed, they will just be good quality images because you're using a camera with great technical features.

I have to say I completely agree with her sentiments here. In many hobbies and leisure pursuits we often see people geared up to the gills with all the latest and greatest stuff, yet they're absolute hacks at what they do. "All the gear and no idea" as the saying goes. Golf and surfing are perfect examples, along with photography, of course. As Kobeissi says, things such as lighting, composition, color combinations and so on will not be better just because you have the most expensive gear in your hands.

What are your thoughts? Where have you seen the biggest differences in your photography after investing in more expensive gear? Or conversely, what kind of success have you had with gear at the cheaper end of the spectrum? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.

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31 Comments

David Pavlich's picture

Let me be the first to say, "not again?!" I'll bet 99% of FS members know that it's the photographer, not the gear. However, better gear makes the job easier. If you shoot BIF, do you think you'd have more keepers with a camera that has 61 focus points or 11 focus points? Better focusing systems cost money to produce, so the cameras are more expensive.

Give our own Alex a 10mp camera and a 47mp camera and take a picture of a desert sunset. I can guarantee you that the picture that Alex takes with the 47mp camera will be better because Alex will do everything he knows to get the best picture that he can, regardless of the camera he's using.

It's the same article with a different author. We really do get it.

Rob Mitchell's picture

I can't even be bothered watching these videos. Same old same old. To be fair, every time a new wave of people pick up cameras, they figure it out again, for themselves. Then need to share. So it gets monotonous for the rest of us.

Iain Stanley's picture

Fair point. Once you’ve been around the block a few times it seems self-evident, hemce my use of “axiomatic” in the article. But no matter how many times you say it, people still believe the latest and greatest gadgets will magically transform your talents overnight. It needs to be repeated that gear alone means diddly squat in less than competent hands

Mark Holtze's picture

I think it's just a way to counter the non stop onslaught of influencers talking about NEW cameras which are being dropped every quarter it seems like. There's an obvious push by the camera manufacturers to host these events and give out demo models of influencers who are going to leverage their audience numbers and MOST people who are getting into this stuff (who lets be honest are probably the ones who are most loyal to these influencers anyway) don't understand the nuance of technique and craft and only see the specs of the camera, mostly because that's all the influencer is talking about.

If there is a short cut to get "nicer looking pictures" that doesn't involve 10 years of actual experience, you'd be surprised how quickly that will convince people to buy the latest and greatest.

I think this is just a counter to that, there's so much "gear doesn't matter" it does feel repetitive. But if you read a lot of the comments on these videos on the new cameras it's "I can't afford it...can't afford it, can't afford it" so I think it's just a compensation for that. Plus it "inspires" which is single handily the easiest way to gain an audience loyalty. Inspire them.

That said, on a professional level there's a threshold of expected technical quality that needs to pass some standardizations. I don't 'think these guys are speaking to the seasoned professionals though, pretty sure if you're making good money in the craft, you understand the limitations of both gear and yourself.

Iain Stanley's picture

Your last paragraph is very salient. Once you have been through a few cheap cameras and honed your skills, then you start to have expectations on gear. But it’s important to do the apprenticeship first and hone those skills

Iain Stanley's picture

I appreciate your input David as it adds some clarity and depth to the article. Of course, some things here are targeted at experienced, prosumer level photographers, whilst others are aimed more at new entrants to the photography world.

Nonetheless, it’s important to hear views such as yours and the comments that have followed because it provides much more objectivity, as well as stating what needs to be heard - gear alone will not make you a better photographer. Nor is it absolutely necessary to go out and buy every new iteration of camera or the latest of anything.

On another note, I have seen you talking about types of paper you use for printing. I have just bought the Epson SureColor P800 and need some advice on recommended papers. I guess it’s related to this article - what’s the minimum you need to spend on (lustre?) paper to get results you really love and are worthy of a wall hang?

Cheers

Jeremy Lusk's picture

Wait, so it’s the archer and NOT the arrow??

David Pavlich's picture

Yep! Same analogy. A good bow shooter will hit targets with any bow or arrow he/she uses. But give that archer good compound bow with an aluminum shafted arrow and a long bow with a wood shafted arrow and see what the results are.

Iain Stanley's picture

97% yes 3% no (based on zero factual evidence!). But think of situations like Rory McIlroy in golf, who changed clubs after signing a massive contract, and played like crap for a good couple of years. He got off those clubs and has come good again......gear does matter at the very high end when fine differences are critical

Iain Stanley's picture

Could be the bow!!

michaeljin's picture

Expensive gear will not make you a better photographer, but it is likely to get you better results (depending on the nature of the gear).

One can argue about the value of a sharper bad photo than a less sharp bad photo, but in terms of cameras, you're also talking about other features such as better AF and better dynamic range which can help a novice salvage bad situations.

Bill Williams's picture

For myself the reason to upgrade gear was for printing quality. I was taking many low light images and on facebook or instagram would look fine, but when I would go to print them the quality was just not holding up on sizes past 11x14. By no means am I a seasoned pro like many on here, but as a serious hobbyist wanting to do prints I was starting to get limited when it came to low light images with say a D3100 and D7000. To be fair I never had kit lenses, I invested more so into good 2.8 or better glass, but I eventually jumped ship to Sony mirrorless, and I can say with the ability to print better low light images I defiantly get out more often.

Do you want to know what I'm annoyed with these gear talks? It's not about whether expensive cameras make you better, but the fact everyone starts trashing a camera just because the video features are not good. Like the Canon RP.

The truth is, peopl who are into vlogging, filmmaking and cinematic are way lesser in numbers than people who are into photography. They only shoot stills. We don't give a damn about cropped 4k or slow mo or ProRes. In fact, i don't want to pay for features that i will never use. Give me a cheap full frame camera, which is cheap because i don't have to pay for what i don't use - video features. Canon has done just that, and they will sell a lot of RPs.

David Pavlich's picture

You're correct about stills vs video. I don't shoot any video, so if Canon were to create an R that records in 8K, I wouldn't care. The RP will be a hit because it's a less expensive bridge to FF and it will work very, very well with the existing EF line of lenses.

michaeljin's picture

"The truth is, peopl who are into vlogging, filmmaking and cinematic are way lesser in numbers than people who are into photography."

Out of curiosity, do you have the actual numbers to back up this statement? I'm not entirely sure that it's actually true given the number of people who post videos of themselves on various platforms these days, but I honestly have no clue.

Observation alone, tells you a lot of things. The average joe who document their lives, have their own blog, or loves posting their own videos on YouTube, Facebook, do you think they own a computer powerful enough to process 4K videos? Most people nowadays are still buying $500, $600 laptops. Post processing 1080p videos are already a chore on those machines. How many people has 10k subscribers on YouTube to warrant higher quality videos? Are the costs worth it?

A lot of people like to vlog nowadays just because it's a trend, but how many people do have the budget for it? Even if you can afford a camera it doesn't mean your can afford a highly specced computer and mountainload of hard disks required. This is exactly why canon sells a lot of cameras despite no 4k or cropped 4k. It's the general consumers who are buying them. Because people don't use 4k in the first place. And this is just 4k, we haven't considered things like raw videos or higher bit rates yet. 4k content in YouTube is still very lacking, that itself is a sign.

The aspiring videographer or filmmaker would equip themselves with all the hardware they need, and peopl who fall into this category are way lesser in numbers.

michaeljin's picture

"Observation alone, tells you a lot of things. The average joe who document their lives, have their own blog, or loves posting their own videos on YouTube, Facebook, do you think they own a computer powerful enough to process 4K videos? Most people nowadays are still buying $500, $600 laptops. Post processing 1080p videos are already a chore on those machines. How many people has 10k subscribers on YouTube to warrant higher quality videos? Are the costs worth it?"

Who says that they're post-processing all that much (if at all)? Lots of them are just recording, cutting things together, and posting—no special effects, no color grading, etc—or streaming directly to the web. Also, how many people who own expensive cameras actually have people to view their photography to warrant those purchases? If it's a hobby, people will spend money on it just like any other hobby.

"A lot of people like to vlog nowadays just because it's a trend, but how many people do have the budget for it? Even if you can afford a camera it doesn't mean your can afford a highly specced computer and mountainload of hard disks required. This is exactly why canon sells a lot of cameras despite no 4k or cropped 4k. It's the general consumers who are buying them. Because people don't use 4k in the first place. And this is just 4k, we haven't considered things like raw videos or higher bit rates yet. 4k content in YouTube is still very lacking, that itself is a sign."

Canon sells tons of cameras because they're the biggest brand in the industry. As far as having a budget for vlogging, last time I checked, it doesn't take a whole lot of investment to start (at least no more than photography). Most people are not shooting 4K video for vlogging, but if they wanted to, even a cellphone these days is capable of shooting 4K video. You might need a powerful computer to do some serious post-processing, but even a modest computer can handle cutting 4K video together and most vloggers and streamers will not go beyond that. After all, they're vlogging, not shooting the next Star Wars film...

"The aspiring videographer or filmmaker would equip themselves with all the hardware they need, and peopl who fall into this category are way lesser in numbers."

The aspiring videographer or filmmaker will equip themselves with what they can afford and more often than not these days, it's a DSLR or MILC camera rather than an expensive cinema camera. I don't think that you'll ever get real numbers considering the fact that serious enthusiasts and professionals account for such a small amount of the total content created and there's a fair degree of crossover between stills and video shooters as far as interest goes.

Ryan Stone's picture

Sharp photo, fuzzy concept.

For me, yes a more expensive camera makes better pictures, but that's because my d7100 has autofocus adjustment and my d3100 didn't, other than that it's all convenience.

So firstly I think better gear for a lot of shoots might make no difference, I do believe it will curtail the creative choices you can make at the start of the shoot e.g. shooting everything at the same aperture, if you have a cheap zoom lens you might not be able to maintain the same aperture though out the focal length or you may not be able to have a shutter speed high enough to shoot everything at f1.8 on your prime or you night run out of sensitivity to take low light pictures. I think for any good photographer, you know you gears limits and plan your shoot around that, so if you had cheap gear you might do a few less things.
I have for many years done low light photography in theatres, often with paying audiences sitting next to me. This presents me with some horrible problems, firstly I cannot take many shots, secondly I cannot move out of my seat, thirdly I cannot look at my screen, fourthly the lighting is often very changeable and high contrast. For this I used high end gear and do not believe I would get anywhere near the hit rate I do, nor would I satisfy my clients demands if I used cheap gear, but I think there a few things have the same problems :-)

Iain Stanley's picture

Absolutely, in certain, specific situations (low light is a great example) higher end gear definitely does make a difference

Same as always: They don't sell bad cameras anymore. More expensive cameras have more features. If you don't know what you're doing, these features won't help you. If you do and are doing something where they are useful, then they may.

Iain Stanley's picture

It’s all relative isn’t it? The Canon Rebel is an amazing camera next to the iphone 6.....

I think this video is really aimed at newbies who feel insecure with their starter cameras. And the main message to them...and everyone...is yes..gear matters...but its really YOU that matters. Shoot and get better....then slowly upgrade.

Jeff McCollough's picture

I wonder why Haselbald and PhaseOne are still in business if gear doesn't matter.

Chris Ram's picture

Good info! Sent this to a friend who really needed to see this.

imagecolorado's picture

Must be a slow photography day. Why are these same lame issues always coming up? Can't think of anything better to write about? This horse has been beat to death, buried, dug up and beat to death again and again.

Iain Stanley's picture

Whilst I agree with some of what you say, potentially saving people $100’s/$1,000’s and encouraging them to learn the craft of photography more aren’t what I’d call “lame issues”

Jacques Cornell's picture

The substance of the article doesn't really address the question in the title. The article is about whether a good photographer can make good images with modest gear. The title is about whether modest gear can make YOU better. In my experience, the answer to the latter is definitely "YES!", especially for new photographers. Why? because wrestling with basic equipment confronts the photographer with limitations and decisions that lead to learning and skills development. Classic example: the new photographer who has an all-manual camera with 3 prime lenses will much more quickly grasp and master such things as how to make a good exposure, the perspective effects of different focal lengths, the effects of ISO settings on noise and resolution, and more, simply because every decision must be made BY THE PHOTOGRAPHER, who then learns by trial and error. A fully-automated camera with a zoom lens hides these decisions from the photographer, depriving the newcomer of learning opportunities. My first camera was a Yashica FX-3 all-manual film camera with 28mm, 50mm and 135mm primes, and I'm very glad that I couldn't afford a Canon AE-1 (which had autoexposure) at the time.

Jan Kruize's picture

My god...... how often did i see this kind of topics passing here?

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