A Great Perspective on Why Gear Doesn't Matter

Yes, we've all heard this talk before, but as usual, Ted Forbes brings a fresh, insightful perspective to the discussion. Take a few minutes to watch this great video.

Forbes makes some very valid points. I was particularly drawn to his evaluation of how the camera market has changed via shortened upgrade cycles: the annual release of new models has unconsciously habituated us to increasingly thinking we need the latest and greatest gear to make images. His point about how a viewer is initially drawn into an image is apt as well: no one (on first glance) is drawn to an image because they immediately notice the 15 stops of dynamic range or the pixel-level sharpness. A compelling first take is something more visceral. Now, I'm not going to sit here and pretend that gear doesn't ever matter. It does. There are certain shots that can only be obtained with certain gear. But I think what Forbes is getting at is lessening how much importance we give to equipment and increasing how much we give to the artistry of creating images that speak on several levels, that require more than a cursory glance to understand, that draw the viewer in like an addiction. That's something I can get on board with. 

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20 Comments

Anonymous's picture

I've heard it all before but... I keep forgetting. Thx for reminding me. Please redo that once a year.

Alex Cooke's picture

Check back on 3/17/2018.

I agree. I started out shooting film with a Canon A-1 in 1980, which I still use today; my FD lenses are 28mm, 50mm, 80-205mm, and 400mm. I also have a handle-mount flash. In July 2013, I bought a used Canon New F-1 so I can share equipment. With two film cameras, the quandary of whether to shoot B&W or color has been solved.
My wife had been trying to switch me to digital since 2011, but her budget was a Canon T3i; I talked her out of it since I was thinking that would be the last DSLR I bought. I thought the A-1 would be my last camera, but I found a great deal for the F-1.
December 2013, she bought me a Canon 5D III. I use all three cameras; I enjoy photography. It doesn't matter if it's film or digital.

I should say that I covet the Canon 1Dx II. But can I afford it? Hell no! The 1Dx II is also a beast compared to the 5D III; at least I can remove the battery grip to shave some weight off.

Dallas Dahms's picture

I always tell students who visit me and ask about whether gear upgrades will improve their photography that a turd at 12MP is no less of a turd at 36MP.

Consider though that photography is a craft that is both artistic and very technical. On the technical side images from a 36MP camera will make 12MP camera images look poor in comparison.

Jared Wolfe's picture

That comparison matters very little when most image are shared at 1-2MP or less.

I don't know of any serious or professional photographers that would be satisfied with a 1-2MP camera.

Dallas Dahms's picture

Not really the point I am trying to make. If you are in photography for technical reasons I doubt that your artistic output is always going to match your technical output. Get the art right before you go thinking that a gear upgrade is going to do anything to improve your output.

Why not? There are/were plenty of highly skilled photographers that are/were just as much concerned with the technical side of photography as they are/were the artistic. Ansel Adams, for example, was one. There's no reason why both can not be strived for and achieved at the same time.

Dallas Dahms's picture

If I take a crappy photograph of a landscape (or anything else), having it in 36MP as opposed to 12MP isn't going to make any difference to the fact that it's a crappy photograph to begin with. Neither will it make any difference if I go out and buy me a 100MP camera. If I am taking crappy pictures, I am taking crappy pictures. No camera in the world is going to solve that problem.

However, if I am taking good pictures with the 12MP camera, only then can I justify an upgrade to another level of hardware. Going there before the justification is reached is an exercise in futility.

As an aside, personally I find Ansel Adams' work to be boring as hell, but again, that's just my voice in the wilderness...

This discussion tends to get mislabeled. Funny, but in arguing that gear doesn't matter, one of his first examples is the rise of the 35 mm camera and how its light size allowed more mobility and new shooting opportunities. He also points out the smart phone and its connectivity over the DSLR. In both of these, the gear DOES matter -- the central point he's making, I think, is that a new dynamic trumps the technical image quality. And this is very true and very important.

The best camera is always the camera you have, but even Ted wouldn't have an 8X10 film camera if the superior image quality didn't matter in some instances. Personally, I rarely shoot with my smartphone and will nearly always grab a DSLR camera or EVF camera -- not necessarily for the technical image superiority, but because of the way I think and work. In most instances, I would therefore opt for an old 4 mpx DSLR/EVF over a 7 mpx smartphone in. This is consistent, I think, with the points Ted's trying to make.

It would be best to say that whether gear matters isn't yes-no because HOW it matters, and how much, depends upon the situation, the objective, the shooter and the context.

Michael Yearout's picture

Alex: Well thought-out and well said. Thank you.

Anonymous's picture

Here's a thought: if someone wants to buy every new piece of equipment that comes out, let them. Who cares? Is it bothering anyone?
With all the extra time you'll have, not worrying about what anyone else does, you can take great photos with whatever gear YOU like. :-/

Been shooting with a Canon t3I I got from school years ago and I love when people see my images and ask, "What camera do you use?" And they are always surprised by my answer.

Alex Cooke's picture

My first real digital camera! Shot with it for years. Still have an infrared version.

As a brand new newbie in the world of photography, gear is intimidating. This article, in a word, is liberating. I didn't get into this for any other reason other than to try to create images. Once upon a time that was done on a cave wall. I think I will be ok for now with my new camera and some kit lenses. I know I will move up. But I don't want to ever lose the excitement of discovery I am having and I will remember this video for awhile. Chi Miigwetch.

I have an acquaintance who bought himself tons of expensive gear, including a $5000 camera. He started shooting, perhaps 2 years ago. And has since made a "business" of his photography. He is by no means very skilled at what he does. And, in some sense, he is unaware of how "bad" his work is by comparison to other photographers. But what I see is a guy who has fun doing what he is doing. He has definitely bought into the "the more expensive and new the tech is, the better the images". Certainly. He hates the "older" dslrs, and wouldn't look at them.

But honestly. He might become what he invisions himself as today. He is brilliantly ignorant of peoples critique. And I can be jealous of his almost childish sense of wonder at shooting pretty "banal" photos. But then again I keep realizing that out there, there is someone who thinks the very same thing of the work that I do. And I think most of us know that this is true for a lot of us.

Perhaps we can all learn from people who are ignorant of criticism. All the people who tell us we can't be something with an expensive OR cheap camera. Perhaps this is all, simply, a huge distraction from being passionate about SOMETHING, and what happens in the long run when you are.

I would say, a lot of people who were passionate enough to ignore the masses have become the legends we worship today in the world of photography.

Brian Dowling's picture

As a press photographer I can say gear matters a lot. MP and DR are not so important, but AF, FSP, Voice tagging are all really important. If you are doing a press conference and have to stand 200 feet away, the guy with the 400 2.8 is a going to be selling a hell of a lot more photos than you with your 24-70L.

Carl Irjala's picture

A while ago when I was at an air show and a man came up to me and asked if he can buy my pocket camera. "Why?" I asked him. "Because you always get so nice pictures" he replied. For the pocket money, I bought my first DSLR, Nikon D70.
With my blog https://dismason.org/ I have had the opportunity to test a large number of camera brands and have come to the conclusion that the quality of a photo is also depending on what quality your camera can produce.
In the hardware store you can find an incredible number of hammers. But to beat a 100mm (4'' 3,9 inch) nail it's needed the right weight of the hammer. So we nail it . . . or not ;-)