I'm Obsessed With Camera Gear, and There's Nothing Wrong With That

I'm Obsessed With Camera Gear, and There's Nothing Wrong With That

We hear all the time about how it's not about the gear, it's about the photographer using the gear. And we hear about how you shouldn't focus on the latest and greatest camera equipment. I'm here to tell you that's not always the case.

Background

When I was younger, I was a pretty geeky kid. I bought math textbooks from the bookstore and tinkered with electronics. When I was 12, most kids my age were spending their summer allowance money on PlayStations, but I bought a Palm IIIc (this was before the age of the smartphone, aside from models like the Nokia Communicator 9210).

I ended up saving for a year to get one of these too (photo by Andreas Steinhoff).

Did a 12-year-old need a PDA that was designed with corporate executives in mind? Absolutely not. But of course, that wasn't the point. I was obsessed with the idea of a portable computing device. After all, I had been programming my graphing calculator for a couple of years at that point, and the idea of a purpose-designed portable computer as opposed to a repurposed math device was massively intriguing. And I pushed all 20 MHz of that Palm to its max. For me, the joy was in the existence and usage, not the final results. Sometimes, the means are the end. 

The Mentality

I think a lot of photographers have at least some amount of that mindset: they're a bit geeky and love a craft that sits at the intersection of technology and creativity. At least, that's one of the many reasons I love photography. A lot of my photographer friends and I idly chat about gear all the time, never because we think we just have to upgrade to that new body or lens or we'll never get the shots we need, but because we're simply passionate about the cameras, lenses, and lights. After all, there's some pretty modern and novel tech inside newer equipment, and photography is a craft that offers a long history of still usable devices that can be a ton of fun.

This is a seriously fun camera (photo by Lëa-Kim Châteauneuf).

So, while I think that the a7R III is one heck of a cool camera, and I love playing with its features, I also love shooting with my 50-year-old Rollei 35 SE, because it's a quirky, fun piece of camera history that offers a glimpse at yesteryear. In addition to enjoying the creative process and making images, I also enjoy simply using the technology that creates the images and geeking out with all the gadgetry that comes along with it.

It's Not G.A.S.

G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) is the informal term often attached to the tendency of photographers to think they need more gear. I don't look at pictures online and think "boy, I could get that shot if only I had that lens" while my hand involuntarily travels toward my wallet to slip out my credit card. That's not to say I don't believe that certain shots can only be made with certain gear. I find it a bit annoying when someone declares that gear doesn't matter as if it's a universal truth. Like most things in life, it's not a black and white proposition, and there are certainly situations where the gear does matter. A more accurate and helpful statement would be: "the gear doesn't matter as much as you probably think it does." That's a sentiment I can get on board with.

Delusion and Money

If there's one thing I took away from my psychology degree, it's to never underestimate the power of the human mind to rationalize its own behavior. It's very easy to delude yourself into thinking you're just passionate about gear and not using it as a crutch, when in reality, you have a classic case of G.A.S. Ask yourself if you could not buy any gear for an extended period of time and make quality images with what you have. I know for me that it's not a case of G.A.S. because it's been years since I looked at a shot I missed and blamed the gear. Nowadays, I'm very honest with myself and can quickly zero in on a deficiency in technique or lack of practice when I mess up something tricky. It's also important, of course, to make sure you're financially responsible if you're into collecting photography gear. It's obviously an expensive hobby, particularly when you start collecting gear beyond what you actually need for professional purposes. 

Pride

Some people also take pride in owning the best gear because they want to put out the absolute best possible product for their clients. While there's certainly an argument to be made here, there's also a bit of a law of diminishing returns that kicks in after a certain point, particularly when we're talking about the perception of an untrained eye versus that of a professional photographer. Nonetheless, I certainly can respect the principle of it, and if shooting with that gear makes you more comfortable with the product you're providing your client without being a financial detriment elsewhere in your business, then why not? Certainly, over-delivering isn't going to lose you any clients.

It's Alright to Be Obsessed With Gear if It's for the Right Reasons

A lot of photographers see gear as nothing more than a tool for creating an image. They want it to do nothing more than the job they need it to do, and they don't care about it beyond it staying out of their way. That's certainly a very reasonable and pragmatic approach. And then, there are some photographers for whom the images are important, but the sheer enjoyment of the process and playing with neat tech is also part of the experience. For them, that neat new lens is half the fun of the practice. And really, if one is putting in the hours to hone their craft, not blaming their gear for missed shots, and not straining themselves financially, what's wrong with enjoying camera gear? It's still cheaper than collecting sports cars (unless you're really into medium format). I'm going to keep drooling over that new Sigma 105mm f/1.4, and I'm not going to feel bad about it. 

Lead image by Andre Furtado, used under Creative Commons.

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32 Comments

Jonathan Brady's picture

Totally agree. I'd also like to add that sometimes, gear can actually make you a better photographer by enabling you to achieve something you couldn't otherwise. That's obvious for things like a camera with a sports AF system, or a macro lens, or a tilt-shift lens where, prior to owning the gear, trying to achieve those things wasn't only impossible, but they possibly didn't even cross your mind so owning the right gear actually introduced new challenges and achievements (hence making you a better photographer).
There are also more subtle features that can make you a better photographer if the final image is the measure of "better". Things like a sharper lens, a faster lens, a longer or wider lens, lighting equipment, camera tech like Eye AF, etc.
Then, there's the gear that inpires us to go out and shoot and we all know that generally, the more we shoot, the better we get.
So, gear CAN (not "will") make us better photographers.

Bill Larkin's picture

absolutely.

Michael Jin's picture

Although I don't necessarily 100% agree, I do get where you're coming from. I guess my main counterpoint would be that one can certainly argue that the "latest" is not necessarily "the greatest" in all instances since the latter is a pretty subjective thing tied to your own personal creative goals.

As far as constantly having the newest and most high end gear not being a financial detriment to your business, I'm not sure how that can possibly be the case since I would consider spending extra money on something that isn't going to generate more income to be financially detrimental (as opposed to allocating that investment toward something that WILL generate additional income). You can certainly argue that the financial impact on your business might be minimal if you have a thriving business, but that's just arguing that it's a small or negligible detriment, not that it's not detrimental at all.

I'm not sure what the point would be in the latest/greatest argument. If he wants it, what difference does it make?

Just a hypothetical but, if net profits constantly exceed his goals by a larger margin than the non-essential gear he buys, it isn't a financial detriment to his business, negligible or otherwise.

Michael Jin's picture

My point is merely that I believe in choosing the right tool for the job and that does not always mean the newest tool. Also, there's no single lens at any focal length that's the ideal tool for every single job at that focal length so rather than simply going out and trading in the old for the new every time something new comes out, it's worth evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of every piece of kit you have and see how each new addition changes your overall capabilities.

As far as the thing about "financial detriment", it's a matter of perspective. Some people aren't really bean counters and will say that it doesn't really matter as long as you're making "enough" of a net profit in the end. After all, if you're making a million dollars a year, what's a $1000 difference here or there? Emotionally, I'm inclined to agree, but I see every expense as being net positive, net neutral, or net negative. When I say "detriment", I mean that it's a net negative. Even if it's a negligible amount, it's money that you could have earned, but didn't, and every such instance is a loss—a detriment to your business. It doesn't mean that it's somehow an existential threat to your business, but given the fact that the purpose of business is to generate income, everything that runs counter to that goal is a detriment to it. That's the way I see it, anyway. Whether you care about how detrimental it is or whether you deem it significant is a completely different story.

I understand. I just think that like a lot of things in life, business isn't just about making money.

Michael Jin's picture

Perhaps my view in this regard is a result of the way I tend to compartmentalize the fact that I essentially do work that I detest and deal with people I hate to pay for the things that i actually enjoy in life. 🤷‍♂️

I try to base my view of all things on a trust in God. Sometimes I'm successful. :-)

user-197098's picture

I like my gear and always have (65 years of taking photographs), but I never let it get in the way or become anything more than a tool to accomplish what I'm after (the photograph). Your cameras and lenses should all but disappear in your process of taking a photograph. Just as a fine musician practices enough to not have to think about the fingering. Your gear should become lost in the process and intuitively second nature and not require conscious thought. I do love to tinker with my cameras and lenses (as well as the tripods etc.). It is important to understand how they work and to meticulously maintain them.

That's not the right comparisson. A fine musician needs a good instrument and/or amp to sound good. Playing good with bad sound isn't good at all.

user-197098's picture

Of course. I'm not demeaning good gear - I own a bunch of it. However in my 65 plus years of taking photographs I've never seen a camera or a lens take a single photo. Photographers take photos, not the gear. I remember years ago watching a pianist sit down at a pretty beat up piano in a bar in Colorado and play music that was nothing short of spectacular. Could he have played better on a Steinway concert grand? Probably, but his work on this old beat up upright was spectacular.

user-208255's picture

Just don't pretend that a different camera will make you a better photographer or better artist. Because it won't.

Pretending is fun! :-)

Rifki Syahputra's picture

nothing is wrong as long as my wallet say yes

The Rollei 35 was a fun camera but the bottom mounted flash shoe made for some funky shadows.

Jon Dize's picture

I just like nice things. As long as my purchasing nice things does not take away from your wallet... why would it be any concern of yours? Whomever YOU may be.

I have always thought, there is a best tool for the job.

You can loosen a flat head screw with a nail file, but I kinda like having a nice Craftsman screwdriver instead.

Will the newest and best gear help me be a better photographer? Depends on what kind of photographer I want to be.

I have heard this same argument since I started working as a photographer in 1973. It never ends.

What I have noticed though, there are patterns.

Often this "Better cameras don't make you a better photographer." comes from those who already have the best cameras, trying to convince novices it was not the best cameras that made them the photographer they became.

And, from novices, who cannot afford the best cameras, trying to convince others their work is plenty good, even without all the expensive gear.

I don't need the car I drive, I could get from point A to point B more affordably.

But if the cost is not an issue, why not drive what I like?

I could live in a smaller house, but, if the cost is not an issue, why not live where I want.

We could do the same loop all day, all year... in fact, people have been making the same comments on this topic forever.

Do you really need a $250,000 boat just to water ski?

It goes on and on.

Does having a $250,000 boat make you a better water skier?

On and on and on.

Now see what you have done. I just dug my eyes out with a shrimp fork... AGAIN!

Jon Dize's picture

I will say this though. I shot Playboy Centerfold Jessa Hinton on a set and shot some images with a Nikon D700 and other images with a Leica S2 body with 100mm f2 lens.

The D700 cost about $1,600. The Leica S2 and lens cost about $28,000 at the time.

I was the same photographer at the same set, same skill set... which camera do you think allowed me to take better photos that day?

If you think the D700 produced the same images as the S2, you are gravely mistaken.

So, on that day, yes... the $28,000 camera setup made me a better photographer.

The image I produced with it, were much, much better.

Would it matter if the only place my image was going to be seen was on Instagram or Facebook? NOPE!

The topic itself is just a FEEL GOOD LOOP as far as I am concerned.

Use the gear you can afford for the work you expect to produce.

Right tool for the job is some of the best advice I was ever offered and some of the best advice I can offer others.

If quality matters, use the BEST tool for the job.

They tell me I may live another 20 years. The only thing I can be certain of... This topic repeating over and over for all 20 of those years.

BEST BET IN VEGAS!

I would have voted your comment up had you used a different example shoot. :-/

Jon Dize's picture

Well, now that you mentioned the religious thing, I understand why you make such comments.

"Religious" - not so much. I'm a Christian and read the Bible a lot but not so fond of church.

Since we're being all understanding and everything, I actually agree with a lot of the things you write and some of your views in general. Sometimes I go a little overboard. I'm sorry.

Jon Dize's picture

We all have our moments Sam. Sometimes we feel like a nut... sometimes we don't.

Jon Dize's picture

Sorry!

That was the only time I got to use a Leica S2. I can only share what I have.

I figured it was okay, since God made her beautiful.

I had a talk with God and I asked, "God?"

He responded, "Yeah Jon?"

I queried, "God, do you think it would be okay if I took photos of Jessa Hinton?"

God responded, "FK YEAH! I know I would!"

So, I did!

user-187388's picture

Quote from Alex."If there's one thing I took away from my psychology degree, it's to never underestimate the power of the human mind to rationalize its own behavior."
We as human beings always justify our behaviour to get our own way even if we might feel a tinge of guilt about our proposed action. My check on my self justification is my wife ,(without her I would have bought even more cameras than I already own)and as Sam says ,"I try to base my view of all things on a trust in God." In fact my wife and God are a team in this. "If you think God wants you to get that camera well go ahead" or words to that effect.

Tony Northrup's picture

Amen. Glad you brought up sports cars - people are excited to see a $100k Jaguar E-type even though it sucks in every measurable way. But we review a $10k Hasselblad, cool but impractical at 1/10th the price, and everyone thinks it's insane. Different people enjoy different aspects of photography. Cameras are fun. This is supposed to be fun.

Wes Jones's picture

Absolutely. When I buy a new piece of gear I am not delusional enough to think it will make me the next Avedon, I buy it for the enjoyment of using it. If you can afford it, do it.

Jon Dize's picture

The irony is, Richard Avedon used the best equipment of the time, Linhof, Rolliflex, Nikon f and F2, even Leica if I remember correctly.

Jon Dize's picture

As a former Jaguar XJ-6 Vanden Plas owner... I understand the reference completely.

I used to meet with Rich MacDonald, a local $billionaire, who owns $hundreds of millions of real estate in Hawaii and a large portion of the Las Vegas valley on a regular basis.

Then one day I met him at a gas pump, he normally drives his creme colored Bentley but that night he was driving his wife's Jaguar.

I mentioned the car and he told me it was his wife's and he was just topping off the gas for her.

Two weeks later I drove my XJ-6 to the gas station an ran into Richard again.

He smiled and said, "Did you read the joke that comes in the glove box of every Jaguar?"

I responded, "No? What joke?"

He said, "Know why the Brits drink warm beer?"

Baited, I asked, "No! Why do the Brits drink warm beer?"

His eyebrows raised and a smile on his face, he said, "Because all of their fridges are made by Lucas Electric."

I did not really understand his reference, was familiar with the name, but... it wasn't until a year later, I started to understand.

You see, all of the electrical components of the Jaguar are made by LUCAS ELECTRIC.

Regardless of which Jaguar you buy, from $46,000 to $130,000, the electrical components, including the cheapest Chinese plastic switches and electrical connectors are provided by Lucas Electric.

When they start failing, cracking, shorting out... it is like Moses and the Exodus, they all seem to go at once.

I still have nightmares that include my Jaguar, perhaps the worst car of the 54 cars I have owned. Brake jobs, every six months were $1,600 each.

Buying the car is the cheap part. Maintaining it requires a mortgage all it's own.

PS, between 1975 and 2001, I owned (4) Hasselblads, (2) 500 CM systems, (2) 500 ELM systems, so unlike the guy who rationalizes one purchase is justified and the other is not... I am just the opposite.

I am of the thought, if I have the money and my buying something does not make innocents suffer... As long as the power bill gets paid, why not?

user-187388's picture

I am glad you mentioned the PDA Alex. The first bit of tech I purchased in the world of computing etc was a Sharp Electronic Organiser. I saw an ad in the paper that said if you have one of these you will never forget another appointment etc.I thought I need that.I rang the salesman who even let me take one home to try out before I bought it. I took it home and said to my 12 year old son, show me how this works. He had it working in a couple of minutes and was doing amazing things with it.This was my introduction to the world of computers. One of the best things I ever bought. I bought the next model also. I did resist the PDA's when they came out though.

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