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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.