It's Not About the Camera Gear, Except When It Is

It's Not About the Camera Gear, Except When It Is

I was recently involved in a conversation via Facebook that centered around new camera gear and becoming a better photographer. The saying generally goes: “It’s not about the camera gear at all.” While I generally agree with this way of thinking, it’s not always accurate. 

The saying “It’s not about the gear” is spread all over the Internet in an effort to convince people that they don’t need new gear to become a better photographer. I know for a fact that I have told people this exact phrase before and another writer here just wrote an article called "Stop Focusing on Camera Gear." The problem is that sometimes, it really is about the gear.    

Why It’s Not About the Gear

When it comes to photography, you can do a lot of things with not a lot of gear. I constantly see photographers showing the gear they have prepared to shoot a wedding and am amazed by how much stuff some people pack. While it’s nice to have options, beginner photographers get the idea stuck in their head that in order to shoot weddings, they also need all this gear. But in reality, I have shot my last six weddings with a single camera body and two cheap prime lenses, and I have been more than happy with the results. In fact, I think having less gear makes me a better photographer because I don't have to think about what lens I want to use. If I need something wide, I choose my 35mm, and if I need something long, I have my 85mm. Those are my only options. This leaves me more mental capacity to think about the important things like light, moment, and composition. 

Another area where “it’s not about the gear” is when the latest and greatest camera comes out. I know the struggles and have fallen victim to them myself. The new XYZ MARK-62 just came out and it has better autofocus and half-a-stop better dynamic range! And wow, the promotional material was really done well. I want to shoot like that so I guess I need that camera.

But what I recommend (and try to remind myself) is to not fall for marketing hype. So a camera has better autofocus, but are you struggling with your current AF? Do you find yourself constantly needing more dynamic range or higher ISO than you currently have? Most likely, the answer is no. Most likely, you are trucking along just fine with what you have and you’re just getting bored with your gear. It’s losing that new gear smell and you're craving a fix. So, instead of using new gear to inspire you to shoot, look for inspiration elsewhere. Try to use what you have in a different way than you always do. Shoot wide when you would normally shoot tight. Learn to use light better or to see better compositions. Those are the things that will truly make you a better photographer.    


Why It Is About the Gear

In the above section, I asked if you are constantly needing more dynamic range or higher ISO and assumed the answer was no. But if you are just starting out or on an entry level camera, then your answer may be yes. This is where it does start to become about the gear. If you are shooting and are constantly hitting the limitations of your setup, then it’s time to consider upgrading. Or maybe most of what you shoot is low light photography and an extra stop of ISO in that latest and greatest sensor would be a huge help in the way you shoot. The key here is to know what your gear can and cannot do in comparison to what you need it to do. 

There are also parts of a camera that you don’t need, but can drastically change the way you shoot. These can be called a “convenience factor”. Things like the new eye AF on the latest Sony cameras come to mind. I don’t need it and I did just fine shooting without it, but after I used it for a shoot, I had to have it. The convenience added to the way I work was worth the upgrade in my eyes. Things like button customization, new metering modes, autofocus tracking abilities, and even having Bluetooth or Wi-Fi can all be looked at as convenience factors. You don't need these things, but they can possibly make shooting easier for you, which in turn frees up some more of that mental capacity we talked about earlier — mental capacity that can be used to create better images instead of working your camera.     

The Takeaway

In this article, I kept all the talking points centered around cameras, but the same can be said for any piece of gear. Does that new lens give you something you need that your current setup does not have? Does that new light have enough convenience factor to justify the upgrade? 

Another question you need to ask yourself that I didn't spend much time on is: can you afford it or will it bring in money? So, not only do you need to know if this new gear will improve your shooting experience, but you also need to know if it will help you make more money. Does a bit less grain or more dynamic range bring in more money? Probably not, but maybe it will help you save a ton of time editing? Because time is money! 

At the end of the day, photographers of the past have done a lot more than any of us can ever hope to accomplish, and they did it with a lot less gear and tech. Even the lowest-end DSLR of today is better than what they had to work with. So, we should not look at our gear as a way to become a better photographer. Instead, we should use our gear for what it is: a tool that helps us create our vision. We need our tools to get the job done, and sometimes, better tools help us work more efficiently. So, while getting new gear won't make you a better photographer, it can help you create higher-quality images as you become better than your gear can keep up with.  

Jason Vinson's picture

Jason Vinson is a wedding and portrait photographer for Vinson Images based out of Bentonville, Arkansas. Ranked one of the Top 100 Wedding photographers in the World, he has a passion for educating and sharing his craft.

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Though often times correct, the adage "It's not about the camera gear" is pretty much a canard. No, you don't need a special camera or gear to take photos or even great photos. But, depending on the kinds of photos you want to take, gear very well may play a role.

Do you want to take shallow DOF portraits? Not just any lens will do.

Do you want to take shallow DOF portraits in bright daylight and not blow highlights? Sorry, you'll need some gear to do so whether it's a ND filter, flash, or whatever.

Do you want to take photos of birds? Well, yes, you can do it with your kit lens or even a nifty fifty, but you're really going to need to use a zoom/telephoto lens.

There are countless other examples I could point to, but the point is that depending on what it is you want to do photographically, gear absolutely may play a role.

That's exactly the point I'm making here.

I've always found the phrase "it's not about the gear" to be misleading and at best feel-good advice to get someone to go out and create regardless of what they have. It doesn't help educate anyone but I'm sure some find it motivational.

It is true that you should reach the limits of your equipment in your own time, in your own way, if at all. As far as I'm concerned you shouldn't ever be looking to get new equipment unless you have a particular problem to solve. If you can't create the kinds of images you want with what you have, it's always possible there's something else that will enable you to do so, but you must first be sure the limitation isn't you.

Great article. I always hear people saying "it's not about the gear" but then never really getting into detail about it, that blanket statement isn't always true and there is much more to it then that, because you do need certain gear depending upon what you are trying to achieve. I tried to state this in a facebook group and people tore me apart about it. I think when this statement is made, primarily to new photographers we need to go into detail and give more of an explanation.

Great article, Jason! It's a strange, narcissistic statement that the gear doesn't' matter. Of course, it does.

Narcissistic? I don't get any of that from this article on this site. I think the writer of THIS article has miss framed the debate. I think the point has been missed. If you need a 600mm and 30-50 megapixels, no one is arguing you can do it with an iPhone. Nikon or Canon won't matter. :)

How did I miss the point when that's exactly what I said?

Last week I finally upgraded from a Nikon D5600 with a 18mm-55mm kit lens to a D810 with a Nikkor 16mm-35mm f/4G. You'll never again hear me say "gear doesn't matter." The difference in detail and sharpness is amazing, even if you're not pixel peeping.

Exactly Mark! The suggestion that the gear does not matter is and has always be ESOTERICUSBULLSHITICUS!

The intangible aspects of photography cannot be bought. Timing, anticipation, position, composition, candor with clients, etc. Those aspects are universal no matter what I have in my hand.

But new gear helps me with the aspects of my job that are measurable or tangible. How quickly I can achieve focus, how accurately I focused on my intended target, being able to backup my work to a spare card, improved dynamic range, higher and higher ISO performance.

All that stuff matters to me just as much as it matters to me to push the intangibles of my craft. It's okay to seek both in your photography.

Yes, but I'd argue, and you might be too, that in these "special" circumstances, gear from any of the top 3-5 camera manufactures will get you the same shot if you know what you're doing. I've never understood the need to try to justify your camera purchase as a photographer, or that anyone cares what you're moving to next. I can't ever remember anyone hiring me and asking what camera I was going to use. Really it's more about the lens anyway. Obviously an iPhone isn't a great wildlife rig. Nor are you going to get f/1.2 DOF if that's what you're looking for. That then brings us around to the constant Fan Boy [Nikon/Canon/Sony] bickering of I've just got to have Brand-X. It's irrelevant. I think that the idea of "equipment doesn't matter" is more about specific Brand in specific situation. The bickering on most of these photo sites about brand is exactly like me, as a double bogie golfer, thinking that if I just get a set of Titleist Clubs, I'll magically be a scratch golfer. In this sense Camera's are a lot like Golf Clubs.

While I think that different camera companies offer something a little different in each of their cameras, at the end of the day, any good camera will get the job done. But how a tool works and operates can be just as important to someone as the job its performing. Certain "convenience factors" I talked about are unique to certain camera brands and models.

True, but one persons convenience factor is another persons needless feature. In camera JPG HDR, exposure compensation, etc. Having made a living in the Motion Picture world, it wouldn't occur to me to pick up a DSLR for "Video" work. You might as well just use the new iPhone. I'd be happy if Canon/Nikon/Sony removed all those features from their DSLR cameras as I only use them for stills. IMHO DSLR's are completely the wrong animal for professional work in that realm. Anyone shooting one for that is really wishing they had an Arri Alexa. Yes, a camera is just a tool. You need to pick the right tool for the job. ;)

This is a great article, and along the lines of what I always try to remember and practice myself. Gear does matter, but only if you are going to apply to the task at hand. When I was learning photography, I never upgraded lenses or bodies until I hit a limitation, where my skills, and knowledge of photography, and the desire to accomplish a certain style photo pushed me beyond what I currently had. Even as new equipment is released I still look to where i am now, and what I am doing, and weigh that against whatever the new equipment may allow me.

I guess i look at similar to a block of knives in a kitchen. If you are a great chef and are going to prepare an intricate meal you may need all of them. If all you ever do is slice an apple that block of knives is overkill.

Love that block of knives analogy!

We’ve seen this debate play out time and time again and I think the biggest problem is that it’s almost always addressed as an either/or proposition. Either the position is that gear does matter, or it doesn’t. And I believe it’s this line of thinking that’s the root of the problem.

The title of the article ALMOST gets it right. But it still plays into this idea of taking sides (gear matters). This could all be resolved with a mindset of “When does gear matter?” (which, to be fair, the article itself does touch on). Meaning, instead of saying “Gear matters” or “Gear doesn’t matter”, simply say, “Be honest with yourself about whether it matters IN THIS CASE”. More specifically, before buying something new, always answer 2 questions first: “What problem am I solving by purchasing this item?” and “Am I actually right about that?”

Something I encounter on a regular basis is that people aren’t often living up to that 2nd question. This is especially true for anybody who is new to a particular task, whether or not they’ve been a “photographer” for any length of time. People naturally want to find a way to do things as easily as possible, but they often confuse shortcuts with efficiency. The former almost never works out as hoped, because it’s often the result of a conclusion that’s been jumped to, not a plan that’s been properly vetted.

To put it another way, I hate gear, but I love options. I don’t want more stuff to drag around, but I do want flexibility and efficiency when I shoot. I think approaching it from this angle is what helps develop the necessary mindset for evaluating a purchase. Sadly, some people just want a closet full of toys.

In the end it’s all about education, not gadgetry and consumerism. That doesn’t mean you won’t find yourself with thousands of dollars worth of equipment, it just means that if you’re honest with yourself, you should have an objectively good reason for it.

I'm curious what part you think I missed with this? To me it seems like you are saying the same thing as I did but a slightly different way?

It's not about the gear. Just like in any field, give an expert the most basic equipment, and a beginner some top notch gear, and the results will always favour knowledge and experience. Also doing a Wedding with only 2 lenses shouldn't really a problem for any photographer. But doing it with only 1 body is a bold move! What if it breaks?

While true a pro with cheap gear can outshoot a beginner with pro gear, give that same pro better gear and he will do even better! That's why pros use pro gear. That's the point I'm making here. You don't need great gear to make great images and better gear will not make you a better photographer. But pro gear will help a better photographer shoot better and more consistently.

Also I shoot weddings with one camera and 2 lenses, but have multiple backups for cameras, lenses, lights, stands, etc in the car for if I need them.

I wish someone would write an article titled, "Buy whatever you want, whenever you want to...It's none of my damn business!" :-)

Well yes this is true, but I think the point is to help photographers, especially new ones understand gear and what they should know/need before buying everything out there. Sure, buy whatever you want, it isn't anyone's business, unless of course you are using your knowledge to help others out so they don't waste all their money and then not even get the results they were hoping for.

I don't know the answer to this but I wonder what percentage of Fstoppers' readership consists of "new" ones. No matter the case, there's just way too much written on this subject. Having said that, this is definitely one of the better articles on the subject.

I agree. It is a very common conversation for sure. I see it all over the place in pretty much every photography group, however, this article I thought was written well and much better than what I have seen multiple times a day.

From what I understand, the majority of our readers are beginners and hobbyists.

It's difficult to judge from the bulk of the comments.

Maybe not beginners but advanced and a ton of hobbyists who do great work! I ruined a perfectly good hobby by making it my job :) There are some old timers around me.

The people who comment and have profiles with portfolios make up just a small fraction of the readers.

I wouldn't consider myself a beginner but I also wouldn't consider myself a pro. I have been shooting for 4 years, started my business 2 years ago and I still have a lot to learn. That is why I appreciated this article so much. When I first started I thought I needed the best of the best and the reality is that I didn't even understand what half of it did. I did research but didn't know enough to make the decisions that I did because I didn't fully understand what I was even reading. I expected my photography to become amazing but it didn't. Until I took classes, watched lots of YouTube vidoes and started to read articles here. I now have a decent understanding of things and this is a great topic that I don't think many actually fully explain. They just say you don't need high end gear but there is no explanation. That is why I thought this article was one of the better ones on this topic.

Most cameras (and lenses) are better than most photographers. But it's always a good topic. Not very many of us are running into brick walls with what a modern camera can do.
Camera upgrades that I think made ME a better photographer were the move from 35mm to 2 2/4, from film to digital, MF to AF, eye AF is pretty good but more evo than revo. YMMV

I've advised new shooters and students over the years to buy a camera you can grow into, rather than one you are going to grow out of. At least for a little while, they are not worrying about how adequate their camera is.

So Jason you don’t shoot with two cameras any more? You have to now switch between lenses? Just curious cause I saw one of your responses that you just carry one body.

For right now yes. I'm still in the process of selling off some gear so sticking with the minimal kit for a bit. I do miss having 2 cameras a few times in the day though.

My Instagram account is exclusively cell phone photos simply to make the case that the gear doesn't matter. But of course there are situations (e.g., more-easily blown highlights on the phone despite some impressive computational interventions; professional client work that is going to be printed floor-to-ceiling in hospital hallways; etc.) where gear does matter. So I get the notion of it both not mattering and mattering.

Best saying I've heard on this is "You don't always need the most cutting edge gear, but you don't want it to fall behind so much that you loose your edge." Ive gotten to the point with my DSLRs where I feel they do the job pretty damn well. Always room for improvement but I've taken the "maybe wait every other generation" to upgrade. I've gotten excited about the mirrorless world, but the only area where I could really us that upgrade is in movie set still photography (being able to work without a blimp is life changing).

As a stills photographer, I feel the improvements in image quality on new cameras while great are just a game of marginal improvement when it comes to what I deliver to my clients. Investing more in glass has become my recent concern but hey, your mileage might very.

New gear only matters when you see a clear value in upgrading. For this same reason, I'm not interested in mirrorless systems when my DLSR offers everything I need, ATM.

Someone once made a comment to me about that I should essentially give up photography because they didn't like a picture they were in. it really bugged me because I immediately did think it was about gear, but then that "its not about the gear" mantra came to mind.

But I had my cheap kit lens, 80d and no tripod, in a dimly lit room with people who were moving. It wasn't a paid event or anything. People are so used to taking grainy photos with their smartphones that they really forget that cheaper gear REALLY struggles with low light.