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.
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.