Keyboard warriors, draw your swords! That fool just suggested that gear is actually a really important aspect of photography! He is breaking all the conventional narratives. Fire up the torches and roast him alive!
The common wisdom has always focused on saying that gear doesn’t really matter; it's about the photographer, not the gear. A great photographer can make a great photo regardless of gear. I hate to burst the collective narrative, but that is a partial truth. What gear you have matters, and I’m about to tell you why.
Great Gear Helps Make the Images You Want to Make
Great gear isn’t required to make “a” great image, but it sure is critical to making "the" great image. Great photographers create; they don’t just observe. They previsualize what they want to create and take steps to make that image a reality. Often, the photographer needs very specific, sometimes expensive gear to make the shot that is inspiring them.
A great example to really drive this one home is an iconic silhouette shot of a Serengeti sunrise, featuring a giant sun silhouetted along the horizon. To create an image like that using a real camera, you can’t just walk into the Serengeti with a kit lens on your Rebel — sorry. Even if you patiently wait until dawn and get lucky with all the animals to snap the photo, you are going to end up with a fuzzy image that has a tiny sun on the horizon.
The first piece of gear you need to make “the” image is a tripod. The sun is low, the light is dim: you need stability. Next, you need a very long telephoto lens to make the sun huge on the horizon. We are talking a giant, expensive, bad-boy lens that is over 600mm in focal length. There is nothing you can do to obviate that. To make that image, you need very expensive gear. Sorry. Could a good photographer make a good image in that situation with minimal gear? Probably, but if the client asked for a giant sun silhouetted on the horizon and the photographer just brought a kit lens, then they are out of luck, no matter how skilled they are.
Great Gear Makes Images Reliably
Have you ever noticed how all the cheap DSLRs come with articulating screens, while that feature is still fairly rare on professional bodies? That's because it is a severe point of failure. Expensive gear is designed to be reliable in every way. A great photographer can’t make great images with a camera that decided to stop working two minutes into the shoot. Good gear isn’t invincible, but it vastly decreases the odds of unexpected failure at a critical moment of the shoot.
Furthermore, the accuracy and speed of the right equipment also helps you avoid situations where you missed the shot because you weren't able to react quickly enough to capture the moment. Fast-focusing lenses on camera bodies with world class autofocus can make a world of difference when trying to adapt to fast-paced situations. Nothing is more frustrating than watching a perfect, but blurry photo disappear because the autofocus motor is still busy, frantically whirring back and forth, trying to find sharp focus.
Great Gear Thrives in Challenging Situations
Have you ever noticed that whenever someone does one of those “look, you don’t really need expensive gear” comparisons, they do it in an easy situation? They jovially set up the two cameras in a nice, well-lit scenario and shoot a couple almost indistinguishable images, then seem to think it suffices as evidence that the more expensive gear isn’t really that much better. Cheap gear is great at taking great images in optimal situations; one of the things you are paying for when you invest in higher quality gear is its ability to still function well in extremely challenging scenarios.
For example, say you are neck deep in a swamp as the sun is just beginning to crest over the horizon, spraying the first light of dawn. The sky is subtly showering you with rain and you are trying to snag a shot of a condor as it takes off from its nest. Good luck making that shot with a cheap camera and kit lens. It doesn’t matter if you are the best photographer in the world, that cheaper camera is going to be fighting with you the whole way, and even if you do manage to make the shot, it's not going to be as nice as if you had brought the right tool for the job.
Furthermore, great gear is more consistent in outlying situations. A cheap lens or budget flash probably makes perfectly sharp images when stopped down or set to high power; that same lens, however, may quickly soften when opened wide, or that same flash may start to struggle with color consistency when set to extremely low power. High quality gear gives you the freedom to use it how you need to without worrying about stepping outside its sweet spot.
Great gear doesn’t make you a great photographer. A crappy photographer with great gear is still a crappy photographer. A great photographer with crappy gear is still a great photographer, but that same photographer will make even greater images with the right gear, which is why the vast majority of pros invest in the best gear they can afford.
Gear is and always has been a limiting factor that places a ceiling on the abilities of what a photographer can achieve. The better your gear, the higher that ceiling. If you are a new photographer, your skill probably hasn't reached a level where you can contend with that ceiling yet, so don't worry about it. However, as you get better, you surely will hit that ceiling and need to invest in improving your gear.
Don’t let lack of gear stop you from getting out and making photos. It can’t stop you from learning and improving, but also, don’t scoff at those who know that having the right tool is often critical to moving their work to the next level.
Image used under Creative Commons by David Berkowitz.