Why Gear Is Actually an Extremely Important Aspect of Photography

Why Gear Is Actually an Extremely Important Aspect of Photography

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.

"Sunrise" by David Berkowitz

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.

Conclusion

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.

Happy shooting!

Image used under Creative Commons by David Berkowitz.

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53 Comments

Desmond Downs's picture

Interesting what people can accomplish with 'toys' http://www.vonwong.com/blog/sharkshepherd/

Photo Kaz's picture

Give it a rest, did you see my ":P", I was clearly joking.

Desmond Downs's picture

I was expecting to see a 'spectacular sunrise' after reading the initial comments but feel that image could have been done a lot better regarding the possibilities of one of those trees creating a silhouette, this also shows that great gear doesn't do it all for you :)
I do agree that the right gear is definitely essential in some situations, especially sports and wildlife photography. On that point sometimes the right gear is an 18-200mm lens when you need versatility and don't know what you will be shooting like when I headed out to do some landscape photography and came across a deer farm and suddenly needed 200mm. The right gear isn't necessarily expensive in every situation.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Ya... unfortunately I don't shoot landscapes so didn't have an image with a giant sun to use as an example so had to turn to creative commons for an example and there waren't too many to choose from. I was more looking for something that amply provides an example of the technique, not necessarily one that is world class.

Desmond Downs's picture

The trouble is, when you write an article like this, you need to convince the people with the images. A super-zoom bridge camera with image stabilisation could have taken that same image :) You also need to show that the photographer knows what they are doing and spends big money for a good reason.

Desmond Downs's picture

Realistically many of these articles should start with "When" not "why"...... "When gear is important" - because it applies to certain situations.

You really should proof your articles.

"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."

What light source would you use behind the sun, to create a silhouette of it?

Lee Christiansen's picture

Aw.. come on... Everyone knows a Profoto B1 with one of those Magnum reflectors is reeeealy bright.

Colin Utz's picture

Gear matters in every craft. Horowitz could play on a bar piano, but he used Bechstein or Steinway grand pianos. David Garret and other great violinists play on a Stradivari, not a cheap fiddle, etc.

Alain Zarinelli's picture

I absolutely agree with the article & author. In fact, I got myself in hot water over similar statements before as well - actually took the article as a springboard to recount one of those instances (in my case about using an external lightmeter...), http://blog.luxludus.com/2016/02/why-gear-is-actually-extremely.html

Mr Hogwallop's picture

External light meters...hey I have four of those. Someplace....

Ramon Vaquero's picture

I've done images with basic gear than I did not get over with pro equipment. But good gear always helps to a good eye.

Kyle Medina's picture

What I come across is that most people don't know how to use their gear they already have. I just had a conversation with a younger kid looking to upgrade his body. I asked why? One day to the next his images were good and then bad. It come to find out he thought setting his settings in aperture/shutter priority and then switching to manual. His settings stayed the same. So he was asking for suggestions of new bodies because he thought something was wrong with his gear. Which it was just him. Also another one was asking if the new 80d would be a good upgrade. He said he isn't happy with the t4i. I asked what lenses he is using and it's just the kit lens. WTF! This is what I come across all the time!!

I "love" these kind articles because they always point to very specific scenarios where pro gear is either completely useless or absolutely mandatory. They always make ridiculus comparisions (like a 600mm vs the kit lens for landscapes) and completely fail to give any advice for someone who actually wants to become a pro photographer somewhere in the future (like buying a decent raw konverter first). Yay.

Hmm. Yes, at times, gear does make a difference. A Rebel camera with a long lens would have made the same photo as a 1Dx. A Panasonic FZ100 might have made the same photos. I've hand held 200-400mm lenses on a Nikon D7200 and gotten good bird and telephoto shots. Not top of the line equipment but it worked on my only safari.

Boiled down, this article makes the point that a range of good lenses will expand the range of possible photos. Yes, yes, a pro will get pro grade equipment, not just because it will make better photos, but also because it is more durable. A pro will invest in good glass. Lens quality is important. OTH, is one really missing out by having fewer options? Or does one simply find other photos that might have been missed by wishing one had a bigger lens?

Once upon a time I worked as a newspaper photographer with two Olympus OM-2s, one with a 35mm lens and one with a an 85mm. Could I have gotten more usable photos with more lenses? Of course. Did I or my editor feel that I failed on any assignment? No.

Nikon cameras have wider dynamic and color range than Canons, yet the majority of this year's World Press Photo awards were made with Canon cameras. This article blows the idea of better equipment out of proportion. The best photos are made by people who shoot more, regardless of equipment.

Nomad Photographers's picture

Thank you Ryan, I'm sick of unrealistic articles that compare the capabilities of camera phones vs expensive professional photo gear and as you say, this is never happening in a tough environment. I recently wrote something about that, basically explaining that it is the same as comparing a 30 tons truck to a mini car, both can take you from point A to point B but what about the rest ! http://www.thenomadphotographers.com/Are_end_consumers_with_their_smartp...
With a family to sustain with my photography, I would never have purchased a Nikon D4s or prime lenses if I hadn't felt them necessary, I can tell you that much !

Many of the greatest photos were take with manual mechanical cameras, which hardly anyone would bother with now. You don't need expensive gear to take great photos, it can help, but only a little. The article keeps mentioning kit lenses in a derogatory way, but kit lenses can go up to 400mm equivalent, which is enough for most things, and I wouldn't want to walk around with a 600 F4 lens all day. Even the difference between zooms and primes is negligible now. A pro wouldn't pick an entry level DSLR, and neither would I, but if that was all I had to hand, I wouldn't blame it for poor photos.

Gear in relationship to skill. A thick wallet will not make up for a lack of talent, nor will it allow one to consistently over take talent. Too much pro level equipment set on auto at the kids' soccer games.

"Better to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slowly".

Anonymous's picture

I shot with Nikon D2h bodies and DX lenses or FX lenses in crop mode for 10 years. Got great images. Couldn't do a thing with them. Looked great on a computer screen or tablet or phone, but prints? Yuk.

Upgraded to a D800, and shots taken with the DX lenses in crop mode printed beautifully to 30x40, and sold. Now shooting with a D810 and all FX lenses, and the results are amazing.

Incredible improvements by upgrading the gear.

Sure, the D800 is ten years newer, is full frame and has 36mp to the DH2's crop sensor 4. Of course the difference in printing large is going to be significant. That being said, I am still shootig with an old Olympus E-1 (along with my 7D and X100) because nothing can touch the colors of that old Kodak sensor with good Olympus glass. I regularly print at 11x14 with fine results and bought the last body off of eBay for $50. Do I shoot at 1600 ISO? Yeah, sometimes. You just have to work it.

Scott Cushman's picture

It's one of the conundrums of photography. I feel like preaching both this message and the opposite every year around this time when the college where I work hosts a high school basketball tournament. Part of my job is taking action photos during the games.

I get to hear the gamut of really annoying things people say to photographers during the games, such as attributing the quality of your photos to your gear and asking questions about Nikon vs. Canon and asking "how many megapixels is that?" It makes me want to tell them that it's not the gear, it's how you use it. I completely understand why some photographers refuse to discuss gear and tape over the logos on their bodies and lenses.

But then, I also see the parents and high school yearbook photographers struggling to take action photos using kit zoom lenses at f/5.6 in a badly lit gymnasium. It makes me get evangelistic on the merits of using wide-aperture primes. I was at an indoor sporting event last summer where one parent had a Nikon D4 paired with a 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom. Clearly they had money. They could have spent a few thousand dollars less on the camera body and picked up an 85 mm lens for less than $500 and would have had far, far better photos from their child's athletic career. I'm proud to say I've loaned lenses on a few occasions and literally changed lives ... in a small way, perhaps.

The gear matters. The photographer matters. When faced with inexperienced interrogators, I'd rather tell them it's the skill more than the gear, partly because it takes skill to know which gear is appropriate for the situation.

LOL @ "There are a lot of fair points"... That whole article was onpoint. And while the craigslist kiddies will still try to manipulate and steal from unsuspecting clients using fake photos stolen from another photographer to show their portfolio, they are still shooting with garbage gear... and trying to validate it.

Thank you for putting this together! Facts are Facts... and no one can debate that successfully, though some of these idiots will try I am sure.

It's true, it's the artist who paints the painting and good quality brushes and excellent colors helps him/her to create a more sustainable results. Often we can see pics from photographers who have the skills to catch fantastic images (with high tec camera, cell phones etc.), but later on spoil it in post processing.