Why Professional Gear Is Not The Most Important Element in Photography

Why Professional Gear Is Not The Most Important Element in Photography

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Yes I said it. I can hear the outraged shrieks of equipment addicted photographers, but hear me out. In February, I went to Capetown for a month to please my trigger finger and shot eight stories in the same location using just natural light. South Africa is a renowned location for occidental productions. When it is snowing in Europe and in the States, it is summer season there. During that time the only weather complication can arise from wind with the upside being constant blue skies. During my stay, I got unpredictable rain and clouds. When I was done throwing tantrums at the black skies and banging my head against a wall questioning my decision of spending hard earned bucks to fly to the southern tip of Africa, I capitulated and went with the flow. And learned a lot in the process. Getting out of my comfort zone reminded me about the core of photography: my vision.

I am a beauty and fashion photographer. My home has always been the studio where lighting techniques are essential, and a normal set up starts with six flash heads, the popping of the generators creating a f.16-22 symphony. It always amazed me how big a studio set up can be to photograph a face. Flashes give you the desired sharpness and depth of field and but they do not do that good a job at letting you see with your own eyes how the light falls on a model. You need experience to visualize the end result and you might still have some good or bad surprises when that image comes up on your monitor.

To really see what you are doing continuous light is the way to go; nevertheless if you haven't recently won the lottery, not everybody can afford renting 10K of HMIs, the accessories, the studio and the assistants that need to go with it. So that leaves us with natural light. And lets put it out there: is there anything more beautiful then natural light? When organizing my trip to South Africa, I was going for imagery with strong light, hard shadows. Seeing them and playing with them was going to be a treat that I gave myself. Thor decided to teach me a lesson.

I had rented a flat with a wrap around outdoor veranda that would be my mini studio for my shoots. Beauty does not require a lot of space so it was a perfect fit. The morning of my first shoot clouds rolled in and it started to rain. My whole mood-board got flushed down the toilet. As a studio photographer I am trained to have complete control over the light that enables consistency during the whole day and has made me into a maniac: I want what I want when I want it to a tenth of a stop precision. Try having that conversation with the skies. I did not get very far.


Same location, different days


I canceled my first shoot and booked another one. Same scenario the following morning and the weather forecast made me think I was doomed. So I adapted and discovered the magic of shooting with grey skies. 


Same model, same day; the scrim material turned into an accessory in the morning


I spent the following day in the flat observing the way light would move and fall during the whole day. I borrowed two flash heads from a friend but ended up using them for the background only once. I bought three meters of see-through fabric as a gigantic scrim, clamps and rope to be able to hang one of my reflectors and a plastic mirror for some harsh reflections. It was not much, and yet the DIY method worked marvelously. To be fair, unless you have the muscle structure of Rambo, working with natural light does require one essential element for the unstable hand: a tripod – a piece of equipment I had always previously disregarded – and an assistant would be welcome but I learned to use my toes to angle a reflector, and sang praise to gaffer tape. Having the raw minimum I was able to shoot different stories in the same location and adapt to the natural light – whether it was sunny or overcast, morning or evening. When you take the time to observe light and understand it you are ready to make some magic happen. Everything becomes a possible reflector, the walls, the window, simple material.


A cheap plastic mirror created graphic reflections

Becoming a one-man production machine was not the most important thing. Photography is a fickle art. You might start with the plan to shoot perfume bottles and end up doing corporate portraits. You might think at some point in your career that uber retouched imagery is your signature only to realize that the natural look that you though so boring is becoming a key ingredient in your style. Yes there are individuals who have a distinct style even when they are toddlers but for the rest of us - human beings - our art is forged by the gruesome practice of trail and fail. Experimenting with new things is not just for the beginners! It is part of the process of any creative.



Not having the tools that I have been using for the last 6 years opened my eyes and rebooted my creativity: I stopped being obsessed by the technicality of the process and focused more on what I wanted to show in my images. By taking away that enormous studio with all its gear I took away the distractions. I was finally not trying to showcase the extension of my lighting skills. What was left was something authentic because it was about emotions; the ones that pushed me to become a photographer in the first place and the ones I wanted to create in my images. Less is more they say in the fashion industry so don’t let gear direct your vision. It is there to help you not to enslave you.

You have only one master: your imagination. Keep that beast satisfied.


Images: copyright Anna Dabrowska

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David Apeji's picture

I couldn't agree more - natural light is the most beautiful light there is!

Michael Kormos's picture

...until you learn how to use flash.

Timothy Evans's picture

@Pete, our opinions may differ on the ease of flash outside a studio, but I agree with you that natural light is the gold standard. It just has the drawback of being much harder to control.

Travis Alex's picture

@Pete - Then you aren't trying hard enough. You haven't practiced enough with gear and post to be able to know what tools to use to replicate it. In all honesty, sounds like you are limiting yourself to only one lighting style, which again (as I said below), is lazy.

You can control the light if you know what you look for and know your gear. Below is an image I was able to get with an Alien Bees B1600 flash with a 30 grid, full power, at 1/2400th of a second, with a Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 at 1.8 with a 3 stop ND on the lens, shooting INTO the sun at 2pm.

It's just a test shot, but all I'm saying is this: Stop making excuses. Because it IS an excuse.

Matt Allan's picture

This is a great article and I agree, the camera (and associated gear) is nothing more than a tool. It can be very easy to get wrapped up in the aquisition of all the shiny toys but as you demonstrated here, a lot can be achieved with very little.

BTW, the picture of the lass in the sunhat is stunning.

Anna Dabrowska's picture

Thanks Matt!

borisschipper's picture

totally agree, and love grey skies.
nice article

Dallas Dahms's picture

Those Cape Town models look nasty! Next time come to the East Coast where the girls don't snarl at you. ;)

Anna Dabrowska's picture

Ha ha ha

Chris Ainslie's picture

The east coast of amazing South Africa where both Dallas and I live :)

Dallas Dahms's picture

Sorry. We live in Durban where the pretentiousness of Cape Town can't get a foothold. We're too laid back to worry about what outsiders think of our coffee or what we're wearing ;-) Here's a video showcasing our city: https://youtu.be/FNrPITxpX3Y

Dallas Dahms's picture

Pretentious in my understanding is pretending to be something better than it is in reality. Anyway, it is a local rivalry, nothing to take that seriously...

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Camera, reflector, scrim, mirror, clamps, gaffer tape, tripod. Probably article should have been named "Why Studio Strobes are Not The Most Important Elements in Fashion Photography" ;)

jonas y's picture

I agree with the statement, but man a studio like this can't be cheap if it located in a major city. Most studios here are converted from warehouses.

Max Ghost's picture

Figa is!

Tomash Masojc's picture

But what lens you used, that's the main point :)

Jordan Randall's picture

I agree! If i ever ask about gear, it's the lens or (even more importantly) the lighting setup

Travis Alex's picture

Honestly, I'm always torn in how I feel about these articles promoting natural light only work.

What I do agree on: The honing of natural light can be a great asset for the photographer who knows his techniques in the field well. Knowing what to look for is a talent all in it's own.

What I do not agree on: Yes, your level of gear knowledge and use of that gear, well as your physical assets DO matter in a commercial world, whether people want to believe this or not. You walk in with 1 tiny speed light, a Nikon D80, a Nikon 50mm f/1.8g, no contracts, no assistant, that matters.

The average art director these days knows their stuff, and to downplay it as "Oh they don't know about photo gear", I assure you, they do, and will know when, and if you are being lazy. It may not be always the reason you get hired though, never the less, important to note.

Some of the best advice I ever received from a working professional of 30 years when I first started was this: "Photographers who talk about shooting only natural light are not pushing a style, they are limiting themselves and being lazy. If you want to make it in professional photography, knows what's in, what's out. What your gear does and does not, and most importantly...learn to f****ng light, it will impress your clients"

Ryan Cooper's picture

I would agree with this in the sense that choosing to use natural light (or not) should be a creative decision that you and/or the client make. It shouldn't be the only option because if natural light fails to show up, you are hooped.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

The real trick is to make your own light look "natural". Or better!
Available light is whatever lights you have available, sunlight, strobes, neon...

Anthony Rodriguez's picture

I beg to differ with this poison that's being injected into the minds of the "IG APP, Smartphone instaMAGIC mentality. You must have Professional gear! you get what you pay for and not only that, A Nikon D3, D3x,D4,D5 +/- will keep your eye in the viewfinder so that you have a better chance at getting the shot, whereas other gear will have you fumbling and bumbling through menus etc!

I dare anyone to take a Hyundai to a Corvette race! Forgive me for being so blunt but the mentality of humans is destroying real photography! DUMP THAT SMOKE AN MIRRORS SONY POS NOW!!! We also can't have anymore morons that don't know what Rembrandt lighting is and how to create it! This is all due this APP MENTALITY NONSENSE! You all at FStoppers have the power to influence so influence people to trust a professional with professional gear, who knows how to use said gear that offers a huge amount of latitude to create a masterpiece. The power that be at FS is making people think less of real Photographers. That's my take.

michael buehrle's picture

agree. there is way too much hype about getting great photos with your iPhone. it will never replace the real camera. i don't understand why everyone cheers so loud when some knucklehead makes a short movie or shoots a gig with an iPhone ? to me that's just being lazy and putting legit pro's one step closer to the unemployment line.

Angela Perez's picture

Fly all the way to Africa and all the photos look like they could have been shot in a studio wherever he is from. I was expecting to see some of the location in the photos lol

Thuc Tran's picture

Gear does really matter.
Until in the good light conditions, any camera even iphone could take good photos.
But in not good condition. Camera, lens, flash.... really matter.

Le sashimi's picture

One question though : does having military grade top models as raw material count as top-notch gear ?

Hillary Fox's picture

Well said, Anna! I absolutely love what you produced in Cape Town. You are a genius!

Scott Weaver's picture

Great article. Thanks for posting! I assisted a top fashion photographer recently. I expected I would helping with the lighting, but he used nothing but the ambient light the entire three days. He didn't even want reflectors used. I was surprised the high contrast shots all turned out rather well. Perhaps it comes down to the amazing tonal range the best DSLR's are capable of capturing today.