Yes: For Professionals, Gear Matters

Yes: For Professionals, Gear Matters

Let’s not lie to ourselves and try to sugarcoat the issue -- in many circumstances, gear matters. There is no shame in admitting that despite all your talent, some shoots can’t be done without the appropriate hardware. Here is why.

Even though the “gear doesn’t matter” movement carries some truth for the casual artist, the argument is often used by certain photographers in a macho attitude to imply that they could deliver good images no matter the camera. After all, they are so talented that gear is secondary to their greatness. Yet, that type of shooter often uses one of the latest professional bodies and high-end lenses. I wonder why they are not using a manual focus lens attached to an 80s film camera…?

Competitiveness and Efficiency

In a recent video titled Your Camera is Better Than Ansel’s, Ted Forbes from The Art of Photography explained that "every famous photograph was made with a camera less advanced than the one you are using now." He is right; any recent entry-level camera is more than enough for the neophyte photographer. The progress of technology allows to take solid pictures with a cheap camera and mediocre optics are a thing of the past. That being said, commercial photography is an extremely competitive business. Today, many professional photographers are faced with insane levels of competition, and job requests for “credit only” is quite common. Plus, I’m not even talking about making as much as 99 cents per images on stock websites.

In this context, aspiring professional photographers must be efficient and comparing your camera to Ansel’s 1930s Zeiss Super Ikonta B doesn’t make much sense business-wise. In 2018 you need the right tool for the job. You must be able to recover an image underexposed by two EV because we all make mistakes and they usually always happen at the worst possible time (there is one keeper out of 20), because you can’t ask the brides to repeat the ceremony if the SD card of your single slot Canon 6D Mark II fails. Your autofocus performance must be on par with the sports photographer standing next to you because his 1DX Mark II won’t miss an opportunity during an Olympic Game. Image editing is essential but having less work to do in post-production is critical, which is one of the reasons many portrait photographers don’t like Sony cameras. Sure, you can fix the radioactive skin tones in post but why bother when Canon images look right straight out of the box? Conversely, many landscape photographers appreciate the higher dynamic range offered by Sony’s sensors on Nikon and Sony bodies.

No amount of cash can buy creative skills but time is money, business is hard and you don’t have the luxury to compete with your hands tied in your back because of inadequate or outdated gears.

Reliability and Consistency

Reliability is key for professional photographers and many are willing to trade a few features for peace of mind because a missed shot in a critical moment is a waste of time. In some circumstances like weddings or news coverage, technical mishaps can damage your reputation and translate in lost customers. In this regard, the lack of weather sealing on the Sony A9 surprises me. Sony wants to compete in the high-end market but fails to provide an essential feature for professionals. Image quality, speed, dynamic range, and autofocus performance is useless if a camera cannot deliver consistent results at any time. On this field, Canon and Nikon cameras have a legendary track record whereas Sony is often associated with poor reliability, weather-sealing issues and overheating despite recent progress. In the end, dependability and consistency are what separate professional gears from amateur options. There are plenty of affordable tripods and lights out there but only a few will take repetitive beatings and abuse over the years.  

My beat up Canon 6D laying on a glacier in Patagonia. This camera still delivers despite its 300k shutter actuations. Canon may be lagging behind in terms of features but its camera reliability is flawless.

Pricier and Larger Is Not Always Better

But jumping on the priciest and largest piece of equipment is not always the best approach. The key is to pick the right tool for the job. A street photographer may prefer to ditch his intimidating DSLR body in favor of a smaller retro camera like the Olympus PEN-F which won’t scare off strangers in the street or kill the spontaneity. An outdoor photographer heading for a long hike might want to travel light and carry a small Mavic drone instead of a bulky Phantom. The best gear is useless if it can’t be transported and deployed easily on site. In some situations, carrying two small Mavics for redundancy instead of one Phantom can be the safe option. Based on the job, a careful balance must be found between redundancy, portability, image quality, and features. Eventually, the most expensive and largest gears can be inadequate for certain tasks.

The huge Canon 1D X Mark II and Nikon D5 are designed like a tank to handle the worst possible conditions. These high-end cameras are suitable for sport and extreme news coverage but they wouldn't be the best option for portrait and casual landscape photography.

The Specification Shot

Sometimes there is simply no way around gear. This is what I call the specification shot: a technical centric situation where the deliverable depends on the equipment to capture the image. Do you want to create an iconic silhouette shot of the sunrise featuring a giant sun silhouetted along the horizon? You’ll need a long focal lens with a solid tripod.

A long focal or high resolution camera is required to take this type of image.
Credit: Cocoparisienne / CC0 Creative Commons.

Milky-way shot taken in the Grand Canyon. Canon 5D Mark III with Sigma Art 24mm f/1.4 - 15sec, f/2, ISO 2000

Astrophotography is another gear-dependent discipline. Capturing stars at minus 10 EV requires a sensitive sensor (full-frame most of the time) coupled with a wide and fast lens (14-35mm, f/2.8 to f/1.4). There is no way around it unless you can afford to spend a lot of time fixing the noise and colors in post which might not be a problem for amateurs. However, as I mentioned previously, professionals need to be efficient and quick turnaround time is essential to run a business. The Internet is filled with examples of talented photographers on a budget who managed to create impossible images with low-end gears but they are not bound by schedule and can afford to miss the shot. Professionals don’t have this luxury.

Conclusion

Beginners and casual users should not worry too much about gears because modern tools are good enough to grow without being limited by technical specifications. On the other hand, professional photographers facing high levels of competition must rely on the right gears to deliver consistent images on time without glitches. But adequate gear doesn’t necessarily mean larger and pricier. What matters is to pick the right tool for the job. Not more, not less.

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13 Comments

Francesco Scaccianoce's picture

I absolutely agree: for certain things, gear matters much more than we want to admit. The idea behind the photo is 80% of the work, and no equipment does it better than the photographer, true, but the technical detail contributes to the final result, too

Deleted Account's picture

You are my new, favorite author here! :-)

John Cliff's picture

thank you for stating what should be the bleeding obvious but has become the focus of a lot of posturing over the last little while

JetCity Ninja's picture

this is an example of an argument taken to the illogical extreme. obviously the right tool for the job applies to all jobs, photography included.

the point of the "ansel adams argument" is that no amount of gear will ever compensate for a lack of skill or talent. nothing more, nothing less.

however, pros were able to get the shot 10 years ago on a digital pro body. one could argue the refinement only makes it easier, but in no way is critical. even with the best tools, the best of pros still won't get 100% of their shots 100% of the time.

stir photos's picture

ok, true story, no seriously, true story... i know a guy who was a best of pros, and he totally got 100% of his shots 100% of a shoot once. yeah, i totally remember, homie was in like taiwan or something...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fKn5Ts5mGA

Johnny Rico's picture

Right! I'm sick of being gear shamed for investing in my business..

Deleted Account's picture

I’d love see the stats on how many times this article has been written on this website. I’m betting tomorrow an article appears here with the headline “ why gear doesn’t matter” or something along those lines. We get it. Seriously.

Will Blake's picture

Did it ever occur to the author that professional photographers aren't Ted's targeted audience? Sometimes the two overlap, but generally, there's a pretty big difference between "the art of photography" and "the business of photography." I know that Ted's done several videos recently with very expensive camera gear and that athough Ted makes a living off of talking about photography, his youtube channel is for the most part centered aroud encouraging people to try to develop themselves as artists and he expresses almost zero interest in current professional or commercial photography. Now as far as 'people develping themselves as artists' means to Ted, he pretty openly states that to him, it is far more important that a photographer "has something to say" through their photography than that they have any technical skills whatsoever. I would have figured that anyone in the business of taking photographs would realize they don't need Ted to suggest to them what they do or don't need in order to run their business and should probably be smart enough to realize that he wasn't really talking to them in the first place.

Lee Christiansen's picture

If I don't deliver 100% the best I can, I never want it to be becuase I can blame my kit - so I invest in the best I can get for everything. So if it's not great - then it's me.

When I traded up to Profoto I found I was correcting less in post, when I upgraded my 5D2 to a 5D3 I was getting a better hit rate in bad lighting, when I upgraded to an Eizo monitor I was creating mosre consistant and more accurate images, when I got a geared head I could shoot product faster and more accurately, when I changed my speedlights to a different brand I could shoot faster and more creatively, when I changed some of my lenese to better ones I could shoot more creatively/accurately/reliably, when I added different modifiers I could get more flexibility and faster...

Kit matters. We can certainly do things with lesser kit, but better makes for an easier life with the occasional creative option we didn't have before.

Alas it doesn't always earn us more money, with clients not always seeing the differences or appreciating the difference. It can hard balancing the artist / businessman / gear-nerd in us... :)

Michael Yearout's picture

I also absolutely agree.

Mr Blah's picture

To a professional, yes it matters.

To an artist, not so much.

Alan Moeller's picture

TL:DR Besides the obvious outliers (math, or boolean statements) there are many "right" ways of doing something, you just need to find the way that is "correct" for you.

Howard Tam's picture

Well written and sensibly stated.